Defense wins championships. It is only fitting that the selection of my first All-Pro Defense required more time and analysis than the selection of the offense. I made a concerted effort not to make “beauty contest” picks on the offensive side of the ball. No Steve Hutchinson. No Adrian Peterson. No Randy Moss or Reggie Wayne. No doubling up on left tackles. Here’s hoping this defense is just as “ugly.”
I’m going to do something that is a bit unconventional, but I believe it is meaningful because of where the NFL is right now in the evolution of defensive formations. A few years ago, only a handful of teams ran 3-4 defenses. Today, this is not the case. The fundamantal roles of front 7 players in 3-4 defenses and traditional 4-3 defenses are dramatically different that it is essentially impossible to apply the same standard to players in both systems. So, I’m going to have a 3-4 Front 7 and a 4-3 Front 7. The secondary players will be the same for both units.
Let’s start in the trenches with the 3-4 Defense.
Defensive Tackle. Casey Hampton, Pittsburgh Steelers. In some circles, this may seem like a “beauty contest” pick. It’s not. As a Steeler fan, I was hesitant to make it. Nonetheless, there are some things that cannot be ignored. The run defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers (until Week 16 vs. the Baltimore Ravens) was performing at a high level. When Aaron Smith went down earlier this season, I fully expected the wheels to fall off — just as they had in 2007. The run defense, however, has proven more rugged than I anticipated — and with the absence of Smith and All-World safety Troy Polamalu, the reason for that consistency is evident. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is simply having one of his best seasons. He plays a position where statistics are secondary, but he has roughly twice as many tackles and sacks as he did during the 2008 season. Hampton suffered the embarassment of being placed on the physically unable to perform list by Mike Tomlin last season – and I actually wrote about his health, but he’s rounded into shape rather nicely.
Honorable Mention:Jay Ratliff, Dallas Cowboys. With 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an anchor position on the NFC’s top scoring defense, Ratliff may be having a better year than Hampton. The Cowboys held the Eagles to 16 points, and the Saints to 17 points — both on the road. Wow!! Ratliff leads all 3-4 DT’s with 8 stuffs.
Left Defensive End. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals. Next to Troy Polamalu, Dockett is my favorite defensive player in the league. That’s not why his name is here, though. No one brings more pain to an offense from the defensive position. Dockett has the motor that Julius Peppers had. He has the youth that Richard Seymour had. And, he also shares their versatility. Dockett can be play defensive tackle in a 4-3 or he can play the end in a 3-4. The Cardinals have thre other supremely talented players on defense (Adrian Wilson, Karlos Dansby and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), but Dockett is the key. He and teammate Calais Campbell lead all 3-4 defensive ends in sacks with 7. The unblockable Dockett also leads all defensive linemen with 9 stuffs. No one spends more time on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Honorable Mention: Shaun Ellis, New York Jets. Ellis keeps on plugging and making plays. He is a rock solid cornerstone to a rock solid defense. Bart Scott gets the headlines, Shaun Ellis prints the paper.
Right Defensive End. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens. Quite simply, he is the last man you want to see line up against you if you’re a left guard in the NFL. He’s not a cute speed rusher. He’s not an undersized man who tries to beat you with technique. Ngata is an oversized 345 pound, super athletic powerhouse who can play inside or out. He can play with a hand in the ground or standing up. He’s just too much.
Left Outside Linebacker. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers. He couldn’t have started out much slower. Woodley didn’t really get going until after the bye week. Aside from his 77-yard fumble return touchdown vs. the Vikings, the first half was largely one to forget. Since then, he’s notched at least half a sack in each game. On Sunday, he assailed and irritated the Ravens for two sacks, a forced fumble and 10 tackles.
Honorable Mention: Shaun Phillips, San Diego Chargers. Phillips is getting it done. He has 7 forced fumbles and has stepped up to stabilize the Bolts who sorely missed Jamal Williams and a healthy, tequila-free Shawne Merriman.
