Breaking Down the Defensive Schemes for All 32 NFL Teams

Marc Lillibridge@NFL_BridgeContributor IAugust 3, 2012

Breaking Down the Defensive Schemes for All 32 NFL Teams

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    The old saying that “defense wins championships” stirs up images of Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus ripping off a running back’s helmet or New York Giant Hall of Fame player Lawrence Taylor dipping around the edge to blast a quarterback.  The problem with the saying is that in today’s NFL, the quote does not have a lot of teeth.

    The New York Giants won the Super Bowl in February with the 27th-ranked defense in yards per game allowed.  The New England Patriots challenged the Giants in Indianapolis for the title and gave up 411 yards a game last season.  The Green Bay Packers almost had a perfect season with the worst defense in 2011.  The rules of the game strongly favor the offense, and that led to six quarterbacks throwing for over 4,600 yards last season.

    With such an emphasis on the passing game and the wide open offenses, NFL defensive coordinators have tried to open up their playbooks as well.  The two basic defensive schemes are the 4-3 and the 3-4 defenses. 

    The following list will break down each defensive scheme that team uses and the personnel that makes the defense work or, in some cases, not work.

The 4-3 Defense

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    In the diagram, there are four defensive linemen (RDE=right defensive end, RDT=right defensive tackle, LDT=left defensive tackle and LDE=left defensive end).  This is the 4 in 4-3.

    The 3 constitutes the linebackers (WLB=weak side linebacker, MLB=middle linebacker and SLB=strong side linebacker), with the SLB lining up to the tight end side or “strong” side.  Most of the time, these positions are called the Will, Mike and Sam linebackers.

The 3-4 Defense

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    As the diagram shows, in the 3-4 defense, there are three defensive linemen and four linebackers.  In essence, the strong-side linebacker (lines up across from the tight end) in the 3-4 replaces the defensive end in the 4-3 defense.  The inside linebackers will go by names such as Plug, Mac or Mike.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator: Ray Horton

    Best defensive player in the scheme: strong safety Adrian Wilson

    The Cardinals have one of the better defensive units in the NFL.  They just do not get the credit they deserve due to the fact the offense was so poor last year.  The defense was simply on the field too much. 

    Defensive ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are both powerful players at the point of attack and better than most 3-4 ends at rushing the passer. 

    The linebackers are a solid group, but the player that makes this defense work in the desert is Adrian Wilson.  He is built like a linebacker yet can cover like a cornerback.  With his versatility, Wilson can line up close to the line of scrimmage and cover tight ends.  This allows outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback without having to worry about coverage responsibilities.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Mike Nolan

    Best defensive player in the scheme: defensive end John Abraham

    The Falcons were the 12th best defense in the NFL last year in allowing only 333.6 yards per game.  But this statistic is deceiving due to the fact the unit was only on the field for 965 total plays, one of the lowest totals in the NFL. 

    The addition of big free-agent signing Ray Edwards at defensive end after the lockout allowed Abraham to avoid being double-teamed as much as years prior.  This helped him get a team-leading nine-and-a-half sacks in 2011. 

    The loss of last year’s middle linebacker Curtis Lofton will hurt the defense.  In the 4-3, the middle linebacker should be the leading tackler, so new starter Akeem Dent has big shoes to fill in replacing the 147 tackles now in New Orleans.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Dean Pees

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Haloti Ngata

    Pees takes over one of the perennial defensive powerhouses in the NFL.  Former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.  This defense has been so good since inside linebacker Ray Lewis was drafted that seven coaches who have coached on this staff went on to become NFL head coaches.

    Lewis and free safety Ed Reed are stalwarts that are future Hall of Famers.  Reed may be the best cover safety to ever play the game.  His knack for diagnosing plays and his range will allow Pees to bring strong safety Bernard Pollard closer to the line of scrimmage to take away the short passes to the tight end. 

    Lewis is a tackling machine, and he can thank Ngata for most of them.  The big defensive end occupies two or three blockers a play, allowing Lewis the freedom to run free and make tackles.  If Ngata is single blocked, he will make the play.

    The loss of outside line Terrell Suggs, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to an Achilles’ injury in the offseason will hurt the defense, but look for Paul Kruger to have a breakout season in his place.

