The best defenses step up now

I love December football in the NFL. Over the course of one month, we get to see teams fight for home-field advantage, playoff spots and the right to play on wild card weekend. And, from my point of view, it’s the time of the year defenses — great defenses — earn their paychecks and lead teams into meaningful January games.

In saying that, if you had to pick a defense to count on in December, which one would you choose? Like any NFL discussion when it comes to defense, the talk always tends to slide toward the Ravens and the Steelers, but when you look at the numbers, they tell a different story after 12 weeks.

Here are the top five defenses ranked in total yards allowed per game:

1. Green Bay (273.5)
2. NY Jets (276.4)
3. Denver (288.9)
4. Cincinnati (293.2)
5. Pittsburgh (297.3)

But those are just numbers. Let’s look a little closer at each defense and decide for ourselves who’s the best, and who you’d want taking the field with a fourth-quarter lead and a playoff berth on the line.

Green Bay (8-4)

I still think the Packers’ two most impressive wins of the season came at Lambeau against the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens — because they didn’t win with big plays down the field from the offense and Aaron Rodgers. Instead, they forced turnovers, set up Rodgers with field position, and when they needed a big play, they found a way to get their hands on the football. Dom Capers’ defense — under fire earlier in the season — has evolved to the point that the loss of Pro Bowl defenders OLB Aaron Kampman and CB Al Harris hasn’t affected their production. They can pressure out of the 3-4 front, they have the ultimate playmaker in CB Charles Woodson, a ball hawking FS in Nick Collins and young talent at the LB position who can get to the QB. And when they want to, they can show multiple looks in their front seven, causing confusion in blocking schemes and allowing free runners to the football. They’re becoming a defense that dictates the flow of the game to the opposing offense — and that wins.

NY Jets (6-6)

We shouldn’t act surprised about Rex Ryan’s defense in New York because we expect them to attack and we expect them to play solid man coverage in the back end. The Jets are a .500 team at this point of the season because of their struggles as an offense and the number of turnovers by rookie QB Mark Sanchez. That defense is still nasty, and it still causes game-plan issues for opposing offenses, because when they pressure, receivers have to be able to beat man coverage in the 3-step game, and when the Jets drop into coverage, there’s no one better in 2009 than CB Darrelle Revis at taking a receiver out of the game. But overall, it’s the complexity this defense shows in its pre-snap alignment, along with its execution, that allows them to play a style of defense that forces quarterbacks to unload the ball before their feet are even set. By far, the best front seven of the top five defenses, and that’s carrying them despite their offensive struggles under Sanchez.

Denver (8-4)

Before the Broncos hit a midseason slump and dropped four in a row, Mike Nolan’s defense in Denver was the league’s No. 1 unit. But opposing offenses found a way to run the ball on them in the downhill power game. However, the Broncos have made the proper corrections to contain the run. They’re not going to be a shut-down defensive front in Denver, but on the flip side, they rank second in the league at defending the pass, giving up just over 180 yards per game. The reason: Their ability to rush the passer from the defensive end position and the overwhelming amount of talent they have in the secondary with CBs Champ Bailey and Andre’ Goodman, plus free safety Brian Dawkins. As a defense, when you have that type of ability in the back end, you can send extra pressure and you can rely on taking chances because you know as defensive coordinator the secondary will do its job. I like this defense under Nolan. It’s undersized, but it can run and pursue the football, and it has the best overall secondary of the top five.

Cincinnati (9-3)

We used to think of offense when we talked about the Bengals because of QB Carson Palmer and WR Chad Ochocinco, but this is a different Bengals team. They use a ball-control attack on offense with RB Cedric Benson, and their defense is the best unit in the AFC North. They have the ability to pressure the QB and have two of the most underrated corners in the league in Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall. The loss of DE Antwan Odom to an injury was supposed to kill this unit early in the season, but from my perspective, it’s gotten better since the DE went down, as guys like Jonathan Fanene have stepped up and produced. The thing about Mike Zimmer’s defense is that it’s underappreciated, isn’t pretty and doesn’t have the big names. But it stops the run with that front four and can run with receivers in the secondary. Sounds like a solid December defense to me. But do the Bengals have a dominant playmaker?

Pittsburgh (6-6)

The defending champs still boast a top-five defensive unit, but where are the plays? Of the Steelers’ six losses, five have come despite fourth-quarter leads — something unheard of under Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. But they’re a heavy zone blitz team, and when you send pressure and don’t make plays on the QB or in the secondary, the defense is hung out to dry. Yes, the time that safety Troy Polamalu (whom I still consider the best safety in the game) has missed has hurt this unit from a playmaking standpoint, but there are enough playmakers without him who should be able to get their hands on the football. However, even in saying that, I still like this defense down the stretch because it’s creative, it can stop the run and it has the experience of a postseason team that should be able to put on a late-season run. I’m still buying them.

Who do you choose?

I’m curious about which team you’d take. Which defense is the one you want on the field at this point in the season, and which defense can you count on for the next four Sundays and into the postseason?

For me, I’m going with a defense that can pressure, can make plays on the football and has the ability to come on the field in an adverse situation after a big turnover by the offense and shut the door. Causing turnovers wins at any level of football, but it’s crucial in the NFL when the snow starts to fall. And the Green Bay Packers have intercepted 21 passes through 12 weeks and own a turnover ratio of plus-18.

I’m taking the Pack.

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