You’ve heard it a thousand times. The NFL, it’s a quarterback league.
How the QB plays is a bellwether of his team’s progress or decline, week in, week out.
They get the glory in victory, the blame in defeat and everything else on the field is just so many props. Seems a funny evolution of the game, but that’s how it is and we seem to like it that way.
As for the guys on defense, well, the late, great Rodney Dangerfield put it best: “(They) get no respect, what can I tell ya’?”
Should we feel bad? Probably not, when you consider that a good defense is hard to find, though, in fairness, you could say the same about physicians, computer repair guys and barbers. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking college or the pros (NFL / CFL), the reliable defensive scheme seems a rare commodity in this day & age.
While the linebacker corps carries the load in the tackling department and lineman put pressure on the QB, defensive backs are working a balance of tackling & pass-deflection. But nothing is more emblematic of today’s ebbing state-of-defense than NFL secondaries.
Next time you tune into a game pay close attention to the DBs. You’re likely to see more muffed tackles and blown break-ups, even as they shadow their targets, than beer ads during the telecast. You’d think the prevent-defense was a permanent state. Ever since the days of Deion “Neon” Sanders, the art of secondary tackling has become passé while the big play (INT / LB sacks) and laying-in-the-weeds for the wicked-hit are all the rage.
I exaggerate, of course, because there are some terrific exceptions who play the backfield (Tyvon Branch / OAK / SS / 109T). But there's no debate that defense has become more an after-thought than focal point for coaches and their pre-game strategies.
These are the bright spots.
Pad-Smack, Team Style
When talking team defense, it’s the American Conference that fuels the conversation, in particular, the AFC North.
Led by ageless and still thrilled Ray Lewis (ILB / 95T), who comes back for season 17, and decorated (AP-DPY) but now-achilled Terrell Suggs (OLB / 70T / 14S / 7FF), the Baltimore Ravens get the nod as 2011’s top-D (2nd vs Run / 4th vs Pass), edging out Troy Polamalu (DB / 91T) and Ryan Clark’s (FS / 100T) Pittsburgh Steelers (1P / 8R) who picked a bad time to look porous in last season’s finale versus Tebowmania.
The Cincinnati Bengals are building a defensive foundation (10R / 9P) (Tom Howard / OLB / 99T) as their young gun learns the trade (Dalton). And don’t forget Ohio’s other team, the Cleveland Browns, who came in just behind Pittsburgh (1P @ 172 ypg) against the pass (2P @ 185 ypg), thanks in large part to the 'everywhere man' D’Qwell Jackson (MLB / 158T) and active lineman Ahtyba Rubin (NT / 83T / 5S / PUP).
With a promising but green QB (Gabbert) and a run-game in flux (Maurice Jones-Drew), the Jacksonville Jaguars, like division foe Indy, seek answers on the O-side, but also like the Colts, can boast strong building blocks in a trio of tackling mavens. Paul Posluszny (MLB / 119T / shoulder), Daryl Smith (OLB / 107T) and Dawan Landry (FS / 97T) guided the Jags to top-ten finishes against both the pass (8) and run (9) in the last campaign.
Teamwork was the talisman for the Houston Texans in 2011 as they stymied both the pass (3) and run (4) without sack-happy LB Mario Williams (out Wk 5 / Bills), and then, like the Ravens, with only one name among the top-50 tacklers in Brian Cushing (ILB / 114). What void Mario leaves in Texas will be filled soon enough.
And don’t go sour yet on the New York Jets. They may have a QB quandary, of their own making, but defense is still a Rex Ryan trademark as Gotham’s junior team made strong showings versus the pass (5P), the run (13R) and added talented Yeremiah Bell (SS / MIA / 107T).
In the NFC, it’s the Western dudes who think offense is sissified.
Former QB and still ‘rah-rah’ man Jim Harbaugh has San Francisco 49ers’ fans believing again with stout defense (1R @ 77 YPG) and sound, methodical offense. Third year ILB NaVorro Bowman set a super pace with 143 tackles in 2011, as perennial All-Pro Pat Willis (ILB) missed three and still netted 97 turf take-downs.
With solid QB play, the Seattle Seahawks will take flight as a balanced defense (15R / 11P) gives them some edge. David Hawthorne will be missed (115T / Saints / knee), but stalwarts Earl Thomas (FS / 98T) and Kam Chancellor (SS / 97T) keep it respectable.
