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Preseason Schedule Analysis
Projecting Defensive Effectiveness - NFC

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

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. Earlier this week, we took a look at the AFC side of things in terms of defensive effectiveness.

A quick refresher: 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?

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 back into the defenses.


Dallas Cowboys
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.8
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.8

Coaching: One of the game’s true lifers, DC Wade Phillips has served the league in some coaching capacity since 1976 and is one of the few coaches who have truly mastered calling plays out of the 3-4 defense. In most of his recent time has a defensive play caller, Phillips’ defenses have been strong against the run and generated a lot of pressure and/or sacks due to his willingness to blitz. While the total pass defense numbers have not been stellar all that often, his defenses usually have been quite formidable.

Against the run: In the absence of an immovable object at NT, teams that want to run a 3-4 and lack a Ted Washington-type at the position need a quick, penetrating linemen who can slip by the center and disrupt plays in the backfield. No “undersized” 3-4 NT does that any better right now than Jay Ratliff, who had his coming-out party in 2010. Along with DEs Marcus Spears and Igor Olshansky, the front three make things much easier for the combo ILB team of Brandie James and Keith Brooking to help finish off running plays.

Against the pass: Along with Ratliff terrorizing interior offensive linemen on running and passing plays, the Cowboys finally got the level of play they were hoping for out of OLB Anthony Spencer late last season, taking some of the pass-rushing emphasis off of fellow OLB DeMarcus Ware in the process. Assuming Spencer maintains his level of play, the Cowboys should remain one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league. Much as it was last season, the secondary may be the difference between this defense being pretty good or elite. Last year, it was the former. CBs Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman are a solid set of CBs, but the safety play let them down. While Gerald Sensabaugh appears to be in the team’s long-term plans, the Cowboys hope Alan Ball can step up where Ken Hamlin could not last season.

Analysis: In a lot of respects, Phillips is building a very similar defense to the one he left in San Diego after the 2006 season to become the Cowboys’ HC. Opposing offenses may be able to generate some yards through the air, but this is a good fantasy defense to use in terms of its ability to generate sacks. In order to become elite, this unit must force more turnovers, a sore subject for Dallas in each of the last two seasons. As for the teams opposing this defense, all but the truly special running teams will struggle against Dallas, but the passing defense doesn’t appear to be much better than it was last season when it 20th against the pass.

New York Giants
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.3
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.9

Coaching: If there was ever an example on just how important a DC is to the overall effectiveness of his defense, the Giants were Exhibit 1A in 2009. Bill Sheridan, who ran the defense last season, failed miserably in his attempt to replace Steve Spagnuolo and was replaced by former Bills DC Perry Fewell. Although Fewell’s Buffalo defenses were primarily Cover 2, HC Tom Coughlin has worked with his new DC before and has likely asked him to maintain the Jim Johnson Philadelphia Eagles-style attacking defense that Spagnuolo ran in New York.

Against the run: The Giants’ defensive line, due in large part to last season’s free agent activity, is as deep as there is in the league. Injuries tested the depth of this line last year but, more importantly, ravaged the defense in the places it could not afford to lose its starters – MLB and S. The entire defense fell off after S Kenny Phillips was sidelined to microfracture surgery in Week 2 and fell off even more when MLB Antonio Pierce was also lost for the year in Week 9. Because every player on the line returns (outside of DT Fred Robbins), a bounce-back season by the run defense should be expected so long as new MLB Jonathan Goff takes advantage of a full offseason to prepare himself for his new role. Rookie fourth-rounder Phillip Dillard has the talent to be a three-down LB, so Goff will not be handed anything.

Against the pass: While anyone can question just how good New York’s defensive line is at stopping the run, virtually no one can debate the Giants have as many good pass rushers up front as anyone in the league. If Fewell operates his defense in the manner I think he will, he will have the opportunity to line Justin Tuck, rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, Mattias Kiwanuka and Osi Umenyiora up in definite passing situations. Just for good measure, OLB Clint Sintim was drafted as a pass-rusher in the 2009 draft and could probably be used as a nickel rusher as well. Injuries took their toll at CB last year as well, but if the Giants can catch a break or two on that front, their depth and quality at the position is solid. The most interesting change, however, is at FS where Antrel Rolle was signed to be the playmaker in center field the team has lacked for some time.

Analysis: The Giants are hoping that a new year – combined with a change to an established DC – is just what the doctor order in hopes they can capture the top 10 defense they possessed in 2007 and 2008. And that is exactly what should be expected to happen, minus another rash of injuries. Few teams possess the talent this defense does and Fewell knows what he has to work with in New York, so expect the Giants to become a top-notch defense once again. While the loss of Pierce will keep this defense from being elite, the Giants should be one of the few teams that will serve as a poor matchup for all but the most accomplished running and passing games in the NFL.

