In my continuing series analyzing the teams and positions in the NFC West, I'll be rating the division's defense lines. It won't be an easy task either. All four NFC West teams have incredible defensive lines. How about these cumulative 2012 totals of the combined defensive lines: 711 total tackles and 100.5 sacks. Simply amazing... It's the reason why opponents outside the division are squirming, and the media can no longer turn their collect blind eyes.
At different points during the 2012 NFL season, NFC West defense were all ranked in the Top 10 or 12 in the NFL. The San Francisco defense road their stellar 2011 performance into 2012. A tough, physical defensive line at the point of contact, they dominated opponents. The now infamous Justin Smith holds, so Aldon Smith had a clear line to quarterbacks, wasn't indicative of how truly strong this line is, and how they shut down virtually every running back trying to score - let alone gain a yard. They lost Ricky Jean Francois to free agency, but hit the latest NFL draft to add youth and depth. How rookie Cornellius "Tank" Carradine recovers from a college injury may be a key for this defense as this season wears on.
If the 49ers defense has a flaw, it's their physical style of play. Sounds odd, doesn't it? But it true, and if you watched them as last season wore on, you'd have seen what I mean. It may be why San Francisco went after defensive players in the 2013 draft; so young, fresh players can relieve some of the pressure on the unit. The 49ers defense is one of layers. The linebackers and secondary rely on the line like any other team. But there's a defined zone of responsibility for each facet of this defense. Opposing teams try to attack the seams between these zones. I should be meshing their linebacker corp into this evaluation, since their defensive fronts often intertwine these two units.
Aldon Smith is a quarterback sacking machine (19.5 sacks in 2012), but in their hybrid 3-4 defense he's both outside linebacker and defensive end on any given play. The left side outside linebacker - Ahmad Brooks - plays a more static and singular run defense position than Smith. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald is an unsung stud in this unit. He's a road block, pure and simple. All in all, it's tough to find any weakness in this unit, and it's why they'll be in the top two or three defenses in the NFL for 2013.
The St. Louis Rams may have the most aggressive defense line in the NFC West. They have two "high motor" defensive ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn, combining for 23 quarterback sacks in 2012. Long is among the top 10 defensive ends in the NFL, and he seems to get better each year. From the first play of a game to the last, Long has one unceasing speed that drives anyone who plays opposite him crazy. Quinn is the perfect compliment off the right side, but he has run coverage issues when he commits too soon to the outside. The DT/DE gap on the Rams right side has been the rushing honey hole for running back in the past. The need was so great the Rams spent a first round draft pick in 2012 on Michael Brockers, the defensive tackle out of LSU. As the 2012 season hit the midpoint, problems in the DT/DE gap subsided. If the Rams have a problem with this line, it's with Quinn. I'm not saying he isn't a great player, but teams have figured out how to play him. Quinn will need to augment his game to solve why he's so easily ridden wide by top left offensive tackles. Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle is one of the best in the NFL, so he'll have something up his sleeve to dial in Quinn as he goes into his third season.
When the Rams signed defensive tackle Kendall Langford away from the Miami Dolphins in 2012, they secured a rock solid interior lineman. He paid immediate dividends, and is one of the main reasons why the Rams defense turned a corner. In 2011, the Rams defense ranked #31 against the rush. In 2012, they improved to #15. The "5th" man on this unit is recently re-signed William Hayes, who added 7 sacks and 35 tackles.
The Seattle Seahawks have a scary defense, and it WILL be one of the top 5 in the NFL for 2013. Their defensive line has a few issues on third down, but on the whole they mangle running backs between the defensive tackles. Brandon Mebane is without a doubt one of the best run stuffing defensive linemen in the NFL. Chris Clemons had 40 tackles and 11.5 sacks last year. Pass rushing specialist Bruce Irvin added another 8 sacks, and he'll see his playing time rise beyond pass play downs.
This defensive line benefits from not having to look over their shoulders. Here's a great example of why a strong defensive secondary and linebacker corps pays dividends for a line. They have absolute confidence in guys like Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Second year linebacker Bobby Wagner is a force in the middle.
If there's an issue going forward for the great unit, it's the loss of their defensive coordinator. Gus Bradley left to be the new head coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and was replaced by Dan Quinn. It should hurt too much though, since Quinn has made his NFL bones coaching defensive lines.
The Arizona Cardinals are in a "one step forward, two steps back situation" on defense. They hit the draft to repair a woeful offense line, and I think they did. But one of the best defensive units in the NFL in 2012 is going through a bit of upheaval. They lost the defensive coordinator - Ray Horton - after he was passed over for the vacant head coaching job for Bruce Arians. Then budding linebacker superstar Daryl Washington hit police blotters and drug suspension rolls. They may change from a 3-4 to 4-3 defense in 2013... See what I mean? But when I look at their defensive line, those other concerns fade away.
This is a strong unit. It's a quality problem for Arizona fans when the player they wonder about is Darnell Dockett, who had an injury troubled 2012. Right side defensive end Calais Campbell is one of the best in the NFL. The 6'8" monster had 6.5 sacks in 2012 and 63 tackles. Dan Williams is solid - and unsung - in his ability to stuff the run. The most intriguing player may be O'Brien Scoffield - a tweener" DE/OLB hybrid. He had 4 sacks and 34 tackles playing on the left side as he paired with Sam Acho, the 3rd year defensive end out of Texas. Did I mention Texas? Well we can add in another Lone Star State player from the 2013 NFL Draft in defensive end Alex Okafor.
I have little doubt Arizona will have a very tough defense, and they'll be in the top 10 in the NFL this year. BUT... The issues I mentioned earlier will weigh in at some point. Todd Bowles replaced the fireit Ray Horton at defensive coordinator. Hired by the Philadelphia Eagles as a secondary coach before taking over for the fired Juan Castillo as coordinator, his resume isn't packed with reasons for his current elevation. He was the interim head coach for Miami in 2011 after Tony Sparano was fired, but that's about it.
The Daryl Washington issues will have a huge impact on how this defense will look in 2013. When they took Kevin Minter in the latest draft, it could turn out to be the most prescient pick of Bruce Arians new regime.
Here's my rankings for defensive lines in the NFC West:
Sputtering with unbridled rage yet? Well here's my reasoning for the rankings, whether right or wrong. The 49ers defensive line is very, very good. But what separates them from most is position depth. Seattle may have the best talent base at defensive tackle though. I like the Seahawks overall line better, which is specialist heavy. Why you ask? Because with the advent of all the different offenses being churned out like there's a program called Adobe Offense, the ability to plug in key pieces is going to be telling. The 49ers get an "A" for being solid overall, but a "B-" for not doing more to address an aging Justin Smith at defensive tackle.
St. Louis places third simply because their run defense is still a work in progress. The addition of an aggressive outside linebacker in Alex Ogletree could very well help their defensive line seal up the "iffy" DT/DE gaps. I worry about Robert Quinn sinking into being just a "good" player. He has the potential and physicality to be great, but he needs to work on expanding his ability to fend off top offensive tackles, and close gaps. Arizona has all the pieces-parts to be the best in this division. But it's hard to make an assessment of their defensive line when I can't tell if they'll be in a 3-4 or 4-3. Cardinals fans are down on Darnell Dockett, but if he's healthy this season those qualms will fade into the desert.