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Preseason Schedule Analysis
Projecting Defensive Effectiveness - AFC

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC

Over the past few weeks, we've taken a look at a number of rookies that should make a big splash in 2010 and, more recently, we delved into how offseason camps shaped up for each team and made some predictions about how that will affect fantasy owners for the upcoming season.

Quite often, fantasy owners tend to discount just how important the actual matchup is in any given football game. It has become common knowledge that we don't want their RBs facing Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Minnesota in any given week, but I don't buy into the whole indifferent attitude that sets in after those three teams have been considered. I don't claim to know the future, so I won't tell anyone that I can guarantee I know who will be the next surprise defensive unit will be or suggest that I can rank the total defense leaders in order, but being a good fantasy owner does require some foresight. Therefore, if history is the best predictor of future results, spending a little bit of time in the lab trying to figure out how player/coach additions or subtractions affect a defense is well worth the time.

Suppose I could tell you why a RB facing Carolina is a great thing in 2010 or why the Saints face long odds in repeating their defensive success from last season. Suppose I could provide sound rationale for why each could happen. Any fantasy owner who wants to win their league title would want to know why and if it made sense to them, plan accordingly.

Naturally, when the mention of using the schedule as a means to rate fantasy talent for the upcoming season is mentioned, the eye-roll is soon to follow. Critics would be quick to point out that no one knows what injuries will occur or, worse yet, what teams will be good or not. But that isn't the point here. The idea with my PSA - at this stage of the game - is to judge what defenses SHOULD be good and which ones are deep enough to withstand injuries. Potentially great teams are built on draft day, but fantasy titles aren't necessarily won then. The idea of draft day and the end-game to my PSA is to leave an owner in a good enough position to handle whatever adversity comes his/her way during the season - and it will come - so when the playoffs roll around, it is your team that is loaded with the "cupcake" games. Wouldn't we all agree a game against the Chiefs during the fantasy playoffs this season sounds a lot more appealing than one against the Packers or Jets?

Now that I can comfortably step down from my soapbox, the purpose of this week's article is to give some shape or form to how I believe a defense will perform this season. Granted, I don't expect a standing ovation for a piece about defensive coordinators and their philosophies, but understanding how a defense thinks can open the door for owners to surmise what their players can do against it in a given week. Now do this exercise 15 times (most fantasy playoffs stop after the 15th regular season game) and you have yourself a nice little start on how a player may perform.

This year, instead of projecting yards per carry (YPC) for the rushing defense and yards per attempt (YPA) for the passing defense, I’ve decided to go with a more traditional approach which places a subjective grade – on a scale from 1-10 with 10 being the best – on the rush or pass defense rather than one that predicts an average YPA or YPC after judging the schedule. This way, I believe it is easier to understand the likelihood that a RB can perform well in fantasy despite a tough run defense or a QB shredding a hapless secondary. With all that behind us now, let’s dive into the defenses.


Buffalo Bills
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.1
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 6.7

Coaching: There are only about 7-8 defensive coordinators in the NFL right now who are highly regarded for their ability to call a 3-4 defense (Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers are two of the best) and the Bills don’t have one of them, which means new DC George Edwards has his work cut out for him, especially trying to make up for what he lacks in the experience department (one year as a DC, 2003 Redskins).

Against the run: Almost every successful 3-4 defense has a dominant NT taking on the double team on just about every play; the Bills have Kyle Williams (unless, of course, rookie Torrell Troup shows an impressive learning curve and beats him out). If Buffalo’s four-man line can be blamed for the 4.7 YPC allowed last season, then it seems awfully hard to believe they’ll do any better with one less lineman up front and the entire team learning an entirely new scheme in 2010.

Against the pass: If Buffalo can somehow overcome the aforementioned double whammy of coach inexperience and the lack of a proven point man, there is some hope for the back seven, which features a fair amount of talent and depth. If anyone benefits from the new defense, it should be 2009 first-rounder Aaron Maybin, who didn’t see much action or production in his rookie season but has the speed and pass-rush ability to do some damage off the corner. CBs Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee and FS Jairus Byrd are locked in to their spots, but SS is a question mark as former first-round pick Donte Whitner continues to fall short of expectations and, as a result, will need to hold off George Wilson for a starting spot.

Analysis: The schedule is brutal and the Bills will face an elite passing game or running game just about every week this season. Given how poor their offense figures to be, the Bills’ defense will likely crack under all the pressure of poor field position it will find itself in more often than not.

