While the offseason has arrived for all but four teams, we continue on, recognizing the excellence of individuals for seasons well played. We began our look at the 2011 All-Division teams yesterday with the AFC East, but today it’s the AFC North’s turn to take its place in the limelight.
As with all of these teams we’re using some discretion when it comes to personnel and system in order to get the best possible lineup on the field from each division, so don’t necessarily expect to see the teams match in that regard.
Here is PFF’s All-AFC North Team for the 2011 season.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, PIT
This was largely by default, but Big Ben had an excellent season for the Steelers. His importance to the team was obvious especially when he was hobbled late in the year with an ankle injury.
Running Back: Ray Rice, BAL
There was competition for this spot with the Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall, but Rice is such a weapon in the passing game for the Ravens that he earns the nod for his versatility. Our sixth-ranked running back overall, but by far our highest-graded receiving back, Rice deserves this spot.
Fullback: Vonta Leach, BAL
Unlike the AFC East team, this side is going to have a fullback, because we couldn’t leave out the league’s best, Vonta Leach. Leach has been a massive boon for the Ravens this season as a lead blocker for Ray Rice and can crush linebackers in the hole like few others. He finished atop our fullback rankings and, at 584 snaps, played more than any other lead blocker as well.
Tight End: Heath Miller, PIT
In a conventional offense we’re lining up with one of the league’s more conventional tight ends in the shape of Heath Miller. The Steelers use Miller as both a receiver and a blocker. He was rarely off the field for them, having played 1,100 snaps this season including their playoff game. Miller was one of only two tight ends this season to grade positively in every aspect of their play that we look at.
Wide Receivers: A.J. Green, CIN and Mike Wallace, PIT
AJ Green is quickly becoming one of the league’s better receivers in just his rookie season, with only really foolish penalties keeping him back. He is the Bengals’ top receiver and is already drawing the attention of the league’s top corners who shadow him across the field. Mike Wallace edges out teammate Antonio Brown because he scored more touchdowns, gained more receiving yards, and made more people miss with the ball in his hands, but it was a close-run affair. After being almost entirely a deep threat before this season, Wallace has gradually added a few more routes to his arsenal.
Offensive Tackles: Joe Thomas, CLE and Andre Smith, CIN
Make no mistake, this was not Joe Thomas at his very best. In a down year for offensive tackles, Thomas looked excellent at times, but was also beaten more than he should be and didn’t threaten the top of our offensive tackle rankings where he belongs. Andre Smith, who was at one time just an afterthought as another iffy draft choice for the Bengals, quietly had a good season overall on the right side of the line, even if it was marred by some very poor games.
Offensive Guards: Ben Grubbs, BAL and Marshal Yanda, BAL
The Baltimore duo makes up the guard selections for the division, as they are comfortably the best pairing available. Yanda was the best right guard in football all season long, and deserves some major props for playing hurt the way he did. Any time a guy gets a major contract and his level of play actually continues to go up, you have to be impressed. Grubbs, while not nearly as impressive as his teammate, was still a good player this season and the Ravens missed him when he missed time.
Center: Matt Birk, BAL
So how many of you expected to see Pouncey here? If Pouncey was as good as Matt Birk has been for the Ravens, we wouldn’t utter a word of criticism against him and the awards he’s given. But he’s not, and he’s not even close.
Defensive Ends: Terrell Suggs, BAL and Carlos Dunlap, CIN
Terrell Suggs may be the league’s only true hybrid player–or at least the league’s only good one–in that he plays both 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE. He does both equally well and, in this instance, he’ll be partnering Carlos Dunlap as our 4-3 DE’s. Suggs is a beast against both the run and the pass, but before his injury nobody was applying more pressure than Carlos Dunlap from his end spot.
Defensive Tackles: Geno Atkins, CIN and Haloti Ngata, BAL
You wouldn’t know it from listening to those outside of PFF, but Atkins was the superstar of this duo in 2011, with Ngata firmly in his shadow. No DT applied more pressure than Atkins (who finished with 49 total pressures), and he did it while still playing the run well all season. Ngata wasn’t the superstar he is always talked up as, but still had a good year, grading well across the board and applying pressure 26 times.
Linebackers: Jarret Johnson, BAL, Ray Lewis, BAL, and James Harrison, PIT
This is something of an unusual linebacking corps, but James Harrison needed to find a way into the team somehow, and if it must be as a 4-3 OLB, then so be it. Harrison actually drops into coverage more than most 3-4 OLBs and he would almost certainly still be a dominant force in this position. There may not be a better linebacker in football at setting the edge against the run than Jarret Johnson, who consistently ranks atop our 4-3 OLBs in that regard. Ray Lewis has been talked about by some as having a bit of a down season, but we don’t see a bit of it, seeming truly ageless with a great year. LaMarr Woodley would have made the discussion a lot tougher if an injury had not hampered his season.
Cornerbacks: Lardarius Webb, BAL and Joe Haden, CLE
Only Darrelle Revis has a higher grade in coverage at corner than Webb this season and he was one of only two full-time starting corners not to allow a touchdown all season. He had 11 passes defensed in addition to his five interceptions. Haden led the league with 17 PDs, even if he went the entire year without picking one off. The young corner has a massive amount of potential and though he was beaten occasionally this season, could easily become one of the league’s best shortly. Ike Taylor missed out by virtue of being beaten too often and conceding a lot of penalties, even if he does have a tougher role by being asked to track a team’s No. 1 receiver.
Safeties: Ed Reed, BAL and Troy Polamalu, PIT
You won’t find many positions as slam-dunk obvious as this to decide. There might not be a player with better instincts than Troy Polamalu, and he has a clear and obvious effect on the Steelers’ D when he plays. Ed Reed showed the impact of his range in coverage against Houston this past week.
Kicker: Phil Dawson, CLE – Gets this spot largely because Billy Cundiff’s injury cost him notable leg strength.
Punter: Sam Koch, BAL – Koch’s numbers weren’t as great as they have been in the past, but they were still the best in this division.
Returner: Antonio Brown, PIT – Only player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards receiving and returning in the same season.
Special Teamer: Cedric Peerman, CIN – Our second-highest-graded ST player finished with 11 tackles.