|Paul Sancya / Associated Press|
|The Lions are hoping second overall pick Ndamukong Suh can serve as a catalyst to improve the defense.|
It was clear at the end of last season that a number of teams had to significantly improve their defense or 2010 would be a repeat of the year before. The seven teams at the bottom of the defensive rankings last year had a combined record of 28-74 and five of them finished last in their respective division.
So, how many of these seven teams changed their scheme for 2010? At this point, none. At least not since the end of last season.
The Buccaneers did switch back to their old Tampa 2 package in midseason last year when coach Raheem Morris took over the play-calling duties. One Tampa Bay player told me, "As soon as Raheem took over, we all played faster and we knew which gap we had on every play."
The Raiders look like they have acquired players to move toward a 3-4 defense, but don't expect a complete overhaul; at best, they could play some hybrid looks.
Of those teams, only the Chiefs changed coordinators, with Romeo Crennel taking over and adding his own twists to an underachieving 3-4 scheme. What's interesting is that five of the seven teams have a coach with a defensive background and it has to really bother them that their side of the ball struggled. Jim Schwartz (Detroit), Eric Mangini (Cleveland), Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis), Jeff Fisher (Tennessee), and Morris all built their NFL reputations on the defensive side of the ball.
Here's a look at the seven teams and what they have done in the offseason with their personnel in an attempt to improve defensively:
Lions: Half-dozen new starters
Detroit leads the group with potentially six new starters on defense. Schwartz loves to rush the passer with his front four and leave the back seven intact to play coverage. By adding veteran ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams, and drafting tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Lions feel they are in arms reach of achieving that goal. There could be as many as three new starters in the secondary but it remains to be seen if there is significant improvement back there after picking up other teams' unwanted corners like Chris Houston, Jonathan Wade and Dre' Bly to go along with rookie Amari Spievey. The Lions will no doubt be a better defense and will improve on 26 sacks, a 40 percent third-down conversion rate, 22 takeaways, and the 31 points allowed per game. The unfortunate aspect of evaluating the Lions defensive improvement is their schedule. They play eight teams that had a winning record last year, the second most of the seven bottom-dwelling defenses. The arrow is pointing up defensively for the Lions, who should move out of the bottom five by the end of this season.
Browns: Small steps, big hill
Cleveland added four new starters to the defense but they also gave up on their leading sacker, DE Kamerion Wimbley, which means they have great faith in new linebacker additions Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong to compliment Matt Roth. The Browns finished last season with a four-game winning streak during which their defense gave up just 16 points a contest, holding the Steelers to six to start the stretch. The secondary is where the improvement has to come and it should with the addition of CB Sheldon Brown and two good-looking rookies in CB Joe Haden and safety TJ Ward. Not sure the Browns will beat the 40 sacks they had last year but they should do a better job on third down and create more turnovers than the 19 they produced. A schedule with 10 games against teams with a winning record makes it a big hill to climb, and unless they get a few breaks and help from the offense, the progress might not be measurable in victories.
Chiefs: Crennel biggest addition
Kansas City really didn't do too much in changing personnel on defense. The Chiefs probably add just one new starter in rookie safety Eric Berry. They need former first-round picks Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey to play better. Keep an eye on the nose tackle position, which is critical to a 3-4 defense. Veteran tackles Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith hope to help improve the 31st-ranked run defense. Where will the pass rush come from? After just 22 sacks last year and no new pass rushers, it's a legitimate question that Crennel will have to answer. Scheme can only go so far, and Crennel is looking to increase production with improved techniques, which is tough to accomplish. Talent is the key ingredient to most improvement. Last year, the Chiefs gave up 27 points per game. In 2010, with only five games against teams coming off winning seasons, they have a chance to play better, but the Chargers scored 80 points on them in two games last season, and the Broncos put up 68.
Rams: Looking for a rush
St. Louis signed six veterans to fill in gaps but no big name pass rusher for a unit that generated 25 sacks. They were able to retain safety Atogwe Oshiomogho and at least didn't go in the wrong direction on the back end of the defense. There could be four new starters on the unit, which gave up 27 points a game and lost their leading pass rusher, Leonard Little to apparent retirement. The rest of the group includes defensive tackle Fred Robbins, linebackers Na'il Diggs and Bobby Carpenter along with end James Hall. Chris Hovan will also be a factor inside. The Rams used three late-round picks on defensive ends in hopes of finding at least one guy to get after the passer. While rookie Jerome Murphy could earn the nickel back spot, unless the Rams stop the run better than last year it really won't matter. The Rams only have five games against teams with winning records and we should know early if they have improved with the first five games vs. Arizona, at Oakland, vs. Washington, vs. Seattle and at Detroit. Spagnuolo is hoping to get back to his very aggressive blitz scheme but might have to wait another year to get it the way he wants.
Titans: Still missing Haynesworth
Tennessee is used to having an excellent defense, but when Albert Haynesworth left last offseason the unit really struggled, especially against the pass. Now Vanden Bosch is gone as well as Keith Bulluck. On top of that, David Thornton is still recovering from injury and LB Gerald McRath starts the year on a four-game suspension. The Titans appear to have lost more than they gained in the front seven. In the back end, there's enough competition to be good. Can rookie Derrick Morgan translate 12.5 sacks last year to being an effective pass rusher on the next level? Can Jason Jones stay healthy enough to play all 16 games and get people to forget Haynesworth? The Titans gave up a first down to opponents 41 percent of the time on third down and have eight games against teams with winning records. They do get the Steelers at home minus Ben Roethlisberger but also face Peyton Manning twice, Philip Rivers, and Tony Romo. Fisher will get the most out of his defense, but they need more time to put it all together.
Buccaneers: Relying on familiarity
Tampa Bay players and coaches truly believe the team is back on course thanks to a switch back to its old scheme and drafting two dynamic, young defensive tackles. There will be two or three new faces on defense, but outside of the veteran addition of safety Sean Jones the Buccaneers will be much like they were last year. They only generated 28 sacks a year ago and there's no Simeon Rice-type rushing the passer. They will improve from the 32nd-ranked run defense, which gave up 158 yards a game with a solid four-man tackle rotation and a scheme the players love. They start the season with winnable games against Cleveland at Carolina and then host Pittsburgh. I wish they added a few more players in free agency that could rush the passer. Greg Ellis (7 sacks last season) or Darren Howard (6.5 sacks) would be good options, but money could be an issue so they'll likely go with what they have and make the best of it.
Raiders: New faces give hope
Oakland ranked 29th against the run last season, but addressed the issue by signing big John Henderson. Behind him is rookie Rolando McClain. Flanking McClain could be Wimbley or fellow newcomer Quentin Groves. The Raiders shuffled the deck in free agency and lost as many as they signed. Only time will tell if the moves were positive or negative. With JaMarcus Russell gone and Jason Campbell under center, the offense is stabilized. A more consistent offense will help the defense more than anything else. Despite the offensive issue, the defense had 37 sacks and allowed opponents to convert on only 35.6 percent of third downs. The Raiders face six teams with a winning record from last year and could be on their way back to respectability, especially if the defense can improve on the 20 turnovers they forced last season.
These seven teams realize things don't change overnight, but attitude and effort can improve quickly. Some will remain at the bottom of the league defensively while others will push their way up the ladder to respectability. Right now, the Raiders and Buccaneers appear to be the teams headed in the right direction.