Miami Dolphins
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.0

Coaching: After successful stops in Baltimore and Denver as a DC, Mike Nolan has established himself as one of the few coaches in the league right now who can implement and/or call a highly successful 3-4 defense. Considering what he had to work with last season as the Broncos’ defensive boss, he should be able to put together a top-10 caliber defense in Miami this season.

Against the run: The front three isn’t ideal, but landing Jared Odrick in the first round in April was a nice touch. The 6-5, 305-pound rookie will likely start alongside NT Randy Starks and opposite fellow behemoth Kendall Langford (6-6, 300), giving Nolan the ammunition necessary to run an aggressive one-gap system, much like the Cowboys have played recently. The additions of veterans Karlos Dansby and Tim Dobbins alongside Channing Crowder should end a long-time problem area for the Dolphins and give them the kind of speed from the inside that it lacked in 2009.

Against the pass: Can someone from the group of Cameron Wake, Charlie Anderson or rookie Koa Misi replace Jason Taylor and Joey Porter? Outside of Starks being a bit small to play NT, Miami’s biggest concern on defense to start the season will be its OLBs. As Sean Smith and Vontae Davis enter their second year together, don’t be surprise if they start getting mentioned in the same breath with the other top CB tandems in the league. The likely starting safeties (Chris Clemons, Yeremiah Bell) could be upgraded, but the fact that Miami is better up the middle this season should mean Bell will not need to league the team in tackles again and concentrate more on playing the pass.

Analysis: With Nolan calling the shots and additions like Odrick and Dansby in the front seven, Miami has a pretty good shot at fielding a formidable defense in fantasy. Outside of early games at the Vikings and vs. the Jets, the Dolphins don’t face too many offenses that should expose them in the running game. With Smith and Davis in coverage, Miami probably represents a slightly negative matchup for opposing WRs. This will not be a shutdown defense, but it should be a very good one.

New England Patriots
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.5

Coaching: The effort to replace 2009 DC Dean Pees will apparently include the majority of the defensive staff with HC Bill Belichick once again likely serving as the play-caller in the end. As any football fan knows, the “Hoodie” knows how to call a defense and should get better results than Pees did last season.

Against the run: There’s little doubt the entire defense was affected by the late preseason trade of DE Richard Seymour to the Raiders. His replacement was Mike Wright, who will continue in that role again this season after leading the defensive line (and finishing tied for second on the team) with five sacks. However, beyond DE Ty Warren and NT Vince Wilfork, the Pats are not as deep up front as they once were, so the health of the starters is vital to New England fielding a Belichick-worthy defense. ILBs Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton should be locked in as the starters to begin the season, but rookie Brandon Spikes could easily bump Guyton from his spot early in the season.

Against the pass: Despite leading the team with eight sacks in 2009, Tully Banta-Cain isn’t going to remind anyone of Willie McGinest or even Mike Vrabel. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge opposite Banta-Cain, with Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich and rookie Jermaine Cunningham all possibilities. Therefore, just as it was last season, putting heat on the opposing QB could be an issue all year long. CB Leigh Bodden is set at one spot after inking a huge contract in the offseason, while second-year CB Darius Butler is expected to beat out a slew of talented youngsters for the job opposite Bodden. S Brandon Meriweather took a big step up in 2009, even making the Pro Bowl after successfully manning “center field” for the Pats.

Analysis: Like the 2009 edition, the 2010 Patriots’ defense does not figure to remind anyone of the deep and talented units Belichick fielded during their title runs in the early-to-mid 2000s. The schedule offers very few breaks, so middle-of-the road defensive numbers should be expected. The secondary – probably the deepest area the Patriots have – has a chance to be the best unit on the team as long as the Pats can create pressure up front, but don’t expect this defense to be much better at stopping the run this year (4.4 YPC) than it was last season.

New York Jets
Projected Run Defense Grade: 9.1
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 9.7

Coaching: While Mike Pettine is officially the DC, this is obviously HC Rex Ryan’s show. In his first year overseeing the Jets’ 3-4, Ryan guided his defense from 16th in total defense and 18th in scoring defense to the top of the charts in both categories. Somewhat amazingly, the team’s sack total dropped from 41 in 2008 down to 32 last season.

Against the run: Kris Jenkins is said to be recovering well from his ACL surgery, but the 6-4, 360-pounder (reportedly at 380-390 at press time) really can’t be expected to be operating close to 100% effectiveness until at least midseason, if even then. Shaun Ellis just turned 33 and cannot be counted on much longer while Mike DeVito and Sione Puoha appear to be fighting for a spot opposite Ellis. Neither player is much more than a two-down player at this point. ILBs David Harris and Bart Scott are among the best at their position in the league.

