2011 NFL Preview: Power Ranking All 32 Defenses Heading into 2011 NFL Season
It's that time of year again.
Writers, bloggers and arm-chair coaches from around the nation are predicting and debating the strengths and weaknesses of every NFL team for the upcoming season—if there is a season!
Will your team be better or worse? Can the Packers defend their crown? Will we get another surprise division winner like the Seahawks? Who is the next team to breakout and start winning again like the Buccaneers did?
Through all of this, one thing remains true. "Defense wins championships."
Okay, maybe that's not as true now as it was 15 years ago, but the principle remains. You can't win anything of note without a stout defensive unit.
Last year, the Chargers did something that had never been done. They led the league in most defensive statistical categories, but failed to make the playoffs.
Can that happen again?
I don't know, but I'll do my best to give you as much food-for-thought as I can about every defense in the league.
You're not likely to agree with my all of my assessments, but I hope you enjoy the read anyway.
Let's look at the 2011 defensive power rankings...
32. Denver Broncos
Points allowed: 32
Drafting Von Miller is a good start to improving this team's defense. However, Miller is a pass rusher that played in a 3-4 and will be asked to play in 4-3. This is not an easy transition.
Even if Miller can make a quick impact, his presence does nothing to improve the play in the middle of the defensive line, in which the real problem lies.
The Broncos are extremely thin in the defensive trenches and didn't appear to take any steps to improve there until they took a defensive tackle in the seventh round.
Perhaps drafting Marcel Darius or Nick Fairly would have been better picks with the second overall selection in the draft.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Points allowed: 27
The Jaguars were an up-and-down team in 2010, especially on defense. One week, they're beating the powerhouse Colts; the next, they're losing games they should have won.
The pass defense was the main issue, it seemed. However, the Jaguars took quarterback Blane Gabbert with their first pick in the draft—while Prince Amukamara and several great pass rushers were still on the board.
Last I checked, David Gerrard was a legit starter and still fairly productive, so why the need for a quarterback now when the defense is more suspect?
I think the Jaguars have a good base of talent on defense, but waiting until the fourth and fifth rounds of the draft to take cornerbacks didn't do much to improve their defense.
30. Washington Redskins
Points allowed: 21
The Redskins have gone through some changes recently and are suffering the dreaded "rebuilding" label.
Drafting Ryan Kerrigan was a decent pick, as he will make a nice book end to go along with Brian Orakpo. Getting Jarvis Jenkins in the second round was a good pick too.
Both of these rookies will help the 'Skins, but I felt they needed to get some help at linebacker too. That never happened.
To make things even more precarious, Washington could lose stud linebacker Rocky McIntosh to free agency. That would be a serious blow to their already ailing defense.
29. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were the fist team in the modern era to make the playoffs with a losing record. This was a product of an extremely weak division.
That being true, the 'Hawks have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. This is evidenced by them picking offensive linemen with their first two picks, yet they took defensive players with six of their nine selections.
The Seahawks appear to be addressing team needs on both offense and defense, but their most dramatic improvement was in the offensive coaching staff and on the offensive line.
28. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals had issues in both rush and pass defense. They did the wisest thing in that situation: take the best player available.
Patrick Peterson was touted as one of the best players, if not the best player, in the draft.
This means the Cardinals are on the right track to fix the pass defense for sure. But they went beyond that. They spent five of their eight total draft picks on defensive players.
Essentially, they got deeper at every level of the defense and added an as yet unproven defensive coordinator in Ray Horton.
The Cardinals are better from a talent perspective for sure, but it's still unclear if the coaching change will improve them or not.
27. Houston Texans
I really like the Texans first round pick J.J. Watt. Beyond that, the Texans took some huge strides to improve their defense.
The Texans spent six of their eight picks on defensive players, including three defensive backs to help their atrocious pass defense.
Maybe the biggest improvement in Houston is a coaching change. Management has brought in former Cowboys' head coach Wade Phillips to coach their defense.
The combination of getting better defensive talent and the huge upgrade at the defensive coordinator position make the Texans one of the most improved defenses in the off season—but still have a long way to go.
26. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals' defense took a step back in 2010 compared to the great season they had in 2009, but the primary reason for the losing Cincinnati endured was a lack of offensive production.
The front office decided to improve the offense more than the defense. They used only three of their draft picks for defensive players.
