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Breaking down 'the money down' for NFL defenses

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Associated Press
James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley led the Steelers' top-ranked third down defense in 2009.

Every NFL defense works hard to get its opponent to third down. If they aren't successful on third down, however, their efforts were for naught. When a team's first and second down defense is effective, it opens things up for the designated pass rusher and the nickelback.

A good third-down defense is also a good two-minute defense. Teams that win in these situations can go far in the NFL.

Top 10 third down defenses in 2008
Team
Third down Pct.
Total sacks
Sacks/drop back
1. Pittsburgh
31.4
51
11.5
2. Philadelphia
32.2
48
11.9
t-3. Baltimore
33.5
34
16.5
t-3. Minnesota
33.5
45
12.7
5. Chicago
34.9
28
23.2
6. Tennessee
35.0
44
14.1
7. Washington
35.6
24
22.3
8. Dallas
35.7
59
9.6
9. Buffalo
36.1
24
21.5
10. Miami
37.8
40
14.8

The best third-down defenses have a combination of these qualities:

» A premier pass rusher that forces the protection to slide to him.
» A very effective rusher on the opposite side, who can take advantage of the single block.
» A wave of rushers that can keep the unit fresh.
» A power rusher inside to collapse a pocket.
» A nickelback who can take a slot receiver or blitz.
» A matchup corner that can handle an elite receiver.
» A creative coach that knows when rush or drop back in coverage.
» A front office that knows how to find the talent to build an effective third-down unit.

Every bit of the formula is required to be a top third down defense.

Here is my best educated guess as to who will have the top 10 third-down defenses in 2009. They all have an issue or two to overcome, but they each have the ingredients to be the best. The NFC East dominates this all-important aspect of the pro game.

In 2008, the NFC East generated 173 sacks, which led all divisions. This year the division has and added Albert Haynesworth, Osi Umenyiora (returning from injury), and rookie Brian Orakpo. The addition of that kind of talent could push the division close to 190 sacks.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers finished 2008 as the No. 1 team on third down, holding opponents to a 31.4 percent conversion rate. Pittsburgh had two players record double-digit sacks (James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks) and they had the best pass attempt-to-sack ratio, delivering a sack once out of every 11.5 drop backs. LB Lawrence Timmons steps into the starting lineup this year and should build on the five sacks he tallied in limited play last year.

In the secondary, Troy Polamalu puts significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks by disguising the coverages. That's a big part of what makes Dick LeBeau's schemes so effective. William Gay makes the loss of Bryant McFadden tolerable and rookie lineman Ziggy Hood adds a quick defender up front to pressure quarterbacks.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles had 16 different players sack the quarterback last year. That speaks to the creative scheming of the coaching staff and the roster depth assembled by the front office. Philadelphia sacked the quarterback once every 11.9 drop backs and returns every key player in its pass rush group. The secondary lost veteran safety Brian Dawkins, but the addition of Ellis Hobbs on the corner gives Philadelphia excellent nickel and dime coverage groups.

Last year, the Eagles were the second-ranked third-down defense, holding teams to just a 32.2 percent success rate. The big question for the Eagles is the potential loss of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who is battling cancer. Hopefully Johnson will still have an influence on this great defense.

3. New York Giants

The Giants may have the best pass defense when the season is over due to the amount of skilled pass rushers they have on the roster. Last year, the Giants overcame the retirement of Michael Strahan and the loss of Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora to finish sixth in sacks with 42. The offseason additions of Rocky Bernard, Chris Canty and rookie LB Clint Sintim give the G-men two full waves of pass rushers. They have Justin Tuck opposite Umenyiora, which prevents teams from sliding protection to one side or the other.

Expectations are for 25-plus combined sacks from the top two rushers. The secondary is a year older -- Aaron Ross is emerging as a top-flight cover corner and Terrell Thomas should be a fine nickel corner -- but the loss of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a factor. Only time will tell if his absence hurts the creative game planning, but the talent to win on third down is in place.

4. San Diego Chargers

The Chargers were off the radar screen last year when Shawne Merriman was lost for the season after just one game and corner Antonio Cromartie played with an injured hip. Both men are back in 2009 and the addition of rookie Larry English gives them a third outside linebacker to go along with Merriman and Shaun Phillips, who will be much more effective back at his normal position.

In the secondary, keep an eye on rookie Kevin Ellison. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has had plenty of good things to say about him.

5. Washington Redskins

The Redskins quietly finished as a top-10 defense last year and ranked seventh on third downs. The added presence of Haynesworth on early downs should make third downs longer than last year and his pass rush skills will change the production of the whole defense.

DE Andre Carter should return to his 2007 form when he grabbed 10.5 sacks, and Orakpo should get single blocked all year. Fred Smoot is a capable nickelback, with Carlos Rogers and DeAngelo Hall as the starting corners.

6. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys were No. 1 in sacks last year with 59. That worked out to a respectable rate of one sack for every 9.6 drop backs, but they ultimately were not the third-down defense they should have been. With Wade Phillips now calling the defense, the change in coaching philosophy will help. And as Phillips told me back in March, the addition of safety Gerald Sensabaugh gives them a safety who can handle the matchup problems they had in 2008.

The release of Greg Ellis could come back to haunt this team. It is possible they are ranked too high at this point, but I do like the corners (Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick).

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7. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens ranked No. 3 in third-down defense last year. They lost defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard, but they still have a great pass rusher in Terrell Suggs and the league's most dangerous ball-hawk safety in Ed Reed.

8. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are well known for their run defense but they also finished fourth in third-down defense last year, holding opponents to a 33.5 percent success rate. Minnesota creates its opportunities by forcing third-and-long situations.

DE Jared Allen changed everything for this defense on third downs. When teams work their protections to him, Kevin Williams becomes a big factor in the middle of the line. If the Williams wall misses the first four games, things will be tough on the Vikings defense. Last year they produced a sack once every 12.7 drop backs, which made them a top-five rush unit.

In the secondary, Darren Sharper is gone and that affects the depth and experience at safety. It would be the story of the year if Kenechi Udeze can return from Leukemia to be a factor. Udeze told me last week that he feels he can contribute in 2009.

9. Tennessee Titans

It's going to be different in Tennessee without Haynesworth and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Titans have been able to apply pressure with a four-man pass rush without having to do much blitzing. That may change this season, which will tax the secondary. Fourteen different Titans got to the quarterback last year, but that number may fall without Haynesworth on the field.

10. New York Jets and Miami Dolphins

Some would never think of the Jets as having a top-10 third-down defense, but they have some very positive factors at work right now. Ryan will bring more aggressive schemes and turn players like Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas and even Vernon Gholston loose to get after the QB. There should be a marked improvement in their sack total (40) and their third-down success rate (39 percent) next season.

A few years ago, Bart Scott had a terrific season blitzing the QB and Ryan will likely have him do more of that in 2009. Lito Sheppard teams up with Darrelle Revis on the corner and DT Kris Jenkins will be used like Haloti Ngata was in Baltimore.

The Dolphins got a big year from Joey Porter last season and they should again this year as Jason Taylor returns to line up opposite him on third down. Matt Roth will handle the run downs and let Taylor play a role similar to the one John Abraham occupies in Atlanta.

Keep an eye on LB Cameron Wake as a designated pass rusher. The addition of rookie corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith give the Fish two big corners that will make releasing difficult for receivers.

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