Against the pass: The only question here is how quickly free agent signee LB Jason Taylor can adapt to Ryan’s defense. If the transition is smooth, he should easily bump Bryan Thomas from the lineup and team up with another solid pass rusher in Calvin Pace. In the back four, CB Darrelle Revis is unquestionably one of the best, if not the best, cover men in the league. Trade acquisition Antonio Cromartie should thrive in this defense as his gambling style should mesh well with Ryan’s blitz packages. And rookie Kyle Wilson should have little trouble locking down the third spot and be one of the best nickel CBs in the league right away.

Analysis: If there is a question mark with this incredibly talented defense, it might be with the front three. However, Ryan’s defenses have a long history of stopping the run consistently. For what it is worth, the run defense actually improved statistically after Jenkins’ season-ending injury, indicating Puoha did a fine job at NT in his absence. For fantasy purposes, expect this defense to be a nightmare matchup for just about any offense, with Ryan probably drilling into his players’ heads this season that the defense must create more sacks and turnovers in 2010.


Baltimore Ravens
Projected Run Defense Grade: 9.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.2

Coaching: Despite leading his defense to a third-place finish in points allowed and total defense, DC Greg Mattison didn’t seem to inspire quite the same play out of his personnel that former DC Rex Ryan did, which was to be expected in his first year as the Ravens’ defensive leader. In an effort to get even better results, Mattison has dropped his positional duties (OLBs/DEs) from last season and will solely concentrate on his coordinator role only. He’ll do this while attempting to maintain the Ravens’ defensive identity as a defense that is aggressive and difficult to predict.

Against the run: The selection of Terrence Cody was a solid selection in order to replace Kelly Gregg at some point at NT. When the defense decides to go to a four-man front, he’ll be joined by fellow behemoth Haloti Ngota (when he’ s not a 3-4 DE) in a duo that has the ability to match the Tony Siragusa-Sam Adams wall that made opposing running games stop in their tracks years ago. At ILB, Ray Lewis figures to be joined inside by 2009 undrafted rookie Dannell Ellerbe, so long as he can continue to hold off the charge made by Tavares Gooden.

Against the pass: With the additions of Sergio Kindle and Paul Kruger in recent drafts, expect the Ravens to find a way to get as many of their OLBs onto the field on passing downs as they can. In fact, the current plan is to move Jarrett Johnson inside on passing downs to free up Kindle. Domonique Foxworth did not live up to the big money he was paid as a free agent last season and will need to regain the confidence he showed in Atlanta in order to keep his job long-term. One reason that Foxworth needs to rebound is because CBs Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are both returning from ACL surgeries.

Analysis: While the Ravens’ run defense allowed a miniscule 3.4 YPC and finished fifth in rushing defense, they were exposed more often in that aspect than any time in recent memory. With that said, there will be times this defense will be nearly impossible to run on if Cody and Ngata are both playing well. However, the secondary is as weak as a Ravens’ secondary has been in years, so fantasy owners may be ready to view Baltimore as one matchup they don’t need their passing game contributors to avoid in 2010.

Cincinnati Bengals
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.8
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 9.1

Coaching: DC Mike Zimmer has led a defensive renaissance in Cincy, transforming a long-suffering defensive unit into a highly-regarded one, taking it from 24th (points allowed) and 27th (total defense) the year before his arrival to sixth and fourth, respectively, in 2009. It was the first time since 2001 Cincinnati had a top-10 defense in either category and the first time since 1983 the defense enjoyed a top-10 finish in both categories. All this was made even more impressive after the early losses of DE Antwan Odom and S Roy Williams.

Against the run: Someday, DT Domata Peko will get the credit he deserves as a high-level interior force. Until that time, he’ll likely be forced to absorb his share of double teams in the hopes the Bengals can continue their success up front – they were one of seven teams to allow less than 4.0/carry in 2009. Cincinnati possesses enough depth now to withstand an injury or two, but Peko would probably the biggest loss if he were to go down. Either way, the LB corps returns intact with Dhani Jones remaining in the middle for now, flanked by Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga – a pair of star-worthy LBs if they can stay healthy. And for all the abuse Williams gets for his shortcomings in the passing game, he is a very solid player in run support.

