As passing records fell with the regularity of a Tim Tebow incompletion you could speculate that defenders in the 2011 season weren’t up to much. It’s true that some pass rushers struggled to get pressure and certain defensive backs had horrendous problems even getting close to receivers, but at the other end of the scale, things were pretty much as normal. The top end guys, the ones on this list, excelled to the same level as you would normally expect from the best players at their respective positions. So to be absolutely clear these are not default selections in a down year for defense; they are players that would have been at or close to these ranking after any season.
So after giving our definitive positions on Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year here are the ten best players from the defensive side of the game.
1. Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
So what do we expect from the best defensive player in the NFL? Well first we want to see them on the field; situational players aren’t going to cut it for this award. For any position, never mind a 3-4 end, Smith’s 91.1% of all snaps ticks that box. Next, not only do we want them to be productive, we want them to dominate their position and being a full 14 grading points above the next player is exactly the type of supremacy we need. Thirdly we require balance – it’s all very well being some highly touted pass rusher, logging statistics that are easy to hype, but taking no responsibility as a run defender and rushing into the backfield on every play, like a headless chicken, doesn’t cut it with us. Smith shows that all-round ability by ranking first in our ratings as a pass rusher and fourth versus the run. That’s not to say we don’t like numbers; we love them, but in context and spouting subsets of pass rush data such as sacks is about as facile as it comes in our book. How about this instead; Smith generated 69 quarterback disruptions this year which ranks him joint fourth, not just among 3-4 ends, where he had 15 more than the next guy, but among every position. For someone playing over a guard most of the time that is remarkable. If that isn’t enough, lastly we want game changing plays. We won’t list them all but how about a 285lb player chasing 17 yards back downfield to force a fumble from Jeremy Maclin and preserve a one point lead with 2:06 left in the game?
2. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
Magnificent as Justin Smith has been all year, with nearly half the season gone there was really only one winner because at that point Revis had allowed only 10 receptions and had knocked down or intercepted as many passes as he given up. If that extrapolated to the entire year it would almost certainly be the best year anyone had had in the history of the NFL. Well, as we know things didn’t quite turn out that way but that shouldn’t diminish what is still an unbelievably good year for him.
In the end quarterbacks throwing into his coverage netted a 45.6 rating; tops among all corners and his 15.6 Coverage Snaps per Reception ranked seventh behind players who never tracked the opposition’s top receiver or played the slot. In addition don’t forget that Revis isn’t just a coverage guy in the mold of Deion Sanders; if the run is coming his way he’s going to do everything he can to bring down the ball carrier and as a result ranked fourth as a run defender among corners. Throw in the fact that despite his style of play he was only flagged three times and you understand why he was our second choice defender.
3. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
This season was a revelation for Jared Allen. Not because of the ultimately unsuccessful but none the less impressive attempt to break Michael Strahan’s sack record. No this was the year in which he became the all-round player he had never looked before. As we explained above, simple numbers won’t get you on this list; we demand balance and run defense has normally been an afterthought for Allen in years gone by. I prepared myself for analyzing the Denver game with a sense of impending dread; how would he cope with pass rushing just a dozen times? Frankly he was superb and of the 150 yards the Broncos gained only 14 came in his zone with zero over left end. This wasn’t a one off, he graded only red only once in the running game all year and when added to his fantastic pass rushing feats you have a new player; the third best in the NFL this year.
4. Terrell Suggs, DE, Baltimore Ravens
Just as we’ve finished explaining to everyone why Suggs is actually a defensive end and not a linebacker he goes and plays a lot more in that position this year; not enough for us to actually change his designation within PFF you understand but next year who knows? In 2010 he played with his hand off the ground only 23% of the time and dropped in coverage on 9% of passing plays; definitively a DE but now he stands up just under 50% of the time while dropping an almost identical amount of times.
What this seems to have done is make him a more consistent player of the run, a slightly less productive pass rusher, but on the times he does drop, a significantly better player in coverage. He’s done a great job covering halfbacks out of the backfield and also knocked down two passes compared to none last year. In summary the best player of the run in the NFL just got better (you will never see him just lean on a tackle when he has outside contain) became marginally less good at getting pressure but found he’s a star in coverage too. Given all this maybe he will be a full-time linebacker in base next year.
5. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Three weeks ago the rookie from Texas A & M looked like he’d give Justin Smith a fight for the top spot. You can blame his single hurry in that period on his thumb injury but that may be disingenuous given his brilliant Week 14 showing in his first game back. He still played with a cast against the Bears, but looked every bit as good as he had from the get-go.
So just how good was that? Well his productivity as a pass rusher was surreal; 12 sacks, 19 hits and 28 hurries was league leading until his injury and even after his late season fade it still sees him ranked third among all linebackers with over 350 rushing attempts.
If that was all then he’d still be terrific but when you combine that with his outstanding work as a run defender you get a much better picture of just how good he is. As an example, in overtime in the Chargers game, with San Diego just inside field goal range and looking for a few extra yards he pushed outside Randy McMichael to drop Mike Tolbert for a four yard loss. Nick Novak’s 49 yarder becomes 53 and after it sails wide right the Broncos take over and win.
6. Navarro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
7. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
Trying to pick the better of these two great inside linebackers is extremely tricky because they both have different things to recommend them. In the end Bowman got the nod for staying injury free and therefore playing over 200 snaps more than Willis. If he’d stayed on the field my money is that Willis would be at least one place higher (and probably more) because he’s lost none of his unbelievable short area acceleration or tackling ability. In fact Willis still ranks number one among inside linebackers in that regard; his two missed tackles (one in the running game, one in the passing) while making 109 (including assists) is by far the best ratio around for someone with as many tackles.
However it’s not just the veteran that has a number one rating. Statistically, as a run defender Bowman is also our joint top player (with Denver’s Joe Mays) as the guy with the highest stop percentage on running snaps and therefore it’s no surprise he comes out ranked first overall in our ratings in this facet of play.
Not to be outdone Willis is among the best rated coverage players around (ranked third). He has an instinct for the passing game which leads to a league leading eight passes defensed while never giving up a pass of more than 22 yards.The numbers are there in abundance, but in truth you best get the value of these teammates by simply watching them in action; hopefully a combination to enjoy for many years.
8. Cameron Wake, OLB, Miami Dolphins
Why is no one talking about Wake this year? Maybe it’s the Dolphins poor displays or something ridiculous about nine sacks being a down year. Reality as always is different and the true picture is one of a pass rusher without peer in terms of consistency, total pressure and productivity. To go with those sacks you need to also consider the 20 QB hits and 52 QB hurries. He was also responsible for causing offensive linemen to give up nine holding penalties on him as he beat them to his target.
So his pass rush credentials are fantastic but actually almost identical to the great DeMarcus Ware, so what separates them here? Actually it’s the thing that a lot of people said would be his Achilles heel, his run defense. It’s not that Ware has been lacking in that area, he’s actually played well but Wake has been better, making 20 stops to Ware’s 15 and also drawing another four holding penalties to boot.
9. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
I really don’t understand the media that well. When Polamalu was playing indifferently they were telling you how good he was every game and now people seem to want to rip him at every opportunity. He certainly has flaws and the Thursday Night team did a great job of showing some of his coverage faux pas’ against the Browns.
However every player has bad plays just as every player has good ones and this year his balance of one to the other is very much in his favor. Go ahead, pull out any missed tackle you want and I’ll raise you a stop, show me any coverage gamble and I’ll give you a game-changing play. In fact for each bad play you can name I’ll give you two good ones. This is as well as we’ve seen him play and his last two games are about as good as you are likely to see from the position.
10. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
This is a game of hype unfortunately and when you see a player like Atkins not make the Pro Bowl you know he’s either not playing in the right market or not been drafted high enough. Consider this; last year Ndamaukong Suh was apparently setting a new mark for tackle play. His 41 total quarterback disruptions boosted by his 11 sacks in 543 rushes was considered unbelievable by many and they were all prepared to forget his quite awful play against the run in the frantic haste to anoint him as the next coming.
This year Atkins has 48 disruptions (including nine sacks) in 453 rushes and nary is a word said. Then take into account that he’s had a good year as a run defender. He’s not a Broderick Bunkley or Alan Branch in that regard, but of the “pass rushing tackles” only Richard Seymour comes close and he’s not as productive as Atkins while being far more combustible with his 11 flags.
Atkins is the PFF poster child for why hype is so dangerous when used as it is now; the equivalent of leaving my nine year old at home with a flame thrower and expecting to come back with the smoke alarm unused. Those people who didn’t vote Atkins to the Pro Bowl, write 100 times “I must try harder next year”.