Naturally there’s one player who features more prominently than any other, but there’s still a healthy selection of players from other teams. As ever, the grades are determined by looking at how they performed defending the run, attacking the passer, and even in coverage, while factoring in what penalties they may have given up.
Here’s the Top 10:
10. Vonnie Holliday, Arizona Cardinals: Week 17 vs. Seattle (+5.5)
The hired gun of the NFL, wherever Holliday ends up you can count on him to produce. He didn’t get on the field much for Arizona, but in the final week of the season he saw a season-high 38 snaps and responded with some stellar work. Two quarterback hits were all he accounted for rushing the passer, but three tackles for a loss, another for a short gain, and drawing a holding penalty are the credentials of a quality performance.
9. Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers: Week 3 at Cincinnati (+5.7)
The oft-forgotten man in San Francisco because of who plays opposite him, McDonald graded positively in all bar one of his performances, with his Week 3 showing against Cincinnati earning the highest score. Clint Boiling was no match, earning a benching after McDonald put him to the sword on a hit-and-three-hurry day that was topped off with outstanding work in the run game that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
7t. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Week 10 vs. New York Giants (+6.3)
7t. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Week 1 vs. Seattle (+6.3)
The first two entries from the No. 2-ranked player in our Top 101 players from 2011. Smith dominated James Carpenter in particular as he walked away with two sacks, three hits, and five pressures in Week 1. Nine weeks later, he had himself five pressures and a batted pass that proved to be the game-winner against the Giants and tacked on three defensive stops. Fantastic efforts.
6. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans: Week 16 at Indianapolis (+6.4)
Somebody forgot to tell Watt about the rookie wall, as he exploded through it in Week 16. Watt picked up a -2.2 grade with his four penalties, which just goes to show how dominant he was to overcome that. He destroyed Jeff Linkenbach and Ryan Diem and walked away with a sack, two hits, two hurries, three batted passes, and (deep breath) four defensive stops. It was an eye-opening display from a player who was already living up to his draft status.
5. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Week 2 vs. Dallas (+6.5)
Derrick Dockery and Doug Free are probably still wondering what hit them, with Smith simply unstoppable in Week 2. The one hit and six pressures tell part of the story, but you’ve got to remember he picked up three tackles for short gains and turned a tackle for a loss into a fumble. Like we said, unstoppable.
4. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals: Week 4 vs. New York Giants (+6.6)
Not a day the right side of the Giants’ offensive line will want to remember. Dockett walked away with four pressures, a fumble recovery, and drew a penalty for offensive holding. He was even more impressive in the run game and finished the day with two tackles for short gains and another two for a loss. Dockett can really turn it on when he wants to.
3. Vince Wilfork, New England Patriots: Conference Championship vs. Baltimore (+7.0)
Anyone who watched the Patriots squeak out a victory to get to the Super Bowl will have seen Vince Wilfork at his absolute best. It wasn’t just the sack and five hurries, or the three defensive stops in the run game that got Wilfork such a high rating, it was how he did it: dominating Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda like few others have. The Ravens offensive line hadn’t faced anything like that for quite some time.
2. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Conference Championship vs. New York Giants (+7.8)
Are you getting bored of hearing Smith’s name yet? After a rather tame first half (where the Giants double-teamed him and then some), Smith hulked up for the remainder of the Conference Championship game with him nearly destroying David Diehl, Kevin Boothe, or Davis Baas any time the Giants dared leave him one-on-one. He walked away with a sack, three hits, and nine pressures and didn’t come off the field once on 93 plays. To keep going for that many plays without slowing down is hard to fathom even months after it happened. Yet, it wasn’t even his best display of the season …
1. Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers: Week 6 at Detroit (+8.5)
Fitting that a man with five entries in the Top 10 would have the highest score of any one game. Smith took over the 49ers’ victory over the Lions with another incredible ironman display that saw him on the field for every snap. His relentless motor pushed him to two sacks, a hit, and six pressures while doing some stunning work in the run game that earned him a +4.9 grade for this alone. Rob Sims was a tired man after Smith was through with him on his way to the highest grade of any 3-4 end all season.
With our grades being broken down by run defense and pass rushing (the biggest factors) here’s the Top 10 of each:
Top 10 Pass Rushing 3-4 DE performances
1. Justin Smith (SF), Week 1 vs. Seattle (+7.6)
2. Ray McDonald (SF), Conference Championships vs. New York Giants (+6.5)
3. Justin Smith (SF), Conference Championship vs. New York Giants (+6.0)
4. J.J. Watt (HST), Week 16 at Indianapolis (+5.7)
5. Justin Smith (SF), Week 10 vs. New York Giants (+5.1)
6. J.J. Watt (HST), Week 12 at Jacksonville (+5.0)
7t. Randy Starks (MIA), Week 3 at Cleveland (+4.4)
7t. Antonio Smith (HST), Week 2 at Miami (+4.4)
7t. Calais Campbell (ARZ), Week 14 vs. San Francisco (+4.4)
10t. Tim Jamison (HST), Week 6 at Baltimore (+4.3)
10t. Justin Smith (SF), Divisional Playoff vs. New Orleans (+4.3)
Top 10 Run Defense 3-4 DE performances
1. Glenn Dorsey (KC), Week 17 (+5.8)
2. Justin Smith (SF), Week 6 at Detroit (+4.9)
3. Brett Keisel (PIT), Week 9 vs. Baltimore (+4.4)
4t. Vince Wilfork (NE), Conference Championship vs. Baltimore (+3.9)
4t. Vaughn Martin (SD), Week 8 at Kansas City (+3.9)
4t. Darnell Dockett (ARZ), Week 16 at Cincinnati (+3.9)
7t. Vonnie Holliday (ARZ), Week 17 vs. Seattle (+3.4)
7t. Randy Starks (MIA), Week 2 at Houston (+3.4)
7t. Mike Devito (NYJ), Week 5 at New England (+3.4)
7t. Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ), Week 7 vs. San Diego (+3.4)
7t. Ray McDonald (SF), Week 1 vs. Seattle (+3.4)
7t. Ray McDonald (SF), Week 13 vs. St Louis (+3.4)
7t. Ryan Pickett (GB), Divisional Playoffs vs. New York Giants (+3.4)