NFL Playoff Report: Evaluating The Defenses

The Notebook takes a look at the defenses for the eight remaining NFL playoff teams, a follow-up to yesterday’s post that examined the offenses. As we did yesterday the teams are listed in the order of who they rank overall in points scored.

San Francisco (2nd): The 49ers play outstanding team defense. The best player is inside linebacker Patrick Willis, but he’s not the one who compiles the stats, as playing on the inside in a 3-4 is a tough way to get flashy numbers. But Ahmad Brooks has seven sacks from the outside and a secondary with corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, and safety Dashon Goldson, all do a good job in getting interceptions. Frisco stops the run and forces turnovers. The only real weakness is pass defense, and on a related point, getting off the field on third down. Although even that isn’t really a “weakness”. With the #10 pass defense in the NFL it’s just simply not as dominant as the other phases of this unit.

Baltimore (3rd): Seeing who the top defenses left in the playoffs are help us understand why that Thanksgiving Night battle the Harbaugh Brothers had in Charm City was so offensively-challenged. Although if two SEC teams played a game like that one, we’d being hearing odes to how marvelous the D was. The Ravens still have the big-name veterans on this unit, although Ray Lewis and Ed Reed don’t make the big plays they once used to. Terrell Suggs is the force, with 14 sacks at the outside linebacker spot. There’s no obvious weak point in this team, either by looking at stats or personnel, but if you can keep Suggs from wreaking havoc at least dealing with them becomes manageable.

Houston (4th): Houston gets an unusual level of pressure from its defensive ends for a 3-4 scheme. Both J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith can get to the quarterback, and then Wade Phillips can also bring Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed from the outside in the more classic 3-4 strategy. This team can get a lot of heat, but getting off the field on third down has been a bit of an issue, where they rank in the middle of the league. One factor to keep an eye on is that the rush defense is weaker than the pass D, so that can help opposing offenses set up manageable third downs and keep that pass rush on its heels.

New Orleans (13th): The Saints play disciplined pass coverage and they get off the field on third down, but the one thing they do not do is force turnovers. New Orleans is the worst in the NFC—the entire NFC, not just the playoff field—at getting takeaways and nobody plays the ball effectively in the secondary. You can also run the ball on New Orleans, and if you get Will Smith blocked at defensive end, there won’t be a pass rush. The Saints rank higher than the Packers and Patriots in points allowed, but as we’ll see it’s not a huge difference and the problems New Orleans has on this side of the ball is as big a problem as the folks in Lambeau and Foxboro have to worry about.

New England (15th): Bill Belichick has managed to jimmy-rig this defense, which allows teams to drive the field both in the air and on the ground, and keep it manageable through turnovers. New England has more interceptions than anyone in the AFC, thanks to corner Kyle Arrington, who’s picked off seven and made opponents pay for trying to avoid Devin McCourty. The Pats did take a huge blow with the loss of Andre Carter, whose ability to rush the passer was vital in helping to stem some of those drives.

Green Bay (19th): Like the Patriots, it’s all about forcing turnovers in Packerland. Green Bay cannot defend the run or the pass effectively. Where they differ from New England is that there’s more potential playmakers here, with Clay Matthews at outside linebacker and Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams on the corners. Matthews consistently draws a lot of attention from opposing offensive coordinators and it’s imperative someone in the front seven step up and get to the quarterback. While Green Bay has more potential than New England here, they’ve also failed to rush the passer as well as the Pats did when Andre Carter was healthy.

Denver (24th): John Fox’s defense has improved ever since Tim Tebow became quarterback, one of the many strange things that’s happened in this amazing Denver second half. The Broncos are a bit better defending the run, where they rank a little above the league average, then the pass, where they rank a little below. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are both capable of applying pressure, but this unit needs to improve at getting takeaways if they plan to compete with the league’s best on a consistent basis. Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman have the potential to ballhawk at corner and that needs to happen on a more frequent basis.

NY Giants: It’s the pass rush and the turnovers that bail the Giants out. Jason Pierre-Paul is the best pure 4-3 defensive end left playing right now, and Justin Tuck can still make you pay if you single-team in. Just as important is that Chris Canty gets pressure up the middle, a rare commodity for a defensive line. Corey Webster and Aaron Ross play the ball very well on the corners. What New York must do better is…well, everything else. They have the Green Bay/New England problem of letting opponents drive up and down the field before straightening things out.