Power Ranking Every NFL Defense Heading into the 2012 Season
Think you know which team has the best defense in the NFL? Forget those NFL defense rankings—a statistic that looks only at yards allowed per game; not taking into consideration time of possession, the score or turnovers—here's a definitive ranking of the best defenses in the NFL heading into the 2012 season.
Defense used to win championships, but in today's NFL a dominant defense may not be enough to take home the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers of 2011 would be Exhibit A.
That's not to say a good defense isn't required anymore. Teams must be able to shut down high-profile offenses if they hope to get through the playoffs (see: New York Giants vs. Green Bay Packers). A dominant defense can set the table for a good or great offense to seal the deal.
With the NFL season approaching, which defenses stand out as the best in the game?
32. Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders have some individual talent on defense, but the whole of the unit doesn't look great for the Silver and Black in 2012.
The defensive line will be the strength of this defense, with Lamarr Houston and Richard Seymour anchoring the front four. Houston is an underrated stud at defensive end and one of the young players worth watching for a breakout season. Seymour is aging, but he's still one of the better all-around defensive tackles in the NFL.
The loss of Kamerion Wimbley at defensive end/outside linebacker will hurt their ability to rush the quarterback, and without any new faces to replace him, the Raiders' pass rush will take a step back.
The absence of talent at defensive end will only hurt an already weak cornerback duo. The Raiders have an excellent strong safety with Tyvon Branch, but the other three starters in the back four are so-so on a good day.
Michael Huff hasn't lived up to his draft stock, and the back-to-back losses of their best cornerbacks (Nnamdi Asomugha and Stanford Routt) have left the secondary looking for answers in underwhelming players Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell.
Being able to rush the passer and defend the pass are the most important aspects of today's NFL, and despite one good defensive end, the Raiders' cornerbacks are the worst in the NFL—something they can't overcome no matter the scheme.
31. Indianapolis Colts
Being a good defense in the NFL requires more than one or two good players, and for the Indianapolis Colts, that's unfortunate.
The Colts will face a major change in scheme and mentality under new head coach Chuck Pagano. That means long-time defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney will shift to outside linebacker. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer will now have one defensive tackle running interference between him and the offensive guards instead of two.
The change may work in the long term, but at least immediately, it's a big gamble.
Mathis and Freeney should be fine, as both are athletic enough to bend the edge as stand-up pass-rushers. The big concern is the middle of the defense. Nose tackle Antonio Johnson scares no one, and if he can't draw a double-team consistently, Angerer and Kavell Conner will be rendered useless in the middle of the field.
There is promise in the secondary, as Jerraud Powers is an underrated cover man on the edge. Adding Tom Zbikowski gives the Colts a hard hitter opposite Antoine Bethea, but the cornerbacks as a whole are a weak link in a pass-heavy NFL.
30. Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings can get to the quarterback as well as any team in the NFL, thanks largely to Jared Allen and his 22 sacks from 2011. The trouble is what happens when he doesn't get to the quarterback.
The Vikings' back four is arguably the worst in the NFL, and that's even giving rookie safety Harrison Smith the benefit of the doubt on becoming a quality NFL starter.
Across the board, the team is weak when it comes to defending the pass. Cornerbacks Chris Carr and Chris Cook would be very good nickel and dime package players, but as starters, they're overmatched in a division that features Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.
The linebacking corps is better than you might think. Chad Greenway is a damn good all-around linebacker who tackles everything in a five- to seven-yard range. Erin Henderson should have a big year on the weak side, and Jasper Brinkley has a chance to shine at middle 'backer.
Kevin Williams has to get a mention here. The long-time defensive tackle may not get big sack numbers anymore, but he's transformed his game to where he's a dynamic all-around defender from inside. It's too bad the secondary will be lost in coverage before he and Allen can get to the quarterback.
29. Detroit Lions
Another team with a good pass rush, but a lack of talent at the cornerback position keeps them from realizing their potential.
The Detroit Lions know how to get to the quarterback, but when their front four isn't successful, the defense falls apart. While other teams like Minnesota have a good linebacker corps to clean up some of the mess, Detroit has question marks throughout their back seven.
There is no doubting that Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch can get to the quarterback, the trouble is their over-pursuit often leads to open run lanes and a susceptibility to screen packages that the linebackers aren't able to get to.
Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch have the makings of a solid group on paper, but on the field they seemed out of sync. A full offseason together could help, but to date, the linebackers aren't doing their job well enough to cover up for an aggressive front four.
The secondary is shaky, to be kind. The release of cornerback Aaron Berry after two offseason arrests only worsened the situation. Free safety Louis Delmas can be a playmaker when he has freedom to roam, but with a lack of talent at cornerback, his job is much harder to do.
28. New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have invested heavily this offseason in fixing a defense that was flat out bad in 2011. If the moves are to pay off, they'll need big contributions from role players and rookies.
With two first-round draft picks invested on the defensive side of the ball, New England at least has young pass-rushers to shake things up in their front seven. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower are both expected to play big roles as New England shifts back to a base 3-4 scheme after using primarily a 4-3 base in the lockout-shortened 2011 campaign.
