Ranking the defensive fronts: The Middlers

| September 6, 2010

Continuing our look at the defensive lines heading into the 2010 season, Ben Stockwell takes you from 20 to 11. Who will rise to the top, and who will sink to the bottom?

And will the mediocrity of these fronts mean mediocrity in the standings as well?

20. St Louis Rams (Run defense No. 19, Pass rush No. 22)

The Rams passed on the opportunity to draft a top-rated defensive tackle in this year’s draft and instead took their franchise quarterback, Sam Bradford. This group was mired in mediocrity last season, a unit that was no better than the sum of its parts and looks like it will do the same again this season. There is some promise in this group with the likes of Dorell Scott (+6.6) and Clifton Ryan (+6.0) being solid against the run, but there is no dominant presence against the run or getting after the QB. Steve Spagnuolo will hope that in Year 2 his coaching staff will take an average 2009 season and bring this unit forward.

Best player: Chris Long

Long has never delivered on his draft status as a No. 2 overall pick, but he took a slight step up in performance from 2008 (2.0) to 2009 (3.8). Rams fans will hope that Long can make more progress in 2010 and become the leader of this defensive line. Long registered 13 hits in 2009, among the top 20 in the league and more than the likes of John Abraham and Dwight Freeney. The hope will be that he can bring in a similar number of sacks in 2010.

One to watch: Dorell Scott

The arrival of Fred Robbins may limit Scott’s chances to take a starting role in St Louis, but on limited snaps (283) Scott impressed as a run-defender last season (+6.6 run-defense grade). Working in combination with Ryan, Scott gives the Rams potentially solid, run-defending duo of D-tackles. The question is whether either of these two or  Robbins (+5.1 pass rush in ’09) can provide the interior pass rush that the Rams lacked last season.

19. Tennessee Titans (Run defense No. 25, Pass rush No. 9)

When Albert Haynesworth departed Tennessee, the question was how they would replace his presence on the line. Tony Brown emerged from Albert’s shadow to throw his hat into the ring as one of the strongest pass-rushing D-tackles in the league (5 sacks, 7 hits, 33 pressures), and the Titans didn’t miss Haynesworth’s presence as a pass-rusher last year. The Titans need this promising group to step up and provide a stronger presence in run D in 2010. Titans fans will hope that rookie Derrick Morgan can provide some extra juice for this unit.

Under pressure: Jason Jones

The Titans need a full, 16-game season from Jones this season. He has shown that he has the talent to complement Brown in the lineup, but the Titans need more than the 244 snaps he was able to offer last year. Jovan Haye was a disappointment, and Titans fans hope Jones can stay on the field to form a strong partnership with Brown and take the Titans’ defense ahead in 2010.

One to watch: Jacob Ford

Ford was used largely as a situational pass-rusher in ’09 and provided a strong presence as an edge-rusher (6 sacks, 13 hits, 14 pressures). What can he offer now that Kyle Vanden Bosch has departed and a starting spot has opened up? Ford will have to compete with William Hayes for a starting spot, as Morgan is likely to be given every opportunity to take playing time, but Ford’s presence as a pass-rusher should see him get more than the 443 snaps he got in 2009.

18. New York Giants (Run defense No. 20, Pass rush No. 15)

Truth be told, the Giants and Peter King were the inspiration for this article. King tweeted a few weeks back that New York again had the strongest defensive line in the league. Certainly they have a wealth of talented pass-rushers, with the likes of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, but in terms of an all-around unit we don’t agree with the assessment. The interior is the great failing of this unit; Fred Robbins has now departed and the pressure is on Chris Canty to step up and earn his contract. A return to prior form from Rocky Bernard wouldn’t go amiss either.

Best player: Justin Tuck

Tuck ran out of gas last season, with two poor performances in the final two games (-3.9 vs. Carolina, -2.1 at Minnesota), but prior to that he put in another strong season as both a pass-rusher and run-defender. He took a step back last season from his elite level of play in ’08 but was still the strongest player on a disappointing Giants line. His performances against Oakland (2 sacks, +4.5 overall grade), Arizona (+3.6 run-defense grade) and Atlanta (1 sack, 1 hit, 5 pressures) show what he is still capable of. The Giants just need it on a more consistent basis in 2010.

