Posted August 26, 2013

Seahawks, 49ers lead the list of NFL’s top defenses

AFC South, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, NFC North, NFC West, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Uncategorized
Pete Carroll and Richard Sherman may hold the key to the NFL's best defense in 2013. (McClatchy-Tribune via Getty Images)

Pete Carroll and Richard Sherman hold the key to what may be the NFL’s best defense in 2013. (McClatchy-Tribune via Getty Images)

A generation ago, NFL defense was about aggressive coverage, beating your man at the line, and relatively simple “if this/then that” pattern-read concepts. As much as the league’s great defenses are always about talent, they’re more about scheme than ever before these days. In the truly modern NFL, defenses substitute entire positional rotations, play nickel and dime defense at least half the time, and must counter offenses looking to stretch the field in ways we’ve never seen. Add a dizzying array of option routes, more and more option quarterbacks who can actually throw the ball, and a new emphasis on speed no-huddle sets, and it’s clear that the task of providing premium NFL defense on a week-to-week basis (never mind season-to-season) is tougher than it has ever been before.

Thus, the onus is on general managers, head coaches, and defensive coordinators to not only find the best players, but to specify and scout those players who are best for their systems. More defensive players are specialists these days — nickel corners, rush ends, linemen for heavy packages, and half-field defenders masquerading as linebackers.

NFL teams capable of putting great defenses on the field should be credited more than ever for doing so, because it’s a post-graduate course these days. Based on prior performance and off-season addition and subtraction, here are the five defenses we believe will provide the most headaches to opposing offenses in 2013.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks ranked first in the NFL in points allowed in 2012, and fourth in yards allowed. Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have put together a young, aggressive defense based on press coverage and speed to the line of scrimmage. Carroll is the real mastermind here, and he’s taken the front packages he learned from Monte Kiffin long ago and expanded them into concepts tailored for today. Seattle runs a lot of what looks to be Cover-1 in a four-man front, but that can change pretty quickly. Former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley (and his replacement, Dan Quinn) will run packages that include 3-4 and 5-2 fronts with alternating safeties and single-linebacker sets.

That said, this defense wouldn’t work without the best cornerback duo in the league. If Richard Sherman isn’t the NFL’s best cover corner, he’s on a very short list. Sherman has perfected the art of disrupting a receiver’s timing by pressing off the line, and he’s as good in trail coverage down the sideline as anyone you’ll see. Opposite Sherman is CFL veteran Brandon Browner, who prefers a sledgehammer to his compatriot’s finer tools. Browner plays like a safety at the line — he loves to hit, not just press — and he’s excellent in short coverage.

Seattle’s pass rush is the problem going into 2013. Both Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril are battling injuries, and their timelines to return are uncertain. Second-year pass-rusher Bruce Irvin has a more certain return fate, because he’ll miss the first four games of the regular season after a suspension for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Arizona Cardinals castoff O’Brien Schofield might be the main guy through the first few weeks.

San Francisco 49ers

49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plays a lot of four-man base fronts with two static inside linebackers pre-snap, and he can get away with that, because his defense has as much talent up front as any in the NFL. The right side in particular, featuring Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, is hard to beat. Aldon Smith amassed 19.5 sacks in his second season, but he was shut out in that department after Justin Smith was hurt in a game against the New England Patriots on Dec. 16. That stat speaks to one simple fact — with all the star power on this team, Justin Smith is the one irreplaceable player. Aldon was greatly assisted by Justin’s unique ability to take up double teams with root strength, and slice through them with amazing quickness. As Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area detailed, the 49ers gave up 183 passing per game and allowed a 74.6 passer rating when Justin was healthy, and 300 passing yards per game and a 102.1 passer rating when he was not. Justin Smith is healthy now, and he’s the key to everything Fangio wants to do.

At the linebacker level, there’s a lot of talent — not only with superstar Patrick Willis, but also with two underrated players in NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. Bowman rivals Willis in his ability to play the run and pass, while Brooks in a under-the-radar blitzer.

The question marks here reside in the secondary. The 49ers lost safety Dashon Goldson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and will look to replace him with first-round pick Eric Reid. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are the projected starting cornerbacks, but Rogers is getting up there in years, and Brown is currently working with the team to recover a $2 million contract escalator. Veteran Nnamdi Asomugha is the wild card, but none of this matters too much if anything happens to Justin Smith. His presence or absence will decide whether this defense is great or merely average.

