Reporting Steve Silverman
By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The game has changed dramatically from the one that many of us from a certain generation grew up with.
There was a time that a stunning, powerful defense was the best attribute any team could have. If you had a choice between a decent offense and a dominating defense or vice-versa, you would take the first combination and have a much better chance to win in the NFL.
That formula hasn’t gotten it done in a long time, and the Bears obviously subscribe to the modern-day theory. That’s why they brought in Marc Trestman. They want a powerful, versatile offense that will allow them to light up the scoreboard.
A winning defense is not going to be reminiscent of the old Steel Curtain or the ’85 Bears. Today, it’s about coming up with turnovers and key stops.
The Bears should be able to give a good account of themselves this year, thanks in large part to defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. The Bears ranked fifth in yards allowed last year and second in interception percentage under the leadership of Rod Marinelli. New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will make some alterations, but he appears to be following the successful gameplan used by the previous regime.
The Bears should be in the upper half of defensive teams in the league, perhaps even top 10. Here are the five best defensive teams going into the 2013 season:
1. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks are going to be one nasty defense, particularly when they play at their raucous home stadium, now called CenturyLink Field. The crowd will be whipped into a frenzy, making it hard for opposing offenses to hear signals while preparing for one of the fastest pass rushes in the league.
Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett can turn the corner in an instant and when they get Bruce Irvin back from a four-game suspension, it will be a race to see who gets to the quarterback first. In addition to the pass rush, the Seahawks undoubtedly have the best secondary in the league.
When a team is strong on the back end, they usually have an excellent set of cornerbacks or safeties; the Seahawks have both. Richard Sherman may be the best cover man in the league – until Darelle Revis shows he is 100 percent – and Brandon Browner is solid. Free safety Earl Thomas is smart and active while strong safety Kam Chancellor is one of the hardest hitters from his position.
2. Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals were in the top 10 last year in points allowed and yards allowed. They have a remarkable force in Geno Atkins, who had 12.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position.
While he’s a true superstar, the real reason defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s defense is successful is its substantial depth. The Bengals are not going to tire out in the fourth quarter because Zimmer is going to rotate in quality players throughout the game.
Defensive end Michael Johnson had a breakout year in 2012 with 11.5 sacks, while outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the team with 127 tackles.
Don’t overlook smallish free safety Reggie Nelson, who looks unimposing at 5-11 and 208 pounds, but can lay the lumber with knockout force.
3. San Francisco 49ers – The Niners will undoubtedly engage the Seahawks in a battle for NFC West superiority, and they should be nearly as dynamic. While the Seahawks dominate with their defensive ends, the 49ers do it with their linebackers. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the best pair of inside backers in the league. Bowman bypassed Willis last year because of his speed to the ball. Aldon Smith is one of the best pass rushers in the league from the outside linebacker spot, while Ahmad Brooks is a dynamic and underrated performer at the other OLB spot.
The Niners need defensive tackle Justin Smith to rebound from a torn triceps that slowed him at the end of the 2012 season and also would like to see cornerback Carlos Rogers rebound after an ordinary 2012 season.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers – Old habits die hard, and the Steelers have played punishing defense for the better part of five NFL decades. Give credit to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for his consistently effective 3-4, because the Steelers have been a top-five defense in eight of the last nine years.
Even though the Steelers lost James Harrison to the Bengals, they are still loaded at the linebacker position with Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote on the inside and LaMarr Woodley on the outside. If explosive Jason Worilds fulfills expectations and takes over Harrison’s spot, the foursome of linebackers should be dynamic. Even if Worilds struggles a bit, first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones should be a solid addition as a pass rusher.
In the secondary, look for a healthy Troy Polamalu to return to Pro Bowl form as an impact playmaker.
5. Houston Texans – Wade Phillips may struggle as a head coach, but he is one of the strongest defensive coordinators in the league. His 3-4 defense – Phillips calls it a “30” front – is based on finding an opponent’s weakness and attacking.
Defensive end J.J. Watt was perhaps the Texans’ best defensive player in the league last year, as he recorded 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defensed.
The big reason the Texans should improve on defense this year is the return of linebacker Brian Cushing, who tore his ACL last year. In the secondary, former Bear Danieal Manning plays with speed and a nasty streak, but it’s cornerback Kareem Jackson who should be ready for a Pro Bowl season in 2013. Jackson had four interceptions and 16 passes defensed last year.
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.