2011 NFL: Power Ranking the NFL's 12 Best Defensive Lines
When you are faced with the task of power ranking the top 12 defensive lines in the NFL, you have to be able to approach this topic from a number of different angles. Right off the bat, you have to account for the advantages and disadvantages that a 3-4 front has over a 4-3 front and visa verse. Based on your scheme, or if you mix them up throughout a game and run a hybrid front, it is difficult to truly compare and rank all the various lines.
So, where do we begin? Definitely you need to study sack totals. Also you need to look at how much yardage a defense allows, because whether it is due to a softer pass rush that gives the quarterback more time to throw, or a porous run defense, everything begins with the penetration and pressure that a defensive line is able to bring to bear on their opponents.
You also have to look at the support the defensive line receives from the linebackers. In some cases, the defensive line serves primarily to tie up the majority of the offensive linemen, freeing up the linebackers to sack the quarterback or to have an easier path to the ball carrier.
Another factor we considered was the number of first downs allowed on running plays, as a stout defensive line will be able to turn back a number of short down and distance attempts, while a softer defensive line will allow more of those to be converted.
To be sure, as different as defenses are right now in the league, there does not exist a perfect formula or theory for trying to determine who has the best defensive line, that we know of. We looked back over the past two years to determine if there was a consistent theme, pattern or track record for each defensive line as well.
Due to the unique nature of the 2011 off-season, we don't know how much time the rookies will have in camp to be ready to take on a major role in the upcoming season. Nor do we know where any key defensive linemen free agents are going to land. So, that muddies things up for 2011 predictions. So, with all of the above serving as an overview, let's move on to the list.
Honorable Mention: Detroit Lions
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The Detroit Lions have a talented defensive line, but although they are relatively high on sacks, (44 for the 2010 season have them ranked 6th best), every other measurable area is not very good.
The Lions were 21st in defense in 2010. They were 24th in run defense. The were 19th in giving up first downs on the ground. When you look at all of these other factors, I find it hard to include them in the top 12. For Lions fans, consider the Honorable Mention slide as a tip of the hat to their young talent. If the overall numbers improve in 2011, then so will their ranking.
12) Baltimore Ravens
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In the past three years, there has only been one Ravens defender that has appeared in the top 30 list of sacks in the NFL, and that was Terrell Suggs in 2010 (10th) and again in 2008 (20th). As a team, Baltimore is still very difficult to move the ball against, and they have finished in the top 10 in overall team defense for the past two seasons. The Ravens had the third best overall defense in 2009, and in 2010 they were ranked 10th best.
For the past two seasons they have the fifth hardest team to run against in the NFL.
The reason they are not ranked higher is that their sack totals dropped from 18th to 27th last year, as they only managed 27 sacks for the year. They ranked fourth last year in giving up the fewest rushing first downs, which is another good sign that this is a tough defensive line. Having dominant players like Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs keeps this defense strong. The Ravens are also developing young Terrence Cody as well.
11) Oakland Raiders
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The Oakland Raiders improved from 11th in sacks in 2009 to second overall in the NFL in 2010 with 47 sacks. Their defense improved from 26th overall in 2009 to 11th place in 2010, so this is a unit that is moving in the right direction.
They finished 2010 ranked as the 29th worst rush defense, meaning that the defensive line has to do a better job of penetrating or taking out the offensive linemen to free up the linebackers to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. They did improve in giving up first downs against the run however, as they were 29th in that category in 2009 and moved up to 19th in 2010.
With Richard Seymour in the middle this defensive line will continue to have a physical, tough presence. In examining the top 25 sacks list for the past three years, there is only one Raiders player that appears, and that is LB Kameron Wimbley, who finished 23rd in 2010 with nine sacks. So that means they are getting it done more from a team approach than from individual stars.
10) San Francisco 49ers
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The San Francisco 49ers sack total dropped from 44 in 2009 to 36 in 2010. That caused them to drop from third in sacks in the NFL in 2009 to 14th in 2010. Overall however, their defensive ranking improved from 15th to 13th in 2010. They finished the last two years in exactly the same position, sixth place, as one of the tougher defenses to run the ball against. They have finished the last two years as one of the stingier defenses to surrender a first down via the rush, as they were fifth in 2009 and eighth in 2010.
