With the season only a little over eight weeks away it is time for us to focus on the top five defenses for the 2012 NFL season. The old adage for the NFL is “defense wins championships.” While the league may be slowly turning into an offensive league, with quarterbacks eclipsing 5,000 yards in a season, defense can still win games.
A look back at 2011 proves that defense can carry a team. The San Francisco 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game relying on their top ranked rush defense. The 49ers also had the seventh most sacks in the league, second most interceptions and fourth most forced fumbles. And did I mention that they made it to the NFC Championship game despite the 29th worse passing offense in the NFL. Their defense (and partially run game) helped San Francisco win games in 2011.
The Houston Texans shared a similar fate in 2011. Despite only making it to the AFC Divisional game, they were still able to win their first playoff game in franchise history. When franchise quarterback Matt Schaub was injured in week 10, most wrote the Texans off and believed they would be an early out in the playoffs. Despite having to rely on T.J. Yates, the Texans were still able to win their Wild Card playoff game against Cincinnati, 31-10. The team won, in part, because of their defense which was second in the league in yards allowed per game, sixth in total sacks, fourth in rushing yards allowed per game and fourth in points allowed per game.
While teams will undoubtedly still need a quality offense to win the Super Bowl, defenses can still win games. In that case, which teams will be considered the best defenses in the 2012 NFL season? Here is a look at my top five teams:
#5 Buffalo Bills - 2011 – yds/g: 371.1 (26th) – ppg: 27.1 (30th)
The Bills added the best free agent available during the 2011 off-season in Mario Williams who had 5.0 sacks in 5 games last year before being injured. The former Houston Texan has 53.0 sacks and 11 forced fumbles in six seasons. Buffalo also added Mark Anderson, who spent 2011 with the New England Patriots and compiled 10.0 sacks. When you couple those two with Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams, soon-to-be superstar Marcell Dareus and oft-injured Shawne Merriman and the Bills look to have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If the defensive line can create pressure, the rest of the defense is going to thrive. Buffalo also added Stephon Gilmore with the number 11 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft who has impressed in rookie camp. The true sleeper on this defense is Aaron Williams who missed a portion of the season last year with an injury. The former Texas Longhorn looked spectacular while starting. The weak point on Buffalo’s defense comes in the linebackers corps. The team will have to hope Chris Kelsay, Kelvin Sheppard and Nick Barnett can at least play average at the linebacker positions. Similar to Houston and San Francisco, Buffalo’s season will rely on how well the defense performs.
#4 – Cincinnati Bengals - yds/g: 316.3 (7th) – ppg: 20.2 (9th)
One of the surprise teams of the 2011 NFL season, is hoping their defense will continue to play well in 2012. Last year, the Bengals defense was fifth in total sacks, third if forced fumbles, seventh in total yards allowed and ninth in points allowed per game. Most people focused on the play of first year quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green as the reason why the Bengals were successful but the defense won them games as well. Cincinnati seems to rely on a bunch of players that I would assume most non-Bengals fans could never name. However, they get the job done. During the off-season the Bengals added Terrence Newman who was released by Dallas, Jason Allen from Houston and Derrick Harvey from Denver. They also retained Manny Lawson and Reggie Nelson. Cincinnati was also able to draft hard hitting Dre Kirkpatrick out of Alabama and defensive tackle Devon Still from Penn State. It looks like Cincinnati is hoping to continue to be a defensive Juggernaut, in an already loaded AFC North. The weak point of the team comes at Strong Safety as Chris Crocker is nothing special and maybe at cornerback as the team will most likely rely on rookie Dre Kirkpatrick to start.
#3 – Houston Texans - yds/g: 285.7 (2nd) – ppg: 17.4 (4th)
With Peyton Manning injured, most believed the Texans would run away with the AFC South and they did not disappoint. However, no one knew the impact the defense would make. As highlighted above, their defense which was second in the league in yards allowed per game, sixth in total sacks, fourth in rushing yards allowed per game and fourth in points allowed per game. With superstar defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams being injured in week 5, some thought the defense would take a step back. In fact, the opposite happened as J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and most shockingly Connor Barwin took over and led the team to an AFC Divisional game. It was, most likely, because of the emergence of Barwin that the team was willing to let Mario Williams pursue other options. The Texans added veteran linebacker Bradie James from Dallas and took defensive end Whitney Mercilus out of Illinois with their first round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. The weakness of this defense comes in the secondary with their corner backs and safeties. Despite putting plenty of pressure on the quarterback, Houston was 13th in the NFL with 17 interceptions. However, the secondary should not stop Houston from becoming a top tiered defense in 2012. With Matt Schaub returning to play for the 2012 season, Houston has to be favorites to win the AFC South and could be headed towards big things this year if every one can stay healthy.
#2 – Baltimore Ravens - yds/g: 288.9 (3rd) – ppg: 16.6 (3rd)
The second AFC North team to make my list, the Ravens continue to be one of the most impressive defensive units in the league. Led by line backer Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed this defense has been impressive heading all the way back to their Super Bowl winning team of 2000. The Ravens have, arguably, two of the best players at their position in Ed Reed (safety) and Haloti Ngata (nose tackle). You could place Terrell Suggs in the top 5 of the league at outside linebacker and have to respect the leadership of Ray Lewis at middle linebacker. Baltimore was able to re-sign linebacker Jameel McClain and corner back Lardarius Webb, while adding Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama in the 2012 NFL Draft. Because of the talent surrounding him, Upshaw has the potential to be the defensive rookie of the year. In 2011, Baltimore’s defense was third in the NFL in points allowed per game, third in forced fumbles, third in yards allowed per game and second in rushing yards allowed per game. The weak point of the defense comes with the corner backs, who while not spectacular, are able to hold their own.
#1 – San Francisco 49ers - yds/g: 308.2 (4th) – ppg: 14.3 (2nd)
Finally, we arrive to my top ranked defense in 2012 and to no one’s surprise, it is the San Francisco 49ers who were the surprise team of the NFL. Certainly few picked San Francisco to make it to the NFC Championship game in 2011, but they were able to ride their defense all the way there. As previously detailed, San Francisco had the top ranked rush defense, seventh most sacks in the league, second most interceptions and fourth most forced fumbles. They were led by rookie of the year candidate Aldon Smith who finished the season with 14.0 sacks. The team also had contributions from Justin Smith (7.5 sacks), Ray McDonald (5.5 sacks), NaVorro Bowman (143 tackles) and Patrick Willis (4 forced fumbles). The 49ers tried to upgrade their offense in the draft by grabbing A.J. Jenkins in the first round. They also signed Randy Moss this off-season and re-signed Carlos Rogers. The team’s weak point, which is hard to find, comes at Strong Safety with Donte Whitner, who despite having a good 2011, should not be relied on forever to carry that position. San Francisco has to be favorites to win the NFC West and possibly the entire conference because of their defense.