Buffalo Bills

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Dave Wannstedt

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  Mario Williams

    Buffalo has talent across the board on defense but do not play the defensive scheme with discipline all the time.  This causes them to give up too many big plays.  A team never wants their free safety to be the leading tackler, but Jairus Byrd was just that for the Bills in 2011.

    No one on the Bills had more than six sacks in 2011.  Williams, who was one of the biggest free-agent signings in NFL history, will be a giant boost for this defense.  Defensive tackle Kyle Williams is a very good player and should have another good season.  The linebacker unit needs to play better together and make more tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Carolina Panthers

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Sean McDermott

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  weak-side linebacker James Anderson

    Anderson quietly put together one of the best seasons for a linebacker in 2011.  He led the Panthers in tackles with 145.  Carolina is going to need Anderson and middle linebacker Jon Beason to play at that same level again in 2012 if they plan to improve on the 28th-defense ranking.

    The Panthers signed right defensive end Charles Johnson to a monster contract last offseason, and he will need to improve on his nine sacks to continue to earn that money.  His counterpart at left defensive end, Greg Hardy, is an emerging player, and his solid pass-rush ability should allow Johnson to get more sack opportunities.

Chicago Bears

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Rod Marinelli

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  defensive end Julius Peppers

    As long as linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are healthy, the Bears defense will always be solid.  Both are among the league leaders in tackles year in and year out.  The version of the 4-3 defense the Bears run is designed for defensive tackles Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina to eat up the blocks of the center and both guards.  This allows free gaps for Urlacher and Briggs to attack and get to the ball carrier.

    Peppers is a dynamic pass-rusher, but the run-stopping play of left defensive end Israel Idonije allows Peppers to freelance more as a rusher and get more sack opportunities.  The Bears secondary is average and will have to improve if the Bears want to be better than the 17th best defense in the NFL like they were in 2011.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Mike Zimmer

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  Leon Hall

    Zimmer is the best defensive coach in the NFL at putting his players in the right position to succeed.  The Bengals defense does not have a lot of household names, yet finished seventh in total defense in 2011. 

    Zimmer asks his cornerbacks to play man coverage a majority of the time, and he is rewarded for his trust in Nate Clements and Leon Hall.  If Clements and Hall can take away the offenses outside receivers, this allows safety Reggie Nelson to spy the underneath routes and make interceptions.

    The front seven of this 4-3 scheme is a solid unit that plays fundamentally sound.  When right defensive tackle Geno Atkins comes off the ball with leverage, he can control the line of scrimmage.

Cleveland Browns

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Dick Jauron

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson

    The Browns offense was so bad in 2011 that the fact the Browns defense finished 10th in total defense is impressive.  Jauron got outstanding play from rookie left defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who finished the season with eight-and-a-half sacks.

    Jackson, who led the NFL in solo tackles, plays with great instincts and understands how to find the gaps in the offense and exploit the blocker.  Jauron’s system is the same defensive scheme that allowed Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher to shine.  Look for Jackson to continue to be a star.

    Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown are good tackling players who keep running backs from breaking off long runs.  They either make the tackle or funnel the play back inside to Jackson and his fellow linebackers.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Rob Ryan

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware

    The Dallas defense fell apart down the stretch last season, and Ryan will need to get this fixed if he hopes to keep working for the Cowboys.  The front seven was not the issue in 2011, but the defensive backfield was atrocious.  The defensive backs gave up too many big plays and did not tackle well.

    In the 3-4 scheme Ryan employs, the onus is on the corners to tackle because the safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage.  If the running back can get to the edge and the cornerback misses the tackle, the offense will get a huge gain.  The drafting of Morris Claiborne and signing of Brandon Carr should eliminate those large runs.

    Ware is one of the best players in the NFL but needs to impose his will on his younger teammates to play more sound on the defensive side of the ball.  Look for inside linebacker Sean Lee to continue to blossom in 2012.

Denver Broncos

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Jack Del Rio

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  strong-side linebacker Von Miller

    Del Rio was brought in to improve a defense that was 20th in the NFL last season in total defense.  He has plenty of tools at his disposal and should have no problem getting this defense better.  Miller was a beast as a rookie and will only improve under Del Rio’s tutelage.  Miller will be allowed to freelance more and use his natural pass-rush skills as a blitzer.

