2013 NFL Preview: Ranking the Five-Best Defenses in the NFL

Baily Deeter@@deetersportsSenior Writer IIIMarch 22, 2013

2013 NFL Preview: Ranking the Five-Best Defenses in the NFL

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    While the NFL is becoming more and more about quarterbacks, every team needs a good defense to win the Super Bowl.

    And now, the teams with the best defenses are starting to become the best in the NFL.

    Teams are making moves to upgrade their defense, and as a result there are some ferocious defenses in the NFL. Teams with good defenses are succeeding, and there have been huge defensive plays and performances from the last few Super Bowl champions. 

    So which teams will benefit from stellar defense in 2013? Here are the five-best defenses in the NFL.

5. Chicago Bears

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    While the Bears missed out on the postseason, their defense still had a great season.

    Chicago ranked fifth in total defense and third in points allowed, surrendering a mere 17.3 points per game (PPG). Tim Jennings led the NFL with nine interceptions, and the Bears led the league with 24 interceptions. In addition, the Bears forced 44 turnovers (best in the league), recovering an amazing 20 fumbles as well.

    Jay Cutler and the Bear offense ranked 28th in the league, which helped cause the 10-6 Bears to miss the playoffs. However, the defense continued to be strong and make big plays. The Bears forced a turnover in 15 of their 16 games, and shut down some high-powered offenses.

    Detroit managed just 31 total points in two games against the Bears, which is impressive considering the Lions had the third-best offense in the NFL. Dallas had the sixth-best offense, but Chicago forced Tony Romo into throwing five interceptions. Houston, another high-powered offense, managed just 13 points against the Bears.

    The Bears never allowed more than 32 points in a game, and in that game, against San Francisco, the offensive struggles contributed to the defensive struggles. San Francisco owned the field-position battle, and while they pieced together one long touchdown drive, they only accumulated 353 yards, which is about average.

    Outside of the San Francisco game, the Bears never allowed more than 24 points, which is incredible. They would halt drives by forcing turnovers and keep the other team from lighting up the scoreboard, which is always huge in the NFL. Charles Tillman somehow forced 10 fumbles (easily the best in the NFL), and Julius Peppers and Kelvin Hayden both recovered four.

    While the Bears gave up yards and had eight games in which they allowed 20 points (or more), they had a great defensive season and are poised to do more. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher will be leaving, but the Bears will be able to find another player to fill that void. Urlacher recorded 68 tackles and forced two fumbles in 12 games, and he will be hard to replace. However, the Bears will be fine on defense.

    In 2013, they will continue to excel on defense.

4. San Francisco 49ers

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    Despite some struggles in the playoffs, the 49ers might have the league's most talented defense.

    Patrick Willis leads a group that finished third in total defense and second in points allowed, surrendering a meager 17.1 PPG. In the playoffs, the 49ers gave up an average of 29.7 PPG, which isn't desirable by any means. In a way, the defense collapsed down the stretch, as they also gave up 34 points to the New England Patriots and 42 points to the Seattle Seahawks in Weeks 15 and 16.

    The 49ers' secondary didn't perform well down the stretch, as Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver were liabilities. Culliver gave up big plays in Super Bowl XLVII, and because of the lack of a good No. 2 corner (opposite Tarell Brown), the 49ers were torched by Joe Flacco.

    Still, they made plays when they needed to. At least one turnover was forced by San Francisco in its last eight games, including two against the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs. They can make game-changing plays, and that's part of the reason why the 49ers were in the Super Bowl.

    With the Falcons driving and poised to extend their 24-21 lead (in the third quarter of the NFC Championship), Culliver intercepted a pass to halt the attack. While Roddy White, the intended receiver on the play, slipped, it was a huge play and good instincts by Culliver, who jumped the pass. A blitz forced Matt Ryan into a bonehead fumble later in the quarter, and Aldon Smith made a huge play by jumping on the ball.

    San Francisco shut down some good offenses as well. Green Bay scored 22 and 31 on the 49ers, but a questionable punt return boosted Green Bay's score in the season opener (in which they scored 22 points). An interception returned for a touchdown added seven points to Green Bay's total of 31 in the playoffs. In addition, a questionable pass inference call in the playoff game set up another Packers touchdown.

    Detroit and New Orleans had two of the league's most prolific offenses, but the Saints managed just 21 points and the Lions managed just 19 (against the 49ers). San Francisco returned two interceptions for touchdowns against New Orleans, while they flat-out shut down the Lions.

    The 49ers have a lot of great defensive players, with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith getting to the quarterback, Willis and NaVorro Bowman anchoring the middle of the field and Donte Whitner and Brown in the secondary. The 49ers have a bit of a hole at safety and corner, but they can patch those up rather easily with a boatload of draft picks.

    The stats say the 49ers have a great defense, and the stats don't lie. The 49ers will contend again in 2013, and the defense will be a big reason why. 

3. Denver Broncos

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    The Bronco defense gets a lot of heat for their performance in the 2013 NFL Playoffs, but they were a solid defensive unit throughout the year.

    Denver ranked second in total defense, as they were the only team in the top four in total offense and defense. Von Miller set a franchise record with 18.5 sacks, and the Broncos were tied for the most sacks in the NFL with 52. In addition to the sacks, Denver intercepted 16 passes and forced 20 fumbles, both among the best in the NFL.

    Those numbers are helpful, but they don't mean anything if you allow a lot of points. Denver didn't allow points, as they surrendered an average of 18.1 PPG. The New Orleans Saints, the best offense in the NFL, managed a meager 14 points against the Broncos. In Denver's last 11 regular season games, they never allowed more than 24 points.

    Oh, and during that span, Denver allowed an average of 15.9 PPG.

