Black And Blue Preview: Ranking The NFC North Defenses
With the 2009 season set to kick off in mere hours, here is how the NFC North stacks up on the defensive side of the ball.
Minnesota is loaded up front, boasting the league's stingiest rushing defense and a fearsome pass rush as well.
Pat and Kevin Williams are both space eating run-stuffers that make running up the middle a waste of time against Minnesota.
Defensive end Jared Allen is one of the best in the NFL at getting to the quarterback, posting 30 sacks over the last two seasons.
Left end Ray Edwards is reliable but not a big pass-rushing threat, registering only 13 sacks in three seasons.
The Vikings aren't exceptionally deep up front and may struggle if the league's four game suspensions against both Pat and Kevin Williams are upheld.
But their high end talent inside and outside is undeniable.
The success of Chicago's defense likely rests on the health of Brian Urlacher and defensive tackle Tommie Harris.
Harris has been battling knee problems for some time now, and missed a large chunk of training camp and the preseason in order to be ready for the regular season.
When 100 percent, Harris is one of the most disruptive tackles in football, and if his knee is sound and his speed and quickness return, it will free up Chicago's excellent linebackers to make plays.
Chicago is a bit weak on the outside of the line, with a few players whose names may currently outweigh their level of productivity.
Adewale Ogunleye notched only five sacks last season and is getting a bit up there in years.
Alex Brown is a speed rushing specialist who also registered five sacks last year, but is still a guy that needs to be accounted for off of the edge.
Reserve and fellow speed-rusher Mark Anderson began his career with a bang, finishing with 12 sacks in 2006.
But he has only six since, as teams have learned how to bottle up the one-dimensional end.
The Packers switch to Dom Capers' 3-4 complicates assessing their defensive line, but they rank behind Chicago and Minnesota in terms of proven talent and production.
Nose tackle Ryan Pickett has been a force inside since joining the Packers from St. Louis, and should get some much needed help from first-round pick B. J. Raji.
Holding the point is absolutely critical to the success of the 3-4, and the Packers will need both men to play well and spell each other at times in order to do that.
The Packers also welcome the return of Cullen Jenkins after an injury-plagued 2008 season. Jenkins is a big body that holds up well against the run and the pass, though he will likely see fewer pass rushing opportunities in the 3-4 at end.
Johnny Jolly is another big body who fits the scheme well, and has had a solid camp.
Mike Montgomery and rookie Jarius Wynn fill out the rotation and may need to add a bit of weight to fit into the defense more efficiently.
The Lions appear a bit thin on depth and talent along the defensive line.
Grady Jackson is still adequate as a run-stopping force in the middle, but the Lions lack a game-changing pass-rusher that opposing defenses need to scheme for.
Former Buc Dewayne White is the closest thing the Lions have to a bonafide pass-rusher, and he registered just 6.5 a year ago.
Ex-Packer castoff Jason Hunter is slated to start on the other side, and a host of young players fill out the rest of the unit.
Head coach Jim Schwartz had better bring some of that defensive magic with him from Tennessee. Too bad he couldn't have taken Albert Haynesworth as well.
1. Chicago 2. Green Bay 3. Detroit 4. Minnesota
Though it may turn out to be just a preseason cliche, linebacker Brian Urlacher has proclaimed himself healthy and feeling better than he has in several years leading into the 2009 season.
Reports out of camp have been positive for the veteran, who has been battling a back injury for some time.
If true, Urlacher and fellow Pro Bowler Lance Briggs form one of the best units in the league.
Urlacher is a speedy, ball-hawking linebacker who can run and cover like the safety he was in college.
Briggs has emerged as perhaps the best player on that defense while Urlacher has been battling injuries, and is another guy who can really move sideline-to-sideline.
Adding outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who led the Rams in tackles last season, gives Chicago three fast (albeit undersized) linebackers who hit extremely hard.
If their defensive line can occupy blockers and let these linebackers make plays in space, look out.
Green Bay looks to have an extremely deep group of linebackers, punctuated by the emergence of Desmond Bishop and the continued solid play of Brandon Chillar.
Converted end Aaron Kampman has looked sharp on the outside, and looks poised to retain his playmaking ability standing up in the 3-4.
Bishop has been great on blitzes and instrumental in the Packers turnover creating parade in the preseason.
And Brandon Chillar has quietly filled in very well for Nick Barnett, in coverage and to a lesser extent, in run support.
Jeremy Thompson has also asserted himself well on the outside, and looks to take the starting job heading into the Chicago game.
But the group is not without some question marks.
Bishop has outplayed A.J. Hawk in camp and the preseason but still figures to back him up as the season begins.
Standout Nick Barnett has been extremely limited in camp and the preseason, and it remains to be seen where he is physically and within the new scheme.
