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Contender Comparison: Bulls On Parade vs. The Steel Curtain vs. Ray's Hit Squad vs. Wilfork Island

Shaun Cody always leaves you wanting more...
Shaun Cody always leaves you wanting more...

Last week, we took a look at the respective offenses of each of the ‘deemed’ contending teams – the good guys (the Houston Texans) and the old money trio of the Steelers, Ravens, and Patriots. While being a contender is nice, the goal here is to find out which team should be THE team to beat heading into the 2012 NFL season.

The conclusion, if there were one in that schmuck’s writing, was that the Texans were the best offense with a healthy Matt Schaub. The balance between a passing game capable of 4,000-plus yards and All-Pro running back Arian Foster’s silky smooth moves is too much for any team. If Schaub isn’t healthy, which he says he is, then Tom Brady's Patriots jump to the forefront followed by the experience of Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger beating out young Master T.J. Yates.

Today’s post takes a look at the defenses. The Steel Curtain, The Bulls On Parade, Ray's Hit Squad(? Angry Birds? Baltimore Beatdowns?), and, ummmm, the New England Sieve. How do they stack up against each other? Let’s leap and look.

Defensive Line – The Ravens win this category by a stomach, or two, as Haloti Ngata is still the best defensive lineman in the AFC due to his versatility, ability to create havoc, and high snap count (San Francisco’s double All-Pro Justin Smith is my vote as best DL in the game). Add an immovable Terrence Cody and Baltimore’s defensive line causes nightmares simply because two guys can eat up a combined four blockers between them at times.

The Texans have a good end duo in Antonio D. Smith and J.J. Watt, but the lack of an impactful nose tackle hurts Houston’s case to overtake Baltimore here. Outside pressure can only do so much if someone can step into the pocket to avoid it.

Pittsburgh’s depth, with former TDC draft favorites in Alameda Ta’amu and Cameron Heyward, is quite stout, but Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel are both near the end of the line and still listed as starters on depth charts. Still, Pittsburgh is set up to replace them quickly with quality talent, so they are prepared if either man can’t handle the grind.

All the Patriots currently have is an impactful nose tackle, and Vince Wilfork can downright dominate games at times. He does have to take a breather though, which is why Chandler Jones’ development will be something to watch. New England’s front four could really use another impact player to make Wilfork’s life easier.

Linebackers – If Terrell Suggs weren’t hurt, I’d give this category to Baltimore, too. The 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is that good at what he does, and that’s before you put him next to the reliable, even at the end of his Hall of Fame career, Ray Lewis and steady Paul Kruger. This is a good unit that can get the job done, but Courtney Upshaw has a long way to go to fill Terrell Suggs’ shoes and Sergio Kindle has yet to play a down.

Pittsburgh has some more ex-TDC draft favorites in Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, and Stevenson Sylvester, but two of them are mired behind 30-somethings in Larry Foote and James Harrison, whose numbers have started declining from their All-Pro heights. Yes, I’m a bit ageist, but players generally start to slow down the further they get from 30. We’ve all seen it happen. Pittsburgh is set to navigate the storm with their depth. Still, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons keep the unit strong despite the age concerns.

Wade’s pack of rabid dogs had a taste of success in 2011 and want more. Mario Williams was a non-factor and DeMeco Ryans, regretfully, was playing out of scheme, so the losses are minimal. Brian Cushing is among the league’s best inside linebackers and still improving, while Connor Barwin finally showed his pass-rushing prowess in his first full season. Brooks Reed will continue to improve in year two while Whitney Mercilus will push him for snaps. The depth on the inside is also good, with run-stuffer Tim Dobbins and coach-favorite-but-recovering Darryl Sharpton. This defense’s strength may just be the linebacking corps.

Jerod Mayo doesn’t often get the credit and recognition he deserves and Rob Ninkovich is the Kruger of this unit, but they could be something else when Dont’a Hightower starts getting regular snaps. I think the Patriots are behind the other ‘backer units, but Hightower could quickly vault them up with the rest of the gang.

Defensive Backs – When Ed Reed is healthy, the Ravens are tough to throw on. Even Bernard Pollard has improved his coverage skills in Maryland. Lardarius Webb’s on the verge of being an All-Pro as he enters his fourth season, and I think he’ll make that leap this season. What really will shape this group is whether someone in the front seven can fill Suggs’ rushing shoes. If the Ravens struggle to get pressure, the secondary will become vulnerable, no matter how much talent is in it.

The Texans don’t have a special safety like Reed, but Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are solid in what they do. Johnathan Joseph’s among the top-five cornerbacks in the league and Brice McCain has quietly become one of the best slot corners around. Kareem Jackson’s progression, or his replacement's, will determine how strong this unit can be.

When healthy, Troy Polamalu makes the Steelers stronger than they should be. He’s started to show cracks in the coverage armor though, which will only get worse as he turns 31. Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark are also nearing their 30s as well, with the depth being a lot of unproven 4th-6th round talent. The Steelers allowed the fewest yards per game last year, but can they keep it up with their starters getting another year older and teams beginning to pick on Polamalu in coverage?

Alfonzo Dennard could prove to be a steal, but the Patriots didn’t really improve their secondary from last year’s struggling unit that gave up over 290 yards per game, nearly 100 more yards more than any of the other three secondaries. New England’s Achilles' heel could once again be the secondary.

Defensively, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Houston are close. Sorry, New England, but your young talent has to prove it can provide an impact and/or rebound from a dismal 2011 season.

Normally, I’d give the edge to Baltimore, but Suggs’ injury hurts this defense. His 14 sacks were more than double the Ravens’ second-best defender. No Suggs means teams won’t have to gameplan against him and the secondary’s job becomes that much more difficult. Upshaw, or someone, has to step up quickly to soften the blow of losing the Ball So Hard University graduate, but it is hard to replace a Defensive Player of the Year.

Pittsburgh’s defense has historically been great. However, they currently have seven starters, per the current listed depth chart, over 30. There’s a lot of wear and tear on guys, and that begins to show up in injury concerns, especially with guys like Hampton or Polamalu. Even still, I don't see a starting unit littered with a bunch of explosive athletes that are intimidate you. No one can outrun Father Time, and you wonder when the Pittsburgh defense finally does take a step back. At least until their TDC-approved depth gets up to speed.

Despite Shaun Cody and Kareem Jackson’s worst efforts, the Texans defense is set up rather nicely. You’ve got linemen who can penetrate, linebackers who can rush off the corner, and a cornerback who can man-up on top receivers. This year, the defense gets more practice time to come together and a lot of significant depth in guys like Whitney Mercilus, Bradie James, and Jared Crick. No one’s really hit an age wall, per se, either, so there’s a good possibility of improvement in guys like Cushing, Watt, Barwin, Reed, and Quin. Of course, one injury to Johnathan Joseph and this whole thing goes into the crapper, but, for now, the Texans stand tall among the defenses.

Coming up next week? It’s time to break down the exciting parts of the teams – a/k/a: kickers, punters, coaches, and schedules.

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