Who is NFL's top defender?

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
10:24
AM ET
J.J. Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is having another strong season. He has 9.5 sacks, he ranks second in the NFL with 22 tackles for loss and fourth with five batted-down passes. However, Watt will be challenged by a strong group of competitors for this year’s award, including a couple of Seahawks:

Richard Sherman, Seahawks CB
Sherman is tied for the league lead with six interceptions this season.

He leads a defense that has a league-high 22 interceptions, and holds opponents to a 32.4 Total QBR, lowest in the NFL. The Seahawks also allow a league-low 174.2 passing yards per game.

Sherman has played 729 of 817 snaps (89 percent), lined up as the cornerback on the defense's left side. Largely because of Sherman’s presence, opposing quarterbacks have been shut down throwing to the right (defense’s left) in Sherman’s area. The Seahawks defense has allowed a 52 percent completion percentage to the right (second best in league), and allowed a league-low 5.6 yards per attempt.

Robert Mathis, Colts DE
Mathis leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks this season, five more than his previous career high.

Last week against the Texans he set the Colts single-season record for sacks (16.5) and career record for sacks (108.0). He has forced fumbles on six of his sacks, tied for the most strip-sacks in the NFL.

Nine of his sacks this season have come when the opposing team has at least six offensive lineman in to block, 2.5 more than the next closest defender in the league. And it’s not as though the Colts are sending a lot of blitzes; Mathis leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks as part of a four-man pass rush.

Luke Kuechly, Panthers LB
Kuechly has 122 tackles this season, tied for fifth in the NFL (he led the NFL in his rookie season with 164 tackles).

Kuechly has been a tackling machine in the Panthers' biggest games, recording three of his four double-digit tackle games against the 49ers, Patriots and Saints this season.

He has been a driving force behind the league’s most improved defense, and perhaps best front seven. The Panthers allowed 22.7 points per game last season, 18th in the NFL.

They allow 14.9 points per game this season, second fewest in the NFL. And they are the only team in the NFL that ranks in the top five in rushing defense (84.9 yards per game) and passing defense (211.4 yards per game).

Robert Quinn, Rams DE
Quinn leads the NFC with 15.0 sacks this season.

He is two shy of Kevin Carter’s single-season team record (1999). He also leads the league with 24 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles this season (six strip-sacks).

He is the best pass-rusher on a team with 52 sacks this season, tied with the Broncos for the most in the league.

His sacks also have been timely. Nine of them have been on third down, 2.5 more than anyone else in the NFL.

Earl Thomas, Seahawks FS
Thomas patrols the deep part of the field for the best secondary in the NFL. He has five interceptions this season, tied for fourth most in the NFL.

Thomas has intercepted a league-high three red zone passes this season. Opposing quarterbacks are completing only 35 percent of passes in the red zone against Seattle, the lowest rate in the league.

Thomas also flies all over the field. His 70 solo tackles are tied for fourth most in the NFL among safeties.

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