The defensive aspect of their draft is led by Nevada defensive tackle Dontay Moch. Moch will have some learning to do in order to adjust to the superior athletes of the NFL, but he has the talent to be solid at least.
The Bengals defensive coaching staff will remain intact. That will provide the ever critical continuity for the Cincinnati defense.
25. Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans weren't horrible on defense, just inconsistent. However, after spending their first pick on Washington quarterback Jake Locker, the Titans used six of their eight remaining picks on defense.
UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers headlines the defensive players the Titans have added.
Losing defensive minded head coach Jeff Fisher and replacing him with former offensive lineman Mike Munchak may not help the defense too much.
Adding Jerry Gray as defensive coordinator may offset losing Fisher a bit, but this is his first year as a coordinator, so the jury is still out.
24. Carolina Panthers
We all know the Panthers drafted Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the draft, but they helped their defense as well.
Terrell McClain isn't a household name, but he has all the talent to become a solid defensive tackle in the league.
The Panthers' new coaching staff, led by former Charger defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, went even further to improve Carolina's ailing defense by adding another defensive lineman, a linebacker and a cornerback in the draft.
Spending half of their draft on defense, hiring a defensive minded head coach and adding proven defensive coordinator Sean McDermont should give Panther fans hope for the future.
However, speaking strictly from a defensive point of view, I think Marcell Dareus or Nick Fairley would have been better choices at first overall, but I agree that quarterback was a more pressing need in their case.
23. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts went 10-6 in 2010 and won their division. Most fans would be thrilled with the ability to say, "My team had their worst season in a decade, but we still won our division."
Defensively speaking, their weakness was against the run. To improve this stat, the Colts waited until the third round to draft defensive tackle Drake Lewis from LSU.
I don't see this one pick as a major fix or a major hindrance. It just seems as though it will have no effect on their defensive performance.
With no coaching changes to report, I don't see any real change, good or bad, for the Colts.
22. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills find themselves in a transitional state—again.
The reason for the good pass defense ranking is that teams didn't have to pass the ball to score on the Bills due to their run defense being so bad.
That said, it seems the new regime in Buffalo understands what the team needs to improve. Marcell Dareus was a fantastic pick and will greatly improve the run defense in 2011.
In fact, of their nine total draft picks, eight were spent on defense. This is a good sign for Bills fans, but they shouldn't expect an instant turnaround.
I look for the Bills to be better next season, but not great by any means.
21. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys may be the most talented, yet under-achieving, team in the NFL today.
Losing Wade Phillips on the sideline hurt the defense, but hiring Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator should offset that.
North Carolina linebacker Bruce Carter was a good pick, but not enough to make a huge difference right away.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys didn't add any marquis players to the defensive side of the ball. That could change if the league ever has a free agency period, but as of this moment, we're all in limbo.
20. Cleveland Browns
The Browns find themselves in a rebuilding mode. Mike Holmgren has the front office making better decisions and has made great coaching changes.
The Browns traded back in the draft, amassing picks, yet still addressed both offense and defense.
Defensive linemen Phil Taylor from Baylor and Jabaal Sheard from Pittsburgh lead their draft class and will help to replace losing defensive tackle Shaun Rogers.
Losing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would have been considered a loss, but Holmgren and the Browns brought in proven coach and defensive guru Dick Jauron. This offsets the loss of Ryan—in my mind.
19. Detroit Lions
The Lions are a much improved team under head coach Jim Swartz. The 2011 draft saw Detroit get even better on defense.
All-world defensive tackle Nick Fairley of Auburn will line up next to Ndamukong Suh and create arguably the best young defensive tackle combination in the league.
When you consider that Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams are also on this line, the Lions' front four are truly fearsome.
The Lions only added one more defensive player in the draft, linebacker Douglas Hogue of Syracuse. I would have liked to see them get an impact player in the secondary as well, but they did a nice job nonetheless.
Normally, adding only one impact player wouldn't elicit a profound change in my assessment, but due to Fairley's incredible talent, it did in this case.
18. New England Patriots
The Patriots are a team that frequently defies logic. They are able to win regardless of how they rank in any given statistical category.
2010 was no exception.
Bill Belichick used just three of his nine draft picks for defensive players. Though most people would look at their rankings above and think they need more help in the secondary than on offense, it doesn't seem to affect their ability to win.
The Patriots added two defensive backs, including Ras-I Dowling from Virginia, and one linebacker to their roster. This will provide depth, but I don't see any of these defensive players really making a major impact right away.