    Right defensive end Elvis Dumervil excels as a pass-rusher and will get more one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities with Miller rushing from the opposite side.  Cornerback Champ Bailey is still considered an elite player and one of the best tacklers at the cornerback position.

    The loss of free safety Brian Dawkins and the suspension of weak-side linebacker D.J. Williams will hurt the defense early in the season, so look for Del Rio to be more aggressive to hide those deficiencies.

Detroit Lions

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Gunther Cunningham

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  left defensive end Cliff Avril

    With one of the best offenses in the NFL, Cunningham must get his players on the same page if Detroit wants to compete for a Super Bowl.  Giving up 376 yards a game is not good enough to put the Lions over the top.

    The Lions front office has put a lot of resources into the defense, but one area of concern is the cornerback position.  Cunningham likes to have big, physical cornerbacks who can play tight press man coverage and are willing tacklers.  Neither Chris Houston nor Jacob Lacey fit that bill. 

    Cunningham will need the defensive linemen, especially defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, to pick up the slack and be more disruptive at the line of scrimmage.  The holdout of Avril will muddy the water and make Cunningham’s job more difficult.  Avril’s 11 sacks and six forced fumbles are hard to replace.

Green Bay Packers

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Dom Capers

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  left outside linebacker Clay Matthews

    Statistically, the Packers were the worst defense in the NFL.  The only positive that kept them in games was their league-leading 31 interceptions.  Capers would love to have that many interceptions in 2012, but needs to get his team playing more sound at the point of attack. 

    The inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, were too often out of position in 2011, allowing for too many large gains for their opponents.  The inside linebackers' run fits in the 3-4 must be downhill.  If done correctly, this forces the ball carrier to bounce the ball to the outside where the safeties can take good angles and limit the gain.

    Matthews is a phenomenal pass-rusher off the edge.  But even he must play stronger at the point of attack for the Packers defense to improve.  The move of solid tackler Charles Woodson to safety should improve the defense as well.

Houston Texans

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinatorWade Phillips

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  left outside linebacker Connor Barwin

    The second best defense in the NFL is loaded with young talent, and the addition of Phillips last year brought those skills out.  The defense played intelligent, gap-sound football and the results showed. 

    Barwin was one of the best stories in football last season, and his 11.5 sacks paced the Texans.  With up-and-coming Brooks Reed on the opposite side, Houston has a formidable outside linebacker duo for years to come. 

    Right defensive end Antonio Smith may be the most under-appreciated player in the NFL.  His six-and-a-half sacks were second on the team.  His play allows left defensive end J.J. Watt and left inside linebacker Brian Cushing the space they need to flow to the ball carrier and make tackles.

    Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are a perfect fit for Phillips’ gap-sound defense.  They line up close to the line of scrimmage and use their length and strength to funnel the receivers inside.  Both are willing tacklers and will challenge the running back in open spaces.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Greg Manusky

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  left outside linebacker Robert Mathis

    The Colts used a 4-3 defense last season, so Manusky will install the defense he coached in San Diego and head coach Chuck Pagano used with success in Baltimore.  Manusky inherits two of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in Mathis and Dwight Freeney. 

    Freeney will line up as the right outside linebacker in this defense.  This is a completely new position for Freeney in his stellar NFL career, and how he adjusts will go a long way to the success of the Colts defense.  The run fits are completely different, and he will have to drop into coverage for the first time in his career.

    Mathis seems to fit the outside linebacker mold better, so look for him to have a bigger impact in 2012.  The defensive ends and nose tackle are keys to the 3-4 defense, and the Colts need to improve their depth.  Inside linebacker Pat Angerer will fill the Ray Lewis position for the Colts, so expect a monster season for him.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Mel Tucker

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  strong outside linebacker Daryl Smith

    Tucker’s defense was so good last season that he was given the opportunity to interview for the head coaching job.  When he did not receive the promotion, head coach Mike Mularkey begged him to stay.  Tucker coached the Jaguars defense to be the sixth best in 2011, and look for that trend to continue in 2012.

    Smith and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny find the ball quickly, shed their blockers and make sure tackles.  They are able to do this because of the disruptive play of defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu.  Those two play with good leverage and create seams for the linebacker to run through.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Romeo Crennel

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right outside linebacker Tamba Hali

    Crennel is in a unique situation heading into 2012.  He has the dual role of head coach and defensive coordinator.  How he manages to do both will be worth watching.  When Crennel was solely the defensive coordinator in 2011, his 3-4 scheme ranked 11th in the NFL and only gave up 333.3 yards a game.

