|Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP|
|With Patrick Willis (left) and Justin Smith wreaking havoc, the 49ers featured a stifling defense this season.|
Heading into NFL Honors, a two-hour primetime awards special airing nationally on Feb. 4, from 9-11 p.m. ET on NBC, we've asked our analysts to chime in with their own selections for the league's most prestigious individual accolades.
Today's debate: Defensive Player of the Year. This contest is wide open. The Viking's Jared Allen (22 sacks) and Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware (19.5) both flirted with former Giant Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5). Meanwhile, Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul was a force both rushing the passer (16.5 sacks) and stuffing the run (86 total tackles). And San Francisco's amazing resurgence was keyed by an imposing defense headlined by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. And that's just a few of the viable candidates.
It's certainly a tough call, but what do our analysts think?
Niners' Willis was the best player on the game's best defenseGive me Patrick Willis. He is the best player on arguably the NFL's best defense. The 49ers rode the coattails of that defense to the NFC Championship Game. Willis' range makes him such a force all over the field, and his leadership ability allows the San Francisco defense to play together effectively. He had 97 tackles, two sacks, four forced fumbles and a whopping 12 pass deflections, despite playing in only 13 games. Throw in an interception for good measure.
In all honesty, 2011 was not his greatest season. But considering what the Niners did as a team -- with their front seven leading the way -- this is not a controversial pick.
Vikings' ineptitude makes Allen's season even more impressiveGranted he played on a poor football team, but Jared Allen came so close to the all-time sack record on a team that rarely put an opponent in a must-pass situation. Protection schemes went to Allen in almost every pass situation and he regularly beat chip blocks and slide protections.
Pierre-Paul turned the Giants' defense into a championship unitThe Defensive Player of the Year is the hardest one to give, because I could bestow it on either Patrick Willis or Jason Pierre-Paul. Willis probably will win because he's the sexy pick (as the 49ers were a huge story this season), but JPP caught fire midseason and turned the Giants' defense into the monster it's become during the playoffs.
Both Willis and JPP have All-Pro talent surrounding them, but I'm going with Pierre-Paul by a nose. He made more game-changing plays that single-handedly put contests in the "W" column for the G-Men the last two months of the season.
Smith's relentlessness up front paced San Francisco's defenseThis could be so many players -- Jared Allen, Brian Cushing, Terrell Suggs or Jason Pierre-Paul -- but I have to go with 49ers DE Justin Smith. His stats for a 3-4 defensive end -- 58 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles -- are fantastic. His relentlessness allowed so many of his teammates (Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers and NaVorro Bowman) to have strong seasons. Not that they didn't do well on their own, but Smith was so disruptive up front that he steered a lot of plays to his teammates and allowed others to benefit from the mistakes he forced.