INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 07: Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts is hit by Clay Matthews #52 and D.J. Smith #51 of the Green Bay Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 7, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts defeated the Packers 30-27. Clay Matthews (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(* = starters)
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants*
Julius Peppers, Chicago*
Jared Allen, Minnesota
Justin Smith, San Francisco*
Henry Melton, Chicago*
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
Aldon Smith, San Francisco*
DeMarcus Ware, Dallas*
Clay Matthews, Green Bay
Patrick Willis, San Francisco*
NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Charles Tillman, Chicago*
Patrick Peterson, Arizona*
Richard Sherman, Seattle
Earl Thomas, Seattle*
Dashon Goldson, San Francisco
Donte Whitner, San Francisco*
“Defense wins championships.” You get it. You’ve heard it ad nauseum. Maybe you’ve even regurgitated it a few times yourself. In today’s offense-oriented NFL however, “Defense” in that traditional (and fairly archaic) sense is no longer required. Instead, championship caliber teams with outstanding offenses can win simply by tailoring their defense to do one of two things effectively: sack the quarterback or create turnovers. That’s it. Those two approaches have successfully proven that they are the two most essential components to winning games (a la the 2006 Saints, which created a staggering number of turnovers, and every New York Giants team of the last five years which, always managed to contend solely on the strength of their front-four pass rushers). Thus each of our selections will (must) excel at one or both of those things.
Jason Pierre-Paul (Photo Credit: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Defensive Line: Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, Justin Smith, Henry Melton
The NFC is full of elite pass rushers (and, apparently, names that start with “J”). Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers and Jared Allen each had a great season sacking the QB and each deserves to be an all-pro (followed closely by two other J’s: Justin Smith and John Abraham).
Smith and Henry Melton anchor the middle of the line. Yes, we know Smith is technically a defensive end in the 49ers 3-4 defense. But a defensive end is more of a down lineman in a 3-4 than in a 4-3, and Smith generally becomes a tackle when the 49ers go to four down linemen. And he’s such a dominant force regardless. Melton, for his part, logged 32 tackles and six sacks as part of a solid Bears defense.
It’s easy to make an argument for guys like Ndamukong Suh and Charles Johnson; they’re certainly disruptive talents. But their football impact comes from their disruption at the line (occupying blockers). I’d just like to remind people here again that this is not a “most talented football player” list but instead a “most talented team.” And we’re trying to get after the quarterback.
Patrick Willis (Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Linebackers: Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Patrick Willis
Linebacker in this conference is probably the toughest group to select from. Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Robert Mathis, Anthony Spencer, Luke Kuechly — ALL deserve to be considered (hence the need to run a 3-4). Still, the versatility of Smith, Ware and Willis cannot be ignored. All of them are elite-level pass rushers who can also drop back into coverage. Matthews is right there too, but someone has to come in off the bench.
Can you imagine rushing the three down lineman we listed above and even just ONE of these guys here? Can you imagine how panicked even the most poised quarterback would be? Can you imagine the speed at which the ball would have to be delivered? Yes, yes I can. This front seven is dynasty quality.
Patrick Peterson (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Defensive Backs: Charles Tillman, Patrick Peterson, Earl Thomas, Donte Whitner
Defensive Backs have probably the hardest job in football today. Not only do they have to try to cover freakishly large athletes moving at unfathomably freakish speeds, they have to do so in a way that will not hurt (or even appear to hurt) those freakishly muscular (but incredibly valuable) bodies. As anyone who follows the NFL knows, the Ronnie Lott/Sean Taylor (RIP) style of play is a thing of the past. It’s not about minimizing the deep ball and playing physical throughout the route. No longer can a corner or safety pride himself on being a true separator of man and ball. Now he must play within the confines of some very restrictive rules. Thus, in today’s game, the ideal corner is one who takes risks and makes big plays.
Playing defensive back in the NFL has become somewhat of a zero-sum game. Corners who get burned (and all do) can still be all-pros if they also create turnovers. That’s why Charles Tillman and Patrick Peterson are here. Both are susceptible to the double move, and both tend to give up plays after selling out for an interception attempt. Still, their impact on the game is undeniable as is their ability to swing momentum in a single play.
Richard Sherman could have easily made the cut. He was probably the best lock-down corner in the NFL this season, especially with Darrelle Revis going out so early in the year. He shut down Calvin Johnson in week eight, limiting him to 46 yards on three catches. But we left him out as a starter largely because of his pending (at the time) appeal for a positive performance-enhancing drug test-related suspension. You can’t play if you can’t suit up.
Earl Thomas is just a beast from the free safety position. He flies around everywhere and is the glue that holds that Seattle secondary together (which is really saying something given the talent that they have back there). And his physical stature proves that good things can even come in small(er) packages in the NFL. Donte Whitner isn’t much bigger, but is just as important in the strong 49ers defensive backfield.