Super Bowl 2012: Ranking the 5 Best Defenders on Each Team

Zachary Kondratenko@@ZakKondratenkoContributor IIIJanuary 31, 2012

Super Bowl 2012: Ranking the 5 Best Defenders on Each Team

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    Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Eli Manning, Victor Cruz. All big names. All dynamic offensive players. All being talked about over and over heading to Super Bowl Sunday.

    But if anyone remembers when these teams met in the big one in 2008, it was the defenses that determined the fate of the game. The Giants front seven put relentless pressure and Tom Brady ,and despite the highlight you've seen 100 of David Tyree, it was that front seven that really won the Giants the game. Despite the gaudy statistics being put up by elite QBs in the league right now, it is still widely accepted that defense wins championships.

    Well, the story of these two defense couldn't be more different. New England's unit struggled to stop their opponents from racking up huge yardage all year. But they force timely turnovers and are great in the red zone. The Pats don't have a stingy defense. No one expect them to sack Eli Manning six times and hold the Giants to three points. A couple of timely big plays may be enough given what the offense can do.

    The Giants D has battled inconsistency all year but is one a tear right now. That elite NY pass-rush we all saw in 2008 may even be better now when you factor in an aging Michael Strahan being replaced by young stud Jason Pierre-Paul.

    Here are each teams top five defensive players to watch this Sunday.

Antrel Rolle

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    Okay, so Antrel Rolle still makes critical mistakes that make every Giants fan cover their eyes. There's no excuse for that. He's an undisciplined player—always has been, always will be.

    But don't let the negative outweigh the positive. Rolle is a tackling machine out of this Giants secondary. His 96 tackles this year helped cover for a weak LB corps. He's one of the few safeties in the league that could probably get away with a few snaps at LB.

    Rolle also still has the athleticism to make plays in the passing game, and we see him do it from time to time. 

    Since coming to New York, Rolle has disappointed a little because he failed to be the Troy Polamalu-type playmaker he showed flashes of in Arizona. But the Giants have a solid safety in Rolle. He may be the best tackler on this team and should carry that role into the Super Bowl.

Rob Ninkovich

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    If you haven't watched much of the Patriots here that's probably what you're wondering right now. Well the sixth-year career backup out of Purdue has developed into a very good all around LB for the Pats. Think a slightly less athletic version of Mike Vrabel.

    Ninkovich is at least decent of every aspect of the game. He's very good in coverage, does a decent job preventing the run and is a deceptively effective pass-rusher.

    Ninkovich will never make a Pro Bowl. Hell, we may go through the entire Super Bowl only hearing his named called in the opening lineups. But just because you don't hear about Ninkovich doesn't mean he's not there playing at a high level.

    The Pats needed someone to step up in their LB corps. Rob Ninkovich was that guy this season.

Corey Webster

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    Corey Webster is not Darrelle Revis no matter how much he wants to think he is.

    But he is a great veteran corner who understands what the elite WR's are trying to do to him and has the physicality to put a jolt in their plans.

    Webster had perhaps his best year in 2011—six INTs, 43 tackles. He was really the only week-in-week-out performer on this secondary. 2011 was also the first year since 2008 that Webster played every game. Prince's Amukamara's injury issues and Aaron Ross' problems with consistency made Webster more important than ever this year.

    Thus far, he has delivered.

Devin McCourty

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    Devin McCourty has had a season very similar to that of Antrel Rolle. He's been a mixed bag. There have been a ton of big plays out of him, but also quite a few mental farts that hurt the team.

    McCourty has been better as of late. He really amped it up towards the end of the regular season and has carried that momentum into the playoffs. 

    McCourty is an athletic CB who rarely is ever truly overmatched by a WR. He's also decent in run support. The front office here was very high on McCourty when the drafted him in 2010. He had a great rookie year. Then he hit a pretty hard sophomore slump.

    Well, it appears McCourty is back for good.

