By Steve Silverman
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It’s fairly clear that playing defense in the NFL is no longer about physically dominating the offense and stopping your opponent.
The game has changed so much that big-time defenses will come up with key stops at big moments. When you are playing a great offensive opponent, you really can’t hope to shut down — or shut out — elite offensive teams. But you have to come up with the big stop when your team needs it most.
While schemes and game plans have a lot to with a team’s success on the defensive end, it’s more about the personnel than any other factor. If you have intimidating defensive players, you can play any scheme and still find a way to be successful.
In the NFL’s highest-rated game broadcast ever on its own network, two defensive superstars found themselves going in opposite directions as the Green Bay Packers embarrassed the Chicago Bears Thursday night.
Clay Matthews has been the Packers’ best defensive player for the last three seasons. Matthews could care less about awards, assessments and honors. The only thing he wants to see is the Packers win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
They weren’t good enough to do that last year, and Matthews has seemingly taken personal responsibility for that. He went into beast mode in the offseason and he has gotten considerably stronger.
He already was one of the fastest and most athletic linebackers in the league, and now he has added physical strength to his repertoire. He registered 3 1/2 sacks of Jay Cutler and regularly beat the double-team blocks he was forced to contend with.
On the other side, the Bears actually played a strong defensive game, but their offense let them down. Cutler showed he is not ready to be an elite quarterback, as he tossed four interceptions.
But middle linebacker Brian Urlacher should not be on the field. He has been the Bears’ defensive identity and conscience for 13 years, but his left knee problems kept him from being an impact player against Green Bay. He made one key fourth-quarter tackle that kept the Packers from getting a first down, but Urlacher got pushed around and he was no longer stomping and snarling.
He has turned into “just another guy,” and unless he makes a quick recovery from his knee problems, he won’t be a dominant player again.
The Bears can withstand Urlacher’s regression because they have Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.
Going into Week 2, here’s a look at the five most impactful defensive players in the league.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, NY Giants – Just consider his 16 1/2 sacks a year ago a jumping-off point for Pierre-Paul. When he is on his game, he is simply an unstoppable force when coming around the corner. The Giants did not have a sack in Week 1 against the Cowboys, so expect Pierre-Paul to take it out on the Tampa Bay Bucs in Week 2.
DE Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings – Even though the Vikings are coming off back-to-back losing seasons, they feature two of the best players in the league in Allen and Adrian Peterson at the running back slot. Allen gives the Vikings a pass-rushing star. Even though he faces constant double teams, he is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback. He’s not likely to reach 22 sacks again like he did last year, but he should have at least 15 this season.
LB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys – If Mathews was looking for offseason motivation, he probably popped in a DVD of Ware highlights from last season. He started the 2012 season just where he finished the 2011 season, as he had two sacks against the Giants. He is coming off a 19.5-sack season and he’s as good against the run as he is at harassing quarterbacks.
LB NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers are a lot like the Bears and Giants because they have a slew of excellent defensive players. Many would circle middle linebacker Patrick Willis or defensive end Justin Smith as the team’s best defensive players, but Bowman led the team in tackles last year and he started the season with 11 tackles and an interception against Green Bay. He is a relentless player who is always in the right position and rarely misses a tackle.
CB Darrelle Revis, New York Jets – Revis is arguably the No. 2 cover man in the history of the NFL behind Deion Sanders. The difference between Revis and Sanders in that category is quite small, and Revis makes up for that by grading out far better when it comes to being a physical player. Unlike Prime Time, Revis does not shy away from making tackles. He’ll sit out Sunday’s game with a concussion.
Do you agree with Steve’s list? Is he missing somebody? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…