Power ranking the NFC West defenses, as a whole, would be a challenge that no one could take on, at least to the satisfaction of most fans’ in the division. However, when breaking the defense down to its three main components (i.e. defensive line, linebackers, and secondary) it is startlingly easy to pinpoint “winners” in the division. For the defensive line, the St. Louis Rams’ rotation that tallied a league leading 52.0 sacks in 2012 stands above the rest. For linebackers, the Pro Bowl-filled corps in San Francisco is the clear front-runner, not only in the NFC West, but in the NFL. So, who will take the cake for the secondary…
1. Seattle Seahawks
Much like with the linebacking corps in San Francisco, the Seattle Seahawks have the best secondary in football right now. Period. Pro Football Focus has them ranked, of course, as the top “coverage” defense in the league, and it isn’t difficult to understand how they came to that conclusion. Despite Richard Sherman’s in-your-face, narcissistic personality, he was the best cornerback in 2012, and has been a Top 5 player at his position since he stepped foot in the NFL. Sherman was Top 3 among cornerbacks in nearly every important, quantifiable category, including 2nd in interception (8), 2nd in pass deflections (15), and 3rd in allowed passer rating in coverage (41.1). Brandon Browner, despite the four-game suspension, was nearly as dominate, and we haven’t even got to the safeties yet.
Kam Chancellor won’t win many battles in the “statistics” category, but he will surely beat you on the field. The Seahawks’ deep man is the definition of an enforcer in the middle of the field. He isn’t a ‘hawk on the ball, but won’t be taken advantage of in coverage either, not allowing a single receiving touchdown in 2012. Earl Thomas is equally as physical, albeit much smaller, and was a monster in coverage with 3 interceptions. What makes them even scarier is the acquisition of Antoine Winfield, who will step in as the nickelback in coverage. Do not be surprised if Seattle frequently opts out of playing in their base 4-3 defense in favor of the nickel package, much like the Rams’ did in 2012.
2. St. Louis Rams
Even with some rookie lapses in judgement, Janoris Jenkins was undoubtedly the best freshman secondary player in the NFL last season, and might have been one of the biggest overall defensive playmakers in the league in 2012. Jenkins finished the season with four defensive touchdowns, a combination of three interception returns and a fumble return for touchdowns. Not only did he lead the league in defensive scoring, but he was Top 10 in tackles among secondary players, and allowed the lowest catch percentage (61.7%) of any other player in that same grouping. Next, in the secondary, we have Cortland Finnegan, who led all secondary players in the NFL in tackles, being the only defensive back to surpass 100 tackles in 2012. Finnegan was essentially the Rams’ strongside linebacker, playing primarily in the slot in St. Louis’ nickel package. Despite his tackling prowess, Finnegan was also a monster in coverage, being one of only three corners that played over 1,000 defensive snaps to still allowed less than 10.0 yards per catch. He was also one of only three players that tallied over 1,000 snaps that did not allow a receiving touchdown in 2012, made better by the fact that be nabbed three interceptions in the process. Trumaine Johnson is the Rams’ wildcard, stepping up at the 3rd corner on the depth chart midway through the season. In only 366 defensive snaps, Johnson tallied 2 interception and 5 pass deflections, and allowed one of lowest catch percentages in the NFC West (52.4%).
The sticking point for St. Louis was the safety position, highlighted by the abysmal play of Craig Dahl. Darian Stewart likely should have been the starter in 2012, but was marred with injury for a majority of the season. When healthy in 2011, Stewart was a Top 5 pass rusher from the safety spot, with 3 sacks and 7 hurries on the quarterback. He also allowed only 12.1 yards per reception, which as a solid average for a safety playing primarily in Cover 2, and gave up only two receiving touchdowns in coverage (comparable to Donte Whitner and Kam Chancellor). Stewart’s weakness is in run support; enter T.J. McDonald.
If nothing else, McDonald is an enforced on the field. CBS Sport’s scouting had this to say about him,
"Aggressive defender who attacks the line of scrimmage when he reads run. Physically takes on and shed blockers and is a lights-out hitter. Brings his hips to explode through the ballcarrier, yet wrapping his arms securely. Possesses good straight-line speed with a burst to close and the length to make tackles of ballcarriers seemingly out of his reach."
