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Pre-Season Team Defense Report
Darin Tietgen
July 31, 2006

When evaluating the potential fantasy impact of team defenses, it’s important to know who is on the defensive side of the ball – who is going to make the big plays that translate into big fantasy points?  And secondly, it’s important to analyze the team’s schedule, as this will play a big part in how a defense is able to dominate and put up points for your fantasy team.  So let’s take a look at my top 12 team defenses here in the pre-season.

1. Chicago Bears

The Players:

The Bears are solid at all defensive positions.  Ian Scott anchors the middle, but Bears’ coaches are hoping Dusty Dvoracek makes a name for himself there.  Adawale Ogunleye is a top-15 defensive end and should easily reach double-digit sacks by himself this season.  The linebacking crew is solid, led by perennial stud Brian Urlacher.  Lance Briggs is the best linebacker you may never have heard of.  And the secondary, which got plenty of press last season, is back, healthy and deeper than ever with the addition of Ricky Manning, Danieal Manning and Devin Hester.  These guys can take it to the house. 

The Schedule:

@GB, DET, @MIN, SEA, BUF, @ARI, SF, MIA, @NYG, @NYJ, @NE, MIN, @STL, TB, @DET, GB

Looks pretty favorable to me, with games against pass-happy Green Bay and Arizona as well as teams that may struggle in Buffalo, San Francisco and the New York Jets.  And for those of you fortunate enough to be in your league’s Super Bowl, check out those last two games.  Perfect!

2. Carolina Panthers 

The Players:

There probably isn’t a more freakish athlete (heck, on BOTH sides of the ball) in the NFL than defensive end Julius Peppers.  After a somewhat disappointing 2005 season, Peppers will be raring to go in 2006.  He’s capable of double-digit sacks, multiple forced fumbles and fumble recoveries and even interceptions.  Mike Rucker, on the other end, is getting up there in age, but is a savvy veteran capable of decent sack numbers.  The linebacking corps is led by the intense Dan Morgan, who, when healthy, is potentially one of the best linebackers in the game.  Thomas Davis moves up from the secondary and is a hard-hitter capable of causing fumbles.  The secondary is led by veteran Mike Minter, and has been infused with some youth in rookies Nate Salley and Richard Marshall.  Newcomers Ken Lucas and Shaun Williams will solidify this unit. 

The Schedule:

ATL, @MIN, @TB, NO, CLE, @BAL, @CIN, DAL, TB, STL, @WAS, @PHI, NYG, PIT, @ATL, @NO

If it weren’t for the two games against New Orleans and the games against St. Louis and Cleveland, this would be a pretty rough schedule.  If your league’s Super Bowl is Week 17, you gotta be liking that matchup against the Saints.

3. Pittsburgh

The Players:

Let’s start in the secondary with safety Troy Polamalu.  This guy is all over the field, making key tackles, big hits and intercepting the football.  His interceptions dipped slightly last season, but expect him to have his chances this season.  The secondary gained Ryan Clark from Washington, and the Steelers’ coaching staff are raving about him, and he’s currently slated to start at free safety.  Ike Taylor, who had a breakout 2005 season and Deshea Townsend man the cornerback spots.  The defensive line doesn’t have any names that jump out at you, but are solid run-stuffers.  The linebacking corps features the underrated James Farrior, the sacking linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans and consistent Larry Foote.

The Schedule:

MIA, @JAC, CIN, @SD, KC, @ATL, @OAK, DEN, NO, @CLE, @BAL, TB, CLE, @CAR, BAL, @CIN

Pretty tough schedule if you ask me.  Games against KC, NO and two against CLE look good, though.  Aside from Cleveland, their fantasy playoff schedule looks tough.

4. Baltimore

The Players:

This defense lives and dies with linebacker Ray Lewis.  With him only playing in six games last season, this highly-touted defense just wasn’t itself.  Add in the fact that secondary leader Ed Reed only played in 10, and you found yourself kicking yourself for drafting the Ravens as the first fantasy team defense.  Well, Lewis and Reed are back and healthy (Lewis is nursing a hamstring injury but should be ready to go come September), and a few key additions may make this defense strong yet again.  Haloti Ngata was drafted to add some beef to the middle of the line, and Trevor Pryce was brought in to anchor one of the ends.  All signs point to defensive end Terrell Suggs to duplicating his rookie season of 12 sacks, and mixing in more tackles and causing turnovers. 

