The race for NFL Defensive Player of the Year continues to heat up heading into Week 13 play.
This year is being dominated by the young pass-rushers of the league. Fittingly so, as the NFL has become more and more of a passing game. At the same time, a certain veteran defensive back is making sure we don't forget about the secondary.
With five games to go, any of these candidates could come out on top by season's end. Here are the top five candidates for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is now getting his due recognition among the league's best defensive linemen and defensive players overall.
A key cog in the middle of the Bengals defense, he is dominant in all facets of the game. Through 11 games in 2012, Atkins has totaled nine sacks. When he's not bringing down the quarterback, he's quite often right there applying pressure all the same.
Considering this and his dominance and command of double-teams in the run game, Atkins is an underrated yet worthy candidate for the award. He may not come out on top due to some of the incredible sack totals around the league, but he should not go overlooked either.
The lone defensive back on this list, Charles Tillman is having a great season. While his play in coverage is solid as always, that is not what is necessarily generating the buzz.
Tillman has always had a penchant for stripping the football from opposing ball-carriers. This season, he is doing so at an incredible rate, with seven forced fumbles on the year.
For any player, that is impressive. For a cornerback, that is virtually unheard of.
His ability to force turnovers, including his two interceptions thus far, has been a key part of the Bears defense. If he continues to do so, he will certainly be in the conversation for this award by season's end.
In Von Miller, we get the first of three players on this list that are only in their second year in the NFL. As he and the rest of them show, that has no effect on their performance.
Miller has already bested his rookie sack mark of 11.5, with 14 through 11 games. Game after game, he is collapsing the pocket around the opposing quarterback, proving to be an offensive coordinator's nightmare.
Add in his four forced fumbles, and you've got a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Even though he was drafted second overall in 2011, the Broncos are already getting far more from him than anyone could have expected this early on. Miller should continue to be among the league's great pass-rushers for a long time.
Throughout the 2012 season, J.J. Watt has been virtually unblockable.
With 14.5 sacks through 11 games, Watt is on pace to challenge the single-season record. For an interior defensive lineman, that is extremely rare.
However, Watt's game goes well beyond that of a pass-rusher. He also commands double-teams in the running game and bats down passes at the line at an incredible rate. His 13 passes defensed so far have earned him the nickname "J.J. Swatt."
In only his second season as well, Watt is becoming one of the league's most dominant all-around defensive players. It would be no surprise to see him as a candidate for this award for many years to come.
Playing on the league's best defense, also in his second season, Aldon Smith has already become one of the NFL's most feared pass-rushers.
With 16.5 sacks through 11 games, Smith is on pace to finish the season with 24. That mark would beat Michael Strahan's single-season sack record by 1.5.
Not only does he dominate as a pass-rusher, but he plays a key role in the 49ers' vaunted run defense as well. For the rest of the NFL, the scary part is that he is just 23.
Should Smith keep his pace and break Strahan's sack record, it would be difficult to give the award to anyone but him. Even if he doesn't do so, he remains the front-runner.