To many, the NFL is now a passing league, with the likes of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady taking turns shattering long-held records dating back decades. In recent years, league executives have levied stiff fines, penalties, and suspensions against overly aggressive defenders who take cheap shots against prone quarterbacks and receivers. As a result, offensive coordinators now regularly roll out multiple receiver sets, and dare defenses to adjust.
Offense may sell tickets, but defense wins games. In recent years, Seattle, Baltimore, and the New York Giants have each rode dominant defenses to Super Bowl glory. Last year, in Super Bowl 50, Von Miller and the Bronco defense took away MVP honors, while the aging Peyton Manning was tasked with simply managing the game and limiting his mistakes. For 2016–17, the five best NFL defenses will be stacked with versatile players at every level, who can either stop the run, drop back into coverage, or blitz from any angle to tee off upon the quarterback.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Long gone are the days of the Cincinnati Bungles, when this franchise was mostly associated with perpetual losing, draft busts, extensive rap sheets, and shamed fans wearing brown paper bags at Riverfront. Cincinnati has actually made the playoffs through five consecutive seasons and has replaced Baltimore as Pittsburgh’s main rival out of the brutal AFC North. In recent years, smart draft picks, pinpoint passing from Andy Dalton, and aggressive defensive schemes out of Marvin Lewis brought forth a complete change in culture in Cincinnati.
Last season, the Bengals defense ranked second, in terms of points allowed, while being especially good at stopping the run and forcing turnovers. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins owned the line of scrimmage, combining for 24.5 sacks through the 2015–16 regular season. At the second level, Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga were free to wreak havoc, as athletic linebackers who can cover ground quickly from sideline-to-sideline. For 2016–17, George Iloka appears ready to slide over and replace the recently departed Reggie Nelson at free safety. Nelson did lead the NFL in interceptions last season, with eight. Talent is not the issue in Cincinnati.
It is the mental breakdowns and boneheaded mistakes that have kept the Bengals right outside of joining the ranks of the elite, in this ultimate game of inches. Marvin Lewis is 0-7 in the postseason, and Pittsburgh tackle Marcus Gilbert went so far as to demand a meeting with Cincinnati in the 2015–16 playoffs, “where they choke.” Gilbert got his wish, with Pittsburgh setting up for the game-winning field goal in Cincinnati. Multiple personal fouls, cheap shots, fights, suspensions, and roughly $85,000 in fines ultimately marred this wild-card bloodbath.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinal defensive backs are rapidly emerging as the best secondary unit in the league this side of Seattle. Patrick Peterson is a shutdown corner who shadows the other team’s best receiver across the entire field and is rarely challenged. Last season, in Week 6, he took Antonio Brown out of his game and held him to three catches for 24 yards. Peterson, at 220 pounds, is a physical corner who excels in press coverage, without the benefit of safety help over the top.
At free safety, Tyrann Mathieu is a complete football player who can cheat up to the line of scrimmage for run support, go man-to-man against the slot, and also drop back into deep-zone coverage as the ultimate centerfielder. To mix things up, Mathieu will sometimes blitz off the edge and tee off upon the quarterback. The Honey Badger simply has a nose for the football; he racked up 80 tackles last season, second on the team. Peterson and Mathieu are two of the better playmakers, at any position, in the NFL. Taken together, the two former LSU teammates have combined for 25 interceptions and six return touchdowns in the NFL.
Last March, Arizona shipped out right guard Jonathan Cooper and their 2016 second-round pick to New England in exchange for Chandler Jones. Jones picked up 12.5 sacks last season and will immediately fill the glaring need for a hybrid linebacker/defensive end edge rusher within the Cardinal scheme. For 2015–16, Dwight Freeney, at 35, actually led the team in sacks, with eight. The Arizona defense is set to improve further upon a year when it ranked fifth in terms of yards allowed, with Chandler Jones now in the fold to wreak havoc and collapse the pocket.