Right Outside Linebacker: Elvis Dumervil, Denver Broncos. There is simply no other choice. The diminuitive Dumervil leads the NFL with 17 sacks and four forced fumbles. He has been the best player on the Denver Broncos defense. He has been the most persistent, effective pass rusher in the NFL this season. Dumervil was a late round draft pick who made the Broncos braintrust look brilliant. Josh McDaniels’ importation of the 3-4 has been critical — as has the play of right side defensive end Kenny Peterson. In the 3-4, linebackers don’t get sacks without strong support from their defensive ends. Honorable Mention: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys. Ware is the man who put the first Silver Bullet in the heart of the blood sucking Saints of New Orleans. Ware’s sack on the final play of a tightly fought contest was his signature moment of the season. It came just one week after he left the field on a stretcher — and it seemed to catch the Saints by surprise. Ware was in a man-to-man matchup with the left tackle. That’s a losing proposition. The Dallas Cowboys have the #1 scoring defense in the NFC and are poised to take a division title with a Week 17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Ware is the heart and soul of this team — on both sides of the ball. Waiting on Deck: Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs. James Harrison, Clay Matthews and Joey Porter may have more sacks, but no one has played with more determination and “want to” than the Chiefs’ Hali. The Penn State veteran has been reborn in the 3-4. Playing behind the former LSU Tiger, Glenn Dorsey, Hali is able to play at a comfortable weight that maximizes his speed/power combination. Too small to stand up on the end and too big to play a conventional linebacker, Hali has found an ideal system for his talents. The Guy You Don’t Want to See in 2010: Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers. Brooks has forced 5 fumbles and registered 5 sacks in his last 4 games. For most players, that is a season worth of work. Brooks was a highly touted player out of Virginia back in 2006. His chances in the NFL have come with Marvin Lewis and Mike Singletary. If he can remain focused, the 49ers will have a gem next season.
Inside Linebackers: When you look around the NFL, you can’t help but notice that many of the vaunted 3-4 defenses around the league were gashed on the ground this season. The Steelers gave up 170+ twice in the space of a month to Cleveland and Baltimore. The New York Jets were mauled for 150+ in consecutive weeks by New Orleans and Miami. The Ravens were subjected to powerful ground games by Cincinnati (twice), Minnesota and Pittsburgh. No defense has run the table this season, and several have been banged up along the front 7. For the Jets, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was lost for the season during a game vs. Buffalo. In Green Bay, A.J. Hawk was benched earlier in the season. Nine teams have gained 100 yards vs. the New England Patriots. The changes to the NFL rules and the expansion of the passing game across the league, in some respects, seem to have had the greatest impact on this position. Nonetheless, I believe there are two players who embody the true spirit of the inside linebacker tandem.
In this tandem, one linebacker (the mike) usually calls the defense, reads the offense, flows to traffic and finishes tackles. The “mike” backer gets the glory. The other position is often the “ted” (tight end) linebacker. This backer is more frequently engaged with linemen, especially tight ends and guards. The role of this defender is to support the capacity of the “mike” to make tackles, but also to finish plays in both the run and pass game. In my estimation, there are two units who did this better than all others in 2009: the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets. In San Francisco, the mike-ted tandem is Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes. Patrick Willis is an unbelievably talented linebacker with blazing speed (see the pics below)…
Patrick Willis may be the only middle linebacker, alive or dead, who can catch Chris Johnson before he turns this upfield.
In addition to leading the league in tackles, Willis has amassed 4 sacks, 5 stuffs, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 7 passes defensed. And Patrick Willis has a great deal of room to improve. He is in only his 3rd year and could learn a lot from veterans like Ray Lewis and James Farrior. Willis is not the fastest linebacker at the snap of the ball. He doesn’t always make the quickest read. He doesn’t always take the best angle to the ball, nor has he mastered the art of finishing off plays downfield that might result in additional turnovers for his team. Still, Patrick Willis is the top 3-4 mike in the league because while he yet to master all that he can do, he can do more than anyone else. Honorable Mention: David Harris, New York Jets. The former Wolverine plays with power, balance and force. His 5.5 sacks leads the 3-4 mike position. In Rex Ryan’s scheme, Harris plays an attacking middle linebacker and benefits greatly from the support of his teammates. The loss of Kris Jenkins hurt this team’s ability to stop the run, but Harris continued to make fundamentally sound plays — and impact plays that resulted in the Jets getting off the field on 3rd down.
