By Brian Kalchik @RantsportsBrian on June 19, 2014
The old adage is that “offense wins games and defense wins championships.” With each passing season, that phrase seems more and more outdated as the NFL is turning into an offensive-minded league. Still, defense has led the way for the last two Super Bowl champions as the Ravens and the Seahawks were able to stop the 49ers and the Broncos. With this in mind, here is the key to each NFL team's defense in 2014.
John Abraham had a great season last year with 11.5 sacks at age 35 for the Cardinals. However, a partner opposite him hasn't been found yet. Last year, the next best outside linebacker was Matt Shaughnessy, who only had three sacks and was ranked as a below-average starter according to Pro Football Focus. If the Cardinals can get another good rusher to compliment Abraham, the defense can continue to perform at a high level in 2014.
All offseason, the Atlanta Falcons have preached about becoming more physical on defense, and never was that more apparent than at defensive line. With the team switching to a 3-4 scheme, the Falcons brought in veterans Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai and drafted NT Ra'Shede Hageman in the second round to ease the transition. If the D-line plays well, the Falcons can get a step closer to a postseason appearance in 2014.
The main reason for Baltimore's defensive struggles last season was the fact that they couldn't create turnovers in the secondary. Last season's two leading interceptors, Corey Graham and James Ihedigbo, are now on different teams this season. While the team has some good young players in safety Matt Elam and cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, each has to start producing takeaways, or else the defense will continue to struggle.
The Bills return four starting defensive linemen who each had at least 7.5 sacks last season, but they lost their best defensive player in Jairus Byrd. He was among the league leaders in interceptions and forced turnovers throughout his Bills career. The team now must rely on young players like Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy, two primary reserves, to pick up the slack. If they can produce, the Bills' defense will continue to be good.
Carolina's front seven is among the best in football, especially with players like Greg Hardy and Luke Kuechly, but there are question marks with the back four. Gone are veterans Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell, and in are older veterans like Antoine Cason and Roman Harper. The secondary was dubbed as the "Legion of Whom" due to their anonymity, but if they can improve in 2014, Carolina will have one of the most complete defenses in the NFL.
Chicago has been known for having great linebacker play throughout its rich history. This season, however, the unit has some big question marks. On the outside, Shea McClellin was converted to linebacker after being a bust as a defensive end. Opposite him, Lance Briggs is starting to wear down, and D.J. Williams only played in six games on the inside. The linebacker play has to improve, or else the Bears' defense will remain near the bottom.
Cincinnati's top three cornerbacks are all over the age of 30 and have started to break down in recent years. Leon Hall missed most of last season with injuries, Terence Newman played in just 13 games, and Pacman Jones only played in eight. The Bengals do have several interesting young players like rookie Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick, but if the unit continues to get hit by the injury bug, all playoff aspirations are out the window.
Cleveland's defense was able to produce 40 sacks last season, but no pure pass rusher had more than six by himself. Highly-touted rushers like Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger each regressed last season. Sheard had seven sacks in 2012, but only 5.5 in 2013. Kruger, a high-priced free agent, had only 4.5 in 2013 after having nine in 2012 with the Ravens. If they can improve, the Browns' defense can carry the load again for their poor offense.
The Cowboys were atrocious last year, mainly at the safety position. With very little experience, players like Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath all struggled last season. The Cowboys did nothing to improve themselves at the position this offseason, so the same cast will be asked to turn things around this season. If they can, the defense can only get slightly better because there are problems all over their defense.
With the additions of T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib this offseason, the Broncos seemingly have everything to become a great defense, but they are missing a middle linebacker. With Wesley Woodyard now in Tennessee, young players like Nate Irving, Jamar Chaney and rookie Lamin Barrow will compete to be the leader of the defense. If any of these three become dependable players, Denver has a great chance to return to the Super Bowl again.
Cornerback has been a position of pressing need for the Lions since what seems like forever. With every chance this offseason to improve the unit, the Lions went the conservative route. Gone is Chris Houston, who struggled last season after being the team's top corner the past three seasons, and in are free agent Cassius Vaughn and rookie Nevin Lawson. If the cornerback play improves, the Lions have the potential to win the NFC North.