Against the pass: The team didn’t add a known quantity from the outside to address the pass rush – probably the biggest weakness from a season ago – but rather opted to count on the improvement of second-year DE/OLB Michael Johnson and the recovery of Odom. Johnson, along with second-rounder Carlos Dunlap, seems to give the Bengals enough versatility to play a healthy dose of 3-4 and 4-3 without losing much in the way of effectiveness. Cincinnati has one of the best sets of CBs in Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, each of which figure to be backed up by what they hope is a more mature Adam Jones (formerly known as “Pacman”). And while the Bengals consider the safeties in their defense somewhat interchangeable, Chris Crocker has emerged as a vital part of the defense. While free agent addition Gibril Wilson is a nice player to have in reserve, Crocker is a highly underrated last line of defense for this unit.

Analysis: Odom’s complete recovery is probably the most important story line for this defense as Cincinnati enters a season in which it faces a brutal schedule. Assuming Johnson makes the jump the coaches hope he can and Odom returns healthy, the Bengals should be usable in all but the toughest matchups (such as Indy in Week 10 and New Orleans in Week 13). No longer is this a defense that fantasy owners want to see their players up against, as the Bengals sport one of the best trios of CBs in the league and a top-notch run defense – all this without subtracting a single key contributor from last season.

Cleveland Browns
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 6.7

Coaching: Thankfully, DC Rob Ryan's unit can't be much worse than it was in 2009, finishing just ahead of Detroit in total defense last season. It has been so long since Buddy's other son has had enjoyed enough talent to run his kind of defense, but as a member of the Ryan family, it's pretty obvious Rob would like nothing more than to unleash every blitz known to man on the opposition.

Against the run: With NT Ahtyba Rubin and DE Shaun Rogers (moved from NT but likely to be suspended for 1-2 games by the league) comprising two-thirds of the line in the Browns' 3-4 and good group of linebackers all in place at the start of the season, Cleveland has a shot at be much better than the 28th-place finish it managed in 2009. In the 3-4 defense, it is paramount that OLBs be able to get to the QB. The likely combination of OLBs Matt Roth and Chris Gocong is far from the ideal set of pass rushers, but gives the team a huge pair of players at the position against the run.

Against the pass: Along with Roth and Gocong, Scott Fujita is the other likely candidate for the OLB position - and is almost guaranteed to start - but is more of a "glue" player than a standout rusher. Additionally, the team needs to find out where to start him at what is shaping up to be a deep position in Cleveland. If Gocong and Roth are impressive enough on the outside in training camp, expect Fujita to bump David Bowens from the lineup. What the Browns lack in pass rush again this season, they are going to attempt to make up for at CB. With first-rounder Joe Haden and Eric Wright likely manning the starting spots and Sheldon Brown the likely third CB, Cleveland is better at the position than it has been in some time. With that said, expect Haden to endure some growing pains. Brown could be a swing player in the secondary or move to FS full-time, which may be prudent as the Browns stand to start a pair of youngsters in rookie T.J. Ward and Abram Elam, a favorite of HC Eric Mangini.

Analysis: If this defense did do something right last year, it was tied for eighth in the league with 40 sacks. With that said, the Ward-Elam duo would likely inspire opponents to take regular shots downfield and mean Cleveland would be a definite plus-matchup for wideouts who can get deep. The run defense should be noticeably better if only because the talent of the 2010 Browns is significantly improved over the 2009 edition. While the schedule gives the Browns a few breaks, the defense is going to need some more time and talent before it can become a unit that will strike fear into fantasy owners. I would expect TEs and big-play WRs to have some huge games vs. this defense this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Run Defense Grade: 9.3
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.5

Coaching: For as poorly as the Steelers defense seemed to play without S Troy Polamalu and DE Aaron Smith, in reality, they weren't all that bad. In addition to forcing an AFC-high 47 sacks, DC Dick LeBeau's defense finished third in the league against the run and fifth overall. With 3-4 defenses fashionable in the league nowadays, it is LeBeau who is probably the master at calling the defense. And the beauty of his zone-blitz is that he can safely send a great deal of pressure while also playing it safe. Because so many offensive linemen end up blocking air vs. the Steelers defense, it always seems like LeBeau is a step or two ahead.

Against the run: In a league where little can be guaranteed, Pittsburgh's run defense under LeBeau has never finished lower than fifth vs. the run in either of his two stints as the Steelers' DC (1995-96, 2004-present). But lost in the buzz about how much the Steelers missed S Troy Polamalu was just how much they also missed DE Aaron Smith, who has long been an underappreciated part of this defense. His loss was crushing to a line that was never quite the same after his injury in Week 5. The front seven remains intact from last season, with the team hopeful it can get Smith back at 100%. The ILBs (James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons) are set and among the best set of players at their position in the league, but the key for this defense - in the running and passing game - is again the health of Polamalu. When he is operating at peak efficiency, this defense is as good as it gets in the NFL at stopping the run.