    To help out their secondary, the Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a one-year, $5 million deal. Rodgers-Cromartie struggled in Philadelphia during his two years there, but he still intercepted three passes and defensed 14. 

    In Arizona, Rodgers-Cromartie was a Pro Bowl selection, and he thrived as an outside corner. In Denver, Rodgers-Cromartie will be opposite a future Hall of Famer in Champ Bailey. He will likely take on taller receivers, as he is 6'2. Rodgers-Cromartie is fast, big and athletic, and he has all the raw tools needed to succeed. In a winning environment like Denver, I expect him to be motivated to succeed.

    Terrance Knighton, a 330-pound run stuffer, was signed to stop the run and plug up holes on the defensive line. He signed for two years and $4.5 million, so it was a low-risk signing. Denver signed Stewart Bradley, who earned a $30 million dollar contract from Arizona due to his 4-3 success in Philadelphia, for just $1.1 million on a one-year deal. The Broncos aren't bringing in stars, but they are doing their homework and finding good fits for their base 4-3 scheme. 

    With the draft coming up, the Broncos can definitely fill all holes they need to fill. Denver's defense is near-perfect, and even Rahim Moore, the goat in Denver's heartbreaking playoff loss to Baltimore, had a good year with 72 tackles. The Broncos defense is well-rounded with one star (Miller) and some other great players, such as Wesley Woodyard (117 tackles in 2012) and Elvis Dumervil (who might re-sign with Denver).

    John Elway and the Denver front office have made brilliant moves, and that's why the defense is so good. With free agency still going on and the draft looming, the Broncos will only upgrade their defense. They are not higher because there are a couple of small holes, but there's no reason not to believe in Denver's defense.

    Because even without a small upgrade, Denver clearly has a spectacular defense that will shut down top offenses once again in 2013.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers had an 8-8 record, they had an incredible defense in 2012.

    Pittsburgh ranked first in total defense, allowing an average of under 276 yards per game while surrendering just 19.6 PPG. The offense struggled down the stretch and caused an early exit from Pittsburgh, but the defense was strong. In the game that eventually eliminated the Steelers, Pittsburgh lost 13-10. Seven of Cincinnati's points in that game came on an interception returned for a touchdown by Cincinnati's Leon Hall.

    The Steelers allowed 15 less yards per game than the second place team, the Broncos, which resulted in 239 yards. Pittsburgh never allowed more than 34 points in a game, and while 34 points is a lot, there was a lot behind that number. The San Diego Chargers recovered a fumble for a touchdown, and they scored on three drives starting in Steeler territory (one inside the red zone). This all totaled up to 24 points, and the Chargers accumulated just 294 yards (which is below-average).

    These bad breaks defined Pittsburgh's season. Against the Oakland Raiders, the Steelers also allowed 34 points. However, two came on drives starting in Steeler territory, giving Oakland an easy 14 points. The Raiders managed 321 yards, which is below-average. However, Oakland escaped with a win.

    Despite lots of injuries, the Steelers managed to hold together and perform very well on defense. LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu missed a total of 12 games, and Ike Taylor also missed four. While there were no standouts on defense, the team played together very well as a unit. Three players recorded over 100 tackles, and six players recorded at least four sacks. 

    While the Steelers lack a player lighting up the stat sheet on defense and changing a game (which prevents them from being first), they have a great defensive unit that can and will play very well together. The stats show that they have a great defense, and they proved that despite the collective struggles of the team. If the ball bounces their way and field position isn't an issue in 2013, the Steelers can be a dangerous team.

    And that's mostly because of their defense.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    While there are some good defenses in the NFL, there are no defenses that stack up with the talent and success of the Seattle Seahawks.

    Seattle is led by star corner Richard Sherman and a ferocious pass rush, adding up to a defense that allowed a mere 15.3 PPG. Sherman intercepted eight passes, tied for second in the league, and defensed 24 passes, first in the league.

    The star defensive back is entering just his third NFL season, so he's bound to improve. The pass rush is bound to improve as well, partly because of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Avril recorded 20.5 sacks over his last two seasons, and he is only being paid $7.5 million per year over two years. Avril has the potential to be great in Seattle, and he can do it for a relatively minimal amount of money.

    Bennett recorded nine sacks with Tampa Bay in 2012, and he is great for Seattle's 4-3 base scheme. He signed with the Seahawks on a relatively cheap one-year, $5 million deal, and it will be great for the Seahawks. With Avril and Bennett, the Seahawks can definitely harass opposing quarterbacks.

    Seattle took on and shut down some stellar offenses, such as San Francisco, Green Bay and New England. New England scored 23 points against Seattle, and while that doesn't seem like domination, it's impressive that the Seahawks forced Brady into two interceptions, which accounted for 25 percent of his interceptions during the year.

    While New England still managed points against the Seahawks, the Packers and 49ers had to scratch and claw for every point. There is lots of controversy over Seattle's win over Green Bay in Week 3, but the fact remains that Seattle sacked Rodgers eight times in the first half, obliterated Green Bay's offensive line and surrendered just 12 points.

    The Seahawks held San Francisco to 13 points in two games, as 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick was rattled by Seattle's defense and crowd. The Seahawks held two top-notch offenses, Washington and Dallas, to 14 and seven points. They have the potential to shut teams down, and with Avril and Bennett coming to Seattle, the defense will only be better.

    There is a star on the Seahawks (Sherman) and a lot of other great supporting players (such as Avril, Bennett and Brandon Browner). Seattle's defense will be great again in 2013, and because of the new additions and the wealth of talent, it's going to be the best in the league. The numbers showed that the Seahawks dominated on defense, and the numbers were right. Seattle definitely has the NFL's best defense.

    And that's terrible news for 31 teams.