The Schedule:

@TB, OAK, @CLE, SD, @DEN, CAR, @NO, CIN, @TEN, ATL, PIT, @CIN, @KC, CLE, @PIT, BUF

Now that’s a schedule worthy of some chops-licking.  New Orleans, Tennessee and then Buffalo in many leagues’ Super Bowl week?  That’s nice.  Getting Cleveland twice is also key.

5. Tampa Bay

The Players:

The Bucs have been one the more consistent fantasy team defenses over the past few years.  This is attributable to the play of linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber.  Both Brooks and Barber flourish in the Cover-2 scheme made popular by the Bucs.  They return for their 12th and 10th years, respectively, and are still going strong.  The defensive line is anchored by veteran Simeon Rice, who at the age of 32, can still put up massive sack numbers.  Don’t expect that to change much this season, either. 

The Schedule:

BAL, @ATL, CAR, @NO, CIN, PHI, @NYG, NO, @CAR, WAS, @DAL, @PIT, ATL, @CHI, @CLE, SEA

Brutal.  Just brutal.  The two games against New Orleans and the late-season game against Cleveland (Week 16, most leagues’ Super Bowl) are nice, though.

6. New York Giants

The Players:

What’s not to like about the big names on the Giant D?  Let’s start in the defensive backfield with Gibril Wilson, whose name is no stranger to IDP league owners after a stellar 2nd season in the NFL.  Will Demps, a former mainstay in the Baltimore Raven backfield, joins Wilson this season.  The linebackers are solid, led by Antonio Pierce, who in only 13 games, was one tackle short of 100 total tackles last season.  Look for him to easily surpass 100 total tackles this season, and continue to defend passes from the MLB spot.  LaVar Arrington joins his former Redskin teammate (Pierce) on the Giant back line this season, and should produce some solid tackle and sack stats.  The real strength of this defense, though, is in its bookend defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.  Strahan has put up gaudy sack totals for the past decade and doesn’t really show many signs of slowing down.  Umenyiora is the heir apparent, and yet still puts up gaudy stats of his own.  

The Schedule:

IND, @PHI, @SEA, WAS, @ATL, @DAL, TB, HOU, CHI, @JAC, @TEN, DAL, @CAR, PHI, NO, @WAS

Let’s face it: the NFC East is a beast this season.  But the Giants get Houston and New Orleans at The Meadowlands, which is attractive.

7. Seattle

The Players:

Much like the Giants, the Seahawks have several sack artists:  tackle Rocky Bernard, and ends Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom.  Wistrom’s artistry has slowed down recently, but could pick up.  The linebacking corps got stronger in the off-season with the addition of Julian Peterson.  And of course super-sophomore Lofa Tatupu will return to anchor the defense.  Fellow youngster D.D. Lewis proved he is also an effective tackler and playmaker last season.  The backfield is strong, too, with Ken Hamlin (who should be returning from a non-football head injury) and Michael Boulware manning the safety spots (with Chicago castoff Mike Green them backing up) and the underrated trio of Kelly Herndon, Jordan Babineaux and Marcus Trufant at the corner spots. 

The Schedule:

@DET, ARI, NYG, @CHI, @STL, MIN, @KC, OAK, STL, @SF, GB, @DEN, @ARI, SF, SD, @TB

Lots of cupcakes in there, interspersed with some toughies.  Seattle could easily shoot up the rankings if they take care of business and deal with the cupcakes, they will be a top-tier fantasy defense this season and in future seasons.

8. Jacksonville

The Players:

There’s nothing really flashy about the Jaguar defense; they just play hard, like their head coach, Jack Del Rio.  Mike Peterson is a stud linebacker who makes plays, but aside from him, the names are rather incognito.  Ends Paul Spicer and Reggie Hayward get a decent amount of sacks, and tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are terrific run-stuffers.  The secondary is also low-key, with no real flashy playmakers.  Expect this unit to continue to play solid team defense under Del Rio and have the occasional game where they get to the quarterback and cause turnovers. 