Against the pass: In LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the Steelers possess two OLBs that are the envy of 3-4 teams all across the league. Continuing the praise of Polamalu, he is among the quickest players in the league to diagnose a run or break up a deep ball. Because so much of what the Steelers do comes from LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme, the CBs are often less taxed than they are in just about any other defense and, in large part, because Polamalu possesses such incredible hands. Nevertheless, Ike Taylor would be considered a top-notch NFL CB in most circles if he just had better hands - nine INTs in 109 career regular season games. Unhappy with the CBs that let the team down late last season (or just realizing how many deficiencies Polamalu covers up when he is on the field), Pittsburgh went out and re-acquired Bryant McFadden from the Cardinals. While McFadden is an upgrade over the likes of William Gay and Deshea Townsend, he will still be the player opponents will be looking to attack this season.

Analysis: Assuming Pittsburgh stays healthy, this defense should play up to its usual high standards, especially against the run. The pass defense should benefit as it usually does from the scheme and superb outside pass rush Woodley and Harrison typically provide, although the secondary can be beaten. Nevertheless, fantasy owners shouldn't expect to receive favorable numbers against the Steelers.


Houston Texans
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.8
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.5

Coaching: As DC Frank Bush enters his second season as the defensive boss, he oversees a defense that is on the verge of becoming a top-10 defense in terms of points and yards allowed. Bush loves to blitz, but the team has lacked the DBs necessary to hold up regularly when he opts to bring the heat, which contributed largely to a less aggressive approach last season when the Texans finished 25th in the league with just 30 sacks.

Against the run: Despite being unhappy with the way most of the defensive line played last season (outside of DE Mario Williams), Houston somehow ended the 2009 season as the 11th-best run defense. A lot of the credit for that was given to MLB DeMeco Ryans – one of the best at his position in the league – and (two-time) Rookie of the Year selection OLB Brian Cushing, who will miss the first four games of the 2010 campaign. For this defense to move into the top level of run defenses, it needs an immovable interior force that commands a double team, something neither Amobi Okoye nor Shaun Cody have been able to give the Texans so far.

Against the pass: Houston knew it had little to no chance to re-sign CB Dunta Robinson (who left for Atlanta), so once the Chargers moved ahead of the Texans on draft day to select Ryan Mathews, it was clear the team would select a CB to replace Robinson. In Kareem Jackson, Houston chose arguably the most pro-ready player at his position. He’ll likely start Day 1 and team with Glover Quin to give the Texans an underrated pair of cover corners who may allow Bush to dial up the blitz a bit more often. Bernard Pollard was a revelation for the defense last season after he was taken off waivers from the Chiefs, giving Houston some of the best play it has received from the safety position in team history.

Analysis: There’s little doubt that Cushing’s absence will set this team back in September. What is just as important, however, is what player will step up on the line to team with Williams and give Houston a much-needed 1-2 punch up front. Despite his background, Jackson will probably take a bit of time to get accustomed to the NFL, so expect tough sledding against the likes of the Colts (Week 1) and Cowboys (Week 3) early on. The schedule isn’t particularly daunting after Indianapolis again in Week 8, but it’s hard seeing a way where Houston improves its overall standing on defense (11th-run, 18th-pass, 13th-total defense) in 2010.

Indianapolis Colts
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.6
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.8

Coaching: While it is still early in Larry Coyer regime, the Colts’ recent philosophy of sacrificing a bit in the run defense department to excel against the pass seems to be carrying over. Indianapolis will still play its fair share of the “Tampa 2” that former DC Ron Meeks and HC Tony Dungy preferred, but the Colts are becoming more of a traditional man coverage defense that will blitz more often than Dungy/Meeks ever did.

Against the run: The Colts focused on increasing the size of their front four starting last season to hold up against the run better, but that is still very much a work in progress. DT Daniel Muir impressed last season, but what the Colts do vs. the run usually revolves how well MLB Gary Brackett and the safeties (particularly Bob Sanders when he is healthy) play in any given contest.

Against the pass: Somehow, Indianapolis finds a way to continue getting good to great play from its corners without investing a lot into the players it ask to start at the position. Last year’s third-round pick, Jerraud Powers, and undrafted free agent Jacob Lacey almost immediately emerged as the Colts’ most consistent CBs and will likely start the season at left CB and nickel CB, respectively. Kelvin Hayden, a 2005 second rounder, is slated to begin the season opposite Powers. While the trio is not all recognizable to the general fan, they almost always seem to get the job done in part because the Colts’ pass rush commands so much of the defense’s attention. However, if there is a secret to the Colts’ success in terms of defending the pass, it is the fact that DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis generate so much pressure with their speed and quickness. To make matters worse for the opposition, Indy added another player in the same mold in the most recent draft, Jerry Hughes.

