For all the talk about today's NFL being governed by quarterback play, the surest way to consistently compete for the Lombardi Trophy is to field an elite defense that smothers opponents and creates scoring chances off turnovers. This has long been the philosophy of Super Bowl winners, but it took the Seattle Seahawks' dismantling of the league's No. 1 offense in February to reaffirm the importance of defensive dominance to the casual fan.
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Looking back at last season's final rankings in total defense, it's no coincidence that each of the top five teams landed in the playoffs -- and the sixth-ranked squad (Arizona) finished with a 10-6 mark.
So, yes, following Tuesday's exploration of how the divisions stack up offensively, I wanted to provide a defensive hierarchy. After poring over depth charts and reviewing All-22 Coaches Film, I settled on the following pecking order heading into the 2014 campaign:
8) NFC East
The "NFC Least" label certainly applies here, based on the lack of defensive resistance displayed across the division last season. Three of the four teams finished in the bottom half of the league in total defense (with the New York Giants being the lone outlier), and every defense surrendered at least 23.9 points per game. This is why the NFC East is so lightly regarded entering the new season, despite the division's clear offensive prowess.
The forecast remains bleak on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in Dallas, where the dismissal of DeMarcus Ware and a season-ending injury to Sean Lee have left the Cowboys without leadership or playmaking ability. The Washington Redskins hope some offseason additions (headlined by DE Jason Hatcher) can help reduce last year's ghastly points-per-game figure of 29.9. The Philadelphia Eagles are counting on upgrades in the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins) and pass rush (first-round draft pick Marcus Smith) to cut down on the big plays that plagued the unit in 2013.
For the G-Men, the return of a healthy Jason Pierre-Paul could make all the difference in the world. The former Pro Bowler was an absolute force of nature a few years back. The revitalized presence of Pierre-Paul -- who is still just 25 -- should create playmaking opportunities for the young defenders coordinator Perry Fewell is trying to break in this season.
7) NFC North
The offenses clearly reign supreme in the NFC North, but solid defense is essential to competing for the conference crown. That's why it's imperative for the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears to get back on track on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, both units ranked near the bottom of the league in total defense; this ineptitude prevented the two teams from making a push for the Lombardi Trophy, despite having explosive offenses. I expect both defenses to be much improved in the wake of some key offseason additions. Also, Packers coordinator Dom Capers and Bears coordinator Mel Tucker simplified their schemes to allow their top playmakers to play faster.
6) AFC South
The dearth of elite quarterbacks in the AFC South could skew defensive rankings in the coming season. (Not to render any potential defensive success null and void -- it's just something to keep in mind.)
The teams within this division prefer to get after the passer with traditional four-man rushes. One squad that shouldn't have much trouble racking up sacks with this approach: the Houston Texans, who now boast a devastating 1-2 punch of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. The Indianapolis Colts are the only other team with an elite pass rusher (Robert Mathis), though; the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars practice disruption by committee. Generally speaking, teams that lack true difference makers in the pass rush don't inspire a whole lot of confidence against the game's premier offenses. Thus, it will be imperative for many of the defensive coordinators in this division to mix up their schemes, allowing their respective defenses to create consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Despite a deficiency of overall star power, this certainly isn't a hopeless defensive division. I won't be surprised if one of the AFC South's unheralded squads emerges as a defensive force.
5) AFC West
The offensive fireworks in the AFC West -- particularly in Denver -- routinely grab the headlines, but keen observers noticed offseason upgrades on defenses across the division. First and foremost, the Broncos added a trio of tough guys (DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib) to shed the soft mentality that has been associated with the D. If these veterans can make plays within coordinator Jack Del Rio's scheme, the "Orange Crush" could re-emerge in the Mile High City.