Philadelphia Eagles
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.0
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.2

Coaching: DC Sean McDermott was handed the near-impossible task of filling the shoes of the late legendary defensive mastermind Jim Johnson last summer after Johnson’s health forced him to step aside. Even though the Eagles could have easily used Johnson’s passing as an excuse for not playing well in 2009, McDermott was able to coax a 12th-place finish in total defense even though the Eagles finished a disappointing 19th in scoring defense. Much like his mentor, McDermott believes in a high percentage of unique blitz packages in the 4-3 to generate pressure on the QB, with scoring defense a higher priority than total defense.

Against the run: In his heyday, Johnson was often able to overcome a lack of size up front by making sure he called a well-planned run blitz and/or ensuring that he had good size in his LBs. McDermott seems to have learned well as neither starting DT – Mike Patterson or Broderick Bunkley – possess the kind of size most teams ask from their interior defensive linemen nowadays. Still, the Eagles finished ninth in the league vs. the run last season even without 6-4, 255-pound MLB Stewart Bradley, who was dearly missed even though the Philly defense still showed well against the run. The team acquired WLB Ernie Sims, who should be a huge upgrade from Akeem Jordan, from Detroit via trade this offseason after two disappointing seasons as a Lion. The talent is certainly there for Sims to be a very solid addition to the run defense, but he must stay healthy long enough to do so and grasp the new defense as well.

Against the pass: If there was any doubt about the kind of DEs the Eagles like in their system, it was probably cleared up on draft day this past April when the team passed on bigger DEs like Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul to select 6-2, 260-pound Brandon Graham. He’ll join an undersized rotation of Trent Cole (6-3, 270), Juqua Parker (6-2, 250) and Darryl Tapp (6-1, 270), but it’s hard to argue with the results when Philly has eclipsed 40 sacks in three of the past four seasons. With CBs Asante Samuel on one side of the formation, the Eagles have a player that is one of the best in the league at reading and reacting to the ball in-flight. On the other side, Ellis Hobbs is serviceable but certainly upgradable – he really should be a nickel CB at best. The team likes what it has in SS Quintin Mikell, but needs rookie Nate Allen to step up right away or this pass defense will become average very quickly.

Analysis: Much changes in the NFL from year to year, but one thing that stays pretty consistent year after year is how the Eagles defense will perform. The 2010 schedule isn’t littered with powerful running teams, so a repeat of last year’s ninth-place finish vs. the run is possible but unlikely. With some question marks in the secondary again this year, don’t expect a jump in the rankings on pass defense. Thus, what the Eagles figure to be once again is a high-sack unit that is pretty much an average matchup vs. the pass and the run.

Washington Redskins
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.4

Coaching: Despite teaching the 4-3 for most of his recent past, new DC Jim Haslett agreed to join HC Mike Shanahan’s staff in Washington and immediately convert the defense into a 3-4. The Redskins actually have a lot of nice pieces for a 3-4 attack considering they have not drafted for such a defense prior to this past April. Regardless of where he has been or what defense he has overseen, Haslett’s defenses are typically heavy-blitzing units, although the results haven’t suggested that his pressure packages have been all that successful.

Against the run: While Albert Haynesworth has grabbed most of the headlines for his refusal to play NT in the new defense, it’s highly questionable why the Redskins want him there in the first place. Perhaps he can play a Jay Ratliff-role as a quick penetrator, but free agent pickup Maake Kemoeatu seems like a longer-term answer at the position once he recovers from his Achillies’ injury. In the meantime, it would make more sense to put someone like Howard Green in the middle. Regardless of how the front three shakes out, the rest of the primary run stoppers are in order and should help Washington fare well against the run. London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh should transition nicely into a 3-4, even if their tackles don’t reflect their contributions at season’s end. And even if SS LaRon Landry has been a slight disappointment overall, he has been solid in the run game.

Against the pass: This is where the Haynesworth saga doesn’t make a great deal of sense. If Washington managed to put Haynesworth at DE and lined up OLB Brian Orakpo right behind him, the potential for huge pressure and sack numbers would be incredible. Regardless, Orakpo and Andre Carter are better candidates than most to move from DE (in Carter’s case anyway) to LB. Orakpo, who played OLB in 2009, should have another banner season sacking the QB. Much like the rest of division, Washington has a pair of starting CBs who are good by themselves but really good when coupled with the kind of pass rush most people are expecting the Redskins to have in 2010. The weak link, however, figures to be FS Reed Doughty. He fared poorly in pass coverage last year as a SS and will only do more of it this year as the Redskins’ centerfielder.

Analysis: Assuming Haynesworth comes to camp in tip-top shape and is able to play the role of Ratliff in the Redskins’ new 3-4 look, this defense has a great chance of being a high-level run defense. I don’t feel the same way, however, about the pass defense. The pass rush will be above average, but neither Landry nor Doughty scare offenses enough in pass defense to discourage them from going deep. TEs might find the going easier against this defense as well.