    The Chiefs will line up three first-round selections on the defensive line.  Tyson Jackson, Dontari Poe and Glenn Dorsey will be assigned the task to keep blockers off inside linebacker Derrick Johnson.  Johnson is the Chiefs’ leading tackler and second best defender.

    The top spot goes to Hali, who has excelled in the 3-4 defense.  The former defensive end in the Chiefs’ old 4-3 defense was a solid player. But once Crennel installed the 3-4 and moved Hali to outside linebacker, the Penn State graduate has taken his game to a Pro Bowl level.

Miami Dolphins

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Kevin Coyle

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Cameron Wake

    Coyle is assigned the task of taking 3-4 defensive personnel from the Tony Sparano regime and fitting them into a 4-3 scheme in 2012.  While this adjustment does not seem like a grave task, run fits, coverage assignments and blitz packages are all different.

    The player who should benefit from the move is Wake.  No longer will he be asked to look up a tight end in the curl area or cover a running back to the flat.  His sack total should increase in 2012.

    The onus of the switch will fall on the linebackers: strong side Koa Misi, middle Karlos Dansby and weak side Kevin Burnett.  Misi has been used mostly as a rusher in his career and will need to learn the nuances of coverage responsibilities.  Dansby is a downhill player, so his play should improve. 

    But Burnett has played his entire career as a 3-4 inside linebacker, so he will have the hardest adjustment.  He is a smart player who will be able to grasp the concepts, but how he puts his skills to use is the biggest question.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Alan Williams

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Jared Allen

    The Vikings tied the Philadelphia Eagles for the league lead in sacks in 2011 with 50.  But they also tied the Indianapolis Colts with the fewest interceptions, at nine.  Williams’ task in 2012 is to get his secondary to make more plays on the ball.

    Allen led the NFL in sacks in 2011 and should challenge for the title again this season.  Strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway led the team in tackles, which is a rarity.  Normally the 4-3 defense is built for the strong-side linebacker to attack the line of scrimmage or hold up the tight end.  Greenway understands how to use his hands well to shed blockers and is a sure tackler.

New England Patriots

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Matt Patricia

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive tackle Vince Wilfork

    The 31st-ranked defense in 2011 has some work to do if they would like to defend their AFC championship.  In a defensive scheme that bounces back and forth between a 4-3 and 3-4, Patricia must simply get his players to tackle better.

    The secondary, which does not have a Pro Bowl-caliber player, must work to limit big plays and be more disciplined in their coverage responsibilities.  Too many times in 2011, the front seven got pressure on the opposing quarterback only to see the secondary give up a large gain.

    Wilfork was a standout nose tackle for years when the Patriots ran the 3-4 defense.  He is still a force, and his ability to take up two blockers allows linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to make a lot of tackles.

New Orleans Saints

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Steve Spagnuolo

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  middle linebacker Curtis Lofton

    Both Spagnuolo and Lofton are new to New Orleans, but much will be expected from them if the Saints hope to improve on being the 24th best defense in the NFL.  Lofton is a tackling machine and a perfect fit for the 4-3 scheme Spagnuolo will use.

    The cornerback play of Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer, if healthy, will be an important factor in the success of the Saints defense.  Both are solid coverage players, but they must prove they can tackle and be physical for the defense to improve.

    The development of defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is something to keep an eye on in 2012.  In Spagnuolo’s system, Ellis will need to play stronger versus the run than last season.  The advantage for Ellis, though, is as a pass-rusher, as he will be given more opportunities to use his quickness and pick up sacks.

New York Giants

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Perry Fewell

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul

    Coming off a Super Bowl win is a wonderful feeling, but Fewell knows his unit must improve if the Giants want to repeat.  Already in 2012, the secondary has been bitten by the injury bug, so the front seven must pick up where they left off.

    Pierre-Paul is the best new pass-rusher in the NFL.  He is only beginning to scratch the surface on his talent.  Pair him with Justin Tuck on the left side and the Giants have one of the most formidable pass-rushing combinations in the NFL.