Analysis: Because so many teams fall behind quickly on Indianapolis, opponents often find themselves in a passing contest with the Colts. This works out nicely for them because the QB (Peyton Manning) is one of the all-time best at putting points on the board while the defense is built to limit the effectiveness of the passing game with its emphasis on smaller, quicker players. The run defense will continue to hang around the league average while the back four of the defense – along with Brackett – makes life miserable for opposing passing games. Neither the run nor the pass defense is a shutdown unit, but fantasy owners need to be prepared for their QBs to put up limited numbers when they face the Colts.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.7
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.6

Coaching: Predictably, the Jaguars took a step back in Mel Tucker’s first year as the DC. Not only did Tucker not have a great deal to work with from a talent standpoint, his ability to create mismatches for his defense has to be questioned after they managed a lackluster 14 sacks in 2009. Jacksonville has a good enough set of CBs to blitz if need be, but if last year was any indication, Tucker seems content managing a bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Against the run: Gone are the days where DTs Marcus Stroud and John Henderson made life miserable on the inside for opponents – Terrance Knighton is the closest thing the Jags have to those players. Fortunately Jacksonville believes he has a bright future – in the Stroud-Henderson mold – ahead of him. New MLB Kirk Morrison largely flew under the radar in Oakland, but his draft-day trade to the Jaguars gives the defense a highly productive tackler and some hope against the run after finishing 19th in 2009.

Against the pass: It’s hard to go anywhere but up after Jacksonville averaged less than a sack a game last season and finished 27th vs. the pass. CB Derek Cox, a rookie third-rounder, largely outplayed a disappointing Rashean Mathis last season and may be on the verge of passing him as the top corner on the team. If Mathis picks his game and stops worrying about his contract, the team has some hope to improve at the back end of defense, even though it is anyone’s guess whether S Reggie Nelson will ever live up to his first-round selection in 2007. But the real problem with the Jags right now is the pass rush. To that end, they hope the light comes on for 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey and they hope free agent signee Aaron Kampman is able to fully recover from his torn ACL at some point this season. The key, however, is first-round pick Tyson Alualu. The Jags hope that his quickness and nonstop motor will give them a penetrating, disruptive DT in the Warren Sapp mold.

Analysis: It is conceivable that Jacksonville doubles its sack total from last season and is able to finish in the top half of the league vs. the pass and run, but that should pretty much be its ceiling as Tucker is not one of the league’s most creative defensive coordinators around. Consider this defense about league average in both respects and know that it will have as many ugly performances this year as good ones. The Jags don’t face a killer schedule, but they are probably best left on fantasy waiver wires this season.

Tennessee Titans
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.8
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.5

Coaching: DC Chuck Cecil heads into his second campaign as the defensive boss after experiencing a largely disappointing rookie season. Because last year was such an anomaly in regards to injuries (Cortland Finnegan, Keith Bulluck, etc) and player departures (Albert Haynesworth), it is difficult to ascertain just how much more/less aggressive Cecil is than his predecessor, Jim Schwartz. Schwartz believed largely in his front four being able to put the pressure on the QB, but Cecil takes over a defense that lacks the proven talent and experience many of Schwartz’s later defenses enjoyed.

Against the run: If any of the Titans look familiar at any spot on the defense, it is probably at DT. The team managed an 11th-place finish vs. the run last season and could conceivably repeat that performance as long as underrated DT Tony Brown and MLB Stephen Tulloch stay healthy. SS Chris Hope could be upgraded, but for the most part, the depth up front and talent in the back seven should be enough to keep most running games somewhat in check.

Against the pass: The Titans are strongly considering using Finnegan as a “shadow” for opposing WR1s this season. Given the inexperience of the players vying for Nick Harper’s old spot (Ryan Mouton, Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner, Tye Hill), it’s probably a good idea. Of course, much like several other teams already mentioned, the pass rush will be hard-pressed to match the meager 32 sacks it managed in 2009 without a single proven difference maker up front. Though Kyle VandenBosch’s sack production was minimal last season, he gave the defense someone the offensive line had to respect. First-round selection Derrick Morgan may soon become that guy, but rookie defensive linemen often struggle, so how Tennessee manages to come up with QB pressures this year may reflect just how creative Cecil is as a defensive play caller.

