The Best and Worst: Defense

Updated: July 23, 2003, 12:31 PM ET
By By Ryan Early | NFL Insider
Free agency and the salary cap has done a good job of evening out the talent throughout the NFL. By design, teams cannot dominate all areas of the game. Instead they have to come up with a strategy to best lead to on field success. Some teams try to get one outstanding player on each unit, hoping they will improve the play of those around them. Others pick and choose whole areas of the team to make great while ignoring the others, hoping their gamble pays off. The Carolina Panthers have from one side to the other the best defensive line in the league, but they count on their fierce pass rush to hide their deficiencies in their secondary.

Defensive Line
Three teams stand far above the rest when it comes to quality defensive lines. The Bucs' defense took them to the championship, and it was their defensive line that was the strength of their defense. The NFL is a copycat league, but only two other teams have the talent up front to mimic Tampa's defensive play. There is a significant drop to the next level, but one unit that rarely gets any mention but deserves special attention is the Steelers front in their 3-4 defense. Because of the scheme of their defense, the linemen's job is geared to tying up blockers and closing run lanes than rushing the passer. Therefore they are the foundation of the team's defensive play. While the linebackers get the glory, it is hard to think that nosetackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Aaron Smith could do their jobs any better.

The Best
1. Carolina Panthers - The Panthers defensive line was so dominant, thanks to the addition of Defensive Rookie of the Year Julius Peppers, that they improved from dead last in the league in defense to second. The Panthers already had a good defensive line, but the presence of Peppers, who had 12 sacks in 12 games, spaced out opposing offensive lines and gave his teammates more opportunities. On the other side of the line, Mike Rucker had double-digit sacks for the first time in his career and is still improving. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was a force on the inside and was voted to the Pro Bowl after making 7 sacks. Brentson Buckner contributed five sacks and is the veteran leader of the group. The team also has quality reserves in ends Al Wallace and Kavika Pittman and tackle Shane Burton. What's scary for opponents is that this line could perform even better in the upcoming season as both Peppers and Buckner missed four games with Ephedra suspensions.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - The entire success of the Super Bowl champs stems from their front four, who can put such pressure on opposing quarterbacks themselves that the back seven defenders can all drop back into coverage. As a team, the Bucs ended the season with 46 sacks, good for 6th best in the league, but their pass rush had forced opponents into throwing 31 interceptions, 6 more than any other team forced. As is common with champions, the year after has become filled with stories of money. Defensive end Simeon Rice led the team with 15.5 sacks and became the NFL's highest paid defender in the offseason. Warren Sapp wants a contract extension but it isn't coming. He maintains that he will not hold out and intends to show the front office that he can play as well as ever at age 30. Anthony "Booger" McFarland missed 6 games and the playoffs last year, but is expecting a contract extension before the start of training camp, which will further infuriate Sapp. Greg Spires is the redheaded stepchild of the bunch, at least compared to the three superstars he plays with, but is able to pick up the pieces when the other three shatter the pocket.
3. Miami Dolphins - By conventional thinking, Jason Taylor is too small to be an every down defensive end. He is listed at 260 pounds, but that looks very generous given his sleek frame. Yet Taylor not only led the league with 18.5 sacks last season, he also did more than his share against the run and made 69 tackles. While most offensive line could blow him backwards if they got their hands on him, few can. Taylor has a lightning quick first step and if he is stonewalled with his first move he quickly changes direction to separate from the blocker and pursue the ball. Because of his overall game, Taylor never comes off the field. Meanwhile, the rest of the line uses a heavy playing rotation to make good use of their deep corps of players. Tim Bowens and Larry Chester are the starting tackles and are among the best in the league against the run. They will be given breathers by longtime Ram Jeff Zgonina. Adewale Ogunleye stepped into the starting lineup and made 9.5 sacks but also proved that he was more than an outside rusher and should show a much better all-around game this season. Jay Williams and Rob Burnett are veteran backups who make the most of their limited reps.
4. Tennessee Titans - This unit ranks among the most talented in the league, but so far they have been very inconsistent in their play. Jevon Kearse entered the league as one of the most exciting young defensive players in years but missed almost the entire 2002 season with a broken foot. Kevin Carter had three huge seasons with the Rams from '90 to 2000, but had a very disappointing first year with the Titans before picking up his game last season. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth entered the starting lineup late last season but has the ability to take over games. Robaire Smith is coming off two shoulder surgeries but will be asked to play a lot because the depth along the line has been thinned out due to salary cap related roster losses. If all four are healthy and playing well, no offensive line can contain them. But there is little room for error here if the Titans want to make another run deep into the playoffs.
5. St. Louis Rams - The team's defense fell from a 3rd overall ranking in 2001 to the middle of the pack last season. If they want to regain their top form, it is the defensive line that must emerge as one of the best in the league. There's plenty of talent here a bunch of first round draft picks on the unit. But it is the one that isn't who is the team's best lineman. End Leonard Little is a converted linebacker who has made 26.5 sacks over the last two seasons. When he enters the backfield he looks for the big play, forcing 9 fumbles last season. Grant Wistrom is one of the most consistent ends as far as effort, but his normal double-digit sack production was cut in half last season. At tackle, Ryan Pickett emerged last season with 61 tackles in starting 14 games. Damione Lewis has been slowed with injuries in his first two seasons but is looking for a breakout year as he is finally healthy. This year's first rounder, Jimmy Kennedy, has all the potential in the world, but some team observers are concerned about a possible attitude problem and inability to play with injuries that could stunt his development. If the tackles play up to their potential, the Rams should be back in the Super Bowl hunt.