Exactly what the St. Louis Rams need to compete in the NFC West. With competence in the linebacking corps, the combination of Stewart and McDonald should turn the Rams’ only weak spot in defense, safety, into a strength on the field.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers’ secondary is one of the primary reasons for their loss in the Super Bowl last year, namely Chris Culliver’s inability to contain either Torrey Smith or Anquan Boldin. As a result, San Francisco took a flyer on Nnamdi Asomugha, in hopes of adding depth to an “average” cornerback roster. Tarell Brown is the understated star of the ‘9ers secondary, leading the corners with the lowest catch rate allowed (58.9%) and lowest pass rating allowed (75.2%) among starters on the team. Brown was also the only corner to not allow a receiving touchdown in coverage, and still managed to lead the team with two interceptions and 12 pass deflections. Carlos Rogers was also adequate in coverage, but did allow three receiving touchdowns and a 70.1% catch percentage, while only nabbing one interception. All three players had trouble with keeping their hands off receivers down the field though, amassing 18 penalties in 2012, most of those being pass interference calls.
Luckily, the linebackers and some of the safety play on the team was more than enough to compensate in 2012. However, San Francisco lost their best coverage safety, Dashon Goldson, in free agency. His deep secondary partner, Donte Whitner, was likely the second worst player on the 49ers’ defensive roster last season, allowing 8 receiving touchdowns in coverage, more than any safety in the NFL. He also allowed the highest catch rate (79.1%) of any “starting” safety in the league, all while contributing zero sacks, zero hits on the quarterback, and zero hurries throughout the regular season. The 49ers used their 1st round pick in the 2013 draft on Eric Reid, who will immediate step into a starting role in the secondary. Reid was touted as “the explosive player” at safety in this year’s class, and should be a monster in run support and in blitz packages. However, Reid dropped on some teams’ boards for his occasional lapses in “control.” He made a name for himself throwing his body into the ballcarrier with jarring hits, but often failed to wrap up and regularly took too aggressive of pursuit angles, leaving him out of position for the tackle.
Added depth at corner and young talent in the secondary might be just what the doctor ordered for San Francisco. However, the loss of Dashon Goldson might be huge if Donte Whitner cannot return to his Pro Bowl form from a couple of seasons ago.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Between Kerry Rhodes and Patrick Peterson, there is absolutely no reason that the Arizona Cardinals should not be ranked as one of the best secondaries in the NFL… at least, that would be the case, if the rest of the defensive backfield was up to par.
William Gay was one of the, if not the worst, starting cornerbacks in the NFC West last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus has him rated at 105th out of 113 corners that played at least 25% of snaps in 2012. As a result, the Cardinals made it a priority to seek out secondary help, signing Antoine Cason out of San Diego and Jerraud Powers from Indianapolis in free agency. The problem is, neither of those players appear to be an upgrade at the position. Powers allowed 4 receiving touchdowns and 65.0% catch rate in coverage, on top of not posting a single pressure on the quarterback and missing 11 tackles in 2012. Cason allowed 5 receiving touchdowns, a 67% catch rate, and, in a similar fashion, recorded only one total pressure on the quarterback in 1,050 defensive snaps; and that pressure was a “hurry.”
One could make the case that the Cardinals snagged a high risk/high reward nickelback in Tyrann Matheui in the draft… that is, until the team announced they would be slotting him at safety, instead of cornerback. While Matheui made big plays with regularity prior to getting the boot from the LSU football program, his strong suit was never in coverage. Here is CBS Sport’s breakdown of “weaknesses” in Matheui’s game,
"Lacks ideal height for the position and is quicker than he is fast, making him susceptible on longer throws. Highly aggressive and will bite on underneath routes. Possesses the suddenness to make up for a miss-step but does not have the elite straight-line speed to recover against a well-executed double-move and accurate pass…. cerebral NFL quarterbacks will be able to manipulate him with their eyes and potentially beat him over the top with accurate deep passes."
Doesn’t sound like someone that should be manning the last level of defense in the secondary. Additionally, with tight ends like Jared Cook and Vernon Davis, who possess the size and athleticism to dominate even a prototypical sized safety, and wide receivers like Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, and the speed duo of Chris Givens and Tavon Austin, it is hard to image Matheui having much success covering on the ground or when the ball is in the air. Plus, weighing 186 lbs. soaking wet, Matheui will not be bullying any of the running backs or quarterbacks in the NFC West in the pass rush. All of this, of course, predicated on the assumption that he can stay on the field…
Arizona had better hope their pass rushers can stay healthy this year!