BURKE: 49ers looking for cornerbacks to step forward

Green Bay Packers

After the Packers’ Super Bowl championship season of 2010, general manager Ted Thompson allowed defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins to walk in free agency and sign with the Philadelphia Eagles. Green Bay’s run defense has never been the same since, despite an impressive amount of talent up front. In the 2013 draft, Thompson selected UCLA’s Datone Jones in the first round, and Jones might just have the combination of pass-rush acumen and run-stopping ability that once made Jenkins so special in Dom Capers’ defense. That’s an enormously important hope for a front that could feature Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji, Jones, and Nick Perry, and if Perry steps up in his second season, Green Bay’s defense could approach its offense in productivity, and that might be just what the Packers need for a return trip to the biggest game of all.

Charles Woodson punched his ticket back to Oakland, but there’s still a lot of underrated talent in the secondary. Casey Hayward led all rookies with six interceptions in 2012, Tramon Williams is looking to rebound from a season in which he never felt truly healthy, but still played well, and safety Morgan Burnett is a perfect example of the kind of variable defensive back so crucial to Capers’ schemes. He can play the deep, centerfield safety spot, as well as at the line of scrimmage. He even matched up in the slot with the Rams’ explosive rookie Tavon Austin during the Packers’ preseason matchup with St. Louis.

KING: Clay Matthews on defending the read-option

The Houston Texans are stacked on defense. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Houston Texans are stacked on defense. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Houston Texans

When one talks about the Texans’ defense, one must of course begin with J.J. Watt, whose 2012 season may have been the most statistically impressive for any defensive lineman in recent league history. Not only did Watt lead the league with 20.5 sacks — a preposterous total for a player who spends a lot of time taking double teams from interior linemen — but he was a total force against the run and an absolute terror for quarterbacks looking to throw footballs over his enormous wingspan. What can he do for an encore? Well, just about anything he wants, it would seem, but the good news for the Texans is that linebacker Brian Cushing, lost for all but five games last season to a knee injury, is back and healthy. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson lead a secondary with all the talent to be elite, especially if Ed Reed can find some of that old magic down the stretch.

BENOIT: Texans need supporting cast to step up for Houston to be contenders

Chicago Bears

The Bears finished first overall in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics last season, but two off-season alterations are fairly major. Second-round rookie Jon Bostic is the favorite to replace Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is the man calling the shots in place of Rod Marinelli. The Bears were always great defensively through the Lovie Smith era, but with Smith out and Marc Trestman entrenched as the head coach, Chicago’s defense might be looking for a bit of a new identity.

Right now, that identity — really, the face of the Bears’ defense — is cornerback Charles Tillman, who had yet another great season in 2012. At age 32, when many at his position are slowing down if not on the way out, Tillman led the NFL in forced fumbles and maintained his standing as one of the league’s best pass defenders. He and Tim Jennings comprise a cornerback duo that can do just about anything. Julius Peppers is the rock star up front, but don’t sleep on Corey Wootton and Henry Melton, two of the more versatile and underrated linemen in the NFL.

32 comments
SanteeJack
SanteeJack

2012 points Against:

Seahawks…245
49ers…273
Bears…277
Broncos…289
Falcons...299
Steelers…314
Dolphins…317
Bengals…320
Patriots…331
Texans…331
Packers…336
Giants…344
Ravens…344
Vikings…348
Rams…348
Chargers…350
Cardinals…357
Panthers…363
Browns…368
Jets…375
Colts...387
Redskins...388
Buccaneers…394
Cowboys…400
Chiefs…425
Bills…435
Lions…437
Raiders…443
Eagles…444
Jaguars…444
Saints…454
Titans…471


touseyd
touseyd

Theres one reason why the 49ers have the best defense in the league.... #52.

joshgraunke
joshgraunke

The Packers...not the Rams, Bengals or Cardinals? Joke list

PeanutTillmanRocks
PeanutTillmanRocks

Its not about yards and points allowed.....turnovers make a defense....and with that said the Bears defense is second to none

Ciscos
Ciscos

Two things strike me about Seattle's defense. One is youthful enthusiasm and they are smartly coached.  Adding some key veteran leadership, not to come in and take over, but to supplement the holes they've had should make this defense even better.