Chicago Bears
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.3
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.3

Coaching: In what appears to be a pivotal year for all things Bears, Chicago put all of its chips on the table for a first-year DC, Rod Marinelli. To what degree the former Lions HC will actually run the defense (as opposed to HC Lovie Smith) or merely serve a sounding board for Smith is up for some debate, but there is little doubt that Chicago will remain a “Tampa 2” defense. The difference between most “Tampa 2” defense and the one that Smith runs is that Smith has shown he is willing to blitz more than the typical play caller in this defense does, so it’s highly likely he’ll ask Marinelli to do the same.

Against the run: While the addition of DE Julius Peppers doesn’t dramatically the run defense, it is what his presence means to everybody else on the defense that makes a difference here. DT Anthony Adams started to emerge last season and will never need to face a double team so long as Peppers and DT Tommy Harris are healthy. Even though the Bears are used to long absences by MLB Brian Urlacher, there is little doubt he means a great deal – the run defense fell from fifth in 2008 to 23rd last season without him.

Against the pass: One of the benefits of adding a premier talent like Peppers is that offenses must instantly adjust their game plans to make sure he doesn’t have a field day. Sometimes, this means keeping a TE in to block as opposed to releasing him and other times it means a RB will stay in or chip as opposed to getting a clean run-out into his pass pattern. In addition to the fear Peppers can put into the QB, it is these small pieces to the puzzle help defenses get off the field and sometimes cause turnovers. A healthy Harris is also important to this defense insomuch that he could force the offense to pick its poison and single-block either him or Peppers. Assuming everybody up front can stay healthy, the question becomes just how well the secondary holds up. CB Zachary Bowman will switch sides (right to left) with Charles Tillman in an effort to help him continue his big-play ways from a season ago. The FS position got a nice talent boost in third-rounder Major Wright, a playmaker who should allow the Bears to move Chris Harris to SS, allowing the team to improve both safety spots.

Analysis: As has been the case for years, the effectiveness of this defense will come down to the health of Harris and Urlacher, with a huge assist from Peppers, of course. A healthy Harris would team with Peppers to give Chicago two linemen that deserve a double team while a 16-game showing by Urlacher would serve as a huge boon to both the run and pass game because he is such a good tackler and so fluid in pass coverage. Any injury to the Bears’ starting CBs would be devastating as the depth at the position is not good, but for now, Chicago could push for a top-10 finish in total defense if it can stay fairly healthy across the board.

Detroit Lions
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 5.8

Coaching: DC Gunther Cunningham has long been a blitzing enthusiast, but it might take a while before the Lions are ready to make the jump with him, if they ever do under HC Jim Schwartz. While he was running the Titans’ defense for most of the last decade, Schwartz often was able to generate pressure with his front four and, by the looks of the current roster, that should be the approach with this team.

Against the run: Unlike last season, Detroit has a chance against the run this time around. With a solid set of three DTs (first-rounder Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Sammie Hill) and a solid high-motor veteran DE in Kyle Vanden Bosch who knows just what Schwartz wants, the Lions may be able to lower their YPC allowed to under 4.3 for the first time since the 2006 season. Cunningham (as well as his fellow coaches) believes second-year MLB DeAndre Levy is a budding star, so he only figures to raise his game with some respectable players in front of him. New SS C.C. Brown was let go by the Giants for his inability to defend the pass (among other reasons), but is enough of an upgrade at the position vs. the run that he should stick in the lineup.

Against the pass: There is no getting around it – the Lions were awful in pass coverage in 2009. Only up-and-coming FS Louis Delmas was asked to return from the worst pass defense in the league a season ago, so three new starters will be expected to start the long climb back to respectability. However, the secondary isn’t in much better shape than it was last year as Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade join third-rounder Amari Spievey as the team’s top three CBs. While Spievey could emerge as Detroit’s top cover man before long, he likely look a lot like Houston early on – a physical CB who will get beat when he doesn’t get the jam off the line. Wade has been the team’s most consistent CB this offseason, but he showed little consistent coverage ability as a St. Louis Ram.

Analysis: Thankfully, the defense has really nowhere to go but up. Slowly but surely, Detroit is assembling the necessary pieces to construct a solid defense, with Suh, Levy and Delmas considered the building blocks. What progress the Lions made vs. the run will probably be upset once again by a porous pass defense. In short, Detroit can be considered a decent matchup for opposing RBs and a plus-plus matchup for just about every team on its schedule with a decent passing game.

Green Bay Packers
Projected Run Defense Grade: 9.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.3

Coaching: One of the few great 3-4 coaches in the league, DC Dom Capers engineered a remarkable turnaround of the Packers’ defense in 2009 in his first year with the team and their first year of running the defense. His charges greatly improved in each of the important defensive categories, such as sacks (27 in 2008 to 37 last season), scoring defense (23.8 to 18.6), rush defense (26th to first) and pass defense (12th to 5th). Much like Dick LeBeau, Capers is a zone-blitz aficionado who will win more chess matches with the offensive coordinator than not.