The front seven should be pretty good if the rookies live up to expectations. The front three has one of the best in Vince Wilfork, and added depth via free agency gives the entire unit the ability to rotate without a big drop in talent. At linebacker, the Patriots will see a big impact from Hightower alongside Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo.
What's troubling in New England is the back four. The team has lived with a bit-player mentality to the secondary in recent years, going with a "bend, don't break" scheme as opposed to their aggressive style of play that won Super Bowls.
For the Patriots to compete at a high level on defense, they need Devin McCourty to play more like he did in 2010, and they need Kyle Arrington to play consistently in coverage. The safeties are capable, but Patrick Chung doesn't add much as a ball hawk, and Steve Gregory is unproven as a starter.
The Patriots survive on scheme and a great offense more than anything, with a bet that their defense can hold opposing teams under 30 points per game. It's a gamble that has worked to the tune of five Super Bowl appearances under Bill Belichick, but it doesn't make for a great defensive ranking.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Many of the faces are the same in Tampa Bay, but three new starters and one position change are being viewed as the driving force behind a better defense for the Buccaneers in 2012.
If any of the low-ranked teams has a chance to break out this year, Tampa gets my vote.
It is hard to rank the Buccaneers any higher than this based on potential and available talent, what with a defense that features five starters drafted in the last three years. The team could be poised for a huge season with big improvements across the board, or they could be looking at growing pains from half the lineup.
What is encouraging for fans will be the improvements in the secondary. Ronde Barber is moving to free safety, Mark Barron was a top-10 pick at strong safety, and Eric Wright comes in to play opposite Aqib Talib. On paper, the starting four could be dangerous.
To help the secondary, Tampa has a very fast front seven, but as of now there is a question as to where the pass rush will come from. Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn are loaded with potential, but Clayborn is a second-year player and Bennett is a better run defender. To date, the defensive tackles have been too inconsistent and too injured to contribute.
When teams run the ball, Tampa should be good with speedy linebackers Mason Foster, rookie Lavonte David and Quincy Black. How well they defend the pass against Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Drew Brees will tell the story of their season.
26. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have one of the NFL's best young players (Von Miller) and a future Hall of Famer (Champ Bailey), but the rest of the defense is suspect when viewed as a whole.
Fans of the Broncos will argue that D.J. Williams deserves some credit, and he does, but Williams isn't the same player as he was earlier in his career. A position change may help him out, but his days of being an impact player are over. Same for Elvis Dumervil, who hasn't been the same since missing the 2010 season with an injury.
The biggest hole on the defense is at defensive tackle, where the loss of Brodrick Bunkley will be felt on rush downs as Ty Warren and Kevin Vickerson attempt to fill the gap. The outside pass rush will be good, but the inside of the line will be a weakness that trickles back to the linebackers, who will face constant pressure from guards getting through the first wave of defense.
Miller will keep things interesting, and Bailey is still very good, but the Broncos defense will struggle to keep up with NFL offenses if the pass rush doesn't work. Tracy Porter is an average No. 2 cornerback, but the depth isn't good here. Nickel and dime packages from the Broncos will be exploited in a wide-receiver-heavy AFC West.
25. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have the chance to be better on defense in 2012 if they can get maximum production from key players, but the biggest reason for their ranking at No. 25 is the lack of talent at defensive tackle.
We saw it last year: The Panthers couldn't stop the run, and that started in the middle of the defensive line. Terrell McClain and Sione Fua were just rookies in 2011, but their play was in no way encouraging for the future. The lack of effort to improve this area through the draft or free agency was a puzzling move to say the least.
Another area where better play is needed comes at defensive end, where Charles Johnson took a step back after receiving a big payday before the 2011 season. Johnson impacts the game with more than just quarterback sacks, but he needs to become better against the run and find a way to close down on the passer. Greg Hardy, lining up at left end, needs a breakout season.
The linebacker corps will be good if Jon Beason is back and fully healthy. Rookie Luke Kuechly will most likely play the weak side, which is the best fit for his athleticism but lack of block-shedding skills. The Panthers need James Anderson to fill in for Thomas Davis in a big way, as it's unlikely Davis will ever be back to his normal play level after injuries have taken their toll.
The secondary is solid, but there are concerns. Chris Gamble is very underrated at left cornerback; he's a player you don't have to worry about, but the remaining starters aren't at the same level. Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin at safety are susceptible to big plays and can be exposed if matched up in man coverage.
24. Arizona Cardinals
The defensive line is very good. The linebackers can make plays all over the place. The secondary...huge question marks.
The Arizona Cardinals have a front seven talented enough to take over games and shut down very good offenses, but that's all for naught when the secondary allows even below-average wide receivers to make big plays. If the secondary doesn't improve over their 2011 performance, no front seven could save the season.
Patrick Peterson was a top-10 pick in the 2011 draft, and many thought he'd step in and dominate. And he did—on special teams. Peterson was electric as a punt returner, but in coverage he was woefully bad in man situations. The pressure is on Peterson to improve and carry this team.