“Ted” linebacker: Bart Scott, New York Jets. No one takes out the trash like Bart Scott. There is little point in discussing statistics with this position because there are so many other linebackers who will “appear” to have much better numbers. Scott’s contribution is more difficult to measure, but it shows up in things like the performance of David Harris and Shaun Ellis and Calvin Pace and Jim Leonhard. Scott makes it easier for everyone else to do their job. He knew the system and provided leadership for the Jets. On the field, he does the things that many players with comparable talent are unwilling to do. Scott has one sack, but he has 8 stuffs — and that means he gets through traffic like few others.
Defensive Tackles: Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings. Big Pat holds it down every year. The Vikings surrenders points (and has for years, despite its reputation), but the run D is a brick wall. Pat has 44 tackles and 2 sacks. Kevin has 6 sacks. Honorable Mention: Daniel Muir, Indianapolis Colts. 315 pounds of anonymity. Gates isn’t the only Kent State stud in the NFL anymore. Beauty contestants Freeney and Mathis grab headlines because Muir grabs blockers. Great hands allow him to absorb and shed. 51 tackles scream, “Upside!!!”
Left Defensive End: Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers. Peppers still has the ability to put elite linemen on skates. Bryant McKinnie found out in a recent loss to the Panthers on national television. Honorable Mention: Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts. On a defense as fundamentally sound against the pass as the Colts, Mathis ability to rush the passer and provide strong side run support is critical.
Right Defensive End: Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings. All motor, all mouth. Honorable Mention: Trent Cole, Philadelphia Eagles. A grown-ass man on every down.
Left Outside Linebacker: Brian Cushing, Houston Texans. Quite a splash for the rookie from USC. 128 tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 10 passes defensed (best among all linebackers). Cushing is the only outside linebacker in the Top 10 in tackles. Honorable Mention: Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins. Orakpo is doing for Washington what few could have expected. 11 sacks. Pressures…Orakpo has made a great transition from DE at Texas. He is the only player at his position in a 4-3 among the Top 22 linebackers in sacks this season. The schemes in Washington have been solid for most of the season. That defense is good enough to support a 10-win team, and Orakpo is a big reason why.
Older and Wiser: Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars. With 96 tackles, this former 2nd rounder out of Georgia Tech is having his best statistical season. There are very few standout players at this particular position. Smith mixes it up in the run game and provides coverage in the passing game. As the shift to the 3-4 continues, players with Smith’s build are found more and more on the few remaining Cover-2 style teams in the league. Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings. His numbers are very close to those of Daryl Smith. Greenway is a long, rangy and productive linebacker for a tough front 7. He is solid against the run and in coverage. The gap between Greenway and the top notch may be one of conditioning and durability.
Right Outside Linebacker: Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears. Some of Briggs’ numbers are down — and that’s to be expected with the absence of Brian Urlacher and the early season injury to Hunter Hillenmayer. Hillenmayer is back. Nick Roach has matured and Briggs is performing to his usual standard. He doesn’t register many sacks, but he provides great run support behind rush end Alex Brown and he also gives Chicago solid pass protection on the weak side. Honorable Mention: David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks. In an era of specialization, this second year player out of TCU leads all 4-3 “will” backers in solo tackles with 86 (108 total). Throw in four sacks, two forced fumbles and 5 passes defensed, and we’re talking about the next Lance Briggs. That Hawthorne did much of this without Lofa Tatupu on the field is a testament to how he tackles learning curves. He’s beneath the radar — for now…but you can say that you heard it here first. Hawthorne has moved to the middle in place of Tatupu and will be a much better will backer next season when Tatupu returns. Mike Peterson, Atlanta Falcons. He brought physicality and intention to the Falcons defense. This season, injuries clipped the wings of the offense, but Peterson has been the spark all season long. He started out with big hits and superb plays vs. the Dolphins in Week 1. He’s been doing it all year. Heir Apparent: Geno Hayes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Who knew that Derrick Brooks would be replaced by a fellow Seminole who looks like he just came out of a time machine? Ten tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble last Sunday vs. New Orleans will etch a place in local memories. With five forced fumbles and a blocked punt this season and many more to come, Hayes looks like he could be the next in line.