    The key for New York’s improvement will come from the linebacker play.  Pierre-Paul and Tuck are feared pass-rushers.  But when they fire off the ball up field, they open up running lanes.  Strong-side linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka and weak-side linebacker Michael Boley must react quickly to attack those gaps and limit big runs.

New York Jets

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Mike Pettine

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  cornerback Darrelle Revis

    The Jets defense always seems to be in the top five under head coach Rex Ryan, and last year was no exception.  With the best cornerback in the game in Revis, Pettine can be more aggressive as a play-caller, knowing that one side of the field is shut down. 

    The Jets use left inside linebacker Bart Scott as the aggressor at the line of scrimmage.  When the ball is snapped, he will attack the lead blocker to blow up the play.  This allows right inside linebacker David Harris to flow behind Scott and make the sure tackle on the ball carrier.

    The Jets use the blitz as much or more than any team in the NFL.  This causes blocking mismatches across the offensive line and allows the Jets defenders to get hits on the quarterback.  But with reward comes risk, so if the blitz called is run wrong, the offense can pick up big gains versus the Jets.

Oakland Raiders

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Jason Tarver

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  strong safety Tyvon Branch

    Tarver is the first-year defensive coordinator saddled with the task of bringing the Raiders defense back to glory.  There is nowhere to go but up for a team that finished 29th in total defense in 2011.

    The defensive tackle position is set with Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly.  They are two of the best at their position in the league and give Tarver talent to build around.

    The linebackers lack depth and must improve their tackling greatly.  Seymour and Kelly can occupy blockers, but the Raiders linebackers must do a better job of reading their keys and then tackling in space.

    Branch is the top tackler in Oakland and always seems to be around the ball.  If the linebackers tackle better near the line of scrimmage, Branch will not have to play in the tackle box as much.  This will free Branch up to play deeper and give him chances for interceptions.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Juan Castillo

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Jason Babin

    The Eagles run a 4-3 defense but use a front called the "wide nine."  Defensive ends Babin and Trent Cole align about a yard outside of the offensive tackle or tight end.  They get in the track stance and fire up field as fast as they can.  If the play is a run, they must react on the fly and try to gather themselves and get back to the ball carrier. 

    This scheme helps produce sacks in droves and is a reason the Eagles tied the Vikings for the league lead.  But this type of alignment also puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers. 

    Last season, the Eagles did not have the right players in place at the linebacker position to successfully run this defense.  So they traded for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, and the linebacker position was instantly upgraded. 

    Ryans has the speed and savvy to fill the voids left by the up-field rusher and keep the offenses’ gains to a minimum.  Ryans’ addition and improved play from the safeties will make Philadelphia’s defense better.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive Coordinator:  Dick Lebeau

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  strong safety Troy Polamalu

    The best defense in the NFL should stay near the top in 2012.  Polamalu is the catalyst to Lebeau’s defense, but the steady play of free safety Ryan Clark allows Polamalu to take chances such as blitzing off the edge.  Clark sets the defense, and by being such a heady player, he protects Polamalu when he is out of position or trying to make a play.

    The superb pass-rushing ability of outside linebackers Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison forces offenses to keep a tight end or running back in to block.  This means one less player going out for a pass, thus allowing Polamalu to freelance and make plays all over the field.

    The Steelers are also one of the best tackling teams in the NFL.  Tackling is a lost art in the NFL, but since the Steelers are taught correctly, they will continually be one of the best defenses in the league.

San Diego Chargers

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  John Pagano

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  free safety Eric Weddle

    Pagano is in his first year as the Chargers' defensive coordinator.  The Chargers had a middle-of-the-road defense in 2011 but have a ball hawk in Weddle.  Pagano is going to have to put Weddle in position to make as many plays as possible to improve the Chargers' fate.

    San Diego has three outside linebackers that can all get to the quarterback.  Shaun Phillips, Jarret Johnson and Antwan Barnes give Pagano many different options in his blitz and pass-rushing game plan.

    Weddle was able to play pass-first a majority of last season due to the solid tackling of inside linebackers Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes.  With improved cornerback play in 2012, the Chargers should see their ranking climb.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Vic Fangio

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right defensive end Justin Smith

    The 49ers are loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball.  They had the fourth best defense in the NFL in 2011, and after another year of the core group playing together, look for them to improve in 2012.