Adrian Wilson is still the leader of the secondary, and his play is top-notch each week, but he can't cover up for both Peterson and William Gay at cornerback.
With players like Darnell Dockett, Sam Acho, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington in the front seven, Arizona has the players to shut down the run and pressure the quarterback. That said, for the team to beat their preseason ranking, the improvement must come from the secondary.
23. Miami Dolphins
The transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense in Miami will be a big change for most of the Dolphins' players, but for at least one of them it should be a welcome change.
Cameron Wake will move down to a defensive end position after playing at outside linebacker in the old scheme. Wake's quickness, plus his in-line strength, will give him a nice advantage over left and right tackles who are struggling to fire off the ball and get their hands on him.
With Wake being in a down position as opposed to standing up, he's better positioned to fire off to the inside shoulder. As an outside linebacker, it's tougher to set up stunts and twists, but in this set Wake can wreak havoc.
The Dolphins' cornerbacks believe they are the best in the NFL, but that didn't show up on the field last season. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are very talented, but they need to put their money where their mouths were last year and show up big in coverage.
Replacing Wake in the linebacker corps and switching to just three linebackers shouldn't be too difficult considering Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett are familiar with a 4-3 scheme, but how well Koa Misi makes the transition from end to linebacker will be key.
22. Washington Redskins
When you look at the Washington Redskins defense, you see three very good linebackers and eight other players who will make or break the group.
Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and London Fletcher should all be household names to NFL fans by this point. Orakpo and Kerrigan are one of the best outside pass-rush duos in the league, and Fletcher is a stand-up, hard-working middle 'backer who even Cowboys fans can love.
But the rest of this defense?
Fans may not know that Adam Carriker has rehabbed his career in Washington and is now a pretty good 3-4 defensive end, but he is. DeAngelo Hall still makes way too many mistakes in coverage, but he also has good hands and will put up good interception numbers—which leads many to believe he's better than he is.
There are solid role players too, like Josh Wilson at cornerback and Perry Riley at inside linebacker. Gambling on Tanard Jackson and Brandon Meriweather may prove to have been a massive mistake, but the team had few options and did what they could with limited cap space and few draft picks.
Anyone expecting a great defense in Washington will be disappointed, but this group can be good enough to keep a competitive offense in the game.
21. Cleveland Browns
How do you replace Phil Taylor? That's the question the Cleveland Browns face at defensive tackle after their big man in the middle was lost for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. Taylor is only a second-year player, but his impact was felt greatly across the Browns' line in 2011. Without him, the defensive tackle position lacks an anchor who can stuff the run.
The rest of the defense is very promising, if they can keep up with their 2011 form. The play of cornerback Joe Haden was phenomenal last season, and he's quickly becoming one of the best corners in the game. The trouble is the spot opposite him. Sheldon Brown was good last year, but he's also 33 years old. Expecting Brown to keep up with the Mike Wallaces and Antonio Browns of the NFL isn't fair.
The safety play features hard-hitting T.J. Ward and little-known Eric Hagg. Ward can separate the ball from receivers, but he's not a turnover-type player.
The keys to the front seven without Taylor are Jabaal Sheard at defensive end and D'Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker. Jackson had a coming-out party last year in the 4-3 defense and should do well again if the Browns can keep blockers off his legs. Sheard is the team's best pass-rusher in his second season.
The Browns have talent to surprise people—they were a top-10 team in points allowed last year—but looking at them on paper, it's hard to see this unit being elite.
20. Atlanta Falcons
It is very tough ranking the Atlanta Falcons down at No. 21. They have talent, but the middle of this defense is a major concern. The outsides are good, but without a strong interior they'll be susceptible to the run and play-action passing.
The Falcons defense starts with the play of Sean Weatherspoon at outside linebacker. His athletic style of play makes him a missile on the field. With another offseason under his belt, Weatherspoon should be Pro Bowl-bound.
Lining up next to him will likely be Akeem Dent at middle linebacker—replacing departed Curtis Lofton—and Stephen Nicholas on the strong side. Nicholas is solid, but compared to Weatherspoon, the other linebackers are average.
Up front, there is potential, but big-money players like Ray Edwards need to contribute more in 2012. A scheme change may benefit Edwards most at left end. The tackles are a work in progress, but Jonathan Babineaux is solid at one spot. Getting Peria Jerry or Vance Walker to produce next to him is another story, and one may eventually be cut this summer. Corey Peters looks like a keeper, but he's been overrated as a producer.
Wrapping things up, Atlanta has the NFL's best trio of cornerbacks with Asante Samuel and Brent Grimes on the boundary and Dunta Robinson working the slot. Add in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud at safety—both promising starters—and the Atlanta secondary can create opportunities for turnovers.
Atlanta could easily be a top-five defense, but to do that they need a consistent pass rush from Edwards and John Abraham, as well as breakout seasons from Jerry and Dent. The odds aren't in their favor, but it is definitely possible.
19. Tennessee Titans
One of the NFL's up-and-coming defenses, the Tennessee Titans are building a young, tough crew that will soon be one of the dominant forces in the game.
