NFL 2012: 15 Most Vicious Hitters

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJune 15, 2012

NFL 2012: 15 Most Vicious Hitters

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    The NFL may be trumpeting player safety over and over again, but as long as there is professional football, there will be vicious hits that batter ball carriers and send them to the sideline, or even the injured reserve list.

    That's just part of the game.

    As much as we all love to see an acrobatic touchdown grab or an electrifying 100-yard kickoff return, the big hits are the guilty pleasure that draws fans from of all ages and loyalties. 

    Just about every defender, and even some offensive players, in today's NFL are capable of making that great, jarring hit. But some just have a knack for doing so with great regularity. So who are they?

    Check out this list to find out. 

No. 15: Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Admittedly, Suggs should probably be much higher on this list. The reigning defensive player of the year is a vicious tackler and one of the game's best defenders. 

    But this is a list of 2012's most brutal hit artists, and thanks to his Achilles injury, who knows if Suggs will play a single snap in 2012. That makes his place on this list a bit complicated. 

    He said he's be read by November, which he only recently backed off of. But there is a good chance that he'll be available for the playoffs, which the Ravens are annual participants in. 

    For any opposing quarterback (like Ben Roethlisberger in the above clip) he faces upon returning, Suggs will be a nightmare. Even if he missed essentially the entire regular season. 

No. 14: London Fletcher, ILB, Washington Redskins

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    Although Terrell Suggs' ranking might be surprising, there's little doubt that he belongs on such a list. That might not be the case for London Fletcher. 

    While he remains an extremely popular player and one of the most respected in the game, he's not necessarily associated with viciousness.

    So why is he on this list? 

    Well, because there is strength in numbers.

    Fletcher has ranked in the top 10 in tackles almost every year since 2002. He is as sure and solid a tackler as any player in the game.

    Maybe his tackles don't routinely earn him a spot on ESPN's "Jacked Up" segment, but when he averages close to 10 tackles per game there is plenty of savagery to go around. 

No. 13: LaRon Landry, SS, New York Jets

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    One of the more underrated hitters in the game, Landry has delivered plenty of bruising hits to ball carriers and wide receivers throughout his five years in the league.

    (On a side note, while I docked Terrell Suggs a handful of spots because of his injury, all signs point to Landry being ready to play for his the Jets starting in Week 1.

    Landry's fantastic speed allows him to get up plenty of momentum (as Laurent Robinson can attest to in the above clip), and use that huge, 6'0", 220 pound frame to punish the opposition. 

    His style of play, wedded to Rex Ryan's aggressiveness and Darrelle Revis' cover skills, should make for two very interesting games against Tom Brady's Patriots in 2012. 

No. 12: Brandon Meriweather, SS, Washington Redskins

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    With LaRon Landry leaving for the Jets, the Redskins defense, which is one of the more underrated units in the league, would seem to be destined to take a major step back in 2012. 

    But fortunately they found a more than capable replacement in Brandon Meriweather.

    Sure, because the Patriots cut Meriweather last August and the Bears showed no interest in re-signing the free agent there are probably some question marks about him. But none relate to his ability to deliver a vicious hit.

    He's been accused (rightfully so) of illegal, cheap shot hits—such as the one to Todd Heap in 2010—but he has made plenty of clean ones as well. Just ask Patrick Crayton. 

No. 11: Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears

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    (Fast-forward to 30 second mark)

    Any number of things can be said about how great of a linebacker Brian Urlacher is. 

    He has defensive back speed, the strength of a defensive lineman, and incomparable instincts.

    But more than any of those reasons, his greatness as a vicious tackler is best exemplified by the above clip.

    Look what he did in last year's game against the Saints. He blew up center Olin Kreutz, and in the process blew up running back Mark Ingram Jr. 

    It takes quite a bit of force and skill to knock over more than 500 pounds the way in which Urlacher did here. 

No. 10: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

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    It's a bit more difficult for an interior defensive lineman to issue torpedoing hits. They don't get to build up a head of steam, and rarely get to catch quarterbacks on the edges, where big hits often come from.

    But that doesn't mean a defensive tackle can't tackle with the viciousness of a safety or outside linebacker. 

    Suh is proof of that, and not just via his illegal hits or clear-cut unsportsmanlike conduct violations. 

    The way he brings ball carriers down to the ground once he's wrapped them up is often scary. He plants players like Eli Manning into the turf, which is often more painful than the traditional vicious hit. 

No. 9: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants

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    By far the newest member of the nasty-hits club, Pierre-Paul has quickly become one of the most exciting young defenders in the NFL. 

    As was repeated over and over again during the Giants' Super Bowl run, JPP has comparatively little football experience, having not picked up the game until his senior year of high school. So he's still somewhat raw in a few areas of the game. But not vicious tackles. 

    His incredible burst off the snap has repeatedly enabled him to build up speed when rushing the passer or pursuing running backs, even from the backside. 

No. 8: Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers

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    The Packers pass rush struggled at times in 2011, and as a result so did their defense. But they think they've addressed the issue this offseason by spending their first round pick on USC product Nick Perry.

    That selection will push Clay Matthews to the right side of the Packers 3-4 defense, a move that will probably take some time to adjust to. Still, don't expect it to have any impact on Matthews ability to rush the passer.

    The three-time pro bowler is so quick and powerful, even from a standstill, that he frequently pounds opposing ball carriers, especially quarterbacks.

    His sack numbers dipped considerably in 2011, but the way he hits, even six sacks are enough to leave a major imprint (literally) on the rest of the NFC. 

