1.Houston Texans: Wade Phillips did some great things with this defense a year ago. But he’s not the only member of the Texans’ organization who deserves credit for an incredibly improved defense from 2010 to 2011. Houston’s front office was very aggressive in addressing the defensive side of the ball last offseason. Now, Houston has big-time players at each level of its 3-4 defense.
For those who don’t yet know, J.J. Watt immediately established himself as one of the up-and-coming defensive players in this league. Not only is Watt is a fantastic hustle player, but he has ideal size and length for his 3-4 defensive end position to go with well above-average athletic ability. Watt will be a star. Like Watt, Brian Cushing did everything asked of him really well from his inside linebacker spot last season and has established himself as one of the better second-level defenders in the league.
Before last season, the Texans paid a premium to sign him, but simply put, Johnathan Joseph is one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL today. He is the total package and probably the best player on this excellent defense -- which is really saying something. The Texans could use one more cover man to step up, though. Overall, Houston is well-equipped in coverage and of course the pass rush helped a lot in that capacity.
Maybe what the Texans’ defense did best in Phillips’ first year was rushing the quarterback -- even without Mario Williams for much of the season. The Texans did add Whitney Mercilus to further enhance their threat off the edge and Connor Barwin could be knocking on the door of stardom.
Besides the first-round selection of Mercilus, who is in an ideal position to learn the outside linebacker position slowly, the Texans mostly stuck to improving their offense in the draft. However, Houston did land an intriguing prospect to play behind Watt and the underrated Antonio Smith in late fourth-round pick Jared Crick, who is an ideal fit for this defensive scheme. Only the Steelers, 49ers and Raves allowed fewer points than Houston last year. Don’t expect much of a drop-off this year.
2.Jacksonville Jaguars: The AFC South has a shot to have two top-five defenses in 2012. Mike Malarkey takes over as the Jaguars’ head coach, but his focus will be getting quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s career straightened out and improving a dismal Jacksonville passing game.
The defense will be in Mel Tucker’s hands. Tucker wants a fast-flowing, physical and aggressive defense that doesn’t blitz a lot and gets most of its pressure from the defensive linemen. The Jaguars found a gem in Jeremy Mincey, who’s excelled in all facets of playing defensive end in their 4-3 scheme. But this defense really lacked a complementary end to Mincey, especially as a pass-rusher. Jacksonville used the No. 38 pick in this year’s draft on Andre Branch, who could help immediately on passing downs but offers little against the run.
One guy who let this defense down last season is Tyson Alualu, who really had a down 2011 season in all regards. Still, only three teams bettered Jacksonville in rushing yards allowed per attempt in 2011. A vastly underrated positional group in the NFL is the Jaguars’ linebacker corps, especially Daryl Smith, who does everything well on the second level. Paul Posluszny isn’t much behind Smith and was a fine addition to Jacksonville’s defense in free agency a year ago. The Jags’ secondary lacks star power but it is pretty solid at each position. The Jaguars were 10th in the league in points allowed last year. They could improve upon that in 2012.
3.Tennessee Titans: There isn’t a lot of star power here, but the Titans are very young on defense and could be poised to improve. Youngsters Jurrell Casey, Karl Klug, Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty and others are much better players than many casual NFL fans know. Third-round pick Mike Martin should be the perfect complement to the run-stuffing Casey and the lighter pass-rushing Klug in the Titans’ defensive tackle rotation.
The Titans’ pass rush was a huge problem last season, as only Tampa Bay recorded fewer sacks than Tennessee, but it should be much better this year, especially with the addition of Kamerion Wimbley. Former first-round pick Derrick Morgan also should finally be healthy. This is a key season for Morgan -- and the Titans need more from him.
On the second level, the Titans are now very young and active. Colin McCarthy is a tackling machine and should quickly establish himself as a leader of this defense. Tennessee lost Cortland Finnegan to the Rams in free agency, but overall, their coverage people were above average last season -- despite that suspect pass rush. Finnegan had an excellent season, though, and will be difficult to replace.
The Titans look to be improved up front in their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, but not as strong on the back end in coverage. Only seven teams allowed fewer points than Tennessee during the 2011 season. Maintaining that standard could be difficult, but overall, this is a pretty solid group in just about all areas.
4.Indianapolis Colts: The Colts might have the worst defense in the NFL this season. Their run defense was abysmal last season. Indianapolis has nowhere to go but up in this department and additions such as Cory Redding, Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman should help shore up the run defense at the line of scrimmage. Still, such a drastic scheme change really leaves Indianapolis in a bind on this side of the ball for 2012.
Although the Colts surely will not be playing with the lead as much as they did when Peyton Manning was behind center, the edge pass-rush presence of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis should still rank among the best in the NFL. Mathis was probably the Colts’ best defensive player last season. He can still get it done. I believe the same is true with Freeney. As good as Freeney and Mathis still are, just the Titans and Buccaneers sacked opposing quarterbacks less than Indianapolis.
Besides Freeney and Mathis, Pat Angerer and especially Antoine Bethea are above-average starters for their respective positions. But outside of these four, the remaining prevalent members of the Colts’ defense are littered with flaws. One player I am very high on is Drake Nevis, but Nevis was drafted to be an upfield disruptive three-technique. The problem here is that if Indianapolis goes with a predominantly 3-4 alignment, Nevis’ great penetrating abilities could be wasted. That is the problem with switching schemes -- players from the former philosophy aren’t well-suited for what the new coaching staff has in mind. This applies to many members of the Colts’ defense, which up until now was a fast-flowing undersized unit built on speed. Now this unit will be building to be much like what Chuck Pagano coached in Baltimore -- and Nevis is one of many examples of the problems with making such a change.
The Colts were not strong at all in coverage last year -- and it doesn’t look as though they will be much improved in 2012. They are particularly weak at cornerback. Indianapolis also had the fewest interceptions in the league last year. Pagano and his defensive staff will be more creative with their looks and pressures, which he hopes will leads to more turnovers created. Getting more Ravens-type of defensive players will be a massive priority for Indianapolis next offseason.