A defense is only is strong as its weakest link, so I want to discuss what I currently see as our two weak links. One of them I see as immediately correctable, while the other is more of a cross-your-fingers-and-cheer type situation. After the two weak links, we'll talk a little about what our defense is capable of - while under a rainbow. Lastly, just a quick recap of what Foxy Bear was able to do with the defense in Carolina, and how we might compare.
Weak Link Number One:
Unless you’ve been on a perpetual binger ever since the draft, you’re well aware of our gaping hole at defensive tackle. It's an empty chair. In fact, we need more than just one cheeseburger lover to anchor the middle; we also need to add a couple quality rotators in there. The cupboards are just about as bare as they get at this particular position, but the good news is, this is our only major defensive need. I think it’s fair to expect Elway to take us on a shopping trip really soon. And I’m even going to go as far as to predict a major, top-tier expenditure at this position.
I expect management to go out and sign Albert Haynesworth, Cullen Jenkins, Brandon Melbane or Barry Cofield. Period. Additionally, I’m really hoping, and even somewhat expecting, for Brian and The Johns to go out and fetch us a responsible lottery ticket – a defensive tackle with both risk and reward, someone like Tommie Harris or Kris Jenkins. The idea here is that you may lose a couple million dollars, but you also stand to gain immense production value for years to come. I would call that a mid-tier expenditure, then on top of these two guys, another lower tier pickup is also probable – someone like Allen Branch, the hefty young NT for the Arizona Cardinals.
I don't see this as a weak link going into the season, only a weak link today. My money says we'll go get a top-tier, a mid-tier and a lower-tier DT through free agency, and I'm hoping that the mid-tier guy is a risk/reward type player as earlier described. Again, though, the key here is that I don't see DT as being a problem in September. These will be proven veterans, not rookies. And we don't have so many holes that we can only wish and hope and guess where the money will be spent in free agency. I think I feel pretty good about this weak link turning into yet another strong point on our defense.
Weak Link Number Two:
If Rahim Moore is starting at free safety, it’s because he beat out a very, very promising young safety in Darcel McBath and that he also looked good enough so early on for us to release veteran Renaldo Hill. In other words, this isn’t something we should be worried about. And you can make the same argument about Quinton Carter beating out both David Bruton and Brian Dawkins. Von Miller will be our starting SLB, but are there really still people out there that think he can't play that role? If so, hit me in the comments. Otherwise, I'm moving on to stay that if a rookie is starting anywhere else on our defense, anywhere other than at linebacker, it’s because he’s very good, very early.
So Nate Irving is the question mark here. The position of MLB is the weak link. If Nate Irving is starting at MLB, it simply means he beat out Joe Mays and nobody else. Nate has a lot of upside and I'm a really, really big fan. But this isn't a guy so spectacularly good and so very 'NFL Ready' that he went #2 overall. Truth is, this isn't a guy that would immediately be given the starting role on most teams... but on this team, he very well might.
Probably about a third of you think Joe Mays will be the starter at MLB, but that's not really the point. Whether it's Mays or Irving, this position is most likely to be the weakest link in September. And this is a dangerous position to have as your weakest link. The MIKE is the guy responsible for directing traffic, getting people in positions and changing the plays pre-snap. He's the quarterback of the defense. His football instincts and quick read-and-react skills are absolutely paramount. Experience is key. He often makes those around him look better, but his mistakes are also magnified exponentially. Inexperience can be kryptonite.
Regardless of who wins the position, for this first year at least, this is likely going to be the weak point of our defense. I’m not saying we’re going to get a bad performance from our MLB. Again, I’m actually a big fan of Nate Irving. And I'm a fan of him starting and a fan of him doing well early on. I’m just saying that if our defense is only as good as its weakest link, then it’s only as good as its MIKE, because our secondary is strong, our DEs are better than solid, our SAM is a supposed animal, and DJ is incredible. Nab us an impact DT in FA, and the MIKE is the only position I have any worries about.
So, just how good can this defense be? Well, this is all very subjective of course. And I guess I should first add that every word grouping herein, both above and below, if it comes without a statistic attached or a reference to history, it is expected to be taken as opinion, regardless of whether the word opinion is always within four words of the opinion itself -)
Our defense can be a top-ten unit. Immediately.
This was a unit that was ranked 7th in 2009 and 3rd against the pass. Then it fell on its head last year. Why you ask? Well, coaching I tell you. We couldn’t get pressure on the quarterback last year because we lost Dumervil for the season. Without that pressure, opposing quarterbacks had all day in the pocket to pick us apart. Once that happens, you're forced to compensate by cheating a safety back, away from the box and now we're even worse against the run than we would have been with our already bad linebacking corps. When Elvis left the building, the building crumbled.
But Elvis didn't go get hurt in week-three. We knew he was gone for the long-haul during training camp. And yet our coaches did nothing about it. Additionally, Don Martindale (2010 DC) was no Mike