By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Defense still has to count in the NFL.
It seemed like that commodity had all but disappeared last year since teams like the Packers, Saints and Patriots were ripping up opponents and lighting up the scoreboard. The Packers scored 30 or more points in 11 games, the Saints reached that mark 10 times and the Patriots did it 12 times.
But when the postseason started, it seemed like defense was still important. Particularly teams who could rush the passer. The defensive-minded 49ers found a way to get past the Saints while the Giants defeated the Packers and the Patriots.
If the Packers, Saints or Patriots had won the Super Bowl by lighting up the scoreboard, the NFL’s landscape might look different this summer.
Defense has come back to life. It is not the dominant subject, but teams realize that defense must play a key role for any team with designs on the championship. The Packers learned that lesson and they proved it when they used their first six draft picks to take defensive players.
The Bears may have concerns about their defense since Brian Urlacher is starting to show signs of age and both Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs are over 30. However, the Bears should still be one of the better defensive teams in the NFL this year.
Here’s a look at the top eight defensive teams in the NFL going into this season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Best player – SS Troy Polamalu
The Steelers have been known for their aggressiveness and ability to take the ball away at crucial moments since the 1970s. While they have slumped from time to time, they have maintained that kind of persona for many years. Polamalu is the key player on a defense that led the league in fewest points allowed and first downs permitted. Look for second-year defensive end Cameron Heyward to become a dominant player because of his size, speed and strength.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Best player – MLB Patrick Willis
We understand why so many teams tend to take it easy in training camp. They don’t want players hurt before the season starts. However, the 49ers don’t subscribe to that theory. They hit hard and prepare during training camp and no team was more ready to play at the start of the season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is all about tackling and stopping the run. These are old-school principles but they worked for the Niners last year and the defense should be rock-solid again this year. DT Justin Smith is a nearly unstoppable force at destroying the run and the pocket.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Best player – DT Haloti Ngata
This has been a remarkable defensive team in recent years because the Ravens have not had stability at the defensive coordinator position. Chuck Pagano is now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Dean Pees takes over. The Ravens prove it’s all about the talent. Mike LB Ray Lewis remains the spiritual leader and he is still one of the hardest hitters at his position even if he has lost a step. Ngata is as wide as a refrigerator and plays with lightning speed for a 330-pound man.
4. Houston Texans
Best player – DE J.J. Watt
Wade Phillips is not a very good head coach, but he is one of the most effective defensive coordinators in football. He may not blow his own horn the way Rex Ryan of the New York Jets does – “I’m the best defensive coordinator in football” – but he puts his players in a position to succeed without fail. Watt and fellow defensive end Antonio Smith are relentless pass rushers while inside linebacker Patrick Cushing will have a chance to be the league’s defensive MVP this year.
5. New York Giants
Best player – DE Jason Pierre-Paul
The Giants did not have great defensive stats last year and there were many questions about Perry Fewell in the first half of the season. However, the Giants found their legs in the second half of the season and head coach Tom Coughlin somehow remained calmer than expected. The Giants have more talent than any team in the league when it comes to rushing the passer. Pierre-Paul is the most athletic of the group, but he gets plenty of help from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Pierre-Paul had 16.5 sacks last year and could exceed 20 in 2012.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
Best player – DE Jason Babin
Based strictly on talent, the Eagles should be no worse than the No. 4 team in the league when it comes to defensive play, but the coaching staff did not help this unit. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo is inexperienced and defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s “wide-9” set left the Eagles vulnerable to the run. However, Babin had 18 sacks and he is a terror.
7. Chicago Bears
Best player – DE Julius Peppers
The Bears have quite a bit of age at key positions as Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are all on the wrong side of 30. However, the Bears have versatility as Peppers gives them strength and intimidation on the defensive line, Urlacher and Briggs make plays from the linebacker position and Charles Tillman is an outstanding cornerback who seemingly strips the ball at will. If health issues keep Urlacher out of the lineup, the Bears could dip in this area.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
Best player – DT Geno Atkins
Based on personnel, the Bengals are just an average defensive team. However, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is one of the best defensive schemers and the Bengals have finished in the upper half of defensive teams for the last four years. Don’t overlook the team’s defensive tackle duo of Atkins and Domata Peko. You simply can’t run against them and Atkins can destroy the pocket on the pass rush.
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.