Against the run: It’s rather amazing how quickly a defense can go from pathetic in one area one year to dominant the next. Despite placing Ryan Pickett at NT and B.J. Raji at DE (which is exactly the opposite of how they are lining up in 2010), the Packers quickly featured a defensive line that allowed its LBs to flow easily to the ball, something that both ILBs Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk certainly enjoyed. With the depth Green Bay has up front now (even in light of the Johnny Jolly suspension), don’t expect much to change vs. the run. Another frequent contributor to stopping the run – although he is known more his ability to rush the passer after collecting 10 sacks as a rookie – is OLB Clay Matthews. The second-year LB, who shows no quit when pursuing a run play, has reportedly bulked up 15 pounds in the offseason and is at 261, making him just that much more menacing so long as he keeps his speed.

Against the pass: While there is much debate that CB Charles Woodson actually deserved the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award over the Jets’ Darrelle Revis, it cannot be argued that Woodson had one of his finest seasons. After playing man coverage for much of his career, the conversion to a zone-heavy scheme did not affect Woodson’s play all that much, if at all. The other side, however, is now a question mark in the wake of Al Harris’ potential career-ending knee injury. Tramon Williams did a more-than-adequate job filling in once Harris was lost, but still has a bit more to prove before the Packers believe he can be Harris’ long-term replacement. Nick Collins is locked in to the FS job and one of the best players at his position that few people outside of football really appreciate. Collins’ job was made easier, last year at least, by the amount of pressure that 2009 draft choices Matthews and Brad Jones were able to put on QBs. Jones is said to be fighting Brady Poppinga for the starting job opposite Matthews, but expect the former to win out and give Green Bay a pair of bookend OLBs for the foreseeable future.

Analysis: Top-notch defenses often start up front and the Packers have quality and quantity there. The run defense should remain among the league’s best, but the passing defense could fall off if Woodson’s play drops off and/or Williams was merely a second-half wonder. Harris cannot be expected to return to his usual form and the depth isn’t all that great at CB, so Green Bay’s defense may take a few hits from offenses such Minnesota, Dallas or New England – teams who all have solid QB play and multiple above-average or elite WRs. Expect a slight dip from the fifth-place finish the team had vs. the pass in 2009.

Minnesota Vikings
Projected Run Defense Grade: 9.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.2

Coaching: As long as teams with coaching vacancies at the end of each season pass on Leslie Frazier, the Vikings will happily keep their DC and Cover 2 defense around. As with most traditional Cover 2 defenses, Minnesota relies on its front four to generate pressure (as opposed to blitzing) in the passing game and occupy blockers in the running game while everyone else flies to the ball.

Against the run: It’s a pretty good bet for as long as DTs Kevin and Pat Williams anchor the middle of the Vikings’ 4-3 defense, opposing running games will suffer. Minnesota has finished first or second in the league vs. the run in each of the last four seasons. Even though the healthy return of MLB E.J. Henderson is still in some question, fill-in Jasper Brinkley was strong against the run, so don’t expect a dip in effectiveness in that respect. CB Antoine Winfield is annually one of the league’s best DBs in terms of run support, which also contributes greatly to Minnesota’s run-stopping prowess.

Against the pass: As long as DE Jared Allen remains healthy and the “Williams Wall” is doing its part to stop the run, Minnesota will be more than content in rushing four linemen most of the time and letting its Cover 2 defense make opponents sweat out drives. While the run defense did not suffer much in Henderson’s absence, the pass defense was exposed when Brinkley joined the lineup. Winfield is one of the league’s better CBs, but the spot opposite him figures to be a concern all year long. Cedric Griffin blew out his ACL last season and while rookie Chris Cook has the size and talent, it’s an awful lot to ask of him to beat out a player like Lito Sheppard, even if the veteran has seen his better days.

Analysis: The biggest question marks with this defense are the complete returns of Henderson and Griffin. Henderson is a question mark for Week 1, meaning that RBs and TEs may have more success than normal in the passing game if he is unable to make it on the field early in the season. Cook is immensely talented, but was considered a combo DB as opposed to a true CB. Those players typically work well in Cover 2 defenses, but he’ll need to be strong against the run as well if he hopes to firmly secure a starting job over Sheppard. Regardless, the Vikings should once again be a poor matchup for opposing RBs and around the league average in stopping the pass.


Atlanta Falcons
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.6
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.7

Coaching: Even though he has two years under his belt as a NFL DC, Brian VanGorder isn’t exactly a known quantity when it comes to what kind of play-caller he is. Much of that can be blamed on Atlanta typically having a weak secondary that counts on DE John Abraham to provide the majority of the pressure up front. Although it is merely speculation, expect VanGorder to be the most aggressive he has been up to this point with blitz packages as the Falcons now have a pair of veteran CBs that should be able to hold up in coverage.

