Top 11 Defensive Trios Heading into the 2012 NFL Season

Matt Stein@MatthewJSteinCorrespondent IIJune 13, 2012

Top 11 Defensive Trios Heading into the 2012 NFL Season

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    Despite the NFL becoming a more offensive-minded league, having a successful defense is still crucial to winning the Super Bowl. Just look at the last two Super Bowl champions in the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants and you'll see just how important a solid defense is.

    What is even more important for a defense is having successful players at every level on the field. A team can have all the talented defensive lineman in the world, but if they have no secondary to stop the pass, they're unlikely to succeed.

    Today we'll take a look at the top 11 defensive trios heading into the 2012 NFL season. The following teams have the best combination of a defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back in the league.

11. St. Louis Rams

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    Trio: DE Chris Long, ILB James Laurinaitis, CB Cortland Finnegan

    My plan was to originally have only 10 teams make the list, but I simply couldn't leave the St. Louis Rams off the list. While it might be surprising to see them on here, this is one of the most underrated trios in the league.

    Both Long and Laurinaitis aren't flashy players, but they consistently perform well for the Rams. As for Finnegan, he was a huge offseason signing for St. Louis and is one of the better all-around cornerbacks in the league.

    It's likely that the Rams will struggle to perform at a high level this year, but at least with these three defensive players they have a solid foundation to build upon.

10. Cleveland Browns

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    Trio: DE Jabaal Sheard, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Joe Haden

    You may also be surprised to see the Cleveland Browns rank on any list involving the "best" of something, but there is little doubt that this trio of defenders is one of the tops in the league. In fact, if Phil Taylor wasn't going to miss some time due to an injury to his pectoral muscles, this unit would rank even higher on this list.

    Jackson had struggled with injuries early in his career, but when completely healthy like he was in 2011, he is one of the more productive middle linebackers in the league. He always seems to be around the football, making quality play after quality play.

    Since Haden entered the league, he has quietly become one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the league. He's improved in each of his two seasons in the league and will likely continue to improve, making him all the more dangerous to throw against.

    The rest of the Cleveland Browns may be below par, but this group of players is one of the better trios in the league.

9. Miami Dolphins

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    Trio: DT Paul Soliai, LB Cameron Wake, CB Vontae Davis

    This defensive trio almost didn't happen this year, as both Soliai and Wake signed big contracts in the offseason to stay with the Miami Dolphins for the foreseeable future.

    These three players had a dominant 2010 season, but took a step back during the 2011 campaign when the entire team struggled during the first part of the season. However, they finished the season strong, making them prime candidates to have a productive 2012 season.

    Both Soliai and Davis are solid players who have been overlooked for the majority of their careers. Soliai has been one of the better interior lineman in the league and Davis has the overall ability to shutdown the best receivers in the league.

    The most important player in this trio is Wake, who can use his strength and athleticism to make plays all over the field. He'll be relied on heavily this year as the Dolphins switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense.

    This unit may take another step back in this transition year, but the change of defensive schemes plays to their strengths and I actually believe they'll be a better unit this year.

8. New York Jets

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    Trio: DT Sione Pouha, LB Bart Scott, CB Darrelle Revis

    This may seem a little low for the New York Jets, but last year showed that this defense simply doesn't have the same swagger that it had in previous years. 

    To be honest, if Revis wasn't a member of his unit, they wouldn't be anywhere near the top defensive trios in the NFL. Not only is Revis the best cornerback in the league, but he is one of the best defensive players, regardless of position.

    Neither Pouha or Scott should be considered "elite" at their respective positions, but they both do plenty of good things for their team. There was a time when this trio would have been one of the best, but that time has certainly passed.

7. Green Bay Packers

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    Trio: DT B.J. Raji, LB Clay Matthews, CB Charles Woodson

    It may seem ridiculous to include three players from one of the worst defenses during the 2011 season on this list, but the Green Bay Packers' trio is definitely one of the better trios in the league.

    Both Matthews and Woodson need to be considered some of the top players at their positions, and Raji is expected to become one of the better defensive tackles in the league. While the 2011 season was unkind statistically to these three, they actually all improved and became better players over the course of the season.

    Matthews didn't have the sacks we were used to seeing, but he did become a more complete and rounded player. Woodson continued to show his versatility and playmaking ability, while Raji became more sound on his actual technique.

    This trio has the potential to be one of the best in the league for the next few years.

6. Chicago Bears

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    Trio: DE Julius Peppers, LB Lance Briggs, CB Charles Tillman

    The first thing you may notice is that Brian Urlacher is not part of this defensive trio. While he is still one of the best middle linebackers in the league, Briggs is a better overall player.