In San Diego, coach Mike McCoy hopes an upgraded secondary (with Brandon Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett) will allow defensive coordinator John Pagano to take a more aggressive approach. If the Chargers are able to increase blitzing and pressure tactics -- to yield more sacks, turnovers and disruptive plays -- they have the pieces in place to play championship-caliber defense. Kansas City certainly has the talent to be a dominant defense, but coach Andy Reid needs to restore the unit's confidence after a second-half regression and an epic meltdown in the playoffs. Without an elite corner on the perimeter to shut down the opponent's No. 1 receiver, heavy utilization of bump-and-run coverage could be a dicey proposition for the Chiefs. Lastly, coach Dennis Allen is looking to a cast of aging veterans to help the Oakland Raiders become competitive against the potent offenses that occupy the division.
4) AFC North
This division's rugged reputation spawned from the hard-hitting defenses it has featured through the years. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have menaced their way to Super Bowl titles behind punishing defenses that overwhelmed opponents with speed and physicality. While neither defense was close to being that dominant in 2013, offseason upgrades have them positioned to take a step forward this year.
3) AFC East
It's unfortunate that Rex Ryan's attention-getting quotes overshadow his defensive brilliance, but observers have to tip their cap in his direction after watching the New York Jets finish just outside of the top 10 in total defense (despite the cast of misfits in the back end). With a young defensive line in place to suffocate the run and create disruption against the pass, Gang Green is poised to make a run at the playoffs in 2014. Speaking of teams primed to make a run, the New England Patriots are reverting back to their early-2000s blueprint, with a defense that could have eight former first-round picks in the starting lineup. The addition of several veterans -- including cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner -- could allow Bill Belichick to get back to the complex schemes that befuddled opponents for years.
In Buffalo, Jim Schwartz takes over a Bills defense that notched an AFC-high 57 sacks in 2013 behind a formidable front line featuring Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. The wily new defensive coordinator isn't as aggressive as his predecessor (Mike Pettine), but he will look to apply pressure using a variety of stunts and games at the point of attack.
The Miami Dolphins have the foundation for a solid defense, but they need a full season of health from Cameron Wake, who battled injuries in 2013. And of course, this team must get something from Dion Jordan. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft was a big disappointment in Year 1, and now he's suspended for the first four games of this season.
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2) NFC South
It's easy to associate the NFC South with high-flying offenses, due to a plethora of franchise quarterbacks, but the top defensive unit in the division typically captures the division crown. Last season, the Carolina Panthers rose to prominence behind a smothering D that snuffed out ground attacks and forced opponents to adopt a one-dimensional approach. Oh, and the New Orleans Saints quietly fielded a top-five defense in Rob Ryan's first year on the job. The brash defensive coordinator unleashed a "big nickel" scheme on opponents that neutralized passing games and left quarterbacks vulnerable to exotic blitzes off the edge.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the pieces in place to field an elite defense if players quickly buy into Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme. The defensive-minded head coach has directed some of the most opportunistic groups in NFL history; this meshing of philosophy and personnel could produce fireworks in Raymond James Stadium. The Atlanta Falcons finished 27th in total and scoring defense last season, but they added some much-needed oomph up front in free agency (Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson) and the draft (Ra'Shede Hageman).
1) NFC West
Yup, no surprise in the No. 1 spot. The NFC West is as old-school as it comes -- each team in the division features a championship-caliber defense. The Seattle Seahawks just rode their stifling unit to the title while changing the way the game is played on the perimeter. Utilizing an aggressive, hug-and-mug cover scheme, the "Legion of Boom" smothered opposing aerial attacks, yielding just 172 passing yards per game. The 'Hawks allowed an NFL-low 14.4 points per game during the regular season -- and they performed even better in the playoffs, giving up a total of 40 points (13.3 per game) to the Saints, 49ers and Broncos.
Debate: Dethroning the 'Hawks?
Although the defending champs are well positioned to field the league's top defense once again, they will have to play at an elite level to stave off the units from San Francisco, Arizona and St. Louis. The Cardinals and Rams, in particular, have upgraded their stellar lineups with athletic defenders capable of making significant contributions as disruptive playmakers. (Of course, Arizona will dearly miss Daryl Washington.) Factor in the arrival of coordinator Gregg Williams (and his ultra-aggressive tactics) to St. Louis, and the NFC West is unquestionably the top defensive division in football.