Only time will tell.
17. St. Louis Rams
The Rams are on the rise; no one can deny that. They were one win away from winning their division after years of futility.
Obviously, most people will point to Sam Bradford as the primary reason for the turnaround. While that may or may not be true, the St. Louis defense was greatly improved under defensive coordinator Ken Flajole as well.
Getting supremely talented Robert Quinn was a great move. Quinn will add speed and athleticism to the Rams front four. Quinn fell in the draft due to some questionable off-the-field issues at North Carolina, but if that can be put to bed, Quinn is sure to pay huge dividends.
The Rams went on to spend four of their remaining seven picks on defensive players, including three defensive backs and a linebacker.
This infusion of talent combined with the return of Flajole to continue the defensive improvement will allow the Rams' return to respectability continue in 2011.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are yet another team that is back on the rise to relevance, led by a breakout year from second year quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie sensation wide receiver Mike Williams.
Unfortunately, the defense the Buccaneers have been know for took a step backward. The pass defense was solid, but the addition of Gerald McCoy didn't pay off as the Bucs' would have hoped as McCoy was injured much of the year.
Drafting Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers to go along with a returning McCoy should make a big difference for Tampa's anemic run defense.
On the Buccaneers' official web-site, there is no one listed with the title of "defensive coordinator." I don't know if that means head coach Raheem Morris is acting in that role, or if they have yet to fill the position; either way, it worries me.
Legal troubles may play a role in Aqib Talib being "unavailable" for the Bucs next season. That may cause a drop in their pass defense performance, thereby hurting their overall rankings.
15. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons made a huge splash at the 2011 draft by giving away draft picks and moving up 21 spots to take wide receiver Juilo Jones.
Their next pick wasn't until the third round, when they took one of just two defensive players, linebacker Akeem Dent from Georgia. The other was defensive lineman Cliff Matthews of South Carolina.
The Falcons didn't need a lot of improvement on the defensive side. The pass defense ranking is more due to the Falcons being ahead in games, forcing opponents to throw the ball to catch up.
I like what Atlanta did in the draft overall, but I have to say they made little to no change to the defense—but they didn't really need it.
14. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are another of those "teams on the rise." What was started by Tom Cable is now up to Hue Jackson to finish.
The Raiders didn't do a whole lot to help the defense in the draft. They picked up long, lanky cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus VanDyke, probably to hedge against losing all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
The Raiders chose a different route—surprise, surprise! Jackson and owner Al Davis made a lot of coaching changes.
The legendary Rod Woodson was brought in to coach the cornerbacks; long-time Raider Greg Biekert will coach the linebackers. These two changes will do a lot to improve the horrendous tackling exhibited by the Raiders last year.
The biggest improvement, however, was the hiring of Chuck Bresnahan to run the defense. Bresnahan will make the Raider defense much more aggressive than the very soft philosophy of last year from John Marshall.
The Raiders still need to address the weak side linebacker spot for me to say they are greatly improved.
13. Philadelphia Eagles
Much of the press about the Eagles centered on the Michael Vick vs Kevin Kolb "controversy." What was overlooked was the defense.
The Eagle defense played better than the stats would indicate. A lot of the points they surrendered were due, in no small part, to special teams breakdowns.
The Eagles spent five of their 11 draft picks on defense; three defensive backs and two linebackers. I like this decision, as the pass defense is in more need of upgrade than the run defense.
I'm not sold on the promotion of Juan Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator. I realize his playing and coaching careers started on defense, but I still feel uneasy about this unusual decision.
Only time will tell.
12. San Francisco 49ers
New head coach Jim Harbaugh and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should do a lot for the overall discipline and morale on both sides of the ball for the 49ers.
With their first pick in the draft, San Francisco selected defensive end Aldon Smith from Missouri. Smith was a bit of a surprise at seventh overall, but perhaps the 49er scouts and front office felt he fit their scheme better that some of the more highly touted defensive linemen that were still available.
If Smith can have the pass rushing impact they hope for, the 'Niner pass defense should improve quite a bit. Adding two cornerbacks, in addition to the pass rush ability of Smith, could be the difference that puts the 49ers over the top.
I like the Smith pick and the coaching changes, but feel the 49ers only got moderately better. Should they re-sign some of their upcoming free agents like Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson, they would solidify their overall defense.
11. Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins added just two defensive players to the roster via the draft. Those players were take in the seventh round.This leads one to believe the Dolphins are pretty happy with the personnel they have—as they should be.
