You've heard it time and time again: defense wins championships. While quarterback is the single most important position on any team, the defense must play at a championship level for a team to lift the hardware at season's end.
Here is my ranking of the top 10 defenses heading into the 2011 NFL season.
The Saints consistently end up in the top half of the NFL in defense, but still have some trouble putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman in the division, having an effective pass rush is essential in the NFC South.
First round draft pick Cameron Jordan should help with this, and if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can get DT Shaun Rogers to play with maximum effort, the Saints should be stout up the middle. New Orleans should get strong play from their defensive backfield, and contend for the conference crown in 2011.
Just when you think the Giants are about to melt down, they suddenly reel off a four or five game win streak and get everybody thinking playoffs once again. This seems to be a recurring theme with Tom Coughlin's team, and a lot of that success can be credited to the defense.
New York always play with a good pass rush, and with the addition of first round draft pick Prince Amukamara, will see improved play out of their defensive backfield. The Giants should be expected to finish near the top of several statistical categories in the NFL this year.
The Patriot defense saw a nice improvement when Bill Belichick decided to take over the play-calling. Belichick is a master of reshaping his systems to fit the talents of the players on his roster.
New England added veteran defensive linemen Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth to shore up the front seven. Haynesworth landed on the perfect team to see a career rejuvenation, and should help the young Patriot linebacking core make plays at the point of attack by disrupting plays at the line of scrimmage.
The Bears have always leaned on their defense to win them football games, riding it all the way to the 2007 Super Bowl. Brian Urlacher is the glue that holds the unit together, and is still one of the best linebackers in the game.
Urlacher leads a strong front seven alongside linebacker Lance Briggs. The acquisition of Julius Peppers last year gave the Bears an elite pass-rushing threat, and Chicago should once again be right in the middle of the NFC North race with excellent play from their defense.
The Detroit Lions are a franchise reborn on the back of their talented defensive line. Ndamukong Suh is the centerpiece of a defense that was just a few years ago one of the leagues worst. Suh is nearly unblockable, and improves the play of every position group on the field with his ability to disrupt both the run and the pass.
The Lions picked up Stephen Tullock and Justin Durant in free agency to pair with Deandre Levy at linebacker, and in doing so turned a weakness into a strength. The defensive backfield still needs some attention, but should see improvement because of the strong front seven.
The Ravens can always be counted on to have a top defense year in and year out. They are consistently one of the most physical teams in the NFL, and Ray Lewis may be the most intense football player in the league.
Lewis is the ultimate leader, and is still a game-changer at 36. The Ravens also have a ball hawk in Ed Reed and added cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round to strengthen the defensive backfield. Expect Baltimore to once again ride their defense to a playoff spot as they fight for their first Super Bowl berth since 2001.
Clay Matthews exploded onto the scene last year as one of the NFL's best defensive players. His vicious pass rush helped the Packers end the season lifting the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions.
Charles Woodson leads a playmaking defensive backfield and was the NFL defensive player of the year last year. The Packers lose defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, but should still be one of the top units as long as they stay healthy.
The Eagles have taken NFL free agency by storm, acquiring several big name NFL stars. After trading Kevin Kolb for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, they went on to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, giving them three Pro Bowl caliber defensive backs at their disposal.
They also brought in Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin to make over their defensive line. The only question mark for a star-studded Eagles defense is who will be calling the plays. Juan Castillo will be in his first year as a defensive coordinator, and will quickly be on the hot seat with high expectations for such a talented unit.
The Jets have built their defense into a championship-caliber unit, led by all-pro defensive back Darrelle Revis. Rex Ryan is loud and boisterous, but often backed up by great play out of his defense.
New York has a great combination of youth and experience, but may eventually be burned by the way they structure their player contracts. For the time being, the Jets should still be considered a top candidate to be one of the leaders in the AFC in just about every defensive category.
The Steelers have been built on a theory that has proven successful in the NFL forever: Run the ball, and stop the run. The Steelers led the NFL in rush yards allowed last year, allowing only 62.8 yards per game.
Troy Polamalu is an absolute game-changer, and allows the Steelers freedom to gamble on blitzes because of his sure tackling and strong pass defense. James Harrison was recently in the news because of comments he made in an interview, but I expect the Steelers to handle that in house as usual and once again field one of the league's special defenses in 2011.