Looking at the Titans roster, the defense is loaded with young playmakers. Colin McCarthy at middle linebacker. Akeem Ayers on the outside. Jurrell Casey at tackle. Add in the pass rush of Kamerion Wimbley and Karl Klug and there is a lot to like just in the front seven.
Where the Titans may struggle, and the reason for their low ranking, is that while there are future stars at many positions, often the player lining up opposite him isn't at that level.
Wimbley is great, but Derrick Morgan is a gigantic question mark. Ayers can be a superstar, but Will Witherspoon was weak last season. Michael Griffin is a playmaker, but Jordan Babineaux was terrible in 2011.
The cornerback play is good enough to get by against most teams, but they'll miss Cortland Finnegan. The scheme helps, but Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are also pretty good players in their own right.
You can like a lot of what the Titans are doing here, but they are at least one year away from filling out the depth chart on defense with a unit that can shut down top offenses.
18. New York Jets
Any discussion of the New York Jets defense begins and ends with cornerback Darrelle Revis. Mr. Island himself is the sole reason the Jets are ranked this high—and a big part of the reason they always turn out well in points per game.
Revis is a one-man wrecking crew, which is a good thing, because the rest of the secondary is suspect.
Antonio Cromartie has a big following, but his play doesn't live up to it. Not only is he a terrible tackler, Cromartie gambles far too often in coverage looking for the big play. On some defenses that might work, but without talent at safety, the Jets need Cromartie locked in.
And if you're expecting LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell to be anything above average at safety, I'd ask you to please watch their play the last few seasons and re-evaluate that.
The front seven may see a makeover if the team goes forward with a shift to more of a 4-3 or 46 base defense. What matters most is that linebacker David Harris be free to make plays.
Harris is the Jets' heart and soul at linebacker, and he's the type of player that can clean up run plays with tough tackling. Harris doesn't have much around him, as Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are the picture of average on the outside. Aaron Maybin turned some heads last season, so keep an eye on him at outside linebacker in passing situations.
The defensive line will feature two first-rounders and a top-level nose tackle, which makes for high expectations. At end the team will have Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, both first-rounders and both expected to provide a push on passing downs and strength against the run.
Helping their cause in the middle is Sione Pouha. His ability to consistently draw a double-team makes everyone's job easier.
The Jets may finish as a top-five defense when it comes to yardage allowed per game, but that number can be skewed if they are trailing in games and the opposition runs out the clock or goes into a "prevent offense."
There is talent here, but not enough to be ranked higher as an overall unit.
17. Green Bay Packers
I'm sure there will be fan outrage that the Green Bay Packers are ranked too high—and too low—but let's look at the actual defense here and not whatever spin you've subscribed to.
The secondary is solid throughout. Charles Woodson is the game's best slot cover man and is always a threat to create turnovers. He's a good tackler in space, capable on blitzes and is really the mold for what a veteran player should look like.
Tramon Williams is back from an injury-plagued 2011, and if he can play at his 2010 level, he'll once again be an elite player at his position.
Rookie Casey Hayward will battle with Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields for the spot opposite Williams, and while Shields isn't much of a tackler, he's good in coverage. Hayward excels in press coverage and is a very good zone cover corner for a rookie.
The safety play will miss Nick Collins, but they survived without him in 2011 and will see a better Morgan Burnett thanks to his extended playing time.
At linebacker, the team saw the need to get more of a pass rush, so they drafted Nick Perry in the first round. He'll line up at left outside linebacker, opposite Pro Bowler Clay Matthews.
Perry was my top-rated pass-rusher in the 2012 draft class due to his size, speed off the edge and raw ability. He needed to be coached up, but Kevin Greene is one of the best linebackers coaches in the game.
If Perry can live up to his draft stock, Matthews will see more opportunities in his new position on the right side, where he'll see fewer tight ends in the traditional NFL offense.
The front three is where concerns are drawn. B.J. Raji has potential, but he seems to go in big waves of production and then poor play. He cannot be counted on to be an impact for 17 weeks. Jarius Wynn is a talented young player, but he's unproven at this point. Ryan Pickett is a solid veteran in the five-technique, but he won't scare many offenses.
There is talent here, and there is potential, but the key is getting a pass rush and forcing quarterbacks into mistakes so the enterprising secondary can take over ballgames with their hard-hitting and ball-hawking style.
16. St. Louis Rams
Without a closer look, you might be surprised the St. Louis Rams are ranked this high. Let's take that closer look.
The defensive line is led by Chris Long, who has become one of the best all-around defensive ends in football. His play on every down is remarkable, and he is versatile enough to make an impact no matter the situation.
Opposite him is second-year man Robert Quinn, who shook off a slow start in 2011 to have a damn fine season for a rookie defensive end. The team had a terrible defensive tackle rotation, so they drafted Michael Brockers in the first round and signed Kendall Langford. Problems solved.
James Laurinaitis has more than the NFL's hardest last name to spell, he's also a very good first- and second-down middle linebacker who takes on the run like an old-school Mack truck. He's not great in coverage, but he doesn't have to be in Jeff Fisher's scheme.
