In team defense scoring, touchdowns are king. The most common team D scoring formats give one point for a sack, two for a turnover and six for a defensive touchdown. But defensive touchdowns are near-impossible to predict; generally, it's fair to pencil in each team in for about three each season, and consider anything above that a bonus. That also makes the New York Giants' 2010-11 fantasy season even more impressive. The G-men tied with New England for the third-highest fantasy point total in the league last year without recording a single defensive touchdown. The other teams in the top five - the Steelers, Packers, Patriots and Cardinals - had at least three; Arizona had seven. When ranking team defenses in terms of fantasy potential, we try to remove the element of luck as much as possible. That means we're not looking at touchdowns, interceptions or fumble recoveries - once a ball hits the turf, it's a 50-50 proposition who recovers. We are looking at sacks and fumbles forced. Teams that did a good job getting to the quarterback last year will likely do a good job this year, barring a major change in personnel or defensive philosophy. And barring a similar transition, the teams that didn't generate sacks in 2010 probably won't in 2011. Another factor to consider this year: the lockout effect. With no way of knowing how free agency would play out, several teams decided to address the quarterback position via the draft. Teams like Carolina, Seattle, Washington, Minnesota, Buffalo and Tennessee could open next season with wildly inexperienced players behind center. Combine that with the fact that offseason prep work will also be impacted by the lockout, and we could be looking at some serious "deer in the headlights" moments to start next season. Be sure to consider that when drafting your defense - and don't forget to play those matchups, especially for the first few games.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' most eye-popping defensive number doesn't count in most fantasy scoring systems, but it's still worth considering. Rushing yards allowed per game: 62.8. You simply cannot run on the Pittsburgh defense. That makes Steelers opponents one-dimensional. And vulnerable. Putting opponents in lots of second and third-and-long situations pays big dividends for the Steeler D, allowing pass-rushers like James Harrison (10.5 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (10) to get after the quarterback. All told, the Steelers finished 2011 with 48 sacks - most in the NFL. And all that quarterback pressure led to other big plays; Pittsburgh forced 20 fumbles, snagged 21 interceptions and scored an NFL-high 148 Team D fantasy points despite a league-average touchdown total (3). Worth noting: the Steelers compiled those numbers despite the fact that safety Troy Polamalu was hampered by an Achilles' injury for much of the season. (And he still played well enough to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.) Polamalu didn't need surgery and is expected to begin next season at full strength - which could make the league's scariest defense even stronger.
2. New York Giants
New York's front four is still the team's biggest asset, and its defensive end rotation may be the NFL's best. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyoira and second-year man Jason Pierre-Paul split time at DE. That trio accounted for 27.5 of the team's 46 sacks in 2010. That's an impressive total, but here's an even better one: the Giants forced 30 fumbles last season - 10 by Umenyoira alone, and 10 more than the next-best team in that category. And it was no fluke - they were among the league leaders in forced fumbles in 2009 as well with 20. That ability to knock balls loose helped put the Giants among the leaders in Team D scoring despite the fact that they didn't generate a single defensive touchdown last season. The Giants' linebacker corps is nothing to write home about - Michael Boley was supposed to become that unit's playmaker, but he has yet to replicate the numbers he produced as an Atlanta Falcon. But the secondary could be nearly as impressive as the D-Line. Already strong at cornerback with Corey Webster, oft-injured Aaron Ross and Terrell Thomas, Giants general manager Jerry Reese added Nebraska corner Prince Amukamara in the first round of this year's draft. Amukamara certainly wasn't a "need" pick - but he'll give the Giants a four-deep cornerback rotation the rest of the league will envy. And the combination of a deep, talented secondary and an elite front four that can generate pressure without blitzing should be a recipe for very impressive fantasy scoring.
3. Green Bay Packers
The transition from a 4-3 set to a 3-4 base defense is supposed to be harder than the Green Bay Packers made it look last season. In their first year under legendary coordinator Dom Capers, and their first running his favored 3-4 alignment, the Pack emerged as one of the league's best pass-rushing units - only the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers generated more sacks than Green Bay's 47. (Wait... what else do the 2011 Steelers and Packers have in common? I know, it'll come to me eventually.) The Packers' personnel proved ideally suited to the 3-4 set. B.J. Raji is a monster at defensive tackle, taking up space and allowing linebackers like Clay Matthews (13.5 sacks) and A.J. Hawk (111 tackles) to make plays. And a year's experience in the system will allow the team to weed out the core players that didn't seem to be ideal fits (Nick Barnett, for one) and replace them with more prototypical 3-4 players (Tampa's Barrett Ruud - an ex-Packer - is reportedly an option). The Packer secondary - and cornerback Charles Woodson, in particular - is another strength, as evidenced by the fact that Green Bay totaled 24 interceptions in 2011. Only the New England Patriots (25) had more picks.
