Defense can win a lot of games in pro football, and it can certainly cover a lot of NFL point spreads. It is a long way from being sexy, and it’s not something that casual NFL bettors take into serious consideration.
In this golden age of passing, it’s the aerial game and high scores that get people excited, not ball-controlling defenses. If a team can significantly improve their defense from one year to the next, they have the potential to significantly reward the NFL handicappers who have faith in them.
Here are three teams that are poised to be significantly better without the ball this year than they were last year.
The Bills have the most ground to make up on this list.
For a team that has serious playoff aspirations this year, and likely an opportunity to finish second in the AFC East and position themselves well in the wild card hunt if they reach their potential, their play last year on defense wasn’t good enough.
They were 26th in the league in total defense and 28th against the run. In the stat that matters most, only the Vikings and Bucs allowed more points per game than Buffalo—and both of those squads had given up on their season well before it ended. They just weren’t very good.
They are also the team on this list that was the most aggressive when it comes to trying to improve.
The obvious headline move was the addition of Mario Williams. In one of the more shocking developments in the history of free agency, the Bills snapped up the most highly-prized defensive free agent in several years from the grasp of several wealthier, more successful teams.
That’s a serious rallying point for this defense.
They also got a very good new defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, and a new 4-3 scheme. They also added free agent Mark Anderson to bookend Williams and add to the pass rush. The new scheme will allow Shawne Merriman and Marcell Dareus to be used more effectively.
A strong draft complemented the one strength this team already had—a deep and impressive secondary.
Defense is as much a state of mind as talent, and with the addition of Williams the unit has a swagger that has been missing for a long, long time in Buffalo.
Expectations are obviously elevated with Williams on board, but if everything goes as well as it potentially could then they could perform even better than expected, and could deliver real betting value.
At his best Rob Ryan is an aggressive, brilliant defensive coordinator. When he was at Cleveland and again last year in Dallas, he seemed to be neutered by his circumstances. He seemed tentative, and the communication between him and his players seemed flawed.
He’s had more time to establish himself this year. It was tough for any new coach to gain ground coming off the NFL Lockout last year, but Jim Harbaugh didn’t seem to mind.
He also has more to work with this year as a questionable secondary has suddenly improved significantly with the addition of free agent Brandon Carr and first-rounder Morris Claiborne. That should allow Ryan to take more risks up front without worrying about what he could give up, and that could return him to his earlier glory.
Dallas has not been that far from real success for several years, so a renewed defense could have a massive impact.
I’m not entirely convinced that Pete Carroll will ever live up to his massive expectations in Seattle. This is the third year of his regime, and it is when we should start to see real progress.
They are a young and raw unit, so last year the lockout really hurt their development. Carroll is a defensive-minded guy, and he does have the ability to take a big move forward.
He can build around a very sound secondary—the safeties are exceptional, and the corners are big and talented with massive upside.
Corner Brandon Browner is a guy who really stands out to me. He has tremendous upside with excellent ball sense. Last year he seemed nervous and took far too many penalties for Seattle as a result.
Browner will be more settled in this year, and he will benefit from the added coaching heading into this season. The massive 27-year-old (at 6'4" and 221 pounds) has a chance to be a real breakout star this year.
The front four are very good, the linebackers are sound and DT Jason Jones is the best of the strong offseason acquisitions. This is a unit without a lot of holes, and they have the potential to really take a big step forward this year.
As much as anything else they need time and consistency of leadership to improve, and that’s just what they have going for them this year.