The 49ners defense is one of the most physical and fundamentally sound units in the league.  Lost a few key guys, but so far, this preseason, it doesn't look like they missed a beat.

Green Bay - they get a "will see."

Houston - Can one LB make a difference? Dunno, we'll find out.

Chicago - Same question as Houston. Granted Mr. MLB (you know who) retired and played sporadically the last two seasons while dealing with injuries, but his presence on the field and the sideline can't easily be replaced.  They get a "will see" as well. Dunno if they get the title "Monsters of the Midway" this early.

Mike93
Mike93

Don't count out a Raven's defense that got younger and faster from last year's squad that pretty much stunk it up.

WHO*IS*ESPN
WHO*IS*ESPN

..............and the seahawks defense went how far in the playoffs?

RickHuggins
RickHuggins

No mention of the Carolina Panthers with probably the best young line backer in the league. Maybe by the end of the season, huh?

minstrel
minstrel

A little lazy with the "Aldon Smith is nothing without Justin Smith" narrative. You're either unaware that Aldon Smith was also hurt and required off-season surgery, or you left it out because it wasn't convenient to your point that the 49ers can't function without Justin Smith.

heardattheCME
heardattheCME

Do you ever stop and think about all the unemployed people out there who could do your job better than you?  I mean Green Bay's defense might be the league's worst this year, and yet you get paid to write about football (not very well by the way--i mean that as an offense about your actual ability to form sentences elegantly).  Not close man, not close at all.  Count your blessings, for now...cause if you keep writing articles this poorly you will be replaced. 

RyanWI
RyanWI

By yards allowed per play last year the top 5 were:

Steelers 4.6

Broncos 4.7

49ers 4.9

Bears 4.9

Bengals 5.0

The 5 worst were:

Saints 6.5

Colts 6.1

Atlanta 6.1

Giants 6.0

Buccaneers 5.9

dkmightyhammer
dkmightyhammer

Seattle's D has been very vanilla all preseason.  No blitzes at all or barely at all.  Avril and Clemons coming back will be huge, and once we reach week 5 and Irvin joins them I think most offenses won't enjoy facing that pass rush.  Seattle's D has few holes but like anything in the NFL time will tell.

209cat
209cat

Sorry but Green Bay and Houston's Defenses are mediocre at best!!! 

yadda71
yadda71

The Saints and Raiders are not on this list?

D.1
D.1

Wait. Green Bay?

thayer57
thayer57

Putting Green Bay on this list is laughable.   

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@PeanutTillmanRocks If it is not about points allowed, why does the league use points allowed to determine who wins each game?  Oh, and points are also included in the NFL tiebreakers at the end of the season.  Please explain that mystery to those of us less versed in the intricacies of NFL statistics.  Thanks.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@Mike93 ~ Funny you mention that. I don't know what it is about the Ravens, but that defense doesn't seem like they miss a beat... Several players are gone, but they are just as aggressive and compliment each other that they should still be at the top of the list.  I understand why they didn't get the nod, but I totally agree with you.  Their defense isn't one to sleep on.

sidbrown210
sidbrown210

@minstrel All national journalist tend to be lazy when they only understand surface issues and more importantly only regurgitate what they've read some other place.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@heardattheCME If these unemployed types have the talent to write about the NFL, why are they not doing so?  After all, it is not exactly a closed field.  Seems like there are plenty of opportunities out there and many of them likely pay more than unemployment does.

belindian
belindian

@heardattheCME The Packers finished 11th in yards and points on defense last year while also being the most injured defense in the league.  Just off health alone they'll be better than they were last year and could easily finish in the top five.


Also, I mean is not an elegant way to start a sentence.  Work on your own ability first then you can try to pick apart a national writer.

MichaelWallis1
MichaelWallis1

@RyanWI That stat did nothing for the Steelers last season as they missed out on the playoffs while the Falcons and Colts had very good records and made the playoffs. It's more important to hold opponents down in the scoring category.

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@sidbrown210 They can't slip anything past you guys who have never written an article anywhere, any place, at any time.

matt_lappn
matt_lappn

@Fedorg4s @thayer57 Its pretty simple in this league now though. Pass rush and ballhawks. Thats what all these teams have and thats the type of defense that wins Superbowls.