Osi Umenyiora

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    It seem that when people talk about Osi Umenyiora, it is always something negative. First he wasn't as good as Strahan. Then he was supposedly a problem in the locker room and trade bait. Then he wasn't as good as Justin Tuck. Then he was trade bait again. Then he had injury issues. Now he isn't as good as Jason Pierre-Paul.

    Osi isn't perfect, but have you ever heard so much negative banter about a Pro Bowler who had 60 career sacks before the age of 30?

    Getting back to this year, Osi has missed seven games. But despite that—and a decrease in snaps due to the emergence of Pierre-Paul—Umenyiora still ended the season with a respectable 9.5 sacks.

    Perhaps more importantly though, in Umenyiora last four games—since he returned from injury—he has 5.5 sacks. We saw him play a huge role in the Giants playoff victory over the Packers.

    Pierre-Paul and Tuck get more attention—as they should—but having Umenyiora as a reserve is a key reason as to why this Giants defense has been so good in recent weeks.

Patrick Chung

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    It took touted prospect Patrick Chung a little while to find himself in the NFL, but he has emerged as a great all around safety.

    He fought injuries this year—as always—but when he was one the field he was a dynamic tackler in run support and decent against the pass. He returned just in time for the playoffs and has 16 tackles over the last three games. He also is responsible for his share of bone-crushing hits.

    Chung uses his strength and athleticism very well. The Patriots are 8-2 this year when Chung starts. The Giants WRs love to pick up YAC, and Ahmad Bradshaw breaks into the secondary a lot so Chung will have to be on his A game on Sunday.

Justin Tuck

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    The breakout star of the game in 2008, Justin Tuck has emerged from his Super Bowl success and become one of the very best defenders in the game, regardless of position.

    Like a lot of these Giants defenders, injuries were in issue for Tuck this year, and they actually led to his least productive season since 2006.

    But don't worry Giants fans, Tuck has gotten hot late. We all saw him dominate against the 49ers. Tuck has that unique combination of athleticism and strength that all the great pass-rushers throughout history have had. He runs like an LB, but has the body of a small DT. 

    Tuck has cemented himself a place amongst the league's best, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. Look for another big Super Bowl out of Justin Tuck.

Jerod Mayo

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    The Patriots D may have struggled this year, but it is filled with young talent.

    Add Jerod Mayo to that list. One of the league's best tacklers, Mayo always just seems to end up around the ball. Attribute that to his deadly combination of instincts and speed.

    Having blazing fast MLB's who can run down ball carriers has become a fairly common trend on some of the best defenses in the league. Think Brian Cushing in Houston, Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh, even Patrick Willis in San Francisco.

    Having a linebacker that always finds his way to the ball carrier makes life easier on other defenders as they can play more aggressively knowing that if they make a mistake, Mayo just may be there to make up for it.

Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Jason Pierre-Paul burst onto the scene this year and established himself as one of the truly dominant pass-rushers in the league. His 16.5 sacks speak for themselves.

    Pierre-Paul is an absolute physical freak. I don't know what impresses me most.

    Is it his 6'5", 278-pound frame?

    Is it his NBA small forward-like length?

    Is it his elite athleticism and quickness?

    Is it that swim move that is probably the most dominant single move since Freeney's spin?

    Pierre-Paul is a monster and at the young age of 23 the sky is the limit for this kid. Tom Brady will always be watching Pierre-Paul out of the corner of his eye on Sunday.

Vince Wilfork

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    The big man in the middle has been the rock on this defense since 2005. 

    He is the prototypical nose tackle, and teams look for players who fit his mold when drafting guys in April. Men of 325 lbs aren't supposed to have the balance and athleticism that Vince Wilfork does.

    Wilfork clogs running lanes every play, provides some pass-rush and often bats ball down at the line of scrimmage. He also demands a double-team every play, and that opens room for other guys in the front seven.

    Wilfork was the team MVP in the win over Baltimore. He dominated every single play he was in. Wilfork will look to shut down the Giants running attack and perhaps put some pressure on Eli.