4. Chicago Bears
The acquisition of Julius Peppers worked out pretty nicely for the Bears, huh? Chicago's big-money free agent racked up eight sacks, 43 tackles and two interceptions - and his disruptive presence in the front four helped free teammate Israel Idonije for another eight sacks and a rejuvenated Brian Urlacher to tally 125 tackles. The Bears were the sixth best Team D in fantasy last season, but they have significant room for improvement. Peppers' sack total actually represented a threeyear low; it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him back in double-digits in 2011. The Bears also added a very promising tackle - Oregon State's Stephen Paea - in the second round of the draft; some draftniks are calling Paea a prototype "Tampa Two" interior lineman. (Third-round DB Chris Conte out of Cal could also become a force - a linebacker converting to DB, Conte is expected to become a big hitter out of the secondary.) And most important, the Bears were decidedly below average in defensive touchdowns last season; they scored just one. Give them a league average three defensive TDs, and they would have been the third-best fantasy D, behind only the Steelers and Packers.
5. New York Jets
The Jets - more than any other NFL team - have a "win with defense" philosophy. And it's hard to argue with the results; the team has reached the AFC Championship game in consecutive seasons. But the overall strength of the unit has masked the fact that the Jets haven't been able to muster much of a pass rush without resorting to heavy blitzes, which left the team vulnerable to big plays. The defensive line - anchored by greybeard Shaun Ellis and oft-injured Kris Jenkins - was the biggest culprit, something the Jets may have addressed by adding D-Linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis in the first two rounds of this year's draft. If the new additions can generate some push without too much extra help from the linebackers and secondary, this group could be truly special. Of course, "special" doesn't necessarily translate into fantasy dominance. Teams could be hesitant to challenge the Jets secondary - we know no one likes to throw to Darrelle Revis' side of the field - which could mean fewer opportunities for the big plays that really power fantasy scoring.
6. Detroit Lions
The 2007-08 Super Bowl Giants are proof that having a really, comically deep defensive line can go a long way toward making a team a contender. So despite their other needs - and a team that finishes 6-10 obviously has quite a few - the Lions opted to add one of the best defensive tackles in this year's draft to the best DT in last year's draft. And the combination of Nick Fairley and last year's defensive rookie of the year, Ndamukong Suh, should make the interior of the Lions front seven close to impenetrable. Fairley joins a defense that already made the leap from 27th place in the fantasy team D rankings in 2009 to eighth place - thanks in large part to Suh, who generated 49 tackles, 10 sacks and an interception. Those are staggering numbers for an interior lineman. And his pocket-collapsing presence helped DEs Cliff Avril (8.5 sacks) and Kyle Vanden Bosch (4 in 11 games played) generate additional pressure. Fairley - who at one point was considered a potential first overall pick - should have a very productive rookie season playing with that crew. It remains to be seen how much Detroit's fantasy-friendly defense will help the Lions win games, though. Despite their impressive showing in 2010 - (44 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 14 interceptions), the Lions didn't do a very good job of stopping the opposition from scoring. They ranked 19th in points allowed, 21st in yards allowed and were particularly vulnerable against the run (24th in rushing yards allowed). Coach Jim Schwartz will look to get more production out of his linebackers and secondary this season. It will be a good sign for the Lions if safety Louis Delmas isn't their leading tackler again this year.
7. St. Louis Rams
In terms of on-the-field performance, the Rams were a thoroughly mediocre defense in 2010, ranking middle of the pack in points allowed (12th), yards allowed (19th) and opponent passing and rushing (19th and 17th, respectively). A couple of observations about that performance: first, thoroughly mediocre is a massive improvement over the 2009 team, which was the second-worst defense in the league in terms of points allowed. Second, in terms of fantasy production, St. Louis was actually pretty darned good. Consider: the Rams sacked opposing quarterbacks 43 times - more than the Jets, Eagles or Patriots. They forced 20 fumbles and snagged 14 interceptions. And though their fantasy-point total of 111 ranked 15th in the league - just one step above middle-of-the-road - they generated that total without the benefit of a defensive touchdown. Given an average performance in that most fluky of stats, and the 2010 Rams would have been a top-seven fantasy D. Their improvement shouldn't be a big surprise. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo has an impeccable reputation for defense, and the Rams have invested quite a few top draft picks in defenders in recent years. Another pass-rushing threat will be added to the mix this season: North Carolina DE Robert Quinn. The rookie is expected to work in rotation with incumbents Chris Long and James Hall - something his coach used to great effect when he was defensive coordinator for the Giants.