Under pressure: Chris Canty

Injury limited Canty’s playing time in ’09, but considering he made the move from the Cowboys’ 3-4 to the Giants’ 4-3, Canty gave a disappointing return on his hefty contract. As a pass-rusher he produced 1 hit and 6 pressures on 134 pass rushes. He also logged an underwhelming -4.5 grade on 122 run defense snaps. With Robbins now in St. Louis with former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and only rookie Linval Joseph added to the mix, the pressure is on Canty to prove his worth for Big Blue.

17. Indianapolis Colts (Run defense No. 29, Pass rush No. 5)

The Colts have their formula, and in the last decade it has worked to the tune of a Super Bowl win and multiple division titles. That formula: a ruthless pass rush and a ruthless quarterback, with no real help coming from either rushing offense or defense. On the defensive line it works because of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who are so good that they did their extraordinary damage last season on fewer snaps than their backup defensive ends played. The formula works and the Colts will continue to win, but that doesn’t change the fact that the line is still deficient as a unit and entirely dependent upon Freeney and Mathis.

Best player: Dwight Freeney

With his speed off the edge and his terrifying inside spin move, is there a pass rusher in the NFL who gives offensive tackles more nightmares than Freeney? His run defense is underrated as well. Although he’s not going to be a stout presence on the edge, he uses his speed well to disrupt run plays. This can cause issues at times, but he’s far from the complete liability that is sometimes suggested. Injuries are starting to catch up with him, however, and the Colts hope that first-round pick Jerry Hughes can show the ability to replace Freeney in time.

Under pressure: Daniel Muir

Interior run defense continues to be a weakness for the Colts — behind a weak pair of defensive tackles sits Gary Brackett, who is more adept in pass coverage than run defense. Muir was the Colts’ best run-defender on the inside last season but was still below average (-3.3), and they will hope for more this year with Muir starting from Day 1. With seemingly no help in run defense coming from Antonio Johnson (-12.8) or Fili Moala (-9.1), the pressure is on Muir to step up and be the lynchpin of the Colts’ run defense in 2010.

16. Seattle Seahawks (Run defense No. 10, Pass rush No. 26)

The Seahawks lost their veteran leader in the offseason with Patrick Kerney‘s retirement. Although Kerney’s best days are firmly behind him, he will be missed from the Seahawks’ lineup. Until we see the system that Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Casey Bradley install this year, it’s a little tough to judge this unit. But whatever the system, the profile of the line is likely to be the same: strong interior, major question marks on the edge. Will a hybrid scheme bring more from Aaron Curry if he is brought closer to the line of scrimmage? Somehow the Seahawks need more from their edge defenders this year; the interior is sound but they need more to take advantage of the underwhelming pass protection of their division rivals.

Best player: Brandon Mebane

Mebane formed a strong pairing with Colin Cole at the heart of the Seahawks’ run defense last season and Carroll will look for more of the same in 2010. Mebane did most of his damage in midseason as a run-defender, showing not the single-game destruction of other defensive tackles but a sterling consistency from game to game. From Week 4 at Indianapolis to Week 11 at Minnesota, Mebane graded under 1.2 as a run defender only once — in the Seahawks Week 6 home defeat to the Cardinals (-0.2). Mebane’s pass rushing took a big step back from ’08 (36 total pressures) to ’09 (22 total pressures) and Seahawks’ fans hope that Carroll’s coaching staff can bring more from Mebane in this regard.

One to watch: Chris Clemons

Clemons has spent his career to date as a situational pass-rusher and has produced strong performances at stops in Oakland  and Philadelphia. Eight sacks, 11 hits and 24 pressures on 332 pass rushes in the last two seasons are solid returns as a pass-rusher — the question now is, can he maintain that at a higher snap count? His run defense will be tested as it hasn’t before (a mere 67 snaps of run defense in the past two seasons) and we’ll have to keep an eye on whether he can maintain a full-time role or whether he is reduced to a pass rushing role. Will he be more Andre Carter or Osi Umenyiora?