From an individual perspective, they do not have many stars when it comes to sacks. They had defensive tackle Justin Smith ranked 24th in 2010 with 8.5 sacks and in 2008 LB Parys Haralson ranked 23rd with eight sacks.
From a personnel standpoint, it appears to be a forgone conclusion that Aubrayo Franklin will leave the team via free agency and that the 49ers want to re-sign Ray McDonald to a new deal.
9) Dallas Cowboys
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The Dallas Cowboys defense is blessed to have a dominating talent like DeMarcus Ware that can get to the quarterback year after year. In the past three years, Ware has ranked first (15.5 sacks in 2010), seventh (11 sacks in 2009) and 1st again (20 sacks in 2008). That can't happen without the defensive line doing a good job of tying up the offensive linemen and giving Ware an open lane to blitz the passer.
From an overall sack performance, the Cowboys were seventh in 2009 with 42 sacks, and saw that rank drop down to 16th in 2010 with 35 sacks. Their overall defensive ranking took a fairly big hit, as they dropped from 9th overall in 2009 to 23rd in 2010. That is a significant drop.
They were the fourth-hardest NFL team to run on in 2009, and again that number dropped, as they fell to 12th place in 2010. They are still stingy to pick up a first down via the run, as they were fourth in 2009 and sixth best in 2010.
Personnel wise, the addition of new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should go a long way towards firing up this unit. There have been some rumblings about the possibility of Greg Ellis returning to the Cowboys, but that will be answered whenever free agency begins.
8) Minnesota Vikings
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The Minnesota Vikings have been sporting a formidable defensive line for the past few years, but nobody knows for sure who will be returning to this unit in 2011. But, the key phrase was that they had a formidable line, because that now appears to be a thing of the past.
In 2009 the Vikings led the NFL with 48 sacks. In 2010, the sacks dropped all the way down to 31, which had them ranked 20th. Ouch !! Ray Edwards appears to be exiting and Brian Robison is taking over for him. The Williams boys, Pat and Kevin, have fought a long legal battle, but finally appear to be facing their four-game suspensions in 2011, which will leave the defensive line in a bind.
The Vikings still have Jared Allen who has been as steady a performer as you could want. He was fifth in sacks in 2008 (14.5), second in 2009 (14.5) and then dropped to 10th in 2010 (11). That is very consistent production.
From an overall defense perspective, the Vikings dropped from sixth best in 2009 to eighth best in 2010. They were the second hardest team to run against in 2009, and they fell to ninth hardest in 2010. There is still some talent here, but this year may become the end of the line for defensive tackle Pat Williams.
7) Philadelphia Eagles
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Can the Philadelphia Eagles be on to something new? In 2011, the Eagles are prepared to have their offensive line coach from last year, Juan Castillo, take over as the defensive coordinator. Is there anything wrong with this? On the surface, you scratch your head because he has been the offensive line coach in Philadelphia for the past 13 years. But he knows where the skeletons and holes are in every offensive line formation and play, so they are hoping he can use his unique insight to improve the defense.
The Eagles overall defense has been ranked 12th for the past two seasons running. They were ninth hardest defense to run against in 2009, and that number dropped to 15th in 2010. The Eagles defense was 10th in sacks in 2010 with 39, which was down from 2009, when they were third with 44.
Defensive end Trent Cole is the sack star of this unit, as he had 10 sacks in 2010, good for 17th overall in the NFL. Cole was sixth best in 2009 with 12.5 sacks and was 14th in 2008 with nine sacks. He is a consistently strong performer.
6) Miami Dolphins
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The Miami Dolphins defense has a pass rushing star in Cameron Wake, who registered 14 sacks in 2010. That was good for third overall in the NFL. Wake needs to thank his defensive linemen for taking on all the blockers for him, so that he has an easier path to the quarterback.
