From the legendary Ray Lewis to his contemporary Patrick Willis, Super Bowl XLVII features a murderer's row of impact defenders. While Lewis and Willis are the unquestioned leaders of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, they aren't the only stars who will shine Sunday.
Justin Smith and Haloti Ngata are two of the premier 3-4 defensive ends in the league, and are nearly impossible to handle one on one. However, injuries and age have hobbled some of these defensive stars, limiting their on-field impact.
Let's take a look at my power rankings for the top impact defenders in Sunday's showdown.
10. Dashon Goldson, FS, 49ers
San Francisco features the hardest-hitting safety duo in the league, but six-year veteran Dashon Goldson is more than just a run stopper. The 6'2", 200-pounder picked off three passes and broke up 11 more during the regular season to go along with 69 total tackles.
Although he's not a great man-to-man safety, the former Washington Husky is one of the better all-around enforcers in the game. His combination of size and speed make him a devastating tackler who can make plays on the ball.
9. Justin Smith, DE, 49ers
A healthy Justin Smith would easily be in the top-five, but a late-season triceps injury has slowed him down.
Prior to the injury, the 6'4", 285-pound anchor of the 49ers' defensive line was in the midst of another standout season. In 14 games, Smith recorded 66 tackles and three sacks, often tying up blockers to make room for star pass-rusher Aldon Smith.
The four-time Pro Bowler has shown great resiliency by playing through the injury, but both he and Aldon Smith have had trouble getting to the quarterback lately.
8. Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Don't let the numbers fool you: Ray Lewis has not been great since his return from a torn triceps.
Despite posting a playoff-best 44 tackles, the future Hall of Famer has struggled to shed blocks and hasn't made many impact plays in three playoff games.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis earned a disappointing -4.4 grade against the Indianapolis Colts and a -2.9 grade against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. Lewis' leadership can't be questioned, but he's a few steps slower and not as violent in shedding blocks in the run game.
7. Paul Kruger, OLB, Ravens
Terrell Suggs may earn all the headlines, but fourth-year outside linebacker Paul Kruger has been the Ravens' best pass-rusher this season.
The 2009 second-round pick posted career highs in tackles (42), sacks (nine) and passes defended (six) in the regular season. Kruger's success has carried over to the postseason where he recorded 2.5 sacks against the Colts in the opening round.
With Suggs getting healthier, Kruger should only be more effective in getting after the quarterback.
6. Aldon Smith, OLB, 49ers
It's been a tale of two halves for Aldon Smith.
San Francisco's ultra-athletic pass-rusher recorded 19.5 sacks in his second season, but has been shut out in the past five games. Checking in at 6'4", 258 pounds, Smith wreaks havoc on offensive tackles with his blazing speed and freakish length.
Facing the mountainous Bryant McKinnie, Smith must utilize that quick first step to beat the slow-footed former Minnesota Viking and return to midseason form.
5. Ed Reed, FS, Ravens
Like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed is a living legend on his last legs.
The game's premier ball hawk has battled various nicks and bruises the past few seasons, but is still the most feared and respected safety in the league.
Reed picked off four passes and batted down 16 more in his ninth Pro Bowl season and will be counted on to bait 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick into some mistakes. While he doesn't play with the same physicality of his heyday, Reed is still a quarterback's nightmare.
4. Terrell Suggs, OLB, Ravens
The fact that Terrell Suggs played this season after rupturing his Achilles tendon is impressive in itself.
The fact he's regained his dominant form is even more eye-opening.
Baltimore's rugged outside linebacker/defensive end knows how to get after the quarterback, and he seems to be rounding into form at the right time.
Suggs recorded 10 tackles and two sacks against the Denver Broncos before posting seven tackles and several pressures in the AFC title game. He'll need to put on his best performance in order to slow down the Kaepernick train.
3. NaVorro Bowman, ILB, 49ers
If Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman swapped numbers, you might not even tell the difference.
That's not a knock on Willis; that's just how good Bowman has become.
The former Penn State star entered the league as a third-round pick, but has quickly developed into a top-three inside linebacker. Utilizing his speed and instincts, Bowman has earned back-to-back first-team All-Pro honors after recording 292 tackles, four sacks and 14 passes defended.
With Bowman continuing his ascension as an elite playmaker, the 49ers' defense continues to be one of the league's stingiest units.
2. Haloti Ngata, DE, Ravens
No defensive lineman in this game has the combination of freakish athleticism, size and strength like Haloti Ngata.
The 6'4", 340-pounder can play any position on the defensive line, but stars at the 5-technique in Baltimore's 3-4 scheme. An incredibly active player who can push the pocket and shed blocks, Ngata is one of the league's premier defenders.
He'll face a tough matchup against the NFL's best offensive line, but Ngata has the ability to take over the game and dictate the pace up front.
1. Patrick Willis, ILB, 49ers
If you wanted to draw up the perfect inside linebacker, it would be Patrick Willis.
A player with no discernible weaknesses and a laundry list of strengths, the six-time All-Pro has dominated since his first snap in 2007. With rare speed, incredible instincts and a violent nature, Willis is an every-down linebacker who makes plays all over the field.
In six seasons, the former Ole Miss Rebel has recorded 812 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, seven interceptions and 49 passes defended.
Willis has clearly taken the torch from Ray Lewis as the preeminent linebacker for the league's best defense.
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