    Peppers is still one of the premier pass-rushing defensive linemen in the league, and that shouldn't change heading into the 2012 season. The biggest issue with this trio comes in the secondary with Tillman.

    While Tillman is a decent cornerback who can also do some damage in the return game, he certainly isn't one of the better players at his position. If the Chicago Bears had a more elite cornerback or safety on their roster, this trio would be the top two or three in the league.

    However, this unit is still good enough to wreak havoc on every offense they face.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Trio: DE Brett Keisel, LB James Harrison, S Troy Polamalu

    Age is starting to catch up to this trio for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they still need to be considered one of the best in the league.

    In fact, you could easily make the case that Polamalu is still the best safety in the league, and one of the best individual players on the field at any given moment. He is still a major playmaker who impacts the game in a number of ways.

    As much impact as Polamalu makes, you could argue that Harrison has the potential to make an even bigger impact. However, the problem with Harrison of late has been keeping his temper under control long enough to actually stay on the field.

    The weakest link on this unit comes on the defensive line, and while Keisel is a fine player, he simply isn't a game-changing player. With that said, he does his job well enough to allow Harrison and Polamalu to do their job fantastically.

4. Baltimore Ravens

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    Trio: DT Haloti Ngata, LB Ray Lewis, S Ed Reed

    Much like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens' defensive trio is filled with age. Both Lewis and Reed are likely nearing the end of their illustrious careers.

    However, they are still two of the best players at their respective positions in the league. They continue to be the leaders of one of the best defensive teams in the league, despite their rising age.

    What makes this trio so good is that while Reed and Lewis are certainly incredible players, Ngata might be the best of the bunch. Few players are as gigantic and nimble as Ngata, and he has the ability to completely change what an offense is doing because of his speed and strength.

    This is probably the last year that this trio will be considered elite, but Baltimore certainly has the pieces in place to continue to dominate defensively even after Reed and Lewis are gone.

3. Denver Broncos

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    Trio: DE Elvis Dumervil, LB Von Miller, CB Champ Bailey

    This may be a surprise, but the Denver Broncos boasted one of the better defenses in the league last year, and this trio is a huge reason why.

    We all know about the type of career that Bailey has had, and despite being one of the older cornerbacks in the league, he continues to slow down opposing offenses. His play has shown little deterioration, and his 2012 season should once again be a dominant performance.

    Dumervil came back after missing the entire 2010 season and had an impressive 2011 season. He finished the year with 42 tackles and 9.5 sacks. While those numbers aren't as impressive as his 2009 numbers were (17 sacks), Dumervil is still getting back into form after missing an entire season. He should get closer to that production in the upcoming season.

    While Bailey and Dumervil are great players, Miller is the star of this defense. In just his first season in the league, Miller showed everyone why he was considered one of the premier players in the 2011 draft class. Despite a shortened offseason, Miller stepped on the field like a seasoned veteran and impacted every single game in a number of ways.

    The Broncos may have made their most noise this offseason by signing Peyton Manning, but it is the defense, led by these three players, that will bring this team another division title.

2. Houston Texans

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    Trio: DE J.J. Watt, LB Brian Cushing, CB Johnathan Joseph

    If Mario Williams was still a member of the Houston Texans, this trio would rank as the best in the NFL. However, even without Williams, they are still the second-best in the league.

    The transformation of the Texans' defense last year was simply incredible. They went from one of the worst overall defenses, to a top-five defense in nearly every major statistical category.

    The main reason for that was these three players who impacted games on every level of the field. Watt had an extremely impressive rookie season, making plays in both the run and pass game. He should be even better with a full offseason of training and a year under his belt.

    As for Cushing and Joseph, they established themselves as two of the best players at their positions in the league. Joseph turned the worst pass defense into one of the best almost single-handedly, while Cushing become a dominant all-around middle linebacker.

    Houston has been known for their offensive firepower in recent seasons, but their 2012 campaign will be dominated by their incredible defense.

1. San Francisco 49ers

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    Trio: DE/DT Justin Smith, LB Patrick Willis, CB Carlos Rogers

    Was there really any surprise as to which defensive trio would be the best? 

    What makes the San Francisco 49ers such a scary unit is that you could mix-and-match a number of players from that defense and still make the best trio in the league.

    Both Smith and Willis are the best players at their respective positions, and each were legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates last year. It wouldn't surprise me if they continued that trend this year, and if Willis actually brought home the award this time around.

    While Rogers was never really impressive before coming to San Francisco, he changed his game around in the 2011 season. He became a more fundamentally sound player and his play should continue to set the pace for the 49ers' secondary.

    This trio has all the pieces in place to be the best in the NFL for years to come.