Mike Nolan is one of the league's best defensive minds and is sure to further improve the Dolphins' defense as the players get more comfortable with his scheme and expectations.
There wasn't a lot added talent wise and the coaching staff is the virtually the same, so the Dolphins defense will be nearly the same as last year—but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs spent five of their nine draft picks on defense, but it was front loaded to address the offense. That's not a bad thing, as the Chiefs' defense played pretty well last year.
Kansas City's first defensive pick was linebacker from Georgia Justin Houston in the third round. The Chiefs went on to take two defensive linemen, another linebacker and a defensive back.
I feel the Chiefs did address their defensive needs, but none of those players were considered impact players. Therefore, I am giving the Chiefs credit for only a moderate improvement on defense.
9. Minnesota Vikings
The quarterback dilemma over-shadowed all other stories in Minnesota. The simple fact is the defense is getting older and is starting to deteriorate, but is still a solid unit.
The Vikings addressed some of the age issues by adding five defensive rookies in the draft, including two defensive backs—a position of significant need. However, I don't see any of those defensive additions making an impact, or even playing right away.
The promotion of Leslie Frazier from defensive coordinator to head coach and Fred Pagac from linebacker coach to defensive coordinator will retain come continuity for the team. This will help, but not cure what problems there are on the Vikings' defense.
8. New Orleans Saints
The Saints did a lot to improve their once championship defense. They only had six picks in the draft, but they spent five of them on defensive players—led by 24th overall selection, defensive end Cameron Jordan from California.
New Orleans added another defensive lineman, two linebackers and a defensive back. This makes the Saints better and deeper at every level of the defense.
Giving Greg Williams another year with a core of great players will only improve the Saints defense even more.
7. New York Giants
In 2010, the Giants were ranked top 10 in all defensive categories except points allowed. This leads me to believe there were problems on special teams, more so than on defense.
That said, cornerback was a serious need for the Giants, and they addressed it in a big way by selecting Nebraska's Prince Amukamara.
Besides cornerback, defensive tackle was also an area of need. Adding stand-out defensive tackle Marvin Austin from North Carolina should also pay immediate dividends.
A returning coaching staff with Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, combined with the great talent acquired in the draft make me, and most Giant fans, optimistic about the future of the Giants' defense.
6. Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are among the defensive leaders every season. 2010 was no different, but their pass defense was suspect.
In the 2011 draft, Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens' staff took solid steps to improve the pass defense by taking one of the best cornerbacks in the draft, Jimmy Smith of Colorado.
The Ravens went on to add another cornerback and a defensive lineman later in the draft.
Getting Smith was huge, and Raven fans are likely to see him making an impact right away. Promoting former secondary coach Chuck Pagano to defensive coordinator will further improve the only weakness on this defense—stopping the pass.
I like what the Ravens have done thus far in the offseason, and look for them to improve their already stout defense.
5. Green Bay Packers
The defending Super Bowl Champions don't have a lot of holes, especially on the defensive side of things.
Much like the Falcons, the subpar ranking in pass defense is more a product of being ahead in games and forcing the opponent to pass the ball.
That said, every team has room to improve.
Davon House is a relatively unknown player, but he'll get solid coaching and have one of the best in the business as a mentor in Charles Woodson.
All the coaching remains the same, so this minor influx of talent won't affect the Packers defense positively or negatively.
4. Chicago Bears
The Bears have had one of the most consistent defenses over the last several years. After a down year in 2009, the Bears' front office added some key players, like Julius Peppers, and the defense responded.
With Tommie Harris leaving and Brian Urlacher aging, the Bears needed an infusion of youth. They did a nice job of doing just that in the draft.
Defensive tackle from Oregon State Stephen Paea was underrated by most scouts, and the Bears got some great value in the second round when they selected him.
Adding solid defensive back Chris Conte from California will help the secondary improve as well.
Rod Marinelli got the Bears' defense back on track in 2010, and I look for him to continue that growth and the Bears to be better in 2011.
3. New York Jets
Since taking over the Jets, Rex Ryan has turned them into one of the best, most consistent defenses in the league.
New York only had five draft picks but spent the first two of those on defensive linemen.
Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis will provide depth for the aging and somewhat injury prone Jet three-man defensive line.
I don't really expect Wilkerson or Ellis to be better than Kris Jenkins, but the line should be solid anyway.
