Yesterday, I looked at the NFL's top offensive divisions. Today, I'm turning my attention to the defensive side of the ball. How do the rankings shake out? See below:
8) AFC South
The Houston Texans are the defensive kings of the AFC South, with the rest of the division lacking star power on that side of the ball. J.J. Watt headlines a rock-solid defense featuring fellow proven playmakers Vince Wilfork and Brian Cushing. With Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson capable of shutting out receivers on the perimeter, the Texans can dictate the terms to offenses around the NFL.
The Indianapolis Colts' defense will live in the shadows of their high-powered offense, but the team will only make a Super Bowl run if the defense carries its weight. The unit struggled stopping the run in 2014; coordinator Greg Manusky must find a way to plug the holes between the tackles. D'Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman had difficulty tackling big backs on power-based runs, and how well they hold up at the point of attack will be critical to the unit's postseason survival.
Coach Gus Bradley has some intriguing pieces to build around in Jacksonville. Jared Odrick brings a big-bodied presence to the front, with athletic and physical sideline-to-sideline players Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny backing him up -- they should be good enough to keep the Jaguars competitive when they are overmatched on the field. Dick LeBeau joined Ray Horton this offseason to fix the Tennessee Titans' defense, but the unit doesn't have enough blue-chippers to challenge the top offenses in the NFL.
7) NFC South
Defensive play in the NFC South has dipped in recent years -- with the exception of the Carolina Panthers. Ron Rivera's squad has dominated on the strength of stellar play from Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The energetic tandem breathes life into the unit with tenacity, toughness and physicality; they also excel at clogging passing lanes between the hashes and knocking the ball loose from receivers. Under-the-radar cover corners Josh Norman and Bene' Benwikere could emerge as the division's top cornerback tandem.
Credit Dan Quinn for bringing energy to Atlanta, but he'll need to wave a magic wand to get the unit to play with the physicality and force needed to reach the postseason. New additions Vic Beasley, Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and Adrian Clayborn give the front seven some toughness and electricity, giving Atlanta a legitimate chance to get after the passer. The Saints want to get back to their blitz-happy ways under coordinator Rob Ryan. Brandon Browner adds muscle to the secondary, which, with Jairus Byrd returning to health and Kenny Vaccaro rediscovering his game, should play better behind a fortified pass rush led by Cameron Jordan and Hau'oli Kikaha.
Lovie Smith snatched the play card from coordinator Leslie Frazier prior to the preseason to put his own stamp on the Buccaneers' Tampa 2 defense. The soft-spoken defensive architect has a solid front seven in place, with Gerald McCoy in the middle and a host of swift tacklers (Lavonte David, Bruce Carter and/or Kwon Alexander) on the flanks. If Tampa Bay's defenders run to the ball with reckless abandon, the turnovers will eventually come in bunches.
6) NFC East
The prolific offenses in the NFC East overshadow their defensive brethren, but the division should feature more competitive units in 2015. The Cowboys and Eagles, in particular, are vastly improved, with a series of personnel moves upgrading the talent in key areas. Dallas snatched up a pair of pass rushers in Greg Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory who can destroy opponents off the edges; in Hardy, Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys have a three-headed monster to unleash on quarterbacks in the pocket. With cornerback Orlando Scandrick out, passers could "dink-and-dunk" the ball down the field, but coordinator Rod Marinelli's insistence on energy, effort and hustle could negate the "catch-and-run" approach.
The Eagles signed Byron Maxwell to serve as CB1 and added Eric Rowe to compete for a starting role on the opposite side. Walter Thurmond gives the team a versatile free safety with sub-package potential (nickel corner) to enhance nickel and dime coverage. If the Eagles can continue to pressure the passer with consistent success, Chip Kelly's spirited bunch could spark a run to Super Bowl 50.
The Robert Griffin III saga has diverted attention away from the Redskins' defense and its immense potential. The rebuilt line has the size and girth (in Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea) to hold the point against the run. Though Washington still needs to identify a pass-rush partner for him, the energetic Ryan Kerrigan can single-handedly create pressure on passing downs. The secondary remains a bit of a question mark, with Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver adjusting to a new scheme and DeAngelo Hall returning from injury. How well the pieces of the puzzle fit will ultimately determine whether the defense can carry an offense that might struggle with Kirk Cousins at the helm.
Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's return to the Giants is expected to rejuvenate their defense, but personnel issues -- Jason Pierre-Paul's uncertain status, inexperience at safety -- could prevent the cerebral play caller from fully utilizing his playbook. It's hard to see this team packing a defensive punch this season.
5) AFC North
It's uncommon for the AFC North to rank below the line defensively, but this season, questions surround each of the defensive units in the division. The Pittsburgh Steelers are incorporating more Tampa 2 concepts to reduce the number of big plays routinely surrendered in their previous zone-blitz scheme. Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree must provide a consistent rush off the edge to make the zone-heavy approach work, with blitzes from Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier perhaps augmenting the pass rush. A lack of pressure could expose the leaky coverage of William Gay and Cortez Allen.
After finishing third in total defense in 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals struggled in coordinator Paul Guenther's first season at the helm, but the pieces are in place for a bounce-back in 2015. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson should form a dangerous combination at the point of attack; the return of Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga gives the team a pair of enforcers between the tackles. If Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones can limit the big plays on the outside, the Bengals could claw back into the top 10.
The Ravens are always in the "elite-defense" conversation, due to the presence of several blue-chip players along the front seven, including Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley. With Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan expected to contribute as interior "house wreckers," Baltimore's front can alleviate the pressure on Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington in coverage.
Ignore the Browns' dismal ranking against the run last season (32nd) and pay close attention to the collection of talent assembled by general manager Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine. The Browns can punch opponents in the mouth with a rugged front featuring Danny Shelton, Randy Starks and Desmond Bryant on the line and Karlos Dansby and Chris Kirksey in the middle. With the blanket coverage provided by Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson in the secondary, the Browns' D could get the Dawg Pound rocking again.
4) NFC North
The "Black and Blue" division has a tradition of fielding some of the NFL's most physical defenses. Last season, the Detroit Lions were the group that bullied foes behind a front seven that controlled the trenches with athleticism and physicality. Although the loss of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley weakens the rotation along the front line, the arrival of Haloti Ngata ensures the beatdowns will continue between the tackles. DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch own the second level as active linebackers with nasty demeanors. If coordinator Teryl Austin can get decent play from his corners, the Lions' defense will remain an elite unit in his second season at the helm.
The Vikings' offense has been stealing the headlines, but the defense is what will spark a run to the postseason. Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr form an imposing 1-2 punch off the edge, with Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph occupying the middle. The foursome could set the table for Eric Kendricks to run away with the 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year award as a high-motor tackling machine. Harrison Smith spearheads a secondary with a pair of intriguing lockdown corners (Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes) who have the size and speed to challenge the division's top pass catchers. This is a defense on the rise.
Expectations are high for the Packers, based on the presence of Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and B.J. Raji, but the team needs several young players to contribute. The fate of Green Bay's defense rests on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Casey Hayward, Sam Barrington and Datone Jones -- the youngsters could determine whether the Packers can compete with top receiver Jordy Nelson sidelined.
New coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio are committed to restoring the tradition of the Bears' defense, but the defensive gurus will need some time. Chicago could field a decent pass rush with Jared Allen, Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston, but suspect coverage and spotty linebacker play could limit the hunters' chances of getting after the quarterback.
3) AFC West
This division, which has featured some of the top offenses in the NFL, is home to some stellar defenses. The Denver Broncos could compete for the Lombardi Trophy on the strength of their defense alone. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are arguably the most explosive pass-rush tandem in the league -- yet, the best duo on the team might be Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, two sticky cover guys who excel at blanketing pass catchers on the perimeter and forcing tight throws. With coordinator Wade Phillips adept at creating opportunities for pass rushers, the Broncos' secondary could become a turnover machine, as quarterbacks make hurried throws from the pocket.
The Kansas City Chiefs sport an impressive pass-rushing tandem of their own in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston in particular is a young, athletic rusher with excellent snap-count anticipation and burst. He anchors a formidable pass rush that also features the ultra-athletic Dontari Poe in the middle. If the secondary can hold up with a rookie (Marcus Peters) manning one side and the rangy Sean Smith locking down the other (once Smith returns from his three-game suspension), the Chiefs could be in business.