No. 7: Ryan Clark, FS, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    He's tremendously overshadowed by several of his teammates, but Ryan Clark is one of the most ferocious hitters in football.

    Like most of the game's top hitters, some of his bashes have been questioned as illegal or cheap, but for every unsportsmanlike/unnecessary roughness call he is dealt, there are 10 clean, textbook shots. 

    Few players in the game lower their shoulder and leave the ground with more momentum and precision.

    And the best thing about Clark's hits? They aren't just for show. More often than not, they produce a turnover, either via a fumble or batting a ball up in the air, leading to a pick. 

No. 6: Adrian Wilson, SS, Arizona Cardinals

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    Most of the names on this list are members of top notch defenses, so it might seem strange to see a member of the Cardinals appear here, especially near the top.

    But vicious hits aren't specific to the game's best team defenses.

    For the most part, Wilson has been overlooked when it comes to the top defenders in the NFL, but anyone who has seen him play knows he is an expert at all phases of playing safety: run support, coverage, and of course brutal hits.

    He is so big (6'3", 230) yet so fast that ball carriers have to feel like they've been hit by a middle linebacker when he brings them to the ground. Even though he will turn 33 this October, he hasn't slowed down one bit.

    And now that he has Patrick Peterson with him in that secondary, his ability to freelance and rely more on his instincts will make him even more dangerous to players like Alex Smith, Marshawn Lynch, and all those young receivers in St. Louis. 

No. 5: Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers

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    The fiercest hitter in the NFC resides in San Francisco.

    Like London Fletcher, Wills gets extra credit here for being such a frequent punisher of ball carriers. Twice in his relatively short career he's led the NFL in tackles, and is a good bet to record double-digit tackles each week.

    Couple that with the brutal way in which he targets and destroys ball carriers and he's the most disruptive player on one of the best defenses in the NFL.

    He may not be a sack specialist, but no wide receiver or running back ever wants to catch a short pass over the middle and turn up field to see Willis' big eyes. 

No. 4: Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore Ravens

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    Ultimately, Ed Reed's greatest legacy in the NFL will be his incredible ability to sense where a quarterback is throwing the ball then turn the ensuing interception into points for his team.

    But a close second on his resume has to be his punishing style of tackling. For every pick six there's also a savage tackle, sack or hit on a receiver who then drops the ball.

    That's pretty impressive considering he is by far the smallest player on this list, standing only 5'11" and weighing just over 200 pounds. 

    Reed, who has tortured opposing ball carriers for eight years now, lowers his shoulder and drives it into ball carries like a baseball bat, frequently dislodging his opponent from the football, or at least making them think twice about running towards No. 20 ever again. 

No. 3: Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    I suppose Reed and Polamalu will always be linked together. They are the two best safeties in the game, are cornerstones of two of the best defenses in the game, and both probably have their picture in the dictionary under the word "playmaker."

    While the two are so closely connected in every phase of defensive excellence, I do think Polamalu has an (albeit minuscule) leg up on his AFC North rival. 

    The above clip is the reason why.

    Polamalu is certainly capable of making that diabolical, head-hunting hit, and he's been dealt penalties for it many times.

    But his bread and butter open-field tackle is the one where he takes an opponent out below the belt, propelling into his legs and wiping him out like a bowling ball taking out 10 pins. 

    That trademark Polamalu tackle is not only vicious, it's never considered illegal. With the way referees and the league office are calling penalties these days, crowd-pleasing tackles are drawing more and more flags and even suspensions. A vicious tackle that results in a 15-yard penalty (or expulsion from the game) isn't terribly productive for his team. But Polamalu is adept at this legal (yet still brutal) vicious hit, and it's a real boost to the Steelers. 

No. 2: Ray Lewis, ILB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Even at age 37, as long as he's on the field, Ray Lewis will be considered one of the most ferocious hitters in the game. 

    Part of that is his legacy, and all the hits we've seen him make since he entered the NFL way back in 1996. 

    But with so many young superstars (Ndamukong Suh, Clay Matthews, and Jason Pierre-Paul are only a few) cropping up each year, if Lewis wasn't reestablishing himself every season he'd fall by the wayside in terms of hitting excellence.

    That hasn't happened. 

    Take the above hit, which came in a 2009 Wild Card game, or his crushing blow of Hines Ward just last November. 

    Lewis is so quick (again, even well into his mid-thirties) from sideline to sideline, and has such incredible closing speed, that when he zeroes in on a ball carrier not only will he certainly make the tackle, he'll inflict maximum pain in the process. 

No. 1: James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    No player in the NFL is more closely connected to vicious hits than Harrison, partly because he's so skilled at punishing ball carriers, and partly because he's been fined, and even suspended, for straddling the murky line of legal hits. 

    It's a legacy that began as far back as his second season when he body slammed a Cleveland fan who ran onto the field during a game at Browns Stadium.

    But Silverback has also applied his scary tackling abilities to fellow NFL players. Colt McCoy, Josh Cribbs, Vince Young, Mohamed Massaquoi, Drew Brees, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, have all felt the pain of Harrison's questionable hits. Dozens more have endured similar angst via hits that are as legal as they come.

    Harrison is so compact and explosive he is as frightening a defender the league has seen in quite some time. 

    On a side note, while it may seem strange, even unfair or biased to see three Steelers and three Ravens on this list, it's not. There's a reason why Pittsburgh-Baltimore games are among the best, and easily the most physical in the NFL each year. These two teams breed cultures of physical, nasty play, and it translates into vicious hits time and time again.