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Friday, 20 January 2012

Championship Weekend: Ranking the units - Defense

I was going to do this position by position like the offense but really there’s no way that would work. Who’s better, Justin Smith or Jason Pierre-Paul? Well they do different things for the defense but are both defensive ends. So I’ve broken it down into front 7 run defense and front 7 pass defense before going on to look at the secondary and special teams.

Front 7 run defense:

           1.       San Francisco 49ers

           2.       Baltimore Ravens

           3.       New England Patriots

           4.       New York Giants

Justin Smith was in Brees' nightmares
all week
The San Francisco 49ers have been a run-stuffing force all year. They very nearly went all season without giving up a rushing touchdown before Beast Mode broke through in week 16. They stifled a usually good Steelers rushing attack and left the Saints battered and bruised (Just ask Pierre Thomas). Most of this stems from their superb defensive line and interior linebackers, notably Issac Sopoaga, Justin Smith, Narvarro Bowman and the monstrous Patrick Willis. You might as well not bother trying to run on these guys.

Much like the 49ers, the Ravens are a team you’re best to avoid rushing on. They have tremendous size and quickness across their 3 man defensive front, lead by Haloti Ngata who is for me the best player on the Ravens roster. Behind Ngata is Ray Lewis, who if you just listen to commentators is still the best linebacker in the league. That’s rubbish, he’s not even close to the level of Patrick Willis, but he’s still a good player, extremely smart and a sure tackler. That big D-Line tends to keep bodies off of Lewis and allows him to make plays. Normally the Ravens are a team you’d abandon the run against too, but the Texans zone-stretch run game really gave the Ravens problems last week and Arian Foster was able to slice them up for 132 yards on the ground at almost 5 yards a carry.

Sometimes it's safer to just get out of Ngata's way
The Patriots run defense hasn’t been up to it’s usual standard. That has a lot to do with the injuries at safety (we’ll get to that) but the front 7 is still very much built to stop the run. As with the other 2 teams it all starts up front with the big bodies. And none are bigger than nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The anchor for the Pats defense has had a heck of a season, playing a staggering 86% of the defenses snaps, racking up a career high for sacks (3.5) and getting a couple of picks too. Around him are the big thumpers Bill Belichick seems to prefer, from Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo to Kyle Love and Ron Brace. If you think running on these boys is easy just ask Denver.

Unlike the other 3 units the New York football Giants play a straight 4-3 defense. And unlike the other units the lack the run stuffers, particularly at linebacker where they’ve been hit by injury throughout the season. Clint Sintim, Jonathan Goff and Mark Herzlich have all missed considerable time as well as rookie DT Marvin Austin, which has hampered their run defense. They’re not exactly a team you can walk over though.

They're all smiles in practice, but come game day there's
little to laugh at the Giants D-Line for
Front 7 pass defense:

           1.       New York Giants

           2.       San Francisco 49ers

           3.       Baltimore Ravens

           4.       New England Patriots

Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Chris Canty make up a fearsome 4 man rush that allows the Giants to sit back and play zone rather than over-blitz a team. While the yards were racked up against them through the air the Giants ability to get after an opposing QB with just 4 really gives them an edge over the rest of these teams.

I’ve given the edge in 2nd to the 9ers front 7 simply because of their interior linebackers. Bowman and Willis can go stride for stride with most tight ends in the league and are menaces in blitz situations. Throw in explosive rookie Aldon Smith coming off the edge and Justin Smith up the middle and you have a tricky situation for any offense.