And first-round pick Clay Matthews has been injured throughout camp making it difficult for the coaching staff to figure out where he fits in.
In spite of a few questions, the Packers appear to have six or seven guys who can bring it on Sundays.
Not a bad problem to have.
In front of a better line, the revamped Detroit linebacking corps could really be a force.
Ernie Sims has developed into a very good weakside linebacker for the Lions as a fast, hard-hitting enforcer.
Veteran Julian Peterson joins the team as their strong-side 'backer, and while he isn't the same talent he was in San Francisco, he still represents an upgrade at the position physically and as a leader.
Larry Foote will man the inside for Detroit, going from the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers to the first 0-16 team in history.
Good player, terrible decision.
No matter, the Lions significantly upgraded their talent at linebacker and added two solid veterans who should emerge as leaders for a young team.
I may be selling them short, but I see nothing in the Vikings linebacking corps that particularly scares me.
E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway are both tough, sure-tackling 'backers, but they just aren't big-time play-makers.
Along with weak-side starter Ben Leber, the trio combined for eight sacks and two interceptions last season.
1. Green Bay 2. Minnesota 3. Chicago 4. Detroit
Although they are both getting a bit long in the tooth, it's hard to think of two starting corners better than the Packers' Charles Woodson and Al Harris.
Both will be playing a bit more zone coverage in the 3-4 but are still capable of locking up an opposing No. 1. receiver.
No. 3 corner Tramon Williams gave up big plays at times last season, but also had five interceptions and appears ready to step in for significant time if necessary.
Fourth corner Will Blackmon is still probably a better punt returner than he is cornerback, but he is improving and has all of the physical tools to play well in the nickel and dime schemes.
Eleventh-year cornerback Antoine Winfield remains one of the best two-way defensive backs in football, combining excellent ball skills and physical play in pass coverage with ferocity in run support.
Cedric Griffin is also a solid physical two-way corner, ringing up 91 tackles last season on the other side.
It's a good thing Minnesota's corners are physical, because with their stellar run defense, they get plenty of work.
Benny Sapp is a reliable veteran as the No. 3 corner, racking up two picks last season after coming over from Kansas City.
Chicago has taken a bit of a step back in their secondary, finishing 30th in pass defense last season.
Standout Cornerback Charles Tillman is a legitimate No. 1, but is fighting back from offseason back surgery. Beyond him there are a bunch of question marks.
Nathan Vasher has been scorched at times after a promising start to his career and Trumaine McBride hasn't proved he can be a solid starter in this league.
They need Tillman to return to form quickly or teams are going to air it out on the Bears.
With Terence Newman taking a bit of a step back in Dallas last season, Henry actually looked like their best corner for much of the season.
But while both guys can run and make plays, but neither jumps out as a No. 1 type guy.
Detroit also lacks depth, like most bad teams do, with several retreads and young players trying to fill out the roster.
Look for the Lions to struggle against three and four-receiver sets, as their corners will have a hard time matching up.
1. Green Bay 2. Minnesota 3. Chicago 4. Detroit
Nick Collins is an excellent ball-hawking safety that should see his interception numbers and opportunities go up even more with the 3-4 creating more pressure on the quarterback.
He does drop picks from time to time and get caught out of position, but his nose for the ball makes up for it.
Strong safety is a bit of a question mark, with Atari Bigby still favoring his ankle a bit after missing significant time a year ago.
If he can get comfortable and get back to being the feared hitter he was when healthy in 2007, then Green Bay is rock solid at all four secondary spots.
Newly acquired safety Derrick Martin comes over looking to fill the backup role that Anthony Smith excelled in before being a final roster casualty.
Let's hope he can play as well as Smith did in the preseason.
Madieu Williams came over from Cincinnati in 2008 and helped solidify the Vikings secondary. He had only 42 tackles and two picks, but has sound technique and is a reliable veteran.
The Vikings got rid of Darren Sharper, who signed with New Orleans, because they thought second-year safety Tyrell Johnson was ready to play in his spot.
He lacks Sharper's flash and nose for creating turnovers, but is solid and coverage and a good hitter. I think they could have gotten another good year out of Sharper, but Johnson should settle in well enough.
Danieal Manning had a quiet season after two very good ones at free safety for Chicago. He looks to bounce back after having only 33 tackles in 14 games for the Bears last season.
Kevin Payne emerged as a play-maker at strong safety last season in Chicago, accruing 74 tackles and 4 picks for the Bears in 2008.
Look for him to continue to fill the Mike Brown role of making game-changing plays at safety for that Chicago D.
Louis Delmas has been the talk of camp in Detroit, as the second-round pick looks to make an immediate impact in a secondary that needs a shot of play-making ability.
Kalvin Pearson is a prototypical hard-hitting strong safety who struggles in coverage.
Delmas will be the guy relied upon in coverage to make the key plays in Detroit.
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