15. Oakland Raiders (Run defense No. 15, Pass rush No. 18)

The Raiders’ defensive line was encouraging and frustrating in equal measures last season. For every dominant performance they managed on a team and individual level, there was a disappointing performance to back it up. Richard Seymour, for example, bracketed a poor showing against the Giants (-2.8) with two strong performances against Houston (3.2) and Philadelphia (9.1). Tommy Kelly matched that sequence of games and if the Raiders are to challenge in what could be a weak AFC West, consistency from a unit with the potential to be one of the best in the league is a must.

Best player: Richard Seymour

The Patriots may get long-term value from the deal they struck to acquire Seymour, but in the short-term he was much missed. He showed with his dominant performance against Philadelphia (2.6 run D, 2 sacks, 2 hits, 4 pressures) that he could still take over games. The Raiders will be looking for more of the same with Seymour shifting inside this year. Combining Seymour with Kelly and John Henderson, the Raiders have a potentially fearsome trio of defensive tackles. The question is whether they can buck their recent trend and actually get the best from their aging veterans.

One to watch: Matt Shaughnessy

When Shaughnessy found his feet after a slow start to the ’09 season, he emerged with some quality performances. These were driven by his run defense on the road against San Diego and Denver (+3.1 run-defense grades in each game). His two starts yielded mixed results (+1.5 grade versus KC, -0.6 grade at Pittsburgh), but the hope is there that the Raiders have found a solid contributor on the defensive line and possibly more. It will be interesting to see how he grows as a player this year with a potentially strong presence inside.

14. Green Bay Packers (Run defense No. 13, Pass rush No. 14)

Dom Capers‘ defensive scheme brought stronger results in Year 1 than many people perhaps had expected with the shift to the 3-4. The defense was aided by the rapid emergence of Clay Matthews, but the story of the defense was the way in which Capers limited the play of the defensive line. There were a lot of sets and a lot of plays with only two down linemen, which limited the exposure of linemen who were shifting schemes. Until the shootout loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs, this worked well, with Johnny Jolly‘s poor performance failing to negatively affect the defense. The test for Year 2 will be for the defensive line to progress and for new personnel to fit in seamlessly at nose tackle and outside linebacker.

Best player: Cullen Jenkins

Jenkins’ run defense grade for ’09 (-2.6) is blighted by four poor performances against Minnesota (twice), Tampa Bay and Chicago. But aside from those performances, his return from injury was very strong. His pass rushing (+11.7) trailed only Justin Smith (+31.9), Calais Campbell (+17.3) and Vonnie Holliday (+11.9) among 3-4 defensive ends. Matthews stole the headlines last season for his strong rookie campaign but Jenkins deserves credit as well — if he can cut out the poor games in run defense he’ll provide the Packers with a strong presence at 3-4 defensive end.

Under pressure: B.J. Raji

Raji was late to training camp last year due to an almost-customary rookie holdout, and aside from a strong game against Baltimore in run defense (+1.9), he put together a fairly nondescript rookie season. Innocuous performances notwithstanding, the Packers have seen fit to switch the roles of Raji and last year’s nose tackle, Ryan Pickett, for 2010. The Packers have put faith into Raji to step up on the average performances of last season. Will he deliver?

13. Baltimore Ravens (Run defense No. 4, Pass rush No. 28)

The Ravens have lost a couple of key players on their defensive line rotation from 2009, with Dwan Edwards now in Buffalo and Justin Bannan in Denver. With the continued presence of the likes of Haloti Ngata (+11.4) and Kelly Gregg (+18.0), the Ravens won’t be short-changed on run defense, but the pressure is on to find the right players and avoid a drop-off. The run defense should go without question again, but the question is how they apply more pressure from a base pass rush. With all sorts of question marks around personnel and injuries in their defensive backfield, the Ravens need more from their base pass rush. Otherwise, a weakened secondary could be left exposed by the need to send extra pass-rushers.

