Panthers, Browns can challenge Seahawks' defensive dominance

The 2013 Seattle Seahawks overwhelmed opponents with a suffocating defense. The unit finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in total and scoring defense, and then went on to allow a grand total of 40 postseason points to the Saints, 49ers and Broncos (all of whom averaged 25-plus points per game in the regular season).

With most of the defensive cast returning in 2014, the reigning Super Bowl champions are poised to field the NFL's best D once again. But of course, there are a number of promising units across the league. Which team is best equipped to challenge the Seahawks for defensive superiority this season?

Seattle gave up 231 points last season. Carolina gave up 241. Despite all the questions about the Panthers' offense, their defense returns with the same potent assets it boasted last season. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy rival any pass-rushing duo out there. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were fantastic as rookies, and they should be better this year. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis comprise the most talented, rangy pair of linebackers east of San Francisco. Yes, the rag-tag secondary is brand new, but that was also true last year.

The Seahawks have a great scheme, while the Panthers have great players.

  • Bucky Brooks @BuckyBrooks
  • If Cleveland can get everything to click, watch out

The Cleveland Browns' defense could rank as the NFL's best this season. New coach Mike Pettine inherited a unit loaded with young, athletic players who can be plugged into an aggressive scheme that befuddles quarterbacks and suffocates running games.

An "attack" mentality will allow the Browns' playmakers to operate free and loose on the perimeter. Most players are at their best when unshackled by mind clutter. Thus, the melding of scheme and personnel could make the Browns downright scary to deal with for opposing offenses.

  • Dave Dameshek @Dameshek
  • Bengals have something big brewing

The Jets, Bills, Cardinals, Rams and Packers are all fine candidates to rank first defensively in 2014, but I'll go with the Cincinnati Bengals here.

For all the talent in Seattle's defense, its greatest attribute last season was its remarkable depth. The same is true of the Bengals' unit, which ranked third in 2013 despite losing Geno Atkins -- its best defender and the game's best interior defensive lineman -- to a torn ACL in Week 9. That's because even without Atkins, the line is young, talented and deep. At the second level, third-year pro Vontaze Burfict is so good and rangy at linebacker, he's like Luke Kuechly with a nastier disposition. In the secondary, rookie corner Darqueze Dennard -- who already has coach Marvin Lewis swooning -- joins a strong mix of youthful athleticism and high-pedigree experience.

The biggest (and maybe only) question is, how much will the defense miss coordinator Mike Zimmer, who left to coach the Vikings? The likely answer: Not all that much in the short term, thanks to Paul Guenther, who was promoted to replace Zimmer after a couple of years as the Bengals' linebacker coach.

  • Gil Brandt @Gil_Brandt
  • Niners can survive losses and mount a coup

The San Francisco 49ers, who finished as the fifth-ranked defense according to yardage last year while yielding just 17 points per game, have a good chance to displace the Seahawks in 2014. They have excellent personnel, and I think they can survive without NaVorro Bowman, who will likely miss a large chunk of the season while he continues to recover from an ACL tear suffered in last year's playoffs, and Aldon Smith, whose future availability is in doubt thanks to several off-field issues. The Niners also have some exciting youngsters in the fold, like second-year pro Tank Carradine, who didn't play last year while he dealt with a knee injury but could develop into quite the pass-rusher.

The Niners have excellent defensive coaches, too. In fact, coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula are two of the best in the NFL. This team is simply very good.

  • Elliot Harrison @HarrisonNFL
  • Legion of Boom: Desert Edition? Arizona's secondary could be elite

Playing off NFL Network's "Why Not Us" theme, why not the Arizona Cardinals? This defense finished seventh in points allowed last year, and should be top five (at least) this season. If Tyrann Mathieu receives a clean bill of health -- and the Honey Badger himself believes a return to the field is just around the corner -- just imagine how dynamic he can be with a year's experience under his belt. Add that to Antonio Cromartie's offseason arrival, and this Patrick Peterson-led secondary has the chance to be special. Yes, the front seven took a hit with Daryl Washington's season-long suspension. Yet, if you look at the units that finished 2013 ranked ahead of Arizona (and behind No. 1 Seattle) in points allowed, you can make cases against them, too:

2) Carolina Panthers: Along with Cards, the strongest competition for Seattle. However, questions remain in the secondary. The Panthers face strong quarterbacks their first 11 games: Josh McCown, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Nick Foles and Matt Ryan. There's not a true clunker in that group. Of course, Carolina's potent pass rush has the ability to atone for some issues in the defensive backfield.
3) San Francisco 49ers: Age, mediocre corners and NaVorro Bowman's questionable health status could spell a drop for this defense.
4) New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan's defense looked great last year, but by most accounts, the unit played a little over its head. Much depends on the performance of two veteran additions: Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd.
T-5) Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Zimmer's departure is huge. He has been one of the best defensive coordinator's in the business for years. Also, Michael Johnson now plays in Tampa Bay.
T-5) Kansas City Chiefs: Who is going to play corner? Sean Smith must step up. The Chiefs have the potential to be top five again, provided Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers don't throw for a gazillion yards on Andy Reid's secondary.

All of the above defenses are outstanding, but there are question marks. So why not Bruce Arians' Cardinal defense?

  • Charley Casserly @CharleyCasserly
  • Forget about the competition -- Seattle will not give up the throne

At this point, I don't really think anyone can topple the 'Hawks. Seattle's strength is its secondary, which remains excellent; Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are young players who can, believe it or not, continue to get better. The Seahawks' linebacker corps -- featuring guys like Bobby Wagner and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith -- is also young. Red Bryant, who was released this offseason, was an asset on the field against the run and in the locker room as a leader, but the defensive front can still rush the passer with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Seattle's ball-control offense, meanwhile, only helps the defense.

The NFL emphasizes the pass -- and the Seahawks are built perfectly to defend the pass-oriented offenses that populate the league. Not to mention the fact that their home stadium is the toughest venue to play in for opposing offenses.

  • Adam Schein @AdamSchein
  • Don't overlook the Cardinals, Ravens, Texans and Bills

With brilliant coaching, amazing depth, the "Legion of Boom" and a ferocious pass rush, the Seahawks have the best defense in the NFL, bar none. I think the 49ers will boast the second-best unit, while the Bengals should field a strong group, as well.

I'll give you a few sleepers to challenge, though ...

I love the Cardinals' collection of defensive talent. In fact, if Daryl Washington weren't suspended, I might rank Arizona ahead of Seattle in this space. (Yes, it's that big a loss.) The Ravens' D will become great again, with C.J. Mosley winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. And don't be surprised when the Texans and Bills put together elite pass rushes, allowing both teams to win games you don't expect them to win.

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