On the outside, the team is going with an unproven duo of Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan. If there is a weakness on the defense, it's here.
The secondary got a brand-new look with cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson all coming to town in the offseason. Finnegan and Jenkins will start at corner and bring a toughness to the entire defense. The safety play won't be great with Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart, but they can both affect the run game and will be average in deep coverage.
The impact of Fisher cannot be understated. He played defense in the NFL and his Titans' teams were always a tough out on defense. His turnaround in St. Louis starts here.
15. New York Giants
Allow me to head-off any commenters with my first few sentences.
Yes, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl, but that was last year, and a lot has changed. Yes, the New York Giants have an amazing pass rush, but this is a ranking of the entire defense. Yes, Jason Pierre-Paul is really, really good.
There, now let's get down to the actual football talk.
The Giants defense lives and dies on the pass rush, and so far, that's working. What should be concerning is what happens when teams scheme around the pass rush, because it's going to happen. As talented as JPP and Co. are, someone will scheme against them, and they'll have to rely on the other seven defenders to win ball games.
The linebacking corps wasn't good in 2011, but they were covered up by a pretty solid secondary and that great defensive line. In 2012, much of the same. Mathias Kiwanuka is a beast to handle, but he isn't a help in coverage. Same with Michael Boley, who is a good run defender but bad on third down. The inside is solid enough with Chase Blackburn, but he's not someone you work your game plan around.
The secondary is going to be a question with Terrell Thomas out and Aaron Ross now in Jacksonville. Sure, Prince Amukamara should take a step forward now that he's healthy, and Corey Webster is a good option, but neither player can shut down Dez Bryant or DeSean Jackson.
As for the safeties, well, they're overrated. Or at least Antrel Rolle is. And badly. Rolle is a "name player," but he makes no plays on a consistent basis. Watch Rolle against the run or in coverage last year, and you'll see a player routinely out of position and often playing from behind. Kenny Phillips can be good, but he's too often caught trying to make far-reaching plays to cover for Rolle.
The Giants defense will swing from dominant to average, depending on the offensive line they face and the ability of the play-caller on the other sideline to use their aggressive defensive line against them. That adds up to a great defensive line, but an average overall defense.
14. New Orleans Saints
The 2011 New Orleans Saints weren't very good on defense, but (spoiler alert), it's not 2011 anymore. The calendar changed, and when it did the Saints changed much of their defense from last year.
Gone is Gregg Williams and all the problems (on and off the field) that went with him. Also gone is Jonathan Vilma, the great leader that he is, missing the year with a suspension. In comes coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who will revive the defense with a fierce front four.
Following behind him are Brodrick Bunkley (defensive tackle), Curtis Lofton (inside linebacker) and David Hawthorne (outside linebacker). These four additions will be the reason the 2012 Saints kick ass on defense.
You can question the cornerbacks—they aren't great, but they are good enough to win ballgames when the pass rush is going. That's up to Cameron Jordan and Will Smith, and they both need to have better seasons in 2012, but they should see more freedom under Spagnuolo to work their game.
It helps that Bunkley will draw attention in the middle, and don't forget that Sedrick Ellis can be a good penetrator when he's not playing gap-assignment football. A sleeper for you is Martez Wilson. The college linebacker is moving to defensive end and has the tools to terrorize on third down.
Overall, the talent level here is up, and the scheme is better suited to the players already on the roster. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins can rest easy knowing the defensive line will generate pressure, which allows them to play back and come up to the ball instead of tracking back from the line of scrimmage.
13. San Diego Chargers
No one can say the San Diego Chargers didn't try to add talent in the offseason to better their defense. They added a ton of it.
Two new outside linebackers come into the lineup to aid the already-talented Shaun Phillips. Jarret Johnson will be a first- and second-down nightmare against the run, while rookie Melvin Ingram will see a big role as a pass-rusher early on and then more full-time duty as the season progresses.
The inside game is stronger than expected, as Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes make a good one-two at inside linebacker. They'll need Antonio Garay to keep their feet clean at nose tackle, something that fans should watch for in preseason action. If Garay can't stop blockers from getting through the A gaps, Butler will have trouble getting to the ball.
The defensive ends have promise, and the best player here might be rookie Kendall Reyes. The team's 2011 first-rounder, Corey Liuget, seems out of place in the current scheme, but they'll move him around and try to find mismatches to work.
Eric Weddle is still the NFL's best free safety, and he's earning every penny of his league-high salary at the position. As long as Weddle is back patrolling deep, Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer can afford to gamble a bit when the ball is in flight. Both Cason and Jammer should have better seasons after a disappointing 2011.
12. Dallas Cowboys
Having a great outside pass rush doesn't make for an elite defense, but it definitely helps. The Dallas Cowboys have built a defense around outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, and on paper it looks like their best group in years.
Ware is the centerpiece, but Jerry Jones added linebacker Dan Connor and cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to a defensive back seven that struggled to play consistent football in 2011.
Trading up to grab Claiborne may have been the best pick in the entire draft on the defensive side of the ball, and from early looks in training camp he's ready to step in and shine.