Green Bay's safety play was beyond poor last season. The unit failed to record a single interception and very rarely made plays that helped create turnovers. The Packers did address this position this offseason by drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with their No. 1 pick, but incumbents like Morgan Burnett and Chris Banjo also have to start playing better. The safety position has drastically been worse since Nick Collins retired in 2012.
Even with Ed Reed joining the Houston Texans last season, the safety play went from bad to worse. Reed was released after just seven games, and young players like D.J. Swearinger and Shiloh Keo were below average last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The Texans did add veterans Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis this offseason, and if the safety play improves, the Texans could be the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs in 2014.
The Colts' defense has had its moments in Chuck Pagano's first two seasons, but they have been mostly inconsistent, especially at the cornerback position. While Vontae Davis is a good starter, players like Greg Toler and Darius Butler were ranked as average to below average starters according to Pro Football Focus. If one or both of these players can improve this season, the Colts' defense can finally complement their explosive offense.
Gus Bradley took the Jacksonville head coaching position last season with the idea that his team would be like the Seattle Seahawks. While the wins didn't come last year, the lack of talent on that side of the ball was obvious, especially at linebacker. Paul Posluszny, Dekoda Watson and Geno Hayes were each ranked as average to below average according to Pro Football Focus. If the linebacker play can improve, the Jags could be a spoiler in 2014.
The Chiefs' cornerbacks were already an average unit, but when they released Pro Bowl corner Brandon Flowers this past week, the unit is now even worse. Behind Sean Smith, the depth is not very good. Second-year player Marcus Cooper struggled last year, especially against Denver, and players like Sanders Commings and Ron Parker are untested. If the cornerback play drops off significantly, another playoff appearance won't happen for the Chiefs.
The defensive line and secondary were good last year for the Miami Dolphins, but the linebacking corps was not. Free agent Dannell Ellerbe had a poor 2013 season, and is now moving to the outside after being the middle linebacker last year. Other players like Koa Misi and Phillip Wheeler were also just average last year. If the linebacker play doesn't improve, the Dolphins will be headed for another 8-8 season in 2014.
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings were ranked dead last in pass defense. Players like rookie Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels were all ranked as average or below average last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The unit looks better on paper this year after signing Captain Munnerlyn and drafting several corners, but can they improve under new coach Mike Zimmer and his new defense?
Once the strength of New England's defense, the defensive line has turned into just an average unit. Inside, tackles like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are both coming off injury, and first-round pick Dominique Easley has injury issues of his own. On the outside, Chandler Jones is the only consistent player for the Patriots. If the defensive line can't stay healthy this season, the Patriots will again come short in their Super Bowl quest.
In his first season as defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan turned the Saints into one of the league's best defenses after being one of the worst in NFL history. But this season, the cornerback position will be the key to success or failure. Free agent Champ Bailey comes to New Orleans after being injured last season with Denver, and Patrick Robinson also has had injury issues. If the corners stay healthy, the Saints can contend for a Super Bowl.
Ever since Tom Coughlin joined the Giants in 2004, the team has constantly had issues with the linebacking corps. In recent years, the linebacker play has been either average or below average. Now with the injury that Jon Beason sustained earlier this offseason, the team is even thinner at a position of need. The linebacker play this season will either help the Giants get back into the playoffs, or continue to be the weak link.
The past two seasons, the New York Jets got rid of two of the best corners in the NFL in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Now, with youngsters like Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson expected to be replace both, neither have been able to fill that task so far in their NFL careers. The Jets signed Dimitri Patterson from the Dolphins and drafted Dexter McDougle, but without improvement from Milliner and Wilson, the team will struggle again.
Like expected, the Oakland Raiders were major spenders in free agency, especially on the defensive line. The team signed three players with Super Bowl experience in Antonio Smith, Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley. However, each of these players are either approaching or are over 30 years old. While they have been good in the past, it remains to be seen if they have enough left in the tank after having long careers in the NFL.