Against the run: Somehow, Atlanta made the jump from 25th to 10th vs. the run despite being grossly undersized at DT and losing 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry early in the season.
(As of May, Jerry was still limping noticeably on his surgically repaired left knee. If he can’t go for some reason by the start of the season, Thomas Johnson would step into the lineup.) While a great deal of the Falcons’ “success” could be attributed to the opponent’s willingness to attack the defense through the air, MLB Curtis Lofton emerged as a force in the middle of the Atlanta defense. Although it isn’t uncommon for a SS to have a high number of tackles, it’s a bad sign when he is the team’s second-leading tackler. Certainly, Erik Coleman enjoyed 2009 from a production standpoint, but very few teams want their SS averaging one tackle/game less than their MLB over the course of an entire season. In short, it speaks to how little the rest of the defense is contributing to stopping the run.

Against the pass: Improving the NFL’s 28th-ranked passing defense from a season ago was a top priority this time around and the Falcons may have done exactly that. The coup may have been the addition of CB Dunta Robinson, who should give Atlanta its best cover man since DeAngelo Hall left town. The team is going so far as to suggest it may ask him to shadow opponents’ top WR each week (as opposed to staying on one side of the formation). He’ll be joined in the lineup by solid but unspectacular veteran Brian Williams. The duo will receive help deep from FS Thomas DeCoud, who held up well in 2009 as a first-year starter and split the team’s defensive MVP award with Lofton. The team also added first-round selection Sean Weatherspoon, who will eventually push Mike Peterson out of job at WLB. With his speed, range and relentlessness, Weatherspoon should quickly join Lofton as a key run-stopping force and also serve as a valuable cog in coverage. As for the pass rush, the Falcons desperately hope someone like second-year DE Lawrence Sidbury emerges opposite Abraham. Generally speaking, when Abraham isn’t creating pressure himself, no one else is either.

Analysis: One sign that the Falcons’ run defense wasn’t as good as their final numbers suggested were the high tackle numbers of DeCoud and Coleman, indicating that a few too many runners broke through the first two lines of defense. With the secondary coming along nicely, expect Atlanta’s final numbers to flip in 2010, meaning that the pass defense will look good statistically while the run defense takes a hit. Lofton and Weatherspoon are a good start for Atlanta in its quest to field a consistent run-stopping defense, but big and physical running teams could very well manhandle the Falcons. Expect a better-than-average performance vs. the pass and below-average finish vs. the run for this defense.

Carolina Panthers
Projected Run Defense Grade: 5.8
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.1

Coaching: As expected, DC Ron Meeks carried over his trend of sporting statistically-superior pass and porous run defenses from Indianapolis to Carolina. In Meeks’ Cover 2 system, he counts on the pressure coming from the front four and is happy to have his LBs and DBs sit back in zone in hopes that the offense will self-destruct before his defense does.

Against the run: This could quite possibly be one of the worst run defenses the league has seen in some time. Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler are projected to be the starting DTs, with both players being journeymen, to put it nicely. While Jon Beason is a very solid MLB, he will be asked to move to WLB in the wake of Thomas Davis’ second ACL tear to his right knee in less than a year. Dan Connor will most likely be asked to fill in at Beason’s old spot and should be more than serviceable, but it’s a far from ideal situation with the DT situation as bad as it is.

Against the pass: Of all the years the team could ill-afford to lose a player like DE Julius Peppers, it had to be this year. Peppers’ 10.5 sacks in 2009 more than doubled the next closest player (DE Tyler Brayton; 5) and now with their double-team magnet gone, the Panthers will need to get pressure from Brayton and Everette Brown because Meeks favors a more conservative “Tampa 2” defense that doesn’t blitz a whole lot. The potential lack of QB pressure would be unfortunate for CBs Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, a strong pair of corners who may get exposed in coverage more often this season as opposing QBs figure to have a lot of time in the pocket.

Analysis: Enough has been said about the team’s potential to field a competitive run defense, but expect Carolina to take a step back vs. the pass as well with the loss of Davis. In short, expect the Panthers to be among the friendliest defenses when it comes to handing out fantasy points in 2010.

New Orleans Saints
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.4
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.8

Coaching: Outside of one year when he was caught on the wrong end of a power struggle with Jacksonville HC Jack Del Rio, DC Gregg Williams is about as good as it gets when it comes to creating havoc out of the 4-3 defense. Williams makes no bones about bringing a lot of pressure and forcing turnovers being the most important elements of his defensive teams.

Against the run: Through the first five games of the 2009 season, the Saints’ defense appeared to have it all, holding four of their opponents under 89 yards rushing and forcing a total of 15 turnovers. Then, just about the time DT Sedrick Ellis was lost for a four-game stretch (and wasn’t right the rest of the season), the run defense plummeted, surrendering at least 119 yards rushing in all but two of the final 11 games. While it is presumptuous and a bit foolish to lay all the post-September run-defense failures solely at his feet, there is little doubt Ellis is a vital cog to stuffing the run. What is also interesting is how the production of MLB Jonathan Vilma went up following the Ellis injury in Week 7. Starting with that game Vilma averaged 7.6 tackles/game over the final 11 contests after not eclipsing that average once in the first five games. Needless to say, New Orleans needs this pair to stay healthy this year if it has any chance of being the run defense it showed it could be over the first five games in 2009.

