2012 NFL Predictions: Projecting This Season's Top Defenses
The National Football League has become driven by offense, with passing records falling like dominoes, receivers posting ridiculous stats and scoreboards lighting up like we're watching two 14-year-olds play Madden '13.
With that said there's still plenty of room in the NFL for a smashmouth defense, and as teams such as the Baltimore Ravens have shown, relying on that side of the ball to carry a team can still propel a squad deep into the postseason.
Taking that into account, here's a look at some of the NFL teams that should feature fearsome defenses in the 2012 season, from a couple of the league's top squads from last year to some teams that should improve drastically this season, including the league's worst defense from a season ago.
And no, I'm not going to mention the Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers. They're good. They've been good for years. You don't need me or anyone else to tell you that.
San Francisco 49ers
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Hey, just because I'm not going to reference the Steelers or Ravens doesn't mean that I won't allow myself at least one softball, and here comes a nice, fat, slow pitch.
The San Francisco 49ers were one of the most formidable defenses in the National Football League in 2011, ranking fourth in the league in total defense and first against the run, allowing a paltry 77.2 yards per game.
The 49ers front seven is as good as any in the National Football League, featuring a pair of fearsome pass rushers in defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith and the NFL's finest inside linebacker duo in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.
If the 49ers have a weak spot on defense it's likely at cornerback, where Carlos Rogers will need to repeat his career year from 2011, but there's little reason to think that the red and gold won't be terrorizing opposing offenses again this season.
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No team in the National Football League improved more on defense in 2011 than the Houston Texans, who went from 30th in the NFL in total defense in 2010 to third a year ago in their first season in coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4.
The team suffered from personnel losses in the offseason, trading linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles and watching defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams sign a monster free agent contract with the Buffalo Bills.
However, Ryans was horribly miscast as a 3-4 inside linebacker, and the Texans only had Williams for five games last year before he was lost for the season to an injury. The team didn't miss a beat.
The Texans took steps to fill those holes by signing veteran inside linebacker Bradie James and drafting 2011 NCAA sack king Whitney Mercilus of Illinois in the first round.
With those players joining established stars such as linebacker Brian Cushing and up-and-coming defensive end J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans should again field one of the elite defenses in the AFC in 2012.
Green Bay Packers
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It may seem a little strange to see the Green Bay Packers included on this list as the Packers were the NFL's worst defense last season in regards to allowing yardage, including surrendering nearly 300 yards per game through the air.
However, much of the team's defensive woes stemmed from their inability to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
A large part of the defensive philosophy of zone blitz mastermind Dom Capers lies in forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes that the opportunistic Green Bay secondary can take advantage of, and after dropping from second in the NFL in sacks in 2010 to 27th a year ago, that just wasn't happening.
The Pack addressed the problem in a big way with the selections of USC defensive end Nick Perry and Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy in this year's NFL draft.
Those rookies will be learning new positions in the Green Bay 3-4, but if they can acclimate quickly and take some pressure off linebacker Clay Matthews, the Packers' pass rush will improve their defense by leaps and bounds as well.
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The Buffalo Bills were far from an elite defensive unit in 2011, ranking 27th in the NFL in total defense and allowing the third most points per game in the league. That may be why the team took a chainsaw to the unit in the offseason.
Not only are the Bills making the switch to the 4-3 front in 2012, the team completely overhauled the defensive line, adding Mario Williams and veteran Mark Anderson, who had double-digit sacks for the New England Patriots last year.
Combined with tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills now appear to have one of the most formidable defensive lines in the NFL, and it's a fair bet that the team is going to improve considerably on their 27th-place ranking in sacks last season.
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I'll close this quintet with another defense that doesn't receive as much publicity as it should.
The Seattle Seahawks defense improved markedly as the season wore on in 2011, finishing among the top 15 teams in the National Football League in most statistical categories despite the fact that most casual fans couldn't identify two of their players.
The Seahawks did have needs to address in the offseason, including the departure of middle linebacker David Hawthorne and the need for an end to complement Chris Clemons.
The team did just that, drafting defensive end Bruce Irvin of West Virginia in the first round of April's NFL draft and adding rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner, who may be more talented than Hawthorne.
If the Seahawks can get more pressure on the quarterback, this is a unit that has no glaring holes. The linebackers are solid, they possess two big, young, physical cornerbacks and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor may be the best safety tandem in the NFL.
The pieces are all there, and if they fall into place, look out.