Connor lines up next to the already-solid Sean Lee, and the two former Penn State linebackers make for a tough bunch of tacklers on the inside. How Bruce Carter fits into plans isn't known yet, but he's too athletic to keep on the bench.
Getting production from Anthony Spencer opposite Ware hasn't happened, but he's playing on a one-year contract and may have something to prove. If he struggles again, Victor Butler is there to steal playing time.
Up front, Dallas is at its weakest. Jay Ratliff isn't the impact player he used to be, and his lack of size for the nose tackle position may be catching up to him. Ends Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears are merely average, but they aren't asked to do much outside of anchoring over the tackle and setting the edge.
You have to like Claiborne and Carr together with Mike Jenkins as the No. 3 cornerback, but the safeties are suspect. Gerald Sensabaugh and Brodney Pool aren't topping anyone's list of the NFL's best at their respective positions.
There's enough good players here to be a top defense in the NFL, but we've seen many Cowboys teams in the past ranked high, only to crash and burn when the season begins. The pressure is definitely on.
11. Chicago Bears
A great combination of old and young is often needed for an NFL defense to truly function at a high level. For the 2012 Chicago Bears, the right mix is in place.
Veteran middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is back as the captain and leader of this defense, even if he's no longer the best player on the squad. Urlacher is the heart and soul of the defense, and while he's taken a step back from his prime, he's still a force as a tackler in the middle.
Helping him out at linebacker, the team is set with Lance Briggs—a perennial Pro Bowler who has unreal cover skills. Strong-side linebacker Nick Roach isn't great, but he's not terrible either. With two stars lining up next to him, Roach doesn't have to be an all-world player to do his part.
The defensive line will see a change if rookie first-rounder Shea McClellin gets into the lineup as a third-down pass-rusher. If so, he'll line up opposite Julius Peppers, a player who really needs no introduction. McClellin may split time with Israel Idonije, a mammoth left end who makes more good plays than bad.
The middle of the line features a future star in Henry Melton. He's quick, tough and just scratching the surface of what he can become. Melton lines up next to Stephen Paea or Matt Toeaina, depending on the rotation. Brian Price comes in from Tampa through a trade, and while he's not lived up to expectations, he was good enough coming out of UCLA to be drafted in the second round.
The secondary has no big names, but plenty of big plays. Charles Tillman is a very good second-tier starter who will take on the offense's top threat. Tim Jennings at No. 2 isn't as good, but he'll be solid in a secondary role.
D.J. Moore is one to watch as a nickel defender. Safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte are both young and talented, but they need to take a step forward from their 2011 play.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
Here's your weekly reminder that these are not your father's Cincinnati Bengals.
You'll want to take the paper bag off your head for this one. The Bengals defense is legit, and that all starts with Geno Atkins at defensive tackle.
Atkins is quickly becoming one of the game's best defenders. His play as a pass-rusher and run-stopper turned heads in 2011, and with a better supporting cast and more experience in the scheme, an even bigger season is in store. Atkins has tons of talent around him, but so far the production hasn't quite matched up.
Carlos Dunlap seems continually poised for a big season, but we're still waiting for the huge statistical output to match his solid on-field play. Dunlap is great at getting to the quarterback, but he needs to get better at closing the deal.
If Robert Geathers and/or Michael Johnson improve, it will only help draw attention away from Dunlap and Atkins, freeing them up to make more plays.
The linebackers are all athletic specimens, and that shows in their ability to chase and tackle. Manny Lawson looked very good in his role last season, and he'll be asked to do more this year as the team's strong-side starter.
Rey Maualuga is a throwback in the middle, but his size and strength hide a subtle quickness that allows him to stretch the field. Thomas Howard is an underrated tackler on the weak side who can make plays against the run or pass equally.
The secondary needs to rebound from injuries—specifically Leon Hall—but there is plenty to rave about here. Nate Clements had a good season in his first year with the Bengals, and competition from first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick will only drive him to a better season in 2012.
Kirkpatrick may not see action immediately, but he'll help in nickel and dime packages. Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Pacman Jones are all solid veterans who can step in to any role and not allow a drop-off in talent. Safeties Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson are both capable, but they need to be reined in a bit before they can be called playmakers.
9. Buffalo Bills
When you add Mario Williams to a defense that already looked rock solid, expectations are expected to be through the roof. And they are.
Williams joins a defense that looked dominant at times in 2011. Now that they have a premier right end attacking the quarterback, anything is possible. Adding to that, Williams wasn't the only big addition to the defense this offseason.
The draft brought top-10 pick Stephon Gilmore, a dangerous athlete who will step into a starting role at cornerback from Day 1. Gilmore will team with 2011 second-rounder Aaron Williams, plus veterans Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee to round out a four-deep cornerback pool.
Backing them up is a one-two punch at safety that few teams can beat. George Wilson and Jairus Byrd have the range and toughness to make impact plays week in and week out.
The move to a 4-3 defense will benefit everyone, as will getting a healthy Kyle Williams back next to 2011's first-rounder Marcell Dareus. Dareus was unstoppable in 2011 and will be more dangerous in his natural role as a three-technique penetrator now that the Bills are in a four-man front. Kyle Williams, Mark Anderson and Shawne Merriman figure to make for one hell of an outside pass rush.
