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by Bryan Leonard - 10/09/2006
The top 4 defenses in the NFL last year? In order, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Carolina and Pittsburgh. What stands out about that list? All four made the playoffs, two made the Championship games and one made the Super Bowl (and won). If you think that's simplifying things too much, notice that the No. 1 offensive team in the NFL the last two season (Chiefs) didn't even make the playoffs those years. And last year's top passing team (Cardinals) was 5-11 straight up and 6-10 against the spread. Yes, it's always a good time to examine the importance of team defense.
Teams that can't stop the opponent from moving the football or scoring are at a huge disadvantage. Even teams with offensive deficiencies can win the Super Bowl if their defenses are strong enough. The Patriots in 2001 and 2003 had very little running games, just like Tampa Bay during the 2002 season. And, of course, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens had little running AND passing games, yet rolled to a Super Bowl title with a monster defense.
You really can't have defensive deficiencies and do this. We are into October now and the top defenses are very surprising list: Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans. The Ravens and Bears were expected to be somewhere in the Top 5, but the Chiefs, Falcons and Saints are definitely a surprise.
The Chiefs have played strong offensive teams like the Bengals and Broncos and held their own defensively. The surprising Saints have faced the offenses of Carolina, Atlanta and Green Bay, winning two of those. Atlanta had a busy off-season, signing veteran free agent safety Lawyer Milloy, trading for pass rushing star DE John Abraham and adding NT Grady Jackson during preseason to help with the run defense. Those moves appear to be paying dividends as the Falcons are allowing 10 points and just 70 yards rushing per game. If you want to look for teams coming off bad seasons that might be in for better years, how they upgraded the defense in the offseason is a good place to start.
The Chicago Bears are the early front-runner in the NFC after that impressive 37-6 pasting of the Seahawks. The Bears win with defense, of course, though they have an improved offense. Chicago is no longer an easy play under the total, as they are 2-0-1 over the last three weeks. They were on a 22-11 under run coming into this season, but that may no longer be the case because of the improvement of the offense.
Going back a step further, here's a list of the Top 10 defenses in the 2004 NFL season: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Washington, Denver, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Jets, Miami, New England and Philadelphia. What stands out? Pittsburgh went 15-1, and 5 of those 10 teams made the playoffs, with the Patriots and Eagles squaring off in the Super Bowl. By contrast, only 4 of the bottom 14 teams defensively even made the playoffs, and had a postseason record of 2-4.
This season the biggest surprise has been Tampa Bay, long a defensive dynamo, the Bucs have plummeted to 19th in total defense. In fact, they were second worst against the run during that 0-3 SU, 1-2 ATS start! Keep in mind that teams that can't stop the run are often better to bet against than a play on. Currently the top rushing defenses are Baltimore, San Diego, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Washington, Seattle, Chicago, Jacksonville and Dallas. It's no secret that defenses will get a team into January, and those with poor defenses will be home watching.