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NFL Defenses

   by Bryan Leonard - 10/02/2007

The top 4 defenses in the NFL last year? In order, Chicago, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Dallas. Three of them made the playoffs and one made the Super Bowl. Two years ago? 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 in 2004 and 2005 (Chiefs) didn't even make the playoffs those years. Last year’s No. 1 offense (Saints) got smoked in the NFC Championship game by the Bears, only the team with the No. 1 defense. And the top passing team in 2005 (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 didn’t have a great offense, yet rolled to a Super Bowl title with a monster defense.

You really can't have defensive deficiencies and do this. We are moving into October now and the top defenses are a very surprising list: Patriots, Steelers, Broncos, Chiefs, Bears, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, Ravens and Texans.

A good defense isn’t helping the Chiefs much with that anemic offense. The Broncos haven’t played well against the run and probably won’t stay on the list long, as they were fortunate to open against anemic offenses (Buffalo, Oakland). The Rams won’t last on that list either, but the Texans are a surprise and might be decent with all the high draft picks they’re assembling on defense. 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 stormed to the NFC title a year ago led by their No. 1 defense. This season they’ve been tough, but injuries are absolutely taking a huge toll. Talented safety Mike Brown was hurt in the opener (knee) and is out, and nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek is also out with a season-ending knee injury. Cornerback Nathan Vasher went down with groin injury and Tommie Harris hobbled out of the Dallas game with a sprained knee ligament. That’s why the pass defense gave up 300 yards in a 34-10 home loss to Dallas.

Speaking of Dallas, the Cowboys are a team to keep an eye on if you like to play totals. New coach Wade Phillips has brought in an aggressive, attacking style, the same style he used last season as defensive coordinator of the Chargers. The Cowboys have used their last eight first-round draft picks on defensive players. In this decade, the Cowboys have drafted 32 defensive players and signed 12 in free agency.

While they have been fine up front, this secondary has been prone to breakdowns. Terence Newman suffered a tear in the plantar fascia of his right foot. The injury is serious because no player uses his feet more than a cornerback. Dallas is dead last in pass defense, while the offense is strong, a good mix if you like to play games over the total.

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.

Also 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, Minnesota, Denver, KC, New England, Chicago, Indy, and Jacksonville. It's no secret that defenses will get a team into January, and those with poor defenses are often home watching.

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