NFC West Power Rankings: Battle For The Top Defensive Line

December 2, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) is sacked by St. Louis Rams defensive end William Hayes (95) during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
December 2, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) is sacked by St. Louis Rams defensive end William Hayes (95) during the first half at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

Over the last couple of days, we at Ramblin’ Fan ranked nearly every position on the offensive side of the football in the NFC West: quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and tight ends. We now shift our focus over to the bread and butter of the division; the defense! Last season, the Seahawks and 49ers manned, arguably, the best two defense in the league, with the St. Louis Rams showing glimpses of Top 10 potential, and the Arizona Cardinals holding their own until a wave of injuries rampaged through the roster. Ranking the defenses as a whole would be nearly impossible, however, their are some pretty definitive lines once the positions are broken down. So, without more pause, we will start with the pigs up front… the defensive line.

1. St. Louis Rams

The St. Louis Rams might not be as “name brand” as the rest of the NFC West, but their line was the most dominate unit throughout the 2012 season, and figure to repeat after maintaining, essentially, their entire defensive line rotation. The Rams lead the league in sacks last season, finishing the year with 52.0 after a monster pass-rushing game against the Seattle Seahawks. Between Chris Long (11.5), Robert Quinn (10.5), and William Hayes (7.0), the Rams’ easily have maintain the best defensive end trio in the league, and look to improve on that number with the help of a healthy Michael Brockers in the middle of the field. Brockers missed the first quarter of the season with an ankle injury, but still finished the season with 21 tackles, 4 sacks, and 13 other pressures on the quarterback. Brockers’ rookie season would end with him finishing the season Top 10 in sacks among all defensive tackles, and miraculously took the Rams from a Bottom 10 run defense that allowed 6 rushing touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season to a Top 15 unit that allowed only two 100 yard rushers  from Week 5 through the end of the regular season.

The trio on the outside proved to be the perfect mix of players, compensating for each others’ weaknesses within the rotation. Robert Quinn struggles against the run, but William Hayes graded out as the 5th-best run-stuffing, 4-3 defensive end in the NFL last season (best in the NFC West). All three can clearly rush the quarterback, lead by Chris Long who lead the league in overall pressures for the second consecutive season (11.5 sacks, 9 hits on quarterback, 55 hurries). Kendall Langford also struggled against the run, but the St. Louis Rams found sollice in Jermelle Cudjo, who finished ahead of every defensive tackle in the NFC West  not named Dan Williams or Brandon Mebane in defensive stops, despite playing only 351 defensive snaps (Hayes also played significant snaps at DT in passing situations). With Brocker in tow, and the progression of Langford the Rams’ will make another strong case for the best defensive line rotation in the NFL in 2013.

Fun fact: The St. Louis Rams defensive line accounted for 75% of the teams total sacks (39 of 52), with 6 DIFFERENT defensive lineman recorded at least 2.0 sacks last season.

2. Seattle Seahawks

After watching their Super Bowl hoped fade away after the nasty injury to Chris Clemens, the Seattle Seahawks went out this offseason and signed every big name defensive end in free agency. Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemens, Red Bryant, and Bruce Irvin figure to be a monsterous rotation, but, unlucky for the Seahawks, you can really only play two defensive ends at a time during the game. While Seattle did upgrade their pass rush, they did failed to pick any significant help in run support on the outside, an area that they struggled in last season on the line. Michael Bennett was solid within the defensive scheme in Tampa Bay, but benefitted from the fact that opposing teams consistently abandoned the run in favor of picking apart their secondary; supported by the Bucs finishing dead last in pass defense in the NFL for 2012.

Still, the rotation now features numerous players with near double-digit sacks in 2012, and, if the coaching staff can rotate them effectively, it could turn into the best defensive end rotations in the NFL. That doesn’t even count the big boys in the middle….

Brandon Mebane’s play was underrated last season, ranking Top 5 in defensive stops and finishing with 3 sacks and 3 batted passes. However, the problem in the middle came from the lack of play in the other defensive tackle spot. Currently, Tony McDaniel is the listed starter to the left of Mebane. The ‘Hawks did draft a couple of DT prospects, but the entire line could suffer if the interior of the defensive line is not stout, as it has been in the past. The loss of Alan Branch will hurt more than some might anticipate…

3. Arizona Cardinals

Until the injury of Calais Campbell, the Arizona Cardinals were winning games on the back of their defensive line and linebacking core… nothing else. Campbell, even with his injury, was arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFC last season, tallying an impressive 6.5 sacks, 11 hits on the quarterbacks, 21 hurries, and 63 combined tackles in only 13 games. He also led the NFC in defensive stops, and ranked Top 5 against the run among 3-4 DEs. Darnell Dockett was equally as impressive, although not nearly as strong against the run. Dockett also fell prey to injury bug, which is not all that surprising when your offense cannot stay on the field. The duo of Campbell and Dockett was extremely successful in getting the quarterback, and with a season to get healthy, should come back strong.

Dan Williams was the man in the middle of the Arizona line, and might be one of the most underrated nose tackles in the NFL. Williams’ style of play is not fancy, but he plays the role of “hole clogger” as well as any nose tackle in the league. In fact, Williams ranked 8th overall in the NFL last season in run support, despite having to compesate for the injuries and, consequently, lesser talent around him on the defensive line. The Cardinals did sign Matt Shaughnessy  and Frostee Rucker in the offseason for depth at defensive end. However, there is no way to predict how either will transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 DE. The problem for Arizona is a lack of depth on the defensive line, which has exposed last season in their meltdown after a 4-0 start to the season. The NFL has become too quick paced to be one man away from failure at any position, especially on the defensive side of the football.

4. San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers had, arguably, the best defensive unit in the NFL last season, but that does not mean it wasn’t without its flaws. For a majority of the season, the ‘9ers were one of the worst pass rushing teams in the NFL, despite Aldon Smith nearly taking the Sack Title. Smith, alone, accounted for 51.3% of San Francisco’s total sacks… that is not necessarily a good thing.

However, what the 49ers’ defensive line lacked in pass rush, they made up for in run stoppage, with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald both finishing in the Top 15 among 3-4 defensive ends in the ground game. They also ranked among the Top 10 3-4 DEs in defensive stops and Top 15 in total tackles. To top that all off, Justin Smith likely should have been handed, at least, half of Aldon Smith’s sacks, since it was J. Smith has consistently man-handled both the offensive tackle and guard to clear the lane for A. Smith to race in the backfield.

However, the problem for the 49ers’ line was Isaac Sopoaga, who’s porous play was often swept under the rug by the outstanding play of the two best inside linebackers in the NFL lining up behind him. According to Pro Football Focus, Sopoaga was the 142nd best NT/DT  in the NFL last season, and ranked 82nd out of 85 total interior lineman that played, at least, 25% of the defensive snaps on their team. His loss this offseason might be a blessing in disguise… or would have been, had the 49ers’ signed someone to upgrade the position. Currently, Ian Williams is the “starter” listed on the depth chart, who has played in only 4 games since he came into the league in 2011. There are some rumors that Glenn Dorsey might get some playing time at NT, and the 49ers’ did take Dial Quinton in the 5th round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Like the Cardinals, the 49ers’ lack depth at every position on the defensive line. However, unlike Arizona, they do not have a starting caliber nose tackle on their current roster. Luckily, Novarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are talented enough to bare the burden that will likely be left on the linebacking core by poor play in the middle of the defensive line.