The Ravens, while having an overall pass defense that is better than the others, have a worse front 7 in my opinion. Outside of Terrell Suggs there’s not much production in QB pressure from them, and while Suggs had 14 sacks in the regular season he was held sackless in 8 games, basically he can go missing in games, and that’s no good thing. There’s also the problem of Ray Lewis. At 37 he’s not the linebacker he once was, especially in coverage. I get the feeling that part of the Patriots game plan will be to isolate Lewis in coverage against either Danny Woodhead out of the backfield or one of the tight ends. If they can do that then there’ll be a lot of joy to be had.
Ray Lewis is the heart and soul of the Ravens, but in
coverage he's not nearly what he used to be
As for New England’s front 7? Well against the pass it’s a mess. There’s usually minimal pressure to be had, and although their sack percentage has jumped up in recent times a lot of this can be put on their 2 games against the Broncos. Wilfork can disrupt up the middle but more often than not a QB has time to pull up a chair and have a cup of tea before any pressure gets home.

The return of safety Patrick Chung is a much needed boost
to the Patriots woeful secondary

           1.       Baltimore Ravens

           2.       San Francisco 49ers

           3.       New York Giants

           4.       New England Patriots

A big reason for having the Ravens at No. 1 for secondary is the huge strides Lardarius Webb has taken this season. He’s stepped his game up to such an extent that he can be left one on one with the oppositions best receiver most of the time, and more importantly he received votes in our End of Season Awards. And let’s not forget the guy who roams the deep part of the field still, #20 Ed Reed. Reed’s on the back end of his career now, and may well call it a day after this play-off run, but he is still a threat to pick off any slightly errant pass.

The 9ers secondary isn’t filled with big name players that you’ll all have heard of, but they’re still good. Last time we saw Donte Whitner he was getting torched out in Buffalo but in San Fran he’s a different player, Carlos Rogers too has made strides since coming over from Washington and provides excellent coverage skills on the outside.
Donte Whitner's vicious hit on Pierre Thomas in the 1st quarter
on sunday saved a touchdown and set the tone for the 9ers
After a rather dodgy regular season the Giants secondary has been spectacular in stifling the Falcons and Packers so far in the post season. Cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster have really stepped up their games in particular, unlike the Patriots…

New England’s secondary has been a mess all year, and “holding” Denver to 136 yards in the air last week should not be seen as turning the corner. Kyle Arrington might have held the joint lead for interceptions during the regular season, but the presence of converted wide receivers Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman points to a serious problem. 2nd year corner back Devon McCourty has been struggling all year with the amount of press coverage he’s been asked to do while the rotation of practice squad players through the safety spots has thankfully stopped due to the return of Patrick Chung. The Pats have been giving up nearly 300 yards a game through the air and have a problem preventing long drives, it’s what could very well cost them another Super Bowl appearance.

Special Teams might not seem important, but they can
often change the momentum of a game
Special Teams:

           1.       San Francisco 49ers

           2.       New England Patriots

           3.       New York Giants

           4.       Baltimore Ravens

Special teams might not register as important with many fans. It might be seen as time to go get another beer or check your fantasy team, but special teams is where a lot of teams separate themselves from the good, and become great. They can also mean the difference between winning and losing individual games. Just ask Jacoby Jones.

One of the best examples of special teams impact is San Francisco. The 49ers David Akers kicked a record setting 44 field goals this season while Andy Lee netted a monstrous 44.6 yards a punt. Throw in Ted Ginn being 3rd in kick and 4th in punt return average and that’s one heck of a special teams unit that has helped to pressurise the opposition while allowing Alex Smith and the offense to work in relative comfort.

The Pats are getting fantastic work from kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko but not very good return work out of a variety of return guys (baring a few punt returns from Julian Edelman). As a result they’ve benefitted from long fields on defense and suffered from them on offense. But when you’ve got Brady a long field isn’t that daunting.

The Giants are very middling in special teams, but according to our friends at Football Outsiders most of this comes of the boot of punter Steve Weatherford. Their return game is particularly appalling, ranking 29th in their punt return metric.

And as for the Ravens, well the less said the better. They’ve struggled with ball security on returns all year and rank among the worst in all phases of special teams. Particularly worrying is Billy Cundiff’s 8-15 record from 40 yards or more. This serves to extend the field for the Ravens offense and put pressure on them to extend drives. Which isn’t something you need with a regressing Joe Flacco around. 

          -     Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
          -     The Pulling Linemen

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