Bengals boasting league’s top defense ... for now

Move over, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

You’ve got company.

Since its inception nine years ago, the AFC North has been synonymous with defense, thanks almost exclusively to the Steelers and Ravens, both of whom consistently rank among the league’s top units every season.

Yet through four weeks, neither Pittsburgh nor Baltimore can lay claim to the top defense in the land. That honor, at least for now, belongs to Cincinnati.

The Bengals (that’s right, the Bengals) currently rank first in the league in yards allowed, thanks in large part to a collection of high draft picks who are beginning to flourish in Marvin Lewis’ system.

In four games, Cincinnati has allowed just 1,102 yards, good for an average of 275.5 per game. In fairness, Pittsburgh trails its divisional foe by just six total yards, with Baltimore right behind. Yet for the time being, the Bengals reign supreme.

Oddly enough, this Bengals defense is stuffing opponents without the presence of a flashy superstar. In fact, beyond a few recognizable names, the guys on this team essentially garner an understandable, “Who”?

Leading the way is third-year linebacker Rey Maualuga. After two seasons at outside linebacker, Maualuga has shifted inside, where he leads the team with 40 tackles, highlighted by two 12-tackle performances. His emergence has allowed the Bengals to hold opponents to a league-best 3.1 yards per carry.

Along with Maualuga, the Bengals brought in linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, as well as cornerback Nate Clements. Geno Atkins anchors the team’s defensive line, while free safety Reggie Nelson was added to the starting lineup in a series of moves that, so far, is paying huge dividends.

As ESPN’s Jamison Hensley will tell you, however, the Cincinnati brass is not getting carried away with the early success, nor should it. It’s only Week 5, a factor Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was quick to point out to the media.

“Ask me at Thanksgiving,” Zimmer told reporters.

It’s easy to get carried away. After all, despite Cincinnati’s ferocious defense, the Bengals still sit at 2-2 and are breaking in a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. In time it’ll become clear whether this team’s defense is legitimate, or simply riding some early-season momentum. But for now, the top defense in the league belongs to the Bengals, with the Steelers and Ravens trying to play catch-up.