8. San Diego Chargers
The 2011 season was a bitter disappointment for the Chargers, who missed the playoffs despite being one of the NFL's top-ranked teams in both overall offense and defense. Abysmal special teams play was the biggest factor keeping the Bolts out of the postseason, but that wasn't the only anomaly. The 2010 Chargers generated 47 sacks - tied with the Packers and Raiders for second-most in the league. But they forced just 10 fumbles, tying with Indianapolis and Philadelphia for fourth fewest. Ordinarily there's a much stronger correlation between quarterbacks sacked and fumbles caused; we anticipate a stronger performance in the latter category from the Chargers this season. San Diego finally cut ties with one-time defensive beast Shawne Merriman last season, but Shaun Phillips (11 sacks) emerged as a suitable replacement. His work is made much easier by the push generated by NT Antonio Garay (5.5 sacks) and DE Luis Castillo. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, oft-injured safety Bob Sanders can contribute to the Chargers D. Sanders is a human wrecking ball when healthy - but he's only played 10 games in the last three seasons combined.
9. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have one of the most-feared pass rushers in the NFL in DeMarcus Ware. And in 2010, they had little else to boast about on defense. Ware spent the season making quarterbacks run for their lives and tallied 15.5 sacks - but the rest of the Dallas D was dreadful. As a team the Cowboys were 31st in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed. That performance was one of several reasons coach Wade Phillips was let go after eight games. Paul Pasqualoni ran the defense for interim coach Jason Garrett, but left Dallas to take the head coaching job at Connecticut. He'll be replaced by Rob Ryan - brother to Rex, son to Buddy, and formerly defensive coordinator of the Browns and Raiders. Like his father and brother, he's a highly-respected defensive strategist and is expected to implement a defensive strategy that places a premium on quarterback pressure. With Ware, teammates Anthony Spencer and Bradie James and 2011 draft pick Bruce Carter in the front seven, he should have the personnel to make it work. The secondary is another matter. While the Cowboys picked off 20 passes, Dallas was 26th in the NFL in passing yards allowed last season. Increasingly, cornerback Terrence Newman is regarded as something of a liability. The Cowboys could have addressed that position in the draft, but opted to wait until the fifth round to take a DB.
10. New England Patriots
That the New England Patriots were one of the top Team Defenses in fantasy last season isn't a surprise. Or is it? They are, after all, coached by Bill Belichick, the NFL's resident defensive genius-slash-mad scientist. But the route the Pats took to the top of the Team D rankings should raise a few eyebrows. They didn't generate many sacks or force many fumbles - but they did pick off a league-best 25 passes and score five defensive touchdowns on the season. Interceptions tend not to be terribly consistent from year to year, but the Pats have to be an exception, right? Belichick is so good at disguising his defenses, and the Pats' offense is so powerful, forcing teams to air it out when they're playing from behind... the Patriots must be a good bet to generate a lot of picks, right? Not necessarily. In 2009, they had just 18. The year before that, 11. Suddenly 25 is looking like the anomaly. And don't count on the Pats to make up for a regression to the mean in interceptions with a big increase in sacks. The return of DE Ty Warren - who missed all of 2010 with a hip injury - should help the performance of New England's front seven. But Belichick's teams haven't generated big sack numbers in recent seasons. Last year's 36 actually represents a pretty nice boost from their 2009 (31) and 2008 (31) numbers.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
Given their reputation as a big-blitzing pressure defense, one might think the Eagles would be a top fantasy defense. In reality, Philly's defensive numbers usually place them in the middle of the pack, though the Eagles sometimes move up the ranks on the strength of big plays. The 2009 Eagles were the second-best Team D in fantasy, thanks in part to their four defensive touchdowns. In 2010, they had just three TDs, and finished ninth in fantasy points, tied with the Falcons and Chargers. For the Eagles to become a truly elite fantasy D, they'll need to get production from players other than Trent Cole (10 sacks) and Asante Samuel (7 interceptions). They added some depth to the secondary via the draft in the form of hard-hitting safety Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round and speedy CB Curtis Marsh in the third. This season could be a crucial one for the Eagles and coach Andy Reid's staff. Last year's defense was coached by Sean McDermott, who was promoted to the coordinator position after the untimely death of legendary coach Jim Johnson. But McDermott's inexperience, and his D's poor showings against Minnesota and Green Bay, cost him his job. To replace him, the Eagles made the unorthodox move of promoting a coach from Reid's offensive staff - their offensive line coach, Juan Castillo. Moving a coach from one side of the ball to the other isn't completely unheard of - Mike Nolan made a similar move within the Ravens staff once - but it's awfully rare, and has the potential to backfire. On the other hand, Castillo has been part of the Eagles staff since 1995, which should enable them to maintain continuity. Given the NFL's labor problems and the lack of many regularly-scheduled offseason activities, hiring a coordinator from within may have been a particularly savvy move by Andy Reid.
12. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are the best example of the fundamental disconnect between on-field performance and Team D fantasy scoring. In reputation and actual numbers, Baltimore's defense is consistently one of the NFL's best. It allowed just 16.9 points per game last season, the third-lowest total in the league. But in fantasy points, the Ravens finished in the middle of the pack - 18th of 32 teams. Why is this? Generally speaking, a defense that does most things well can stop teams from scoring without posting gaudy sack and turnover numbers. The Ravens are exceptional at stuffing the run, holding opponents to 93.9 yards per game on the ground, so their decidedly average sack total (27 - 11 coming from Terrell Suggs) doesn't hurt their overall performance. And though interceptions are tough to predict on a year-to-year basis, the Ravens secondary is particularly adept at ball-hawking. Of course, that stands to reason - it has future Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed playing center field. That secondary could be even tougher this season thanks to the addition of cornerback Jimmy Smith, a highly-regarded cover corner out of Colorado, via the first round of the draft.
13. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs showed marked improvement in the second year of their transition to a Belichickian 3-4 defense, cutting their yards allowed nearly 390 per game in 2009 to a much more respectable 330.2 in 2010, and their points allowed from 26.5 to 20.4. The biggest keys to their ascent were the emergence of Tamba Hali (14.5 sacks) as one of the league's top pass-rushers and rookie Eric Berry's Pro Bowl-level NFL debut. Berry participated in every defensive play for the Chiefs in 2010 and contributed on special teams as well, racking up 72 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. The "Ed Reed" comparisons he drew coming out of college apparently weren't as ridiculous as they might have sounded at the time. For K.C. to continue this ascent up the Team D rankings, it'll need another pass-rushing threat to emerge to complement Hali. It may have found one in Justin Houston, a linebacker out of Georgia with first-round talent, who slipped to the third round due to the dreaded "character concerns." He could turn out to be a steal. On the other hand, K.C. will face a first-place schedule this season after their surprising 10-6 showing last season, so maintaining its defensive status quo might be all we should expect in 2011.
14. New Orleans Saints
Like the Ravens, the Saints posted very impressive defensive numbers last year - in categories that don't generate fantasy points. Gregg Williams' defense finished seventh overall in points allowed and fourth in overall yards and passing yards allowed. But it did so despite average-to-poor performances in the most fantasy-friendly categories of sacks and interceptions. The Saints don't have a real go-to pass rusher - their 33 sacks were very much a team effort, with Sedrick Ellis (6) and Will Smith (5.5) posting the team's highs. The addition of Cameron Jordan, a DE out of Cal, via the first round of the draft and Shaun Rogers, the ex-Browns and Lions tackle, could help bolster the attack. The secondary's fortunes are much harder to predict. In 2009, the Saints generated an eye-popping 26 interceptions - nine (and three defensive touchdowns) coming from safety Darren Sharper alone. In 2010, their INT total dropped to just nine - tied with the Raiders for the league low. Sharper missed the first six games of the season with injury, was unable to unseat his replacement, Malcolm Jenkins and did not record a single INT. What to expect in 2011? The Saints will probably pick off more balls than in 2010 but fewer than in 2009 - but it's certainly possible that the reconfigured secondary doesn't have the same ball-hawking skill as it did in years past.
15. Arizona Cardinals
Every year, there's at least one team that rises to the top of the Team D scoring charts with a rash of defensive touchdowns. In 2010, that team was the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinal D scored seven touchdowns last season; no other team had more than five. That was enough to make Arizona the fifth-best Team D in fantasy football. But if you adjust their TD total to a league-average three defensive touchdowns, the Cardinals drop all the way to 16th place. Worth noting: the 2009 Cardinals scored just one defensive touchdown. Arizona management wasn't thrilled with that level of production either, so coach Ken Wisenhunt brought in Ray Horton - the Steelers' secondary coach - as his new defensive coordinator. Horton is expected to install a Pittsburgh-style aggressive, blitzing defense. Does he have the personnel to make that work? Hard to say - but the fact that starting OLBs Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington combined for just three sacks in 2010 isn't a positive indication. On the other hand, the Cardinals secondary should be very tough, with first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson - generally thought to be the top CB prospect in this year's crop of rookies - set to bookend Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside and with safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes manning the middle.
16. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins finished 2010 ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed, passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. But that performance wasn't enough to overcome the team's deficiencies on offense; the Phins scored just 17.1 points per game - 30th in the league - on their way to a 7-9 record. From a Team D perspective, the Miami defense was almost as bad as the offense, finishing 28th overall in fantasy points. But that number is a bit deceptive - the Phins scored just one defensive touchdown all season and forced a surprisingly low number of fumbles (11). Bring those numbers back in line with league averages, and the Dolphins look a lot more like a solid-but-unspectacular Team D option. Apparently, that's good enough for Miami management. The Dolphins devoted most of their draft to the other side of the ball, waiting until the seventh round to select a defensive player. Any improvement would likely come via the continued growth of Cameron Wake (14 sacks in his first season as a full-time player) or a return to form for LB Channing Crowder, whose tackle total has plummeted from 113 in 2008 to just 33 last season.
17. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons coaching staff has done a remarkable job keeping John Abraham healthy and productive - the veteran pass rusher appeared in 15 games last season, posted 13 sacks and (surprisingly) an interception, and was named a first-team All-Pro. Unfortunately, Abraham was the only Falcon to post top fantasy numbers - no other Atlanta player had more than four sacks. Abraham's 13 represented more than 40 percent of the team's total of 31. And it's hard to trust a defense that dependent on a 33-year-old, oft-injured defensive end. Apparently Falcons management is a little more trusting. Or maybe it just had other priorities. The team traded a huge cache of draft picks to the Browns to move up and acquire wide receiver Julio Jones sixth overall. That meant no help for the defense until the bottom of round three, when Thomas Dimitroff snagged linebacker Akeem Dent out of Georgia. Dent could become part of the MLB rotation, but he's pegged, initially, as a special-teamer. As a result, any improvement is going to have to come from players already on Atlanta's roster, and there are a few candidates who could step up. Cornerback Brent Grimes is probably the best big-play threat on Atlanta's defense, having picked off 11 passes in the last two seasons combined. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine who forced three fumbles last season, and DT Jonathan Babineaux produces impressive numbers for an interior lineman. But they're complementary players - Abraham is still the star. As long as he's healthy and productive, the Falcons should continue to be a better-than-average Team D. If he takes a step backward during the season, look elsewhere.
18. Cleveland Browns
The Browns defense made some impressive strides under head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, making the leap from among the league's worst defenses in 2008 to a middle-of-the-road unit in 2009 and 2010. But middle-of-the-road wasn't good enough. After the season, Mangini was replaced by ex-Rams and Eagles assistant Pat Shurmur. After missing out on the head coaching gig, Ryan left to take the coordinator's position in Dallas, and Shurmur hired Dick Jauron to run the defense. The Browns continued their makeover on draft day, adding defensive linemen Phil Taylor (21st overall) and Jabaal Sheard (37th) with their first two selections. Taylor should step in immediately and replace Shaun Rogers on the interior of the line, while Sheard is considered a potentially-dangerous pass-rush threat. The biggest home-run threat in the secondary is second-year cornerback Joe Haden, who led the Browns with six interceptions as a rookie. Can the Browns continue to progress? Quite possibly. But we're hesitant to recommend any team that will have so many new faces in key positions - both on the field and the sidelines - when practice reps will be at such a premium due to the labor battle.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs were one of the biggest surprises of 2010, posting a 10-6 record and missing a playoff berth due to tiebreakers. Tampa's defense was a big part of its jump; the Bucs shaved more than five points allowed per game and 30-plus yards allowed off their 2009 averages. But as their draft-day decisions show, they're looking to do even better in 2011. The Bucs' top three picks went to defense. In the first round, they nabbed Adrian Clayborn, who is expected to be an immediate starter at DE. They were pleased to see another DE, pass-rusher Da'Quan Bowers fall to them in the second, and added linebacker Mason Foster in the third. The additions should bolster a front seven that didn't have a pass-rush threat more menacing than Stylez White and his team-high 4.5 sacks. (And how menacing can a guy named "Stylez" really be?) Tampa is reportedly also considering an additional shakeup to its linebacker corps and is listening to trade offers for leading tackler Barrett Ruud. The Bucs secondary has some major questions, too. Aqib Talib's status is uncertain due to pending gun charges, and his bookend - Ronde Barber - is so old, he's got a twin brother that retired from the NFL in 2006.