Outside of Brandon Boykin, who had a great season last year, the cornerback play was average at best. Starters Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams each had their struggles throughout the season, and there is not a lot of depth behind them. Career backups like Nolan Carroll, Roc Carmichael and rookie Jaylen Watkins round out the rotation. The Eagles have to count on someone other than Boykin, or else the unit will continue to struggle.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have also had a long-standing need at cornerback, yet haven't done much to remedy that situation in recent years. Veteran Ike Taylor actually took a pay cut just to stay with the team. Other players like Cortez Allen and William Gay haven't been consistent, while youngsters like Shaq Richardson and Brice McCain are untested. The Steelers have to get better CB play this season, or another 8-8 season is in order.
The San Diego Chargers were a top-15 team in terms of scoring defense, but couldn't to get a good pass rush going. At outside linebacker, the leading sacker was Jarret Johnson, who only had three last year. Dwight Freeney only played in four games last season, while former first-round picks Melvin Ingram and Larry English continued to perform like busts. The pass rush needs to produce more sacks, or else the secondary will struggle again.
San Francisco lost both of their starting corners from last year in Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to the Raiders, and the only signing they made was Chris Cook and drafting rookie safety Jimmie Ward, who could play some corner. While the front seven is the best in football, the cornerbacks are the weak link of this defense. Can they perform better by themselves, or will they have to rely on the front seven to compensate for their weaknesses?
There are not many holes for Seattle's defense, but if there was one, it could be the depth on the defensive line. As good as the secondary has been, the pass rush has had a hand in their success. With veterans like Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald all gone, the depth in this unit will be tested. Can players like Kevin Williams, Jesse Williams and rookie Cassius Marsh fill the voids left by some very good players?
The Rams have built an impressive front four over the past few seasons with Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald joining Robert Quinn and Chris Long, but the safety play will be the key to St. Louis' defense this season. Both T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod were ranked as poor starters according to Pro Football Focus, the worst grade given by the site. With little to no depth behind them, each will have to improve dramatically this season.
On paper, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have plenty of talent on their defense, but 2013 wasn't a good year for their secondary. Players like Dashon Goldson, Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson all struggled last year, ranking as below average starters according to Pro Football Focus. With Alterraun Verner now set to replace Darrelle Revis, the secondary looks better on paper. However, the other mentioned players have to take a step forward.
As the Titans switch to a 3-4 scheme, they lack the players who seem to be ideal fits for the defense. Aside from Al Woods, a free agent from Pittsburgh, no other projected starter on the defensive line has played in a 3-4. Nose tackle Jurrell Casey was a disruptive force as a 4-3 defensive tackle, but is not a pure nose tackle. If he and defensive end Derrick Morgan can gel in the 3-4, the Titans' defense won't have a significant drop-off.
Washington's secondary was young and inexperienced last season, and now they are old and slow this season. The Redskins signed former Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark to be their next free safety. Clark joins incumbents like Brandon Meriweather, DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson, who each had average to below average seasons. Will this year's secondary perform well like it did in 2012, or struggle just like it did in 2013?
August 5, 2015 by Nik Zirounis
Here are some Miami Dolphins rumors coming out of the first week of training camp. Read More
August 5, 2015 by James Forsythe
The San Francisco 49ers' DeAndrew White continues impress the 49ers' coaching staff during offseason training camp. Read More
August 5, 2015 by Jason Fletcher
The Carolina Panthers opened training camp last Friday night. Find out why it's been a rough five days for the team. Read More
August 5, 2015 by Ryan O'Bleness
The Detroit Lions began training camp this week. With preseason competition starting soon, here are five bold predictions for their 2015 preseason. Read More
August 5, 2015 by Casey Drottar
Now that the Johnny Manziel hoopla has died down, Browns training camp is lacking in media coverage, which is great for coach Mike Pettine. Read More
August 5, 2015 by Daniel Johnson
For a quarter of a century, Bill Polian was the general manager or team president for three different teams, leading each team to unprecedented success. Read More
August 5, 2015 by Mike Carlson
Training camp is underway in Dove Valley which means the preseason speculation is rampant. Here are five bold predictions for the Denver Broncos' 2015 preseason. Read More
August 4, 2015 by Ryan Terrana
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could use some experience on the edge, and Dwight Freeney could fill that role perfectly. Read More