Prior to the beginning of the 2014 NFL season, the idea of facing an NFC West defense caused offensive coordinators to lose sleep at night. The four teams in the West boosted powerful defensive linemen, with capable linebackers and secondaries. Two weeks into the season though, the NFL ranking hint at a different story...
#1 - Washington
#2 - Detroit
#3 - N.Y. Jets
#4 - New England
#5 - Carolina
Hmm...? Not an NFC West team in this group... Here's how the rest of the top 10 shake out:
#6 - San Francisco
#7 - Minnesota
#8 - Tennessee
#9 - Miami
#10 - Arizona
Wait a second? Where's the historic Seattle defense from 2013? They can be found just out of the top 10, and #11, followed by the St. Louis Rams at #17.
The fall down the defensive rankings is actually not all that surprising. NFL coordinators are a sly bunch. When they saw the NFC West on their schedules, they began to fixate on them, and pore through game film. They found little chinks in their armor, and have - to this point anyway - taken advantage of it. San Diego shredded Seattle this past Sunday with short passes, and isolating tight end Antonio Gates in single coverage. They used multiple wide receiver sets to freeze safeties, and force linebackers to cover running backs after reacting to play action.
San Francisco's defensive woes are more tuned to missing key personnel, like Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith. But it's their secondary that's getting the attention of opposing teams' offensive coordinators. Chicago used their tall, powerful wide receivers to steal the first home game at the 49ers' new Levi Stadium - erasing a 17 point deficit to win.
St. Louis has the young player ding on them, and teams are pressing this advantage. But where the Rams are being beaten badly, is their linebacker corp. Second year Alec Ogletree may stack up some tackle totals, but it's the yardage gained before he makes contact which should be alarming. In fact, the Rams' linebacker groups seems to have a problem coming up quick enough to take on blocks, and shed them to make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. Teams have zeroed in on the right side of the Rams' defensive line, and more specifically at Jo Lonn Dunbar. The current team leader in tackles for the Rams? Would you believe it's safety Rodney McLeod, at #70 on the list?
Arizona has a patchwork defense; missing off season free agent losses, Daryl Washington to a year long suspension, and injuries to their defensive front. But I'll say this for the "desert birds", they aren't giving an inch. They're keeping this team in games, and attacking the ball on every play, even though they're ranked #30 against the run. (Seattle's ranked #24, and the 49ers log in at #26 against the rush, while the Rams are shining at #3).
So what's going on? Fans of NFC West team shouldn't read to much into these ranking just yet. Game film is a double-edged sword. The West's defensive coordinators now have a chance to evaluate what other teams have found, and adjust. Look for the NFC West to start grinding away at the little titches offensive coordinators spent their off seasons trying to find. The biggest concern for the West will be injuries. St. Louis took a heavy hit when they lost Chris Long. But the 49ers will be getting stronger when Bowman and Smith return. Seattle's defensive ego won't stay smacked down for long, and Arizona will show why they've been highly ranked the last few seasons.
What's still apparent is just how physical the NFC West is, and the toll they're taking on not only opposing teams, but themselves as well. How this will suss itself out is anyone's guess, but don't count out the West ruling the defensive rankings by season's end...