In a world obsessed with offense, the Seattle Seahawks cut against the grain, using an aggressive, physical defense to shut down the most prolific scoring machine in NFL history. Instead of pouring money and energy into developing a high-octane aerial attack, Seattle put together a bruising collection of defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs; the team focused on stopping -- rather than emulating -- pass-heavy opponents like the Denver Broncos.
Following the Seahawks' dominant win in Super Bowl XLVIII, I talked to four different defensive coaches about the trends being shaped across the NFL, and the sense I got is that defenses are becoming simpler. The era of exotic blitzes and relatively complicated schemes like the Tampa 2 seems to be coming to an end, hastened by both Seattle's resounding success and the reality that many teams rely on young, inexperienced players working on short-term contracts. It's tough to get a rookie or someone playing on a one-year deal to master a complex defense, but such players can be quickly inserted into a simpler scheme and produce results right away. Thus, coaches are emphasizing fundamentals and technique, such as hand-placement and footwork, over scheme. As one coach told me, we're going back to the days of knock-your-tail-off defense.
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Simpler defenses featuring tighter coverage are also better equipped to handle the different types of offensive attacks that pepper the league. Teams have to be ready to stop both an athletic dual-threat like Cam Newton and a more traditional pocket passer like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning; players must be able to adjust quickly. If your defense is too complex, it's difficult to make necessary tweaks.
I think it's a bit early to say for sure, but we might soon see a shift away from the strategy of assembling a team around a high-priced quarterback. Instead, teams will look for defensive pieces like tackles who can push the pile or cornerbacks who have the size (like Richard Sherman) and long arms (like Byron Maxwell) to be a force on the field.
The Seahawks aren't the only team with the defensive talent to compete this way. Here are five other burgeoning defensive powerhouses with the potential to rival Seattle, plus one up-and-coming squad that figures to make noise in the near future. The teams are listed according to their ability to match Seattle's defensive prowess.
1) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers finished the regular season hot on the Seahawks' heels in two important defensive statistical categories, ranking just behind league-leading Seattle in points and yards allowed (Carolina yielded just 15.1 and 301.2 per game, respectively). Their defense also played a key role in their run to the NFC South title; after starting slowly, Carolina won 11 of its last 12 contests in 2013, limiting the opponent in each win to 20 points or fewer.
Like the Seahawks, the Panthers are stacked with tough, physical playmakers, especially when it comes to their defensive linemen and linebackers. Carolina's excellent front makes it possible to stop the run with seven guys; the defense doesn't need to bring an eighth guy up into the box. In fact, the Panthers' run defense was a big factor in their defensive dominance. After adding rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the team jumped from 14th against the run in 2012 to second in 2013, giving up just 86.9 rushing yards per game. When you can stop the run like that, you're in pretty good shape.
Other defensive leaders include outstanding linebackers Luke Kuechly (the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year) and Thomas Davis and a group of hard-nosed defensive backs, led by Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell. And we can't forget Coach of the Year Ron Rivera, who rose through the ranks as a defensive coordinator.
Of course, a big key for the Panthers is retaining free agent-to-be Greg Hardy, who partnered with Charles Johnson to form an outstanding pass rush (Hardy had 15 sacks and Johnson had 11). If the Panthers keep the Pro Bowler, I see no reason to think they'll slack off at all in 2014. Re-signing him does, admittedly, figure to be something of a challenge, meaning there's a decent chance the Panthers lose Hardy and slip a few spots in the defensive arms race.
2) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals played much of 2013 without the services of premier defensive tackle Geno Atkins and top-notch cornerback Leon Hall, who both suffered season-ending injuries in October -- and their defense was still among the NFL's best, statistically speaking, finishing fifth in points allowed (19.1 per game) and third in yards allowed (305.5 per game).
