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ESPN Insider: Upgraded D will help Bills, Jets
Upgraded D will help Bills, JetsNew players, scheme changes key NFL's four most-improved defenses
The goal of every offseason for NFL teams is a simple one: get better. There are a variety of ways to do so, including acquiring new personnel from the draft and free agency, tinkering with schemes and strategies, and simply coaching up players during camps.
As we start to look toward the 2012 season, it's clear that some teams have made big strides on the defensive side of the ball. By making shrewd acquisitions that fit their defensive philosophies, I think four teams in particular have made a lot of headway: the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys.
By breaking down film and exploring how some of these new pieces fit in with those teams, let's take a look at why these defenses should be much improved in 2012:
Of the four defenses I looked at, Buffalo has the most ground to make up. In 2011, the Bills were near the bottom of the league in overall defense. They couldn't stop the run, pressure the QB or get off the field on third down and were last in the NFL in red zone defense. That led to dramatic personnel changes and also a scheme switch, as they will make the transition from a 3-4defense to a 4-3 package under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
Success in 2012 will likely start with a defensive line that should dominate, which will make things a lot easier for the guys on the back end. In the past couple of seasons, most of the meager pass rush production for the Bills came from the inside, and their edge pass rush was almost nonexistent (29 sacks in 2011). They now have two elite edge rushers in free-agent defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. They are perfect fits in this 4-3 front with excellent quickness and edge explosiveness. That allows the Bills to move NT Marcell Dareus to a more natural 4-3 DT position. He will team with the underrated Kyle Williams to give them a terrific one-gap, penetrating inside pass rush.
Chris Kelsay provides natural 4-3 pass rush skills as a swing DE, but the wild card of this front may be Shawne Merriman, who could really help in sub packages as an edge rusher.
The linebacking core is decent but not flashy, and will be an interchangeable group capable of switching positions and roles, with the trio of Kelvin Sheppard, Kirk Morrison and Nick Barnett. In the secondary, better health and a strong draft should make the Bills better at corner. Rookie Stephon Gilmore will team with Aaron Williams and veteran Terrence McGee to give them three solid corners to go along with a strong safety duo of Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. The back seven of this unit still needs to be upgraded, but if the pass rush up front is as good on the field as it is on paper, a lot of weaknesses will be covered up and the Buffalo defense could be the most improved in the NFL.
Pete Carroll is a defensive-oriented head coach and has worked hard to upgrade the personnel scheme of this underappreciated unit. I see the Seahawks' defense improving for several reasons. Their draft will help, but this is also simply a young unit that should improve with more coaching this offseason.
The more film I watch, the more impressed I am. This now looks like a defense that can compete with the dominant San Francisco 49ers' D.
While the Seahawks played good overall defense in 2011, they would like to improve their sack numbers -- and it looks like they have the personnel to get it done.
They play a 4-3 scheme, but they will at times change their look to a 3-4 and mix in their "Elephant" look, which features an extra linebacker as a pass-rusher. Seattle likes to get that pressure without a lot of blitzes, although it trusts its defensive backs if forced to put them on an island in single man coverage. The Seahawks have a terrific front four lead by RDE Red Bryant, who is a great run-stopper and physical rusher, and LDE Chris Clemons, who is their best edge rusher. Now they add rookie DE/OLB Bruce Irvin to the mix. Irvin is perfect as the "Elephant" edge rusher in all their sub-packages. Plus, they can overload their pass rush on one side, almost like the old Buddy Ryan 4-6 defense.
They are also excellent inside with a deep defensive tackle rotation of starters Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane, along with free-agent pickup Jason Jones. They can really get creative with their fronts and schemes because of the versatility of this group, which is perfect for Carroll.
This linebacking group looks solid, with rookie MLB Bobby Wagner and OLBs Leroy Hill and K.J. Wright. They are an athletic group with good speed and range. However, they have the luxury of playing in front of a terrific secondary.
Of all the film I have watched in this offseason, the Seattle secondary is the most impressive unit I didn't know about. Both safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, are Pro Bowl players. They are not only physical, but elite cover guys for their size. Starting corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman aren't household names, but they are the biggest duo in the NFL, and that size and physicality allows them to play the aggressive press coverage on the outside that Carroll loves.
This defense plays with a swagger, and is the most physical group that I have seen on film. They have great variety in their skill sets, which allows the coaches to create exotic schemes. Above all, though, they are a young defense that will be good for a long time.
New York Jets
I know that Rex Ryan is a longtime 3-4 coach, but every time I studied the Jets on film, it didn't seem like their scheme matched their personnel. Playing more 4-3 fronts makes a lot of sense. Young defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples are perfect as combo defenders on the edge, and they will provide a lot of the pass rush. The Jets have a solid inside DT rotation, and OLB/DE Calvin Pace gives them a lot of flexibility as an edge rusher if they go to some 3-4 fronts. Don't be surprised if he also has solid production when they go to Buddy Ryan's 4-6 defense, which preaches overload principles to create pass-rush pressure. The additions of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell at safety should improve the run defense, and if the pass rush is solid, it will mask Landry's liability in dropping back into coverage.
Coordinator Rob Ryan loves aggressive attack packages, but partly because of the lockout a year ago and partly because of personnel deficiencies on the back end, he had to back off and play it more conservatively last season. Add to that a lot of communication breakdowns, and you have a defense that underachieved. However, the Cowboys added two players in the offseason -- CB Brandon Carr in free agency and first-round draft pick CB Morris Claiborne -- who should change everything.
Now the Cowboys have two elite corners, along with holdover Mike Jenkins, who can play on an island in single man coverage, something they haven't been able to do in recent years. The trickle-down effect should be dramatic, as Ryan can now bring every type of pressure package that he wants without worrying if his defense will hold up on the back end. The Cowboys should be able to generate more sacks and turnovers this season as a result.