Analysis: HC Jeff Fisher is too proud of a man and too good of a coach to see his defense repeat its 28th-place finish in total defense a season ago. Having a healthy Finnegan staying in the hip pocket of opposing WR1s can only help the cause, but that should only mean that secondary receivers and TEs will enjoy some big games at the Titans’ expense, at least until the other CBs gain enough experience. In short, Finnegan’s presence will improve the overall numbers of this unit, but expect the pass defense to be Tennessee’s downfall again this season.


Denver Broncos
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.1
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.1

Coaching: It’s too bad previous DC Mike Nolan and HC Josh McDaniels couldn’t see eye to eye, because it’s hard seeing new DC Don “Wink” Martindale matching his predecessor’s numbers from his lone season with the Broncos. McDaniels promised that Martindale would keep the same philosophy and system that Nolan installed last season, but it remains to be seen how quickly a first-time NFL coordinator can become a master at calling a 3-4 defense, something that can only be said about a handful of DCs right now.

Against the run: Despite having next-to-no experience in the 3-4, no established NT to draw the double team and average DEs to keep offensive linemen off the Broncos LBs, Denver did not allow 100 yards rushing to any of its first six opponents en route to a 6-0 start. However, the smallish defense caved over the last 10 games from the offense’s inability to sustain drives. NT Jamal Williams comes over from San Diego to be that established NT presence and can be dominant at times when healthy, even as he nearing the end of his career. The DEs still lack talent, but the presence of LB D.J. Williams and S Brian Dawkins covers a lot of holes in a team’s ability to stop the run.

Against the pass: Are we to assume Andre Goodman finally became a good NFL CB at age 31 or did he just really take advantage of Nolan’s tutelage? As good as Champ Bailey still is on the other side, it was Goodman’s career year that allowed Denver to end 2009 as the third-best pass defense in the league. If Goodman falls short of last year, the Broncos may plummet down the pass defense rankings. Both Goodman and Bailey benefited greatly from the emergence of Elvis Dumervil, who became a terror as a 3-4 OLB after enjoying a fair amount success as a pass-rushing specialist as a 4-3 DE. If Denver has any hope of putting together another top-10 finish vs. the pass, Dumervil must be every bit as good as he was last year.

Analysis: Can the 34-year-old Jamal Williams hold up over a 16-game schedule for just the second time in four years? Will Dumervil be a good soldier and set aside his issues with his contract to turn in a repeat of his 17-sack 2009? At what point does the play of 30-somethings Bailey and Dawkins begin to decline? It’s only natural to expect some regression from the coordinator switch and there isn’t a lot of established talent (save D.J. Williams) on this defense outside of the players with the question marks just mentioned, so don’t expect a repeat of the 2009 first-half Broncos (the one that led the league in scoring defense during a 6-0 start) and more of the second-half team that tired down the stretch.

Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.5
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.2

Coaching: Romeo Crennel replaced Clancy Pendergast as the DC this offseason to complete the reunion of the New England Patriots’ trio of coaches and administrators (Crennel, OC Charlie Weis, GM Scott Pioli) that helped guide the team to three Super Bowl titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004. Though Crennel has a strong pedigree in running an effective 3-4 defense, he will have his work cut out for him with the Chiefs initially. Crennel’s teams are not typically blitz happy, but more of the bend-but-don’t-break variety. They’ll need to heed his teachings if they hope to improve on their 2009 rankings (22 sacks – 31st; 31st vs. the rush; 22nd vs. the pass).

Against the run: Last year’s first-round selection – DE Tyson Jackson – is the lone player up front that can be considered a good fit for the 3-4 defense. Though he was considered a disappointment by many, young defensive linemen like Jackson often take 2-3 years before they start showing their true colors. The rest of the front line is either a poor fit for the 3-4 (DE Glenn Dorsey) or better off as a reserve (NT Ron Edwards, Shaun Smith). ILBs Corey Mays exceeded expectations last season, but he is far from a centerpiece. Demorrio Williams and Derrick Johnson will vie for the other ILB spot, but neither player stands a great chance of turning around the Chiefs’ fortunes at stopping the run. With SS Jarrad Page disgruntled and unlikely to play (well) for Kansas City, the team would take a slight it can’t afford at the position if it needed to turn to Kendrick Lewis.

Against the pass: With do-everything S Eric Berry joining up-and-coming CB Brandon Flowers, there is hope for the Kansas City pass defense. The bigger question is the pass rush – does Mike Vrabel have enough left in his soon-to-be 35-year-old body to match fellow OLB Tamba Hali’s 8.5-sack effort from a season ago? It’s doubtful, but with Flowers, Brandon Carr and Berry in coverage, Hali and Vrabel may get an extra second to pressure the QB in 2010.