Football players learn quickly about the ‘stick men.’ You find ‘em at every level: high school, college and the pros. The guys on the field who were born to tackle. They find ball-carriers like a heat-seeking missile. They can, as we would say back in the day, “really stick.” And when they strike, down you go: fast, furious and unforgettable.
While defense struggles to stay relevant in this era of pinball-like point tallies, there are men in the NFL who carry on proudly the tradition of tackling. They love to hit, hit often and hit hard. And they don’t need to lead with their helmet, Mr. James Harrison.
The NFC North won’t top the team rankings, but they showcase some of the League’s best tackling tandems (and trios). Defensive diva Ndamukong Suh looks to be more trouble than he’s worth (36T / 4S / 0FR), but the Detroit Lions are firm in the middle with Stephen Tulloch (MLB / 111T / knee) and DeAndre Levy (OLB / 109T).
The book on the Green Bay Packers used to read, defense 1st, run 2nd, pass 3rd and no donnas. Stout against the run in ‘11 (14), Packers came in dead last versus the pass (32), just behind projected SB 47? (retire the Romans, Roger) opponent Patriots. Ted rolls the dice on Mr. Enigma, Cedric Benson (RB), while Clay Matthews brought hair-spray but forgot a lunch pail in 2011 (OLB / 50T / 6S). Desmond Bishop is out (ILB / 115T / ham) and Charlie Peprah is really out (SS / cut), but Morgan Burnett (FS / 107T) sticks fine while way-rated Charles Woodson (CB / 74T / 7 INT) and A.J. Hawk look to pick-it-up in 2012 (ILB / 84T).
Though the Monsters of the Midway are long-in-the-tooth, the Chicago Bears’ Lance Briggs (OLB / 105T) and Charles Tillman (CB / 99T) can still scare. Tim Jennings added game in 2011 (CB / 77T), big name Brian Urlacher (MLB / 102T) is hurting (knee) and Julius Peppers showed some life last season (DE / 37T / 11S). After them, there's a drop-off.
Many new faces dot the Indianapolis Colts’ O-side with departure of pros like Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday. The D-side, not as much, but loss of stick star Pat Angerer (great name / frac-foot) (MLB / 148T) will be felt, while Kavell Conner (OLB / 107T) and fellow tackling titan Antoine Bethea (FS / 139T) patrol the tundra.
Miami Dolphins hit-show took a hit when Y. Bell split (Jets), leaving Kevin Burnett (ILB / 105T) and gimpy Karlos Dansby (ILB / 103T / knee) to cover. Addition of pricey Mario Williams is icing on the cake for a Buffalo Bills’ entree that already features hit-men Nick Barnett (ILB / 130T), George Wilson (SS / 106T) and Jairus Byrd (FS / 98T).
No surprise the Atlanta Falcons stuffed the run in 2011 (5) with Curtis Lofton (MLB / 147T) and Sean Weatherspoon (OLB / 115T) holding court, now work on the pass (20).
It’s been a rough go recently in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and their arch nemesis to the east is beaming ear-to-ear. But there’s a silver lining in the Minnesota Vikings’ dark cloud. They’re staying put (stadium), 2-yr. QB Christian Ponder still has possibility and Adrian Peterson might run again. Add in, Vikes have two of the NFL’s surest hitters in Chad Greenway (OLB / 152T) and E.J. Henderson (MLB / 110T), while the best defender in all of football may take shape in the person of Jared Allen (DE / 66T / 22S / 4FF).
Quarterbacks reign supreme. But if there is a defender who can work a game nearly as well as a QB, it is Jared Allen. He perfected the sack in 2011 (22) but brings a fiery spirit to the field of play that only Ray Lewis can duplicate. And like Ray, Jared overcame a difficult past but has the added burden of staying motivated on a bottom-feeder.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give mention to these tackling dynamos: London Fletcher (ILB / WAS / 166T!), James Anderson (OLB / CAR / 145T), James Laurinaitis (MLB / 142T), Jason Pierre-Paul (DE / NYG / 86T / 17S), Jason McCourty (CB / TN / 105T), Calais Campbell (DE / ARI / 72T / 8S), DeMarcus Ware (DE / DAL / 58T / 20S) and Derrick Johnson (ILB / KC / 131T). Without these guys, the NFL would be, well, Arena.
Note: This article is dedicated to those brave people allied around the globe who have given, or who today put their limbs & lives on the line in the dangerous fight against terror & extremism, defending, in face of a stealth and brutal foe, the freedom to choose and the right to reason.