The Schedule:

DAL, PIT, @IND, @WAS, NYJ, @HOU, @PHI, TEN, HOU, NYG, @BUF, @MIA, IND, @TEN, NE, @KC

And this is why the Jags deserve a decent team defense ranking.  Aside from their somewhat rough start, their schedule is rather favorable.  Playing Houston and Tennessee twice is definitely a good thing.

9. Dallas

The Players:

Let’s start with a name that actually isn’t a player, but important nonetheless:  Bill Parcells.  Coach Parcells prides himself on fielding a football squad with a tough and relentless defense.  He expects nothing but the best from the defense.  The 3-4 defense is led up by 9-year veteran Greg Ellis, who had 8 sacks last season and second-year Marcus Spears on the defensive line and newcomer Akin Ayodele shores up the middle, pairing with Bradie James on the inside of the linebacking corps.  Demarcus Ware, who himself had 8 sacks last season, will man one end of the linebacking corps while rookie Bobby Carpenter should roam on the other side.  This should be a very solid unit.  The defensive backfield is led by the hard-hitting Roy Williams, who can change the game with one big hit or interception.  Corners Anthony Henry and Terrence Newman are more than adequate in coverage although they only had 6 interceptions between them last season.  Look for this Dallas defense to again play solid and have the occasional big game led by Williams and Ware. 

The Schedule:

@JAC, WAS, @TEN, @PHI, HOU, NYG, @CAR, @WAS, @ARI, IND, TB, @NYG, NO, @ATL, PHI, DET

As noted earlier, the NFC East schedule is pretty rough this season.  The Cowboys do get Houston, Tennessee, New Orleans, Arizona and Detroit (Week 17) though.  Those are potential cakewalks.

10. Indianapolis

The Players:

The Colts have been known for their stellar offense for the past several years, but their defense has actually played very well over that amount of time, too.  Their big playmakers (defensive end Dwight Freeney and safety Bob Sanders) should have outstanding seasons in causing turnovers and general havoc on the field.  Little-known Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock join Freeney in the sack party and linebackers Gary Brackett and Cato June are steady tacklers.  June, though, is liable to make big, game-changing plays.  Look for this defensive unit to continue to improve this season and be a viable weekly starter in terms of team defenses.

The Schedule:

@NYG, HOU, JAC, @NYJ, TEN, WAS, @DEN, @NE, BUF, @DAL, PHI, @TEN, @JAC, CIN, @HOU, MIA

The Colts have a pretty average schedule.  Games against the Jets, Buffalo, and two games each against Tennessee and Houston are very favorable, though.  A Week 16 meeting in Houston could mean big things for those in their league’s Super Bowl.

11. Miami

The Players:

Sure, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas are getting up there in age, but like fine wine, appear to be getting better with age.  Thomas forced a career-high four fumbles last season, and had his largest total tackle number in his career to boot.  Taylor again topped double-digit sacks and caused four fumbles himself.  2nd-year linebacker Channing Crowder will be another name to watch on the Dolphin front seven.  The secondary is young, but should be up to the task, led by cornerback Will Allen, who was a starter for the Giants in ’04-’05.  Rookie Jason Allen from Tennessee appears to have grabbed the starting free safety job and could become a big playmaker. 

The Schedule:

@PIT, BUF, TEN, @HOU, @NE, @NYJ, GB, @CHI, KC, MIN, @DET, JAC, NE, @BUF, NYJ, @IND

Aside from a few toughies, the Dolphin schedule is sweet.  Gotta love the pair of games against the Bills and Jets.  Green Bay, Houston and Detroit are also on the schedule; three teams that could certainly struggle.

12. Atlanta

The Players:

The Hawks defense improved dramatically over the off-season, with the addition of defensive end John Abraham, cornerback Jason Webster, and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker.  The very solid Edgerton Hartwell (returning from injury) and Keith Brooking lead the linebacking corps, and Patrick Kerney returns to anchor the line.  This defensive unit has all the makings of a very dangerous unit if the new faces can jell. 

The Schedule:

@CAR, TB, @NO, ARI, NYG, PIT, @CIN, @DET, CLE, @BAL, NO, @WAS, @TB, DAL, CAR, PHI

Ack.  And this is why Atlanta doesn’t have a higher ranking on this list.  A few cupcakes mixed in there, but for the most part, the Hawks face some tough opponents.