    San Francisco has the best inside linebacker duo in the NFL with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.  Their ability to play all three downs gives the 49ers defense a dynamic unlike any team in the league.  Both are sound tacklers and give Fangio the confidence to be more aggressive in his play-calling.

    Justin Smith and right outside linebacker Aldon Smith can both play the run well and are very good pass-rushers.  The 49ers do not rely on the blitz very often because their core players can win their match ups and make plays without gimmicks.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Gus Bradley

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  free safety Earl Thomas

    The Seahawks had the ninth best defense in the NFL last year.  Much of that was because of the outstanding play of the defensive backfield.  Seattle uses a lot of press-man coverage.  They have big cornerbacks in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. 

    They play close to the line of scrimmage and make the receivers get off the line.  Versus the run, since they are so close to the line, they can react faster. This type of defense allows Thomas to sort through the play and be aggressive as a tackler and pass defender.   

    Right defensive end Chris Clemons uses speed to get to the quarterback.  Left defensive end Red Bryant is a power player.  They work will in combination in this scheme because Bryant can play the run and Clemons is a natural pass-rusher.

St. Louis Rams

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  by committee

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  middle linebacker James Laurinaitis

    With the suspension of would-be defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Rams decided to coach the defense by committee.  With a former defensive back in the NFL as head coach, the Rams will be better than they were in 2011.

    St. Louis has good young players in key positions for Fisher’s 4-3 defense.  Right defensive end Chris Long had a breakout year in 2011 and was recently rewarded a new contract.  Long isn’t given enough credit for his run-stopping ability and strength he plays with at the line of scrimmage.

    By Long eating up blockers in front of him, Laurinaitis is able to key the running back, flow and make tackles.  He is one of the surest tacklers in the games.

    The addition of cornerback Cortland Finnegan adds toughness to the Rams and allows Fisher to call more blitzes.  Finnegan is a solid tackler as well.  Look for the Rams to make a huge improvement in 2012 in total defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Bill Sheridan

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  cornerback Aqib Talib

    Long gone are the days of the "Tampa 2" defense.  Sheridan and head coach Greg Schiano are bringing a more aggressive, physical defense to the Bucs.  Though still using the 4-3 principles the Tampa 2 employed, the 2012 Buccaneers will rely more on blitzing and disguising coverages.

    The growth of Talib and the signing of free agent Eric Wright from the Detroit Lions allowed Ronde Barber to move from cornerback to free safety.  By drafting strong safety Mark Barron in the first round this draft, the Buccaneers have one of the best tackling secondaries in the game.

    Look for the Buccaneers to play more man coverage in 2012, allowing Barber and Barron to disguise their coverage responsibilities.  Improved play from the Tampa linebackers is a must, though, for this young defense to grow.

Tennessee Titans

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    Defensive scheme used:  4-3

    Defensive coordinator:  Jerry Gray

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  free safety Michael Griffin

    The Titans defense is the epitome of team defense.  There is not a true star on the unit.  But they are a solid tackling team that plays with good leverage and fundamentals. 

    Gray uses a lot of zone-coverage principles out of the 4-3 front.  In a base Cover 2, cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are responsible for the flat passing area.  This leaves Griffin and strong safety Jordan Babineaux responsible for the deep halves of the field behind the cornerbacks.

    The linebackers are asked to read the run first, then look up the receiver in their coverage area, which for the outside linebackers is roughly the hash mark area on the field.  Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy must run with any threat down the middle of the field.

    By staying simple and counting on good tackling, Gray is putting his players in the best position for success in his mind.

Washington Redskins

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    Defensive scheme used:  3-4

    Defensive coordinator:  Jim Haslett

    Best defensive player in the scheme:  right outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan

    The Redskins have two rising stars at outside linebacker in Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.  This duo accounted for 16.5 sacks in 2011.  Haslett lines these two up all along the formation, always looking to find the mismatch as pass-rushers.

    This flexibility is allowed to Haslett because of the supreme tackling ability of inside linebacker London Fletcher.  The NFL leading tackler in 2011 with 166, Fletcher’s headiness and ability see plays before they happen gives Haslett the freedom to take risks.

    The secondary for the Redskins is still suspect, so look for Haslett to mask this deficiency by incorporating more blitzes for Kerrigan and Orakpo.