Against the pass: Typically, a defense that finished 26th vs. the pass in any season does not deserve praise for being a stingy pass defense. The problem is Williams cared much less about yards allowed last season than points allowed and was willing to give up a few yards in exchange for a few big plays. And no team turned more big plays on defense than New Orleans, which converted 39 turnovers into eight defensive touchdowns – a mark that doubled the next closest teams in that category. Much of that success can be attributed to New Orleans’ offense (which put opponents into catch-up mode) and Williams’ schemes, but no player pounced on a bad throw downfield quite like FS Darren Sharper did last season. With DE Will Smith coming off a 13-sack season, it’s hard to believe he could be in line for an even better in 2010, but ex-Bear DE Alex Brown should be an upgrade in the pass rush over Charles Grant, meaning Smith should push for the league lead in sacks. Postseason hero Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer are more than capable of holding up in coverage as Williams continues to dial up the pressure.

Analysis: It goes without saying that the Saints experienced a great deal of success last year because of the turnovers they caused. A similar showing in 2010 (25th in total defense) will likely have them struggling to make the playoffs because turnovers – for the most part – are hard for defenses to count on forcing year after year. The pass defense should improve slightly numbers-wise in 2010 because the secondary, for the first time in years, is deep and talented. But as long as Williams is running the defense, the emphasis will be on turnovers and stopping the run. Given the weakness at OLB (Scott Shanle, JoLonn Dunbar) and the lack of depth behind Ellis and Vilma, expect the Saints to struggle stopping the run if/when injuries strike.

Tampa Bay Bucs
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 6.4

Coaching: The fit of former DC Jim Bates was a bad one from the start last year for Tampa Bay considering that HC Raheem Morris has spent the majority of his time coaching the “Tampa 2” (which emphasizes speed) and not Bates’ system (which calls for big, powerful linemen who clog up the running lanes). Don’t expect a great deal of deviation from the traditional “Tampa 2” principles under Morris, that is, creating pressure with the front four and trying to force an offensive mistake before the defense makes one by playing two-deep coverage.

Against the run: The Bucs possess a load of potential at DT (Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Roy Miller), but the question is how quickly it can go from potential to realized talent when the trio possesses 15 total games of NFL experience – all Miller’s. The problem with all this potential is that no one is a great fit to play the Anthony McFarland role on this defense, which is to say no one is around who is big enough to hold the point while McCoy plays the Warren Sapp role for the Bucs, quickly penetrating into the backfield from his three-technique position. Behind the front four is the highly underrated MLB Barrett Ruud, who finished tied for second in the league in tackles last season with 142. He is easily the most important player to this defense and will be the player who benefits the most if the DTs mature quickly. Neither Sean Jones (injuries) nor Sabby Piscitelli (lack of consistency in his first three years as a Buc) inspires a great deal of confidence at SS in helping Ruud in the run game.

Against the pass: Stylez G White (6.5 sacks) is the team’s leading sacker from a season ago, so given the lack of help Tampa Bay has opposite him (Kyle Moore) and the defensive philosophy, opposing QBs may have some big games against this defense unless McCoy or Price emerge quickly as a double-team threat. The OLBs (Quincy Black, Geno Hayes) will need to blitz more often than they should have to in this defense to make up for the front four and only CB Aqib Talib should be counted on to play at an high level anymore when the team needs to play man coverage. Ronde Barber is still easily a starter on this team, but is much more beatable than he was in his heyday and the depth behind the two starters is not good. FS Tanard Jackson is probably better than he showed last year (due to the lack of talent in front of him) and would probably shine with a better supporting cast, but he too may not realize his potential in 2010.

Analysis: The Bucs are still a long ways away from fielding the kind of defense to compete consistently in this division, although McCoy, Ruud and Talib are good building blocks. The lack of a pass rush and inability to stop the run again this year will likely lead to the same kind of ranking the team had last season (last vs. the run). Because of the inability to stop the run, opponents may not feel the need to pass as much. Either way, this defense is not good enough in either stopping the run or the pass to be considered anything else than a plus matchup for fantasy players in either category.


Arizona Cardinals
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.5
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.4

Coaching: DC Bill Davis oversaw a defense that was the league’s best at stopping the run about midway through the season before caving in down the stretch. The pass defense, which should have been a strength with all the talent it possessed last year, ranked a disappointing 23rd in the league. Despite HC Ken Whisenhunt’s background with the zone-blitzing Steelers, he and Davis want a swarming, blitzing 3-4 defense more in the mold of a Rex Ryan defense.

Against the run: If rookie first-round NT Dan Williams lives up to his draft spot, it is almost scary how good the Cardinals’ front three can be. Darnell Dockett (6-4, 285) and Calais Campbell (6-7, 290) are near-ideal size fits as five-techniques (3-4 DEs) and, with their incredible athletic ability, may allow the Cardinals to not regret letting Karlos Dansby go. Speaking of Dansby, Arizona will try to replace him with ILB Paris Lenon initially on running downs and 2010 second-rounder Daryl Washington on passing downs, although it is hard to imagine the rookie not beating out Lenon sooner than later. The winner of that battle will likely play next to ILB Gerald Hayes, who needs to stay healthy if the Cards want to improve their 17th-place ranking vs. the run from last season. Behind them is one of the best all-around strong safeties in the game, Adrian Wilson.