Two veteran linebackers—Kirk Morrison and Nick Barnett—flank a young middle linebacker, but Kelvin Sheppard earned his stripes in 2011. He'll be accountable in a defense that has very few holes.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
Looking at the Kansas City Chiefs roster in the preseason, there is a lot to like on paper. How those Xs and Os become tackles and sacks remains to be seen, but hopes are high.
Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston make up three-fourths of a very good linebacking corps. Hali is as talented a pass-rusher as the NFL has, and Houston enjoyed a very good first season opposite him at outside linebacker. Johnson was a Pro Bowler in the middle, and his ability to take on the run or drop back into pass coverage makes him truly valuable.
The secondary may be better than their counterparts at linebacker with a healthy Eric Berry at strong safety and the addition of Stanford Routt to replace Brandon Carr. Routt teams up with one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Brandon Flowers, to give KC an elite duo on the edges.
If the Chiefs get any production from Kendrick Lewis at free safety, it's a plus. The nickel and dime units will be manned by Javier Arenas and DeQuan Menzie, and both look good in slot coverage.
The question mark is on the defensive line, where three first-round picks line up side-by-side. Glenn Dorsey, Dontari Poe and Tyson Jackson were all top prospects coming out of college, but it's time to see what they can all do in the big leagues.
Poe gets his first taste of the NFL this year, but his athleticism and strength are on par with any NFL starter. As with Dorsey and Jackson, he has to catch up mentally. The three men up front will be watched closely all season, as fans and coaches wait to see if Poe will break out and if Dorsey and Jackson can shake their bust labels.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars may lack name recognition, but their defense is absolutely punishing.
The linebackers here are all worth writing about. Daryl Smith is the best 4-3 outside linebacker that no one talks about. He's a coverage linebacker who actually knows how to take on a block and stop the run—a rarity in today's NFL.
If Clint Session can shake injuries to get back on the field, he's a promising athlete on the opposite side who could be an impact against the run as well. The middle is manned by one of my favorites—Paul Posluszny. Not only does he sound like a bad-ass middle linebacker, he is one.
The defensive line gets an upgrade via the NFL draft, as second-round pick Andre Branch will be lining up at right end opposite Jeremy Mincey. The two offer quickness and versatility on the edge, but Branch needs to acclimate quickly, and Mincey will be looked on to take the next step in his development after a very strong 2011 season that saw his quarterback hurries and pressure skyrocket. Austin Lane provides nice depth here when either player needs spelling.
The middle of the defensive line should be great if Tyson Alualu is healthy and Terrance Knighton is in shape. Both have shown glimpses of being great, but each has needed to improve. A safe bet would be gambling on 2012 to be their breakout seasons.
The secondary was robbed by injury in 2011, but the cast is back with an added bonus. Aaron Ross comes to town at cornerback, but he's likely to start the year behind Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox. It wouldn't be an upset to see Ross take the starting gig from Mathis, with William Middleton also figuring into the team's plans in nickel and dime situations.
6. Seattle Seahawks
How many starters can you name from the 2012 Seattle Seahawks defense? Oh, and if you're a Seahawk fan, you don't count.
My guess is that few NFL fans can name more than a few of the 11 starters in Seattle, but fans who love hard-hitting football with a high rate of turnovers and a lot of speed will soon come to love (or hate) the Seattle defense.
You can't spend enough time talking about the secondary here. Cast-offs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman have developed overnight into one of the best cornerback duos in football. Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the perfect blend of hard-hitting and playmaking.
Having four impact starters in the secondary is rare, but Seattle has it.
The linebackers have changed over the last few seasons, and it shows, but they'll be asked to serve as housekeepers for a good front four and that dangerous secondary. LeRoy Hill can be effective, but the team doesn't seem to trust him to freelance. Barrett Ruud isn't remarkable at middle linebacker, but K.J. Wright has the look and feel of a future star on the outside.
The defensive line is deep and versatile. Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Jason Jones and Brandon Mebane will kick the year off in the starting lineup, and all four know how to crash the line of scrimmage. Jones, in particular, could have a huge season. First-rounder Bruce Irvin will be a situational pass-rusher, a role he filled very well at West Virginia.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
A lot of new faces, and a lot of familiar names, too. The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers defense will have a few new wrinkles, but the same ol' dominance will be expected.
The core of the defense returns in the form of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu. Gone are James Farrior, Aaron Smith and most likely Casey Hampton, but in their place is a nice mix of young and old.
As Farrior leaves the lineup, the team will rely more on Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote—as well as young players Sean Spence and Sylvester Stevenson, if they are up to the task.
The pass rush will once again be solid, as long as Woodley and Harrison can stay healthy after they both missed time in 2011. Depth is good with Jason Worilds, but the team cannot afford to lose either starter for an extended period of time.
The defensive line looks good, but they'll feel the loss of Hampton and Smith in terms of leadership. Brett Keisel is still very good, and the team hopes Cameron Heyward or Ziggy Hood can emerge as another starter. The nose tackle position is worth watching in the preseason to see if Steve McClendon or Alameda Ta'amu emerge as the starter.
