Predicting the top 5 NFL defenses in 2014
5. Cincinnati Bengals
2013 Stats: 19.1 PPG, 20 interceptions, 6 TD
Key Players: DT Geno Atkins, DE Carlos Dunlap, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Reggie Nelson, S George Ikoka, LB Vincent Rey, LB Vontaze Burfict
The Bengals are returning most of the squad last year that gave up less than 20 PPG and racked up 20 interceptions. The only major losses they incurred in the offseason were LB James Harrison and DE Michael Johnson. They will see a returning Geno Atkins, who tore his achilles on Halloween last season. He might not be 100% to start the season, but Geno Atkins at less than 100% is still a hell of a defensive tackle. The Bengals have been a team full of underdogs on defense, from LB Vontaze Burfict (a project player with character issues who came on strong last season) or Vincent Rey (an undrafted free agent from 2010 who got his chance and ran with it after Rey Maualuga was injured last season). Every year there seems to be a player that comes out of the woodwork and dominates with the Bengals.
The secondary is remaining mostly intact, but with the addition of first round pick Darqueze Dennard. He should be an upgrade to the secondary over Adam “Pacman” Jones and Terrence Newman.
This Bengals defense continues to improve and this year will break into the top 5.
4. Carolina Panthers
2013 Stats: 15.1 PPG, 20 interceptions, 4 TD
Key Players: LB Luke Kuechly, DE Greg Hardy, DT Star Lotulelei, LB Thomas Davis, DT Kawann Short, DE Kony Ealy, DL Charles Johnson
Carolina’s defensive line was absolutely incredible last season. As you can see by the key players that I chose, their guys up front are what makes this defense as great as it is. Their entire defensive line and LB corps are capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield on any given play. The combination of veteran linebacker Thomas Davis and up-and-coming superstar Luke Kuechly lead this defense along with “The Kraken” Greg Hardy. Hardy registered 15 sacks last season while being extremely solid in stopping the run. He was franchise tagged in the offseason, so this is Hardy’s “show me” season. If he wants big money from Carolina next season, he needs to lead this defense in an even bigger way.
The weakness on this defense is in the secondary. In a division where Carolina plays Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year each, this is a serious problem. Three of last years starters, Captain Munnerlyn, Michael Mitchell and Quintin Mikell – are all gone. At the top of the cornerback depth chart are Melvin White and Antone Carson, who both need improvement.
Despite the struggles Carolina may face in their secondary, their front 7 is SO good that it shouldn’t impede them in a major way. They should still be an incredibly solid defense.
3. Denver Broncos
2013 Stats: 24.9 PPG, 17 interceptions, 2 TD
Key Players: LB Von Miller, S TJ Ward, DL DeMarcus Ware, S Rahim Moore, CB Chris Harris, Jr.
Despite the fact that the Broncos offense got most of the credit for their run to the Super Bowl last season, the defense wasn’t exactly a pushover either. They were crippled by injuries in 2013 which left the offense to do most of the heavy lifting. Von Miller, Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris Jr all missed the Super Bowl due to injuries, but now they are all healthy and preparing for 2014. The Broncos added big-name free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, and drafted corner Bradley Roby in the first round. TJ Ward is a former Cleveland Brown with a mean streak, showing that the Broncos and DC Jack Del Rio are interested in adding a bit of toughness to their defensive squad this season. DeMarcus Ware, though he is getting up there in age, was a HUGE pickup that will make their pass rush much better. Ware, along with the still improving Von Miller, will be the stuff of nightmares for offensive coordinators in 2014.
After being embarrassed in the Super Bowl last season, the Denver Broncos have something to prove.
2. San Francisco 49ers
2013 Stats: 17 PPG, 18 interceptions, 5 TD
Key Players: DE Justin Smith, LB Patrick Willis, LB Ahmad Brooks, DL Justin Smith
Right now, the Niners defense is hurting. Aldon Smith’s future is a question mark and NaVorro Bowman likely won’t return until mid-season. This defense has the gift of confidence in one another, which will help them with some key pieces missing. They will still have linebacker Patrick Willis, who is always a powerful presence, as well as 3X all-pro defensive lineman Justin Smith. A player to look out for is defensive end Tank Carradine, who is a candidate for a huge breakout season in 2014. Carradine totaled 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss in two years at Florida State. His immense physique (6’4″ and 276 pounds) sets him up to be a powerful part of this defense for years to come. Justin Smith often finds himself double teamed, which will leave gaps open for Carradine to disrupt the offense behind the line.
The defense is getting younger thanks to two great draft classes, which takes some pressure off the veterans who will try and carry the team.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2013 Stats: 14.4 PPG, 28 interceptions, 4 TD
Key Players: DB Earl Thomas, S Kam Chancellor, CB Richard Sherman, LB Bruce Irvin, DE Michael Bennett
This was a no brainer. Seattle was an overpowering defensive presence in 2013, completely shutting down the most powerful offense in NFL history in the Super Bowl to claim the franchise’s first title. They’re loud, proud, and cocky. They also have the talent to back it up. In 2013, they had a league-high 28 interceptions. Though they lost major pieces in CB Brandon Browner and LB Chris Clemons, when you’re the best defense in the league by as wide a margin as Seattle was in 2013, you can afford to lose a few pieces and still be dominant. Richard Sherman is a household name now. Quarterbacks are going to try and keep the ball away from him. The key to Seattle’s defense is how physical they are. They’re going to get in a QB’s face and force them to make mistakes. I expect another incredible year from Seattle and the Legion of Boom.