With the coaching staff unchanged, the youth added to the defense and the leadership of Ryan, I expect the Jets to be just as good in 2011 as they were in 2010—maybe better.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers enjoy one of the best defenses and have since what seems like forever. However, they are also one of the oldest.
The Steelers addressed the age issue by adding four defensive players in seven total picks.
Their fist pick was Cameron Heyward, defensive tackle from Ohio State. Beyond Heyward, the Steelers added another defensive lineman and two defensive backs—possibly the weakest position on the entire team.
Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau will no doubt find the best combination of young and old to make the "Steel Curtain" just as strong, or even stronger than ever.
Pittsburgh's defense is deeper and younger than it has been in a long time.
1. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers got off to a bad start last year, but finished strong to go 9-7; good enough for second in their division, but not good enough to make the playoffs.
The main reason for their regression had nothing to do with their great defense. The special teams play was horrific for the first half of the season.
The Chargers needed to get younger on defense and did so by spending their first three picks, and five of their eight total picks, on defense.
They addressed every level of the defense beginning with defensive line with the pick of Corey Liuget from Illinois. They went on to add two defensive backs and two linebackers.
This defense is younger and more athletic than last year.
Ron Rivera left his defensive coordinator duties to be the head man in Carolina. He is succeeded by one-time Charger linebacker coach Greg Manusky.
It's not clear if this change will be positive or negative at this time, but Manusky did a nice job running the 49ers' defense the last five seasons.
I realize there is no way I'm going to get a list like this 100 percent right, or make every reader happy with my conclusions.
I also realize there are some seriously big surprises on this list that are likely to spark debate and ridicule.
The best any writer can hope to do is look at all the factors to see where a given team is before any changes are made, then take an objective look at the changes and improvements made to determine where each team should rank on a list like this.
That's all I tried to do. I trusted the data and my process, stuck with it, and I'm prepared to defend my choices.
I used a combination of statistical data from last season and personal thoughts on what each team did to improve to compile this list.
If the lockout ever ends and there is a free agent signing period, this whole list could become obsolete.
A team in the middle of the pack could find themselves jumping up with one or two key signings. By the same token, a team near the top could plummet due to losing key players.
There is just no way to know how all this is going to shake out if, and when, the lockout comes to an end.
If you'd like to read the process I used in detail, click over to the next slide for a full explanation.
If you don't care how I reached my conclusions, go straight to the comments to voice your opinion and let the debate begin!
Follow me on Twitter: @CoachJayDee
The Ranking Process...
Everyone rates a team's defensive performance differently. Some think that it's all about total yards allowed, some believe that stopping the run is most important and others think it's all about points allowed.
The reality is all three are important.
I decided to use a combination of math and judgment to determine each teams' defensive power ranking for the upcoming season.
1. I took 2010 team rankings in the following defensive categories: Pass yards allowed, Rush yards allowed, Total Yards allowed, and finally, Points allowed. I added a 50% weight to points allowed, because I believe what shows on the scoreboard is where games are won and lost.
2. I took all those rankings and averaged them to give each team a modified overall rank.
3. I then asked myself, "did this team help or hurt themselves or remain static in the off season?" I converted the answer into a scale of one through five. 1=Dramatic Regression, 2=Moderate Regression, 3=Little to no change, 4=Moderate Improvement, 5=Dramatic Improvement. I called this the "Improvement Modifier."
4. Each improvement modifier was given a value. If a team showed dramatic regression, their overall rank would be multiplied by 1.20. This would increase the number, thereby putting them lower on the list. These modifiers decrease by 0.1 until they reach 0.8 for a team that improved greatly, thus lowering their number and subsequently moving them higher on the list.
The final number after all these calculations is the "final modified ranking" and determined the list you've just read.
The only subjective aspect of this list is what number was assigned to the "improvement modifier." For that, I looked at coaching and talent upgrades, loss of talent/coaches and draft class. Unfortunately, due to the lockout, free agent signings played no part in these rankings.
Example: Hypothetical team "X" is ranked 10th in every category. Therefore, their points against is modified to 5 and this is averaged with the rankings of the other categories to give them a modified overall rank of 8.75. That number is multiplied by their "Improvement modifier" of 5 (.8) for their improvement in the off season, to give them a final modified ranking of 7.
Keep in mind that no team had a final modified rank better than 2.475 or worse than 28.6. The average rank for all 32 teams was 15.916, (due to ties is several categories)
Boy, I hope that made sense!