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Cincinnati features a defensive line filled with big, physical, high-effort guys and a group of linebackers who will take on blockers. The Bengals, who primarily play a 4-3 scheme, do a very good job mixing coverages and can play man or zone. They might lose end Michael Johnson, who fell off a bit from 2012, to free agency, but they'll still have outstanding pass rusher Carlos Dunlap and underrated nose tackle Domata Peko, with promising youngster Margus Hunt primed to take over for Johnson if necessary.
Coordinator Mike Zimmer left to take the head-coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings, but I would expect his replacement, former linebackers coach Paul Guenther, to keep things running smoothly. The defense should continue to make the Bengals competitive, regardless of how Andy Dalton and the offense perform.
3) San Francisco 49ers
The Niners are powered by an excellent front seven that is exceptionally stout against the run -- so much so, in fact, that they'll often use nickel and dime packages on first and second downs, something few other teams can afford to do. They can rush the passer with outside linebacker Aldon Smith (who racked up 8.5 sacks despite making just eight starts in 2013), while tackle Justin Smith, who is 34 and will be entering his 14th NFL season, still packs a punch. San Francisco's defensive backs, led by outstanding rookie safety Eric Reid, can hit.
The huge question mark, of course, is the health of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who suffered a serious knee injury in the NFC title game. Bowman is a rare talent, a Pro Bowl player and leader who really hustles. Consider the pick-six he recorded in a Week 16 win over the Falcons; after moving toward the quarterback, Bowman turned around to follow the play, hot-footing it to the ball -- and as a result, he was there to corral it when it was tipped in the air.
The Niners have serviceable replacements waiting in the wings, but Bowman is simply a cut above anyone you could stick in there. If he isn't ready to start the season, that will seriously impact their defense, which would be ranked higher here if it weren't for the uncertainty surrounding their linchpin linebacker.
4) Arizona Cardinals
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The Cardinals have outstanding talent at all three levels, powered by big, physical guys who will bring it to you. They have Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson, who might be the best cover corner in the NFL, leading a top-flight group of defensive backs that includes youngster Tyrann Mathieu, who shocked the world with his ability to make an impact as a rookie before an injury prematurely ended his 2013 season. Arizona was also, notably, the only team in the NFL to beat the Seahawks in Seattle this season, out-toughing the 'Hawks in a 17-10 win.
So why isn't this group ranked higher? While they excelled against the run, allowing a league-low 84.4 rushing yards per game, the Cardinals finished outside of the top five in both yards allowed (sixth, with 317.4 per game) and points allowed (seventh, at 20.2 per game). But with coordinator Todd Bowles entering his second season in Arizona -- and with everyone on the team gaining a year of experience -- Arizona's defense only figures to improve.
5) New Orleans Saints
Like everyone else on this list, the Saints have big, physical players up front, including pass-rushing monsters Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who combined for 24.5 sacks to help New Orleans finish with 49 as a team -- a 19-sack improvement over 2012's total. The Saints also gave up 150 fewer points than they did in 2012, finishing fourth overall in both points and yardage allowed.
Coordinator Rob Ryan is great when it comes to putting his players in position to take full advantage of their talents. The Saints play a 3-4 scheme with a lot of zone concepts. I expect Ryan to keep this unit humming in 2014.
Defense on the rise: St. Louis Rams
The Rams fell firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of yardage (15th) and points (13th) allowed, but they have tons of promise. In fact, St. Louis has about two-thirds of the necessary personnel in place, with extremely fast talent at both defensive line and linebacker. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are great pass rushers. The front four and linebackers are very strong against the run. (James Laurinaitis is an underrated 'backer.) Finally, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should help take this unit to the next level.
Notably, all but one of these squads -- Drew Brees' Saints -- finished far outside the top five in terms of both overall offense and passing offense. It's also important to note that the entire NFC West -- widely considered one of the best, most competitive divisions in the NFL -- is represented. While it's not quite time to declare the beginning of a new era of defensive dominance, change is clearly in the works.