3. Denver Broncos
The 2015–16 Denver Broncos were often compared directly to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens; both had a Super Bowl run thanks to a historically dominant defense that carried a game-managing quarterback to the Promised Land. Last season, a brittle Manning gave up 17 picks against only nine touchdowns through nine regular-season games. Brock Osweiler leased the quarterback position through the backstretch of the season, before giving way back to Manning right before the playoffs started. In retrospect, the 2015–16 Bronco defense could have even carried the likes of Trent Dilfer to the Big Game, after finishing the season a respective third and first in run and pass defense.
For Denver, the action began with pressure, with both Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware flying off the edge to take their shots at the quarterback. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib would lay in wait to pounce upon any mistakes and take interceptions back to the house. The formula was on full display for Super Bowl 50, when Von Miller came up with the MVP and 2.5 sacks. Cam Newton, for his part, refused to even address the media, after going a miserable 18-for-41 and taking seven sacks.
Like clockwork, the competition showed up to raid players immediately after the Super Bowl victory parade. The Broncos did lose defensive end Malik Jackson to the Jacksonville Jaguars and leading tackler Danny Trevathan to the Chicago Bears in free agency. In their place, Todd Davis and Vance Walker will step up as starters, with the Bronco D not missing much of a beat. If anything, it will likely be shaky quarterback play and poor field position that repeatedly force the defense to come up with important stops at Mile High.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have quickly emerged as one of the more polarizing teams in all of sports, largely due to their obnoxiously loud 12th Man fan base, rah-rah head coach, and brazen trash talk. Against this backdrop, the “haters” take special pleasure in calling for the inevitable decline of this team and Legion of Boom secondary. Seattle has played its part, in becoming synonymous with slow starts, before somehow rounding into form and blowing the doors off the competition through the playoffs.
Last year, the Seahawks actually dropped to 2-4, before taking eight of their next 10 to close out the regular season at 10-6. The Hawks opened up the season by giving up 34 points — to the likes of Nick Foles and the Rams in St. Louis. By season’s end, however, Seattle came all the way back to limit the high-octane Arizona Cardinals to six points on the road. For the year, the Seahawk D ranked a respective first and second in scoring and yards allowed.
The Legion of Boom secondary features three perennial Pro Bowlers in their prime, in the rangy Earl Thomas, hard-hitting Kam Chancellor, and brash Richard Sherman. Pete Carroll, with the L.O.B. patrolling the back half of the field, is now free to constantly rotate a fresh batch of players into the front seven. Carroll blitzes rarely, instead relying upon smaller defensive ends, like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to beat tackles off the ball and apply pressure. Carroll has been running this same base defense since his time at USC and the opposition has yet to crack its code. Expect more of the same this season, as Seattle reloads, yet again, with Jordan Hill and Mike Morgan to replace Brandon Mebane and Bruce Irvin in the starting lineup.
1. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans defense has remained very much underrated, with the franchise cycling through the likes of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and even Brandon Weeden at quarterback. Last year, Houston ranked 29th in field position, largely due to its sputtering offense with no continuity at quarterback. Still, the team ranked seventh in scoring defense, despite already being backed up against a wall when taking the field. The 2015–16 Texans defense did rank first, in terms of forcing three-and-outs, and limiting average drives to 5.1 plays.
The Texans defense, of course, begins with J.J. Watt, who is a one-man wrecking crew, in the mold of Lawrence Taylor. For 2015, Watt came up 17.5 sacks, 57 solo tackles, and three forced fumbles. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus broke out last year to tally up 12 sacks in his own right, with offensive coordinators keying in on Watt. For 2016, the Texans plan to finally welcome back a healthy Jadeveon Clowney onto the field. Houston will have the best pass rush in all of football, if it were to get anything out of former first overall pick Clowney this season. The explosive up-front pass rush will make life relatively easy for corners Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. The Texans will also be stout against the run, with Vince Wilfork eating up space at the point of attack, so that Brian Cushing can fill the gaps and take out the trash.
The Texans did roll the dice and make a big-time move this offseason, signing Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. Certainly, Osweiler gained valuable experience last year, in going 5-2 as the starter, managing the game and riding a ferocious defense in Denver. For this year, the Houston defense will look even better, with Brock Osweiler limiting turnovers, making smart throws to move the chains, and chewing up clock. Houston will be the team to beat out of the AFC South.