Best player: Kelly Gregg

Ngata continues to gain the plaudits for being the player he isn’t, and Gregg continues to fly under the radar as he has for the entire decade. It seems that this won’t change any time soon, so we’ll continue to be the ones flying the flag for Gregg as the true heart and motor of this defensive line. Gregg graded higher than 1.3 an astounding ten times in run defense in 2009. He’s not “unblockable” in the hyperbolic sense of the word, but on a down-to-down basis few defensive tackles make a more consistent positive impact than Gregg.

Under pressure: Terrell Suggs

For a player who came into the league as the most prolific collegiate pass-rusher in history, Suggs’ pro career hasn’t quite matched that blueprint. He hasn’t recorded double-digit sacks since his sophomore season, but his run defense is among the very best in the league for 4-3 defensive ends and goes under-appreciated. However, the Ravens will need more from Suggs as a pass-rusher in 2010. Even with injury concerns last year he maintained his run defense, but he needs to more consistently show the threat off the edge that he flashed with his strip sack of Tom Brady in the Ravens’ playoff victory in January.

12. Arizona Cardinals (Run defense No. 16, Pass rush No. 12)

The Cardinals are nudging on the door of the very best in terms of defensive line play, and with more consistent performances from the likes of Darnell Dockett they could get among the best. They lack a dominant presence at nose tackle but have a platoon of solid players (Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson) to which the Cardinals will hope Dan Williams can either contribute to or supersede. The pass rush is strong inside, but the outside will be a question of what the former Steelers’ pairing of Joey Porter and Clark Haggans can offer in the desert.

Best player: Calais Campbell

For all the plaudits Dockett drew on the back of a stunning Super Bowl performance in ’08, he was outstripped in 2009 in every facet by first-year starter Campbell. Campbell’s run defense was nothing better than average last season and blighted by a couple of very poor performances against Jacksonville (-2.1) and the Giants (-3.1), but his pass rushing was a revelation. Campbell put in a stunning season with 9 sacks, 8 hits and 31 pressures. If he can step up the consistency of his run defense in 2010, he’ll be well on his way to becoming one of the very best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL.

Under pressure: Joey Porter

Porter provided an interesting case study for our numbers last season, as he complained at losing playing time to Cameron Wake. Porter provided the stats (9 sacks), but his performances were consistently sub-standard and he was outstripped by Wake on a snap-by-snap basis. Porter graded -1.0 or worse a disappointing eight times in ’09 and the Cardinals hope for some more consistently solid performances. Arizona expects some timely plays from Porter to provide a pass rush similar to the Saints’ last season. That rush profited from an explosive offense that was able to cover the defense’s deficiencies. However, with the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Cardinals’ may be searching for more from Porter than he is able to offer at this stage of his career.

11. New England Patriots (Run defense No. 17, Pass rush No. 10)

The Patriots’ defense again failed to reach its former heights last season and with the loss of Ty Warren to injury, the Patriots appear a little short-handed heading into 2010. However, with Vince Wilfork still in the fold and the possibility of another excellent season from Tully Banta-Cain, New England may have the building blocks of a sound defensive front. With the likes of Mike Wright and Gerard Warren likely to start the run defense looks a little fragile, so the Patriots may look for Ron Brace to step up and claim playing time on running downs.

Best player: Vince Wilfork

After a failed experiment at defensive end he never quite hit the heights he managed against Denver (+5.3 run defense) and the Jets (+4.8 run defense), but his overall season was another strong one. He will again be the key cog of the Patriots’ run defense in 2010, but if performances like those against Miami (-2.2 run D) and Baltimore (-0.9 run D) crop up too frequently, the Patriots’ ILB duo will be in for a busy season.

Under pressure: Gerard Warren

Gerard replaces a fellow Warren, and the pressure is on him to provide more in New England in 2010 than he did in Oakland in ’09. Ty had a down year by his standards last year (+10.7 run-defense grade), but still graded far in excess of Gerard’s performances in Oakland (-9.8 run-defense grade). The Patriots will hope a change of scheme and scenery will aid Gerard’s transition or they will be looking for the likes of Brace and Myron Pryor to move into the starting lineup.

Check back for the final installment of our defensive line rankings as we take in the top 10. Who do we give the top spot to heading into the 2010 season? Find out soon, and click here for the bottom third of our rankings.

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