Analysis: It’s going to take another draft or two for Pioli & Co. to overcome years of poor drafting by the Carl Peterson administration. The run defense won’t improve significantly as next to no changes in personnel were made to address the problem, but it is possible that Kansas City could move up an average defense against the pass. Still, the Chiefs should be a welcome sight on the schedule for just about any fantasy owner who has a player going up against their defense this season.

Oakland Raiders
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.2

Coaching: While DC John Marshall’s effectiveness as a brilliant defensive mind could be questioned, his defenses have typically been able to pressure the QB. Now, since Marshall joined the club prior to the 2009 season, the team has added DE Richard Seymour, DT John Henderson, OLBs Kamerion Wimbley and Quentin Groves, meaning the Raiders have a shot at being one of the better pass-rushing teams if Marshall is willing to be a bit creative with his pressure packages. These recent moves also suggest Oakland may want to transition to a 3-4 sooner than later.

Against the run: Oakland has a chance to be a legit run-stopping defense for the first time since the 2002 season. Although size doesn’t mean everything up front, the potential for Oakland to line up three players who are all 6-6 and 300 pounds (Seymour, Henderson, Tommy Kelly) in the front line of the 3-4 is remarkable considering the Raiders aren’t officially a 3-4 team yet. Add to that mix rookie ILB Rolando McClain and stud S Tyvon Branch and Oakland should have little problem making a giant leap up from 29th vs. the run in 2009.

Against the pass: With one of the league’s best CBs in Nnamdi Asomugha shutting down half of the field on most Sundays, the Raiders have fared well against the pass more often than not over his seven-year career. It’s been finding his near-equal on the other side that has been a problem. Right now, they want that player to be Chris Johnson. S Michael Huff has finally started showing some of the playmaking ability that got him drafted seventh overall in the 2006 draft, but four INTs in four seasons is not enough to strike fear into the heart of opponents who want to take deep shots. Wimbley and Groves SHOULD give Oakland the ability to be effective in the 3-4 or 4-3, allowing the team to increase its 37-sack total from last season.

Analysis: It would come as a complete shock if the Raiders don’t enjoy substantially more success stopping the run this season. In fact, expect them to place in the top 20 vs. the run for the first time since 2002. Because Oakland may be tougher to run against, Johnson and Huff could end up getting exposed more often in coverage. Regardless, the Raiders’ defense should be the best – in all phases – it has been in years in 2010.

San Diego Chargers
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.7

Coaching: The Chargers were among the most feared defenses in terms of their ability to get to the QB a couple of years ago, but the departure of Wade Phillips (along with the slow recovery of OLB Shawne Merriman from knee surgery) has forced DC Ron Rivera to dial down the blitzing that made San Diego a perennial 40-50 sack team. NT Jamal Williams’ absence last season made the team deal with a talent void at his position, leading to another un-Charger-like stat (4.5 YPC allowed vs. the run).

Against the run: It’s not often a fifth-round selection is expected to crack the starting lineup immediately, but that is exactly the story for NT Cam Thomas. When one considers the competition is a journeyman (Antonio Garay) and a former airport employee (Ogemdi Nwagbuo), Thomas should emerge in short order to replace San Diego institution Jamal Williams. DE Luis Castillo is set at one DE spot, but the other DE spot (Jacques Cesaire) is a weak spot for the Chargers and somewhere opponents will look to exploit every week. The team goes four-deep with talented players at ILB. Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett are slated to start, but much of their success vs. the run depends on the front three’s ability to keep blockers off of them.

Against the pass: How quickly Merriman and fellow OLB Shaun Phillips can recapture their past glory (or Larry English can start contributing) will determine just how effective new starter CB Antoine Cason will be in replacing the departed Antonio Cromartie, whose gambling style became a bad fit once Phillips left town. CB Quentin Jammer is set at the other CB spot, but the battle between Steve Gregory and Darrell Stuckey at SS likely means San Diego is in for another long year in terms of defending the TE.

Analysis: Once a vaunted all-around defense, San Diego needs Thomas to step up like a young Williams in hopes that the Bolts can stop the run with any effectiveness. And there are definitely holes in the back four as well, which means the Chargers will need to have one or two career seasons from Merriman, Phillips and/or English if they hope to curb the opponents’ passing games. There’s little here to suggest that San Diego will fare much better than it did last season (35 sacks, 20th vs. the run, 16th in total defense).

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