20. Tennessee Titans
The Titans defense significantly outperformed expectations last season - from a fantasy scoring perspective, at least - thanks in large part to the Pro Bowl performance of journeyman DE Jason Babin. Tennessee signed Babin from the Eagles for just $1 million - a pittance, really. That turned out to be an outstanding investment. Babin played in all 16 games, notched a team-high 12.5 sacks and had 44 tackles and forced two fumbles. In all, the Titans totaled 40 sacks - a big leap from the 32 they recorded in 2009. Babin's status for the 2011 season is uncertain at this point, but that's the least of the Titans' concerns. The franchise will be adjusting to a new head coach for the first time since 1994, when Jeff Fisher replaced Jack Pardee on the sidelines for a team still called the Houston Oilers. Fisher and the Titans parted ways in January, and Mike Munchak, a former offensive line coach, replaces him. Jerry Gray - a former defensive coordinator in Buffalo and most recently Seahawks secondary coach - will run the defense. The Titans gave Gray some help via the draft, adding UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers in the second round, Jurrell Casey - a high-motor DT from USC - in the third and Miami MLB Colin McCarthy in the fourth. All are expected to make major contributions for a team that was 17th in points allowed last season. But as with other teams going through major coaching and personnel changes, that's not enough to make the Titans a good option in this year's fantasy drafts.
21. Carolina Panthers
The 2010 Panthers had the league's worst scoring offense (12.2 points per game) and 26th-best scoring defense (25.5 points allowed per game). A performance that ugly makes the numbers harder to analyze - sure, the defense held opponents to 212.1 pass yards per game - good for 11th in the league. Does that mean the secondary was doing its job? Or that teams didn't need to throw, because they were racking up yards on the ground (123.8 per game, to be precise). Obviously, the roster is a problem. But the coaching situation didn't help. John Fox was a lame duck last season, and everyone knew it. He'll be replaced this season by Ron Rivera, who has been part of some truly excellent defenses in Chicago, Philadelphia and, most recently, San Diego. His coordinator will be Sean McDermott, who coached the Philly D last season (and was fired after that), but Rivera is expected to be very hands-on. Rivera's expertise will help, but he can't do much without players. The Panthers could lose last year's sack leader, Charles Johnson, and his 11.5 sacks. But they'll get MLB Dan Connor - who missed half of last season with a hip injury - back, and are also returning IDP star Jon Beason, who played much of last season with a bum knee, and cornerback Chris Gamble, who was hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries. They also added some help via the draft - DTs Terrell McClain and Sione Fua in the third round and DB Brandon Hogan at the top of the fourth.
22. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings aspired to contender status in 2010, but things didn't exactly go as planned. Much of the blame for their disappointing 6-10 record went to the offense - Brett Favre getting too much of the press - but the defense didn't perform to expectations either. The Vikings pass rush took a major step backward last season, generating just 31 sacks - down from 48 in 2009. Jared Allen is perennially among the top names on the sack leaderboard, but he got off to a hideously slow start (one sack through the first seven games) last season and had to finish strong to push his season total to 11 - his lowest number since 2006. The Vikings' sack number wasn't the only one that fell off a cliff in 2010. The 2009 Vikings were among the league's best at forcing fumbles, with 23. They knocked the ball loose just 11 times in 2011. A slight bump in their interception total (11 to 15) wasn't nearly enough to compensate. On the season, the Minnesota D that was projected to finish among the league leaders in fantasy points landed in the bottom third of the league, in Redskins/Bills/Panthers territory. This season is looking like a transitional year for the franchise, and while the defense might rebound, it's hard to imagine it returning to elite status.
23. Houston Texans
The biggest personnel change for the Texans defense this year takes place on the sideline, where ex-Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips takes over as defensive coordinator. Phillips' track record as a head coach is underwhelming; as a coordinator, he's good-to-very-good. But it will take more than Phillips' arrival to turn around a defense that was the second-worst in fantasy scoring last season. Phillips does have some nice building blocks, particularly in the front seven - names like Mario Williams, Amobe Okoye, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing are well-known to owners in IDP leagues. But they'll all have to learn new roles and responsibilities as Phillips transitions the team from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. Williams is expected to shift from end to outside linebacker and Okoye from tackle to end, while Cushing and Ryans are to play side-by-side as ILBs. And they'll make that transition without the benefit of a full offseason program, courtesy of the NFL lockout. Phillips may succeed in turning Williams into DeMarcus Ware 2.0 - Houston's fans certainly hope so - but that transformation is going to take a little time. That might mean the Texans D struggles through the season's opening weeks, and as such, it's hard to recommend drafting it. But it could wind up being a valuable option later in the season, as the personnel becomes more accustomed to Phillips' system.