The secondary is led by Polamalu and No. 1 cornerback Taylor, and it's largely a unit that plays well together without a superstar other than Polamalu. Taylor is good, but his coverage doesn't lead to turnovers, and he can be prone to bad spells of heavy penalties. Ryan Clark is a good complement to Polamalu, but he's also heavily penalized and average against the run.
Pittsburgh has a legend at defensive coordinator, and as long as Dick LeBeau is calling the shots, you'd be foolish to bet against them over the course of a full season.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The big storyline in Baltimore this summer is the injury to Terrell Suggs, and just how the Ravens can live without him. The answer to that question is below.
The Baltimore defense is, as always, led by Ray Lewis at middle linebacker. Lewis appears to have found the fountain of youth, at least in football terms, and while he has slowed down some over the last few seasons, he's still elite. Add in Ed Reed, who is good for at least one more Super Bowl run, and Haloti Ngata, and you have three of the NFL's best defenders. And we're just getting started.
Cornerback Lardarius Webb emerged in 2011 as an elite, All-Pro-caliber player. He'll become a higher-profile player in 2012 and receive the accolades he deserved after last season. Next to him is a promising corner named Jimmy Smith—a player with awesome ability who saw his draft stock fall in 2011 due to off-field issues. He stayed out of trouble last year and will be looked upon to shine in his role.
The Ravens love to move around their front size, and while losing Suggs will hurt, there is still a load of talent here. Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger look to ease the loss of Suggs, as will Sergio Kindle (who is finally healthy) and the team's first pick in the 2012 draft, Courtney Upshaw. The move between a 4-3 and 3-4 within a game isn't easy, but Baltimore does it well thanks to their athletic players and discipline amongst the front seven.
So how do you replace Suggs? You can't, but as is the motto in Baltimore, you find the next man up and ask him to do his job the best he can. For the Ravens, the talent pool runs deep.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Naysayers like to point out that the "Dream Team" didn't live up to expectations in 2011. Big freaking deal. It's not 2011 anymore.
The Eagles did struggle last year, but that's all behind them as they move into Year 2 with Juan Castillo at defensive coordinator, and they'll do it with a lot more talent.
You know all about Trent Cole and Jason Babin at defensive end—they're really, really good. And you know about Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback—and how they struggled to adapt to a zone-coverage scheme in 2011. The defensive ends will be elite again, but this year the scheme will be more friendly to the defensive backs.
Good news for the Eagles, bad news for everyone else.
Cole and Babin are the moneymakers on the line, but rookie Fletcher Cox and veteran Cullen Jenkins will make their jobs easier by penetrating from the inside and forcing the line of scrimmage to step back. If Cox and Jenkins can be effective, there is not much an offense can do schematically to stop the Eagles.
A big problem with the Eagles defense in 2011 was the linebacking corps. They've been revamped with DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks added to the roster this offseason in two moves that cannot be understated. Ryans alone was an invaluable addition to a defense that couldn't find a middle linebacker who knew how to stop the run in 2011.
2. Houston Texans
Wade Phillips' work on the 2011 Houston Texans defense should go down as one for the ages. Phillips came to town, changed the scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and started kicking ass. Maybe not literally, but the Houston defense went from a liability to a force to be reckoned with.
Drafting J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed in 2011 was a stroke of genius, as both played huge roles in the team's turnaround. They'll be counted on as leaders this fall, along with Johnathan Joseph at cornerback and Brian Cushing at inside linebacker. The four are as solid a core as you'll find in the NFL when it comes to young players you'd build around.
The rich got richer when the team drafted Whitney Mercilus to split time with Reed and Connor Barwin at outside linebacker. The trio will bring nonstop heat to NFL backfields behind a defensive line that causes a ton of problems on its own.
Watt should be penciled in as an All-Pro in the 3-4 defense, and he's only getting better and stronger with a full offseason to work and learn. The future is bright in Houston, and that's damn scary for the rest of the AFC.
1. San Francisco 49ers
To call this the best defense in the NFL should be an undisputed fact. Whether you judge by stats, impact, on-field play or talent in the depth chart—the San Francisco 49ers know defense.
Line 'em up across the board, and no team can match the 49ers' starting 11.
DE - Ray McDonald
NT - Isaac Sopoago
DE - Justin Smith (2011 All-Pro at two positions)
OLB - Aldon Smith (14 sacks as a rookie)
ILB - Patrick Willis (Five-time Pro Bowler)
ILB - NaVorro Bowman (AP First-Team All-Pro)
OLB - Ahmad Brooks
CB - Carlos Rogers (2011 Second-Team All-Pro)
FS - Dashon Goldson (2011 Pro Bowler)
SS - Donte Whitner
CB - Tarell Brown
Good luck finding another defense who can line up and out-man this defense. You could find teams with better cornerbacks and maybe better safeties, but when evaluating the sum of all the parts, the 2012 San Francisco 49ers have the NFL's best defense. And that's indisputable.