For all the attention offensive players receive, NFL football is still governed by big hitters and ferocious tacklers. I've heard head coaches frequently discuss the importance of winning the physical battle -- "outhitting" the opponent -- to tip the scales in big games. It's not surprising that the top tackling teams occupy the top of the defensive rankings and consistently enjoy extended playoff runs.
Given that most defensive juggernauts are paced by a big hitter or explosive tackler, I thought I would dig into some All-22 Coaches Film to identify the best of the best when it comes to knocking running backs and receivers off their feet between the hashes. Here is my list:
5) Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The relatively diminutive (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) Buccaneers linebacker lacks ideal size for the position, but there is no disputing his explosive power and pop as a tackler. Few defenders in the NFL can stop runners in their tracks like David, making him one of the scariest defenders to face between the hashes. His nonstop motor and exceptional pursuit quickness allow him to track down runners on outside runs, which drastically shrinks the field for the defense. Considering how quickly he attacks the line of scrimmage after post-snap diagnosis, David's presence in the middle of the field poses a huge problem for teams attempting to probe the heart of the Buccaneers' defense.
4) DeAndre Levy, OLB, Detroit Lions
Though he missed the Pro Bowl last season, this ferocious hitter and playmaker is finally beginning to receive the attention he deserves. The Lions linebacker is an impressive tackler with outstanding instincts, diagnostic skills and strong hands. He attacks the line of scrimmage with reckless abandon, yet rarely misses one-on-one tackles in the hole. His combination of balance, body control and agility, which is uncommon for a linebacker, enables him to also excel in pass coverage. He's recorded 12 career interceptions and consistently delivers "bang-bang" hits on crossing routes within his area. Considering Levy's dynamic pass-rush skills and overall versatility, the Lions' designated playmaker deserves recognition for his dominance as a sideline-to-sideline player.
3) Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks
The case could be made that Chancellor deserves a better spot on this list, based on his menacing presence, but I decided to slot him right behind another hard-hitting Seahawk. Still, there is no denying Chancellor's impact as the "hammer" in the secondary. The 6-3, 232-pounder consistently lowers the boom on receivers venturing between the hashes; those big hits discourage offensive coordinators from attacking the middle of the field with short and intermediate routes. Moreover, the intimidation factor created by Chancellor's combination of size, speed, power and pop changes the way players and coaches approach their matchups with the NFL's top defense.
2) Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle Seahawks
It's no coincidence that the Seahawks' defense took a step back when Wagner -- who missed five games last season with a toe injury -- was off the field. He is unquestionably the heart and soul of his unit, bringing a fierce presence and contributing rugged play within the box. The energetic playmaker has superb instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills, but his physicality, toughness and tenacity are what set him apart from most others at the position. Wagner punishes runners and receivers who dare cross into his area, exhibiting exceptional snap and pop on contact. Wagner, who measures 6-0 and 241 pounds, has superior leverage and explosive weight transfer, which prevents runners from falling forward at the end of plays. That's critical to playing winning defense against the dink-and-dunk offenses that live off RAC (run after the catch) yardage on the perimeter. Given the continued dominance of the Seahawks' defense and Wagner's annual impact on the unit with his tackling prowess, the fourth-year pro certainly deserves this spot.
1) Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' hard-hitting linebacker claimed the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year awards on the strength of his tackling prowess and playmaking ability between the hashes. Kuechly is a vicious hitter capable of stoning power runners in the hole or snatching elusive runners attempting to turn the corner on outside runs. Most impressively, the fourth-year pro is a new-school middle linebacker with an old-school mentality and game; that is to say, he's athletic and rangy, but he's also an imposing force and physical hitter. With a ton of production (473 tackles, six sacks and seven picks in three seasons) to validate his contributions to the Panthers' stingy defense, it's easy to place Kuechly at No. 1, especially after watching how his physicality, toughness and intimidation wear down opponents over the course of a game.