24. San Francisco 49ers
The Niners might be good candidates to rebound from a sub-par 2010 season, but 2011 could be a very difficult year for any team with a completely new coaching staff. That's no knock on the staff - Jim Harbaugh has a tremendous reputation, and new D-Coordinator Vic Fangio has plenty of experience at the NFL level - but they'll be hamstrung by the unsettled labor situation and have limited time to implement their systems and playbooks. Another reason to worry the 49ers might not be able to replicate their impressive 2009 Team D numbers - they were generated by a surprising number of players. Teams that generate big sack numbers from the 3-4 defense - the Steelers, Cowboys and Packers, for example - generally have one or two bigtime quarterback killers in the front seven to generate the pressure. The Niners racked up 44 sacks in 2009, but their team leader was Manny Lawson with 6.5. Justin Smith led the team with 8.5 in 2010, but the team total dipped to 36. The Niners are trying to address that deficiency with the addition of first-round pick Aldon Smith, a DE out of Missouri who will convert to a 3-4 edge rusher. But his conversion from down lineman to stand-up pass-rusher is expected to take some time, and time is not a luxury NFL teams will have much of this season.
25. Oakland Raiders
It may be too soon to say if the Raiders have emerged from their decade-long malaise. Their 8-8 record in 2010 was compiled thanks, in part, to their presence in a weak division, as Oakland was 6-0 against AFC West opponents and 2-8 against everyone else. That said, the Raiders clearly showed some signs of life last season - particularly on defense. The up-and-coming Raiders D generated 47 sacks last season; only the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers had more. Kamerion Wimbley - in his first year in silver and black - led the way with nine, and DT Tommy Kelley and DE Matt Shaughnessy had seven apiece. Unfortunately for the Raider faithful, it will be very difficult for Oakland to replicate that success this season, because all-universe cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha isn't expected to return to the team. Without Asomugha, the Raiders pass defense is likely to take a significant step backward. Clearly anticipating Asomugha's departure, the Raiders spent two of their top four draft picks on defensive backs - third-rounder Demarcus Van Dyke out of Miami and fourth-rounder Chimdi Chekwa from Ohio State. But both were considered "tools" selections who will take a little time to develop - and in the season of the lockout, development time will be in exceedingly short supply.
26. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks actually won the NFC West - and a first-round playoff game - with a defense that ranked 25th in points allowed, 27th in overall and pass yards allowed and 21st against the run. Playing in what must have been the weakest division in league history certainly helped - Seattle went 4-2 against St. Louis, San Francisco and Arizona (and 3-7 against everyone else). Seattle actually posted some impressive gains in key Team Defense categories in 2010 - which should give you an idea of how bad it was in 2009. Seahawk defenders generated 37 sacks - up from 28 in 2009 - and generated 15 forced fumbles (up from 13). Chris Clemons - acquired via trade before the season - led the way with 11 sacks, and free-agent signee Raheem Brock added nine. Seattle could show more if Aaron Curry - its first-rounder in 2009 - continues to improve and if MLB Lofa Tatupu can stay healthy for more than half a season. But a tougher first-place schedule won't help matters, nor will expected improvement from the Rams and Niners.
27. Washington Redskins
There are a multitude of reasons the Redskins would like to forget 2010 - and the performance of the defense is high on that list. The transition to a 3-4 defense under new coach Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett went less than smoothly. High-priced defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth balked at the change, leading to a season-long conflict with the team that still isn't fully resolved. And the Skins gave up nearly 390 yards of offense per game - the second-highest number in the league. Things should improve this season, if only because being worse would be very difficult. Brian Orakpo was a bright spot, transitioning to OLB full-time and recording 8.5 sacks and 36 tackles. He'll be joined by first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan, a pass-rushing DE out of Purdue, and lineman Jarvis Jenkins, a second-round pick out of Clemson. That should help bolster a pass rush that generated just 29 sacks last season. And the secondary should get a boost from LaRon Landry, who missed seven games in 2010 due to a variety of injuries. But Washington still has some roster issues. As of this spring, greybeards like Philip Daniels (37), Vonnie Holliday (35) and London Fletcher (35) still occupied important spots on the depth chart. Fletcher, especially, has been remarkably productive - but he's on borrowed time at this point. The Skins will need to address their age problems - and their Haynesworth problem - before they can take significant steps forward.
28. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts boast one of the most talented defensive-end duos in the NFL in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But based on their statistics from last season, you might assume Freeney and Mathis were the only two defenders on the field. Indy's bookend DEs accounted for 21 combined sacks last season - 11 for Freeney and 10 for Mathis. And every other Indianapolis defender, combined, couldn't top either player's output as the rest of the Colts had just nine. A team with so few playmakers on defense obviously isn't going to have much success stopping people. The Colts finished 23rd overall in points allowed last season, gave up 341 yards per game and were 25th in the NFL against the run. And their interception and forced fumbles numbers (10 each) were nearly as feeble as their sack total. In reality, the Colts' best defense is their offense. When Peyton Manning is clicking with his receivers, the Colts can put up some big numbers; they scored more than 27 points per game last season and were first overall in average passing yards. That allows Indy to play from ahead most of the time, which gives Freeney and Mathis the opportunity to chase quarterbacks without having to worry about their run-stopping responsibilities. It seems clear the offensive side will continue to be the Colts' top priority and calling card - their first two picks in this spring's draft were used on offensive linemen. Fantasy owners should take their cue from Indianapolis management and prioritize the Colts offense over their defense.
29. Buffalo Bills
Under new coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator George Edwards, the 2010 Bills shifted from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 last season, and the initial results were pretty darned ugly. Like, nearly 170 rushing yards allowed per game, ugly. To help rectify that situation, Buffalo went heavily for defense in the draft. Third overall pick Marcell Dareus was just the first of eight defenders selected with nine draft picks - only the addition of offensive lineman Chris Hairston in the fourth round interrupted the run of defenders. Dareus is the biggest - both literally and figuratively - addition, a 319-pound man-mountain of a DT who should represent an immediate and substantial upgrade to that hideous run defense, and second-rounder Aaron Williams, a defensive back out of Texas, should make life at least a little more difficult for AFC East quarterbacks. But the Bills have an awfully long way to go before they're a legit Team D option.
30. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals don't get to the quarterback well. Or force fumbles. Or generate interceptions. Other than that... well, they're still pretty mediocre. The Bengals' forced fumble numbers are particularly troubling. They forced just 11 in 2009 - tied for the NFL low. In 2010, that number dropped to nine. The New York Giants more than tripled that number. The Bengals used most of their draft to bolster the offense, though third-round DL Dontay Moch should be a contributor right away. And that's important, because there's not a lot to like in Cincinnati's front seven. Antwan Odom was an absolute bust. The Bengals hoped he'd help their pass rush; instead, he was limited to just four games due to a wrist injury and PED suspension. Robert Geathers played 16 games and was credited with 33 tackles and just one sack. Domata Peko really hasn't become the pocket-collapser Cincinnati thought he'd be, and Rey Maualuga has been a mild disappointment. Carlos Dunlap was the lone bright spot for Cincy's front seven in 2010, emerging from relative obscurity to generate 9.5 sacks in just 12 games. Leon Hall is solid at one cornerback spot, but the Bengals could lose Jonathan Joseph as a unrestricted free agent, which would leave Detroit castoff Jonathan Wade or noted knucklehead Adam (don't call me Pac-Man) Jones at the other corner. Maualuga is expected to shift to MLB this season, replacing Dhani Jones, who is well past his expiration date.
31. Denver Broncos
The Broncos defense entered the 2010 season with high hopes; ready to build upon a breakout 2009 season when Elvis Dumervil keyed a pass rush that generated 39 sacks - an NFL-best 17 from Dumervil alone. One problem with that strategy - Dumervil suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in August and didn't play a single down. And without him, the Broncos proved unable to generate much of a pass rush. Or any defense at all. The Broncos rated last in the NFL in points allowed (29.4), yards allowed (390.8) and sacks (23) and were next-to-last in rushing yards allowed (154.6). They forced just 12 fumbles, and only the New Orleans Saints generated fewer interceptions than the Broncos' 10. Clearly, John Fox and the Broncos' new coaching staff have their work cut out for them. Fox presided over some pretty impressive defenses with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, but he won't have much of an opportunity to work with his new team, so temper your expectations. Two reasons to expect better numbers from Denver this season: Dumervil should be back, and he'll be bookended by second-overall pick Von Miller, generally regarded as the most NFL-ready pass rusher in this year's draft.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
I'll summarize the Jaguars defense in just three words: do not want. The Jags have occupied the Team D basement for two years running, and for good reason - they don't do anything well. Case in point - Jacksonville posted 41 sacks in 2009 and 2010 combined. Seven NFL teams had more than that in 2010 alone. And five teams matched or bettered Jacksonville's two-year forced fumble total of 20. And adding insult to injury, the Jaguars were one of just four NFL teams that failed to score a defensive touchdown. Not that it would have mattered - give the 2010 Jags D the league average of three defensive TDs and it would jump from 32nd all the way to 30th. Is help on the way? Not really. The Jags used their first three picks in the 2011 NFL Draft on offense, and didn't add a defensive player until the 24th pick of the fourth round. Even getting Aaron Kampman back to full strength - the DE missed half of last season after tearing his ACL - won't be enough to make the Jags a viable fantasy option.