Against the pass: As much as Arizona has to like its front three vs. the run, the difference between Dockett-Campbell and the majority of starting 3-4 DEs in the league is that both players can still generate sacks and pressures. The duo will need to repeat their seven-sack performances from last year as the OLB combo of Clark Haggans and Joey Porter are both 33 and much less feared than they were in their days with the Steelers. The last time we saw the Cardinals’ secondary, it was injured and getting burned repeatedly by the Packers. Greg Toler will most likely step in for the departed Bryant McFadden, but whether it is him or Michael Adams opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, it’s a safe bet that opponents will be targeting whatever receiver is not drawing DRC. Although Antrel Rolle was a playmaker at the back end of the Cardinals’ defense, the team upgraded itself at FS when it let him go and traded for Kerry Rhodes, who is a better all-around player than Rolle. Wilson is one of the few players at SS in the league who also is a huge factor vs. the pass, be it as a blitzer or cover man. He is one player the team cannot afford to lose for any length of time.

Analysis: With the retirement of Kurt Warner at QB, the Cardinals will need their defense to step up and stop more scoring opportunities than they did in 2009 when they finished in the middle of the pack. Williams’ effectiveness will play a large role in that happening. Still, the back eight (minus Wilson and DRC) is average at best and, even the Cards stop the run better than they did last year (17th), the pass defense will likely fail them as often as it helps them. For now, consider the Arizona defense pretty stout vs. the run and slightly below-average vs. the pass.

(UPDATE 7/21: Hayes underwent back surgery sometime in May or June is out until at least the start of training camp. If he misses any regular season games, Arizona’s run defense would suffer mightily. For now, my projection will assume a healthy Hayes.)

St. Louis Rams
Projected Run Defense Grade: 6.2
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 6.4

Coaching: DC Ken Flajole is technically the one in charge of the defense, but this is HC Steve Spagnuolo’s baby. While his background as a student of Jim Johnson’s Philadelphia-style defense is well-chronicled, Spags simply doesn’t have the horses yet in St. Louis to run the defense that he led to a Super Bowl title as the DC of the Giants. Ideally, he wants to be one of the more aggressive blitzing play-callers in the league, but for now, he’ll need his defense to concentrate keeping the opposing offense in front of them with his offense also trying to find itself.

Against the run: Despite years of trying to find the right fit at DT through the draft, the Rams have been forced to turn to a former student of Spagnuolo, 33-year-old Fred Robbins to start alongside Clifton Ryan. Although Robbins made his name as a disruptive force in the passing game, microfracture surgery in 2008 may have turned him into a run defender only, if even that. Ryan is one of the few players the Rams can consider a solid contributor to this defense and probably the best run-stuffer St. Louis has. MLB James Laurinaitis had one of the quietest standout rookie seasons last season, collecting 120 tackles. As the current Rams go, he’s already the most important player on this defense. SS is also a question mark with James Butler fighting ex-Bear Kevin Payne for the starting job. Perhaps on a team with a dominant front seven, this pair could skate by unnoticed, but in St. Louis, it is just further reason why the Rams will struggle to improve their 27th-place finish vs. the run.

Against the pass: Robbins will be asked to play the “three-technique” in this defense, which would have been a good thing prior to his surgery. Whether he can provide anything to the pass rush now is certainly up in the air. DE Chris Long faces a make-or-break season in his career. Entering his third season, St. Louis needs him to emerge as a player who deserves a double team so Spags can has some options when it comes to rushing the passer that don’t involve sending 5-6 defenders on every passing down. As sad as it is, the most talented part of the Rams’ defense is probably in the secondary. Ronald Bartell and Justin King (if Bradley Fletcher cannot return in time from his ACL surgery) are fine, but the team would love to see third-rounder Jerome Murphy turn into something special. At FS, the Rams welcome back O.J. Atogwe, who could be considered the best player the Rams have in the secondary.

Analysis: The Rams didn’t defend the run or pass particularly well in 2009 and there is little reason to expect Spagnuolo or Flajole to do much better this season. Laurinaitis looks to be a solid building block and Atogwe and Ryan are more than capable, but the rest of the defense is highly questionable. Expect Spagnuolo to get some solid performances out of this group because he is a good coach, but matchups vs. the Rams in 2010 figure to be quite good for all positions in fantasy.

San Francisco 49ers
Projected Run Defense Grade: 8.9
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 7.9

Coaching: While there is some debate as to whether it is a joint effort with HC Mike Singletary, DC Greg Manusky runs the Niners’ defense and has overseen the significant improvement his unit has made over his three seasons in the position. Manusky’s 3-4 defense isn’t the most aggressive blitzing scheme, but his charges still produced 44 sacks last season – tied for the third-best total in the NFL in 2009.

