By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Less than a month from now, the Chicago Bears and the rest of their brethren around the National Football League will be strapping on the pads to prepare for the 2012 season.
This is a relief to any football fan who remembers last year’s labor dispute and the uncertainty that surrounded last season. This season is all about certainty – there will be a season and it looks like the Bears have a great chance to push the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and perhaps tweak the defending Super Bowl champion Giants as well.
There will be plenty of time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of all the contenders, but there may be a considerable change to the league-wide philosophy that offense rules in the NFL.
That was all that seemed to matter during the regular season last year when the Packers, New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots seemed to be far ahead of everyone else. The one thing you will notice is that none of those teams won the Super Bowl this year.
The Giants did and they had a solid offense with Eli Manning behind center. But what they really had was a compelling defense. They hit hard, they played well-designed schemes and they executed without mistakes.
They stopped the Packers and the Patriots on the way to the championship and their victory was a major statement that defense still matters. It’s a philosophy that the Bears seemingly subscribe to as well.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at the top 10* defensive players in the league today. The players who will make you get out of your seat and the ones who make for appointment television.
1. LB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas – Ware is a player who took the responsibility on himself to give the Cowboys a legitimate pass rush. He looked around the rest of the team’s defensive lineup and saw there wasn’t much there when it came to pressuring the quarterback and he said, “I’ll do it myself.” Ware had 19 ½ sacks last season and when they were trying to secure a playoff spot in the final three games, he had 4 ½ sacks. Ware uses his 260 pounds of muscle to overpower bigger blockers and as soon as he gets a half-step, he terrorizes quarterbacks.
2. DE Jared Allen, Minnesota – Unlike a lot of top pass-rushing defensive ends, Allen never comes off the field and he will dominate against the run just like he does when it comes to harassing quarterbacks. Allen had a remarkable 22-sack season and he is all-but-impossible for anyone to handle in a one-on-one situation. He is anxious to come close to matching his sack total again this year.
3. DT Haloti Ngata, Baltimore – One of the best interior linemen in the history of the game. At 6-4 and 330 pounds, Ngata is relentlessly hard working and he combines that attitude with explosive strength and surprising speed for a man his size. He had 64 tackles and managed to get five sacks. But apart from the numbers, Ngata cannot be ignored on any snap because he never takes a play off.
4. DE Julius Peppers, Chicago – He is still a remarkable performer who remains one of the best athletes in the league at the age of 32. He was very effective last year—11.0 sacks — while playing with a knee injury. If he can stay healthy, a dozen or more sacks is feasible.
5. CB Darelle Revis, New York Jets – If you ask the ego-driven Revis, no ranking of defensive players would be accurate if the cornerback was not ranked first. Revis is much better at man coverage than anyone else in the game and unlike some top cornerbacks of the past (read Deion Sanders) he is not hesitant to step up and play the run. The ideal shut down corner who can demoralize even the best opposing receivers.
6. ILB Patrick Willis, San Francisco – Prior to the 2011 season, the 49ers were a very bad football team with few players who could turn a game around. Willis was one of the few who could bring fans out of their seats. Willis is one of the game’s best tacklers and he excels at forcing fumbles. As he gets older, he makes up for the loss of a step with incredible instincts.
7. DE Jason Pierre-Paul, N.Y. Giants – In three years, Pierre-Paul’s name is likely to be the first name on this list. He is coming off a season in which he recorded 16 ½ sacks and terrorized quarterbacks all season. He’s also a solid tackler. He benefits from playing opposite Justin Tuck, but Pierre-Paul produces every game.
8. OLB Clay Matthews, Green Bay—While Matthews didn’t have the same type of numbers last year as he had in the past – just six sacks – he is a relentless player who wears down opponents. He has great on-field intelligence and is likely to make a game-changing play in the late going because he understands what the opposing quarterback wants to do.
9. DE Justin Tuck, N.Y. Giants – After enduring an injury-plagued regular season, Tuck was perhaps the best player on the Giants during their Super Bowl run. He sacked Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl and also had 1.5 sacks against the Niners in the NFC championship game. Tuck should dominate this year if he can stay healthy.
10. SS Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh – Polamalu remains a player who can do it all. He plays the pass well, has the hands to make big plays and is a terror against the run. Polamalu would rank even higher if he wasn’t such a gambler. He will find himself out of position because he thinks he knows what the offense will do and he rarely plays conservatively.
*– Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs would have been the No. 6 player on this list had he not torn his Achilles while working out in the offseason. He could miss eight games or more.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.