A big-play defense in fantasy football can solidify your roster
like no other. Since it is arguably the one position in fantasy
with the fewest top-notch options, getting your hands on a predictably
productive defensive unit can put you head and shoulders above your
competition. A differentiation must be made, however, between a
“solid” defense and a “big-play” defense.
It’s semantics, sure. But follow me here.
Pittsburgh finished 2011 as the NFL’s top defense. Solid,
right? They allowed the fewest points per game (14.1), surrendered
the fewest first downs per game (16) and gave up the fewest yards
per play (4.5). Yet in most leagues, they finished outside the
top 10. How’d that happen? Simply put, the Steelers struggled
to make big plays. They had the third fewest interceptions (11),
the second fewest defensive touchdowns (2) and the second fewest
forced fumbles (6). Last I checked, it’s tough to recover
a fumble if you don’t force a fumble.
With the delineation between “solid” and “big-play”
defined, let’s look at six potential big-play defenses heading
Green Bay Packers: The Packers have 85 interceptions
over the past three seasons. Eighty five. And their 31 picks from
2011 were eight more than any other team. To further illustrate
the differentiation between solid versus big play defenses, Green
Bay finished last season ranked 19th in defense, primarily because
they got up fast on teams and the opposition had to ignore the
running game just to remain competitive. No other team surrendered
more passing yards than the Packers for that reason, and with
all of those pass attempts come the opportunity to make plays
Whatever the reasoning behind why they’re so good, Green
Bay will continue to be a big-play juggernaut for fantasy owners.
The fact that they spent four of their first five draft picks
on defensive players—including defensive end Nick Perry
in the first round—is evidence that focus will remain on
causing havoc for opposing offenses. Green Bay’s DST should
be one of the first defensive units picked on draft day.
Baltimore Ravens: It’s amazing how Baltimore’s
defense has been a relevant fantasy option for well over a decade.
Each year, the Ravens provide fantasy owners with stellar play
that is worthy of a weekly start in spite of their opponent. Unlike
every other team listed here, the Ravens are arguably both a solid
and a big-play defense. They can both stifle an offense with smothering
play-making, and force it into blundering mishaps that light up
the fantasy scoreboard. Terrell Suggs’ injury, though, will
be felt. He forced seven of Baltimore’s league-leading 21
fumbles last season. Rookie Courtney Upshaw may be thrust into
duty in Suggs’ place; Ray Lewis won’t allow him to
play like a rookie. Expect him to be productive.
Ed Reed is toying with the idea of either holding out for more
money or retiring altogether. He’s one of the top play-making
safeties the league has seen in the last quarter century. Conventional
wisdom says Reed will show up and play. If that proves true, expect
another top-10 finish for one of fantasy football’s most
Buffalo Bills: In spite of having the second most defensive
touchdowns (7) last season, the Bills were essentially a hit-or-miss
defensive unit in 2011. They gave up a ton of yards and even more
points (27.1 per game). The front office noticed the holes on
defense and went out to try to fill them—namely by signing
defensive end Mario Williams. He will team with second-year pro
Marcell Dareus at defensive tackle along with linebackers Nick
Barnett and Kirk Morrison to form perhaps the biggest sleeper
unit entering the 2012 fantasy season. Shawne Merriman is not
what he once was, but he can still be a force if used sparingly.
The Bills finished last season tied for the fewest sacks in the
league (29), but be assured, that will change this year. And sure,
we don’t know how teams will fare, but Buffalo’s fantasy
playoff opponents certainly look enticing: St. Louis in Week 14
and Seattle Week 15—both at home—followed by a Week
16 showdown in Miami. The big names on Buffalo’s defense
could increase this unit’s draft stock by a round or two,
but if you make the choice to select this defense at the right
time of your draft, it could pay off for you in a big way.
Detroit Lions: Next to the Giants, many look at Detroit’s
front four as the next best thing. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril,
a (supposedly) motivated Nick Fairley, and Ndamukong Suh are as
tough as nails, and even though Detroit’s defensive unit
had some struggles stopping teams in 2011, they were tied for
the second most defensive touchdowns (7) and the sixth most sacks
(41). They also forced 17 fumbles—fourth best in the league.
Keep in mind, they did all of that with a secondary that was
less than stellar, as that playoff debacle against New Orleans
showed. They fortified that unit during the offseason via the
draft and free agency, so it should be better. Perhaps the most
unnoticed part of the defensive unit is the continuity it enjoys
by having defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham calling the
shots for a fourth consecutive season. The Lions will undoubtedly
be in a number of high-scoring games, so the defense should have
plenty of chances to force mistakes and rack up fantasy points
at a nice clip.
New York Giants: The Giants were banged up last year at both
the linebacker and secondary positions. Still, they finished with
the third most sacks in the league. New York is on the list primarily
because of the rotation they have on the defensive line. Jason
Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka make
up part of what many consider the best pass-rushing front four
in the league. They pressure the quarterback relentlessly, and
that directly results in sacks, quarterback pressure and, ultimately,
errant throws that are primed to be intercepted.
What's more, they seem to always show up when they're needed
most. The Giants closed out last season with 11 sacks in the last
two games—games they needed just to make the playoffs. Also,
Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips headline a productive secondary
that complements very well the defensive line’s onslaught
of the opposing passer. New York isn’t going to shut many
teams down defensively, but they’re a big play waiting to
happen. Make sure they’re in your lineup when that occurs.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cincinnati led the league in three-and-outs
last season and was one of the best units at sacking the quarterback.
They finished with the third most sacks in the league (45) even
with none of them getting double-digit sacks. Defensive end Michael
Johnson is coming into his own and will look to be a more consistent
threat off the edge. Cincinnati attempted to strengthen its secondary
by selecting Dre Kirkpatrick in this year’s draft. He will
add to a solid backend that includes the return of Leon Hall,
veteran Nate Clements and free agent signee Terence Newman.
A more subtle reason to eye Cincy’s defense is their relatively
easy schedule to begin the season. During the first six weeks,
they play the habitually offensively-challenged Cleveland Browns
twice, Jacksonville and its “stellar” quarterback
situation, and Miami at home. The Bengals defense should be able
to make headway during this stretch while becoming a big-play
defense that pounces on lesser offenses.