Chargers coordinator John Pagano could become a household name after directing one of the top defenses in football this season. San Diego has a set of young playmakers (Jason Verrett, Melvin Ingram, Manti Te'o and Jeremiah Attaochu) to complement some savvy veterans (Eric Weddle, Brandon Flowers and Donald Butler) on a rugged defense that overwhelms opponents with speed and athleticism. If the Chargers avoid the injury bug, they could emerge as a dark-horse contender in the AFC.
The Oakland Raiders are a year away from contending for a division title, but the pieces are in place to bully opponents in the Black Hole. Led by Khalil Mack and an underrated set of linebackers, the Raiders are an energetic bunch poised to create chaos at the point of attack. With enthusiastic coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. setting the tone, the Raiders are a unit to watch this fall.
2) NFC West
The Seahawks have a new architect in coordinator Kris Richard, but the unit should continue to dominate with Pro Bowlers on every level. The "Legion of Boom" sets the tone with its rock 'em, sock 'em approach, but it is the speed and athleticism of the front seven that stifles opponents. Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane and Bobby Wagner are the underrated stalwarts that make Seattle nearly impenetrable on game days.
The Rams are growing into a salty bunch under coordinator Gregg Williams, and opponents should fear the unit's destructive defensive line and swift linebacker corps. Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Chris Long are energetic playmakers with a collective combination of skills that exploits disjointed offensive lines. With Williams sending rushers from every angle, the Rams' athletic defense should run roughshod over opponents this season.
Despite losing coordinator Todd Bowles as a play caller, the Cardinals remain a force behind a rugged defense that punishes opponents at every turn. The Calais Campbell-led line is stout at the point of attack, while the versatile secondary harasses opponents with a hybrid dime package (six defensive backs) featuring three safeties on the field. Given Patrick Peterson's ability to snuff out receivers on the perimeter, the Cardinals should not skip a beat in 2015.
The 49ers are no longer touted as an elite defense, following the losses of several key contributors (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Chris Borland). But the unit is still dangerous with new coordinator Eric Mangini in charge. The crafty play caller is a masterful schemer, and he has enough pieces around him to cobble a solid performance from a team that's played great defense for the past decade.
1) AFC East
The defensive firepower in the AFC East is staggering. From pass rushers (Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Chandler Jones) to run stoppers (Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson), cover corners (Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Brent Grimes, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty) and defensive masterminds (Rex Ryan-Dennis Thurman, Todd Bowles and Bill Belichick), the AFC East is unquestionably the division to look at when it comes to defensive dominance in 2015.
The Buffalo Bills' defense could lord over the NFL with Ryan and Thurman inheriting a talented unit featuring the most destructive defensive line in football. The exotic blitzes and simulated rushes that are staples of Ryan's playbook should create more one-on-one opportunities for a front line that accounted for 41 of the team's 57 sacks in 2013 while using a similar system under Mike Pettine. With Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams emerging as young stars in the secondary, the blitz-happy Bills are poised to wreak havoc on foes this season.
The Miami Dolphins lack name recognition on the sidelines (Kevin Coyle is Miami's defensive coordinator), but there is no disputing the star power in the starting lineup. The Dolphins trot out a front line that features a pair of explosive bookend rushers (Wake and Vernon) surrounding the most destructive interior defender (Suh) in the game. The chaos created at the point of attack should allow Grimes and Co. to feast on errant tosses in the back end.
It is almost unfair to give a blitz-happy play caller a crew of cover corners adept at locking down receivers on the perimeter, but that's exactly what happened in New York with Revis, Cromartie and Buster Skrine joining forces with Bowles. The arrival of three veteran corners with strong press-cover skills allows Bowles to aggressively attack quarterbacks with a barrage of blitzes designed to give Wilkerson, Richardson, Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace prime opportunities at the point of attack. Considering how well the Jets suffocated opponents with inferior corners, the thought of an aggressive defense with ideal secondary personnel is downright scary.
The New England Patriots lack the firepower of their divisional rivals, but the presence of a defensive czar on the sidelines gives them a puncher's chance to knock out any opponent. Belichick cleverly crafts schemes to force opponents away from their strengths while also putting his best guys in position to make plays. The job is certainly easier with Pro Bowl-caliber players in the lineup, but the defensive wizard finds a way to get it done with so-called no-names dotting the roster.