Against the run: Assuming the play of NT Aubrayo Franklin and DE Justin Smith carries over from last season to this one, San Francisco is in great shape to repeat its top-10 finish vs. the run again this season. Franklin enjoyed the best year of his NFL career at age 30 in 2009 while Smith keeps producing incredible numbers at a position not conducive to doing just that. The one question mark up front is the other DE, Isaac Sopoaga. As good as the protection is up front, it doesn’t get much better at MLB than Patrick Willis, who led the league in tackles last season. He’s gotten to the point where it is a disappointment if he doesn’t dominate a game. At SS, Michael Lewis may start the season in the lineup, but it probably is only a matter of time before rookie Taylor Mays pushes him to the sideline. Perhaps in part to hide the same deficiencies against the pass he showed at USC and in pre-draft workouts, the youngster will probably be limited to run-down packages as a rookie – which suits his strengths to a tee.

Against the pass: Despite their sack numbers from a season ago, the Niners didn’t see a single defender register more than Manny Lawson’s 6.5 sacks – and he’s supposedly fighting for a starting spot this season. As a result, they would enjoy nothing more than to see Lawson, Ahmad Brooks or Parys Haralson become a double-digit sacker. On the back end of the defense, it was Shawntae Spencer – and not Nate Clements – who was the team’s most trusted CB last season. While the highly-compensated Clements dealt with a benching and a broken scapula in 2009, some people around the organization felt Spencer played at a “championship level”. Although Clements has long been a bit overrated in terms of his overall effectiveness, he is a solid corner and, if his mind is right, the team’s best cover man.

Analysis: If Sopoaga is even a bit better than average up front and Franklin and Smith maintain their level of play, the run defense could challenge the likes of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Minnesota as the league’s best in that regard. If there is a glaring weakness with this defense right now, it is the lack of a pass rusher that alters offensive gameplans. The back four is far from elite, but stands to improve its 21st-place finish vs. the pass if it can get the same kind of pressure on the QB it did in 2009. As a result, consider the Niners a difficult matchup for most RBs in fantasy this year and an average matchup against most passing game members.

Seattle Seahawks
Projected Run Defense Grade: 7.5
Projected Pass Defense Grade: 8.0

Coaching: Since HC Pete Carroll’s background is as a defensive coach, it appears he will be calling the defensive signals instead of DC Gus Bradley, much in the same way former HC Jim Mora, Jr. did. Carroll favors a bend-but-don’t-break approach which isn’t exactly Cover 2 but maintains many of the same principles.

Against the run: Up front, the onus for stopping the run will likely come down to DT Colin Cole and DE Red Bryant, who will be making the move from DT. In theory, having three starting linemen who each have substantial DT experience should mean the Seahawks will play the run well, but it hard to say any of the current starters are difference makers at this point. At MLB, Lofa Tatupu will have the opportunity to play for his college coach in the same scheme that made him a top college prospect at USC. One of the better players at his position in the league, Tatupu should only need to be fully recovered from the pectoral injury that ended his season in 2009 to be a dominant force once again. Expect 2009 first-rounder Aaron Curry to have a bit more impact under Carroll. His range and ball skills fit well into Carroll’s scheme so long as he is quick to pick up the defense. With the addition of first-round FS Earl Thomas, last year’s FS Jordan Babineaux and his 104 tackles will move to SS in more of a run-stopping role, which should only improve Seattle’s chances of stopping the run.

Against the pass: As mentioned earlier, the front four doesn’t possess a wealth of skill or playmakers, so Carroll may be forced to blitz a bit more than he would like to in order to generate pressure. The one wildcard, though, is DT Brandon Mebane. Carroll believes he is the best three-technique on the team and will produce much more than the 1.5 sacks he managed a season ago in the same position. The addition of Thomas in the draft this April was a coup for the Seahawks as many believe he could be the next Ed Reed. Carroll believes he could play corner if needed (and he may do so against multi-WR sets), but for now he’ll mostly be asked to show the kind of range that has so many people comparing him to the Ravens’ Pro Bowler. CB Marcus Trufant will likely get a pass on 2009 after dealing with back problems for much of the season. When he’s right, he’s among the top 15 or so CBs in the game. Assuming Trufant is right now, the majority of offenses will then turn to attacking undersized Josh Wilson.

Analysis: Much has been made of Carroll’s lack of NFL success, but it is telling that he finished with a winning record and actually oversaw a defense all the way back in 1995 that led the league in total defense. With that said, it’s hard to imagine that Seattle will have much success stopping the run with such an ordinary front four. And while the back seven has its fair share of talent, opponents will likely find a way to attack Wilson. Remembering that Seattle is annually one of the teams that dominates at home and struggles on the road, the Seahawks may be a plus matchup for all fantasy players when they hit the road and a neutral matchup when they play at home.

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