Middle Linebacker: Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers. Doesn’t miss a tackle. Honorable Mention: London Fletcher, Washington Redskins. Doesn’t miss a down.
Cornerback: Darrelle Revis, New York Jets. After seeing Hines Ward hurdle Champ Bailey with a smile on his face, it is tough to argue against Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha as the top cover corner in the NFL. After watching DeSean Jackson run away from Bailey in the Broncos loss last week, its even harder to make a case for Bailey. Times have changed and Darrelle Revis was the face of 2009. His season was punctuated by great games against Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Marques Colston, Steve Smith, Roddy White and every one else the Jets faced this season. Revis studies film and runs a receivers’ route for him. He’ll even catch the ball if the receiver doesn’t bother to turn around when the Jets blitz (Steve Smith, that means you!) Honorable Mention: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals. The young DB has speed, agility and size to match up with just about any corner in the league. His numbers look alot like Revis’. He is second to Revis in passes defensed. They are tied in interceptions (6). Revis has made one more tackle, but Rodgers-Cromartie has forced three fumbles. In 2010, DRC will get all the love that Revis is getting in 2009. Statistical Note: Asante Samuel has 9 interceptions and would be on this list, except that the role of a cornerback is principally to prevent the offense from moving the ball — and no one has done that better than Revis, in my estimation. Asomugha is a close second.
Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers. This is Woodson’s year. If it wasn’t, Nnamdi Asomugha would be here. Statistical Note: Asomugha should have a nickname like “The Black Plague,” because QB’s simply have no interest in challenging him. In 2009, Asomugha had a mere 29 solo tackles, 3 passes defensed, and 1 interception. You won’t ever see big numbers — unless his career gets Woodson-esque. Charles Woodson has been where Asomugha does not want to go. The former Heisman trophy winner was the cornerstone of the Raiders defense. He became a Green Bay Packer in 2006 and was born again. His skills never deteriorated, but some QB’s seem to have contracted amnesia. In 2009, Woodson snatched 8 interceptions, forced 4 fumbles, and defensed 16 passes. He has 74 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 touchdowns. He is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Waiting on Deck: Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, Cincinnati Bengals. Splitting these two would be like splitting hairs. Take ’em both. If you’ve seen the Bengals this season, you know that Hall and Joseph are at the center of their success on the defensive side of the ball. In game 1 vs. the Steelers, Joseph revived his sleepy teammates with an interception for a touchdown that led to a 23-20 win in Cincinnati. In the second game, Hall and Joseph held the Steelers to 4 field goals in a physical 18-12 win.
Free Safety: Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints. Darren Sharper is an underrated football player. He entered the season as the active leader in interceptions. He is now tied with Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott for 6th all-time. This season, he has nine interceptions (with 3 touchdown returns) and has set a new record for interception return yardage. With 376 yards (and a game to play), Sharper has eclipsed the record set by Ed Reed in 2004. And, I can’t help remembering the interception return for touchdown he had against the Giants that was called back because of a penalty. Honorable Mention: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills. He’s a rookie. What more need be said?
Strong Safety: Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals. The biggest safety in the league is also the best this season. His tackles are down, but that’s because he has much more help than in previous years. The addition of Bryant McFadden has also made life easier. The Steelers West may be approaching their post-season form just in time to do some damage.
Punter: Shane Lechler, Oakland Raiders. He and Janikowski keep the Raiders in game. No team, aside from the Colts and Saints, has won more close games than the Raiders — and no one has beaten a better array of teams which include the Eagles, Broncos, Bengals, and Steelers. Could the Ravens be next??
I hope that this format has given more of the league’s many hard-working players their due. Not everyone is playing the same game and it should be clear from this team that simple comparisons of statistical output from players in different systems is not sufficient. The NFL is at a crossroads now and we are seeing a number of very talented players operate within two distinct schemes. On a certain level, it is too bad that the rules are so heavily slanted to favor the offenses. It may be time for the NFL to “lower the mound.”