Between Wake, Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and the potential return of Jared Odrick, the Dolphins have the makings for a strong nucleus going forward. The Dolphins were third in sacks in 2009 with 44, and then slipped a bit in 2010 when they had 39, good for 10th in the NFL. The Dolphins overall defense was ranked sixth best in 2010, a big improvement over 22nd in 2009. The Dolphins had been 18th hardest to run against in 2010, then they jumped up to seventh hardest in 2010. This unit shows lots of promise.
5) New York Jets
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The New York Jets defense is a dominating unit. They finished as the top overall defense in 2009 and dropped down to number three overall in 2010. They were the third hardest defense to run against in 2010 and eighth hardest in 2009. In 2010, they gave up the second fewest first downs via the rush.
From a sack perspective, the Jets were 18th in 2009 with 32 and moved that up in to the top ten with 40 sacks, which was good for eighth overall. LB Calvin Pace finished 20th in sacks in 2009 with eight sacks and defensive end Shaun Ellis finished 17th in 2008 with eight sacks as well.
The Jets are hoping that rookies Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis will breath some youth and energy into their line. As per this article by New York Metro, it appears that Kris Jenkins has decided he wants to play on grass fields only, to help his legs carve out some additional years to his career. So, that would be a difficult blow for the Jets defensive line to take.
4) New York Giants
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The New York Giants have the seventh ranked defense in the NFL in 2010. That is up from 13th the year before, so things look like they improved under new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. The Giants finished fifth in sacks in 2010 with 46, which also is an improvement from 2009 when they were 18th with 32 sacks.
The Giants defensive line features Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. They both finished tied for seventh in sacks in the NFL in 2010 with 11.5 each. The Giants were the eighth hardest defense to run on in the NFL in 2010, which is more proof about the strength of this defensive line.
The Giants will probably lose Barry Cofield during free agency but they appear to have the depth to be able to withstand losing him.
3) San Diego Chargers
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In 2010 the San Diego Chargers had the number one ranked defense in the NFL. They ranked second in sacks with 47, which was a significant jump from the 35 they made in 2009, when they were ranked 13th in the league.
The Chargers are led by Antonio Garay at defensive tackle and have strong pressure being applied by Shaun Phillips. They drafted Corey Liuget and are expecting big things from him down the road.
The defense was the fourth hardest unit to run against in 2010, which is a huge jump up from 20th hardest in 2009. This group figures to be good again in 2011. They have lost Shawne "Lights Out" Merriman, who is no longer there, but considering how well they played without him for the majority of 2010, his departure may not hurt the defense that much.
2) Green Bay Packers
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We have the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers ranked as our second best defensive line. Packers fans are yelling "Blasphamy". The Packers were number two in sacks in 2010 with 47, which was a nice jump up from 11th in 2009. Their defense was ranked fifth overall in the NFL in 2010, almost on a pace with 2009, when they were ranked second overall.
The Packers defense was the hardest to run against in 2009, but in that category they fell down to 18th in 2010, which is why they were ranked number two. The defensive line does a nice job of freeing up Clay Matthews to do his thing, which is to sack quarterbacks. Matthews had 13.5 sacks in 2010, which was good for fourth in the NFL. He jumped up from 11th in 2009, when he had 10 sacks.
Expect another solid year from the Packers defensive line.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers
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It is no coincidence that our top two defensive lines also happened to face each other in the Super Bowl. When you are strong up front, it allows the rest of your defense to execute their job and not be compromised.
The Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL in sacks in 2010 with 48, which is almost the exact same as their 2009 total of 47. The 47 in 2009 was good for second, so that means the Steelers pass rush is hitting on all cylinders.
In addition to the strong pass rush, they had the best run defense in the NFL in 2010, which is a category that they were ranked third in for 2009. Overall the Steelers defense was ranked number two in 2010 and was fifth in 2009. As you can see from these above categories, the Steel Curtain of old appears to be back in place and they are performing at a very high level for the past two years running.
The defensive linemen such as Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke excel at tying up the offensive line, allowing their playmakers like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior to have clearer lanes to attach. Then you add in younger talent like Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood, and you know that they have plenty of depth to deal with injuries and/or retirements that creep up.
For excellent play across the board and consistency from year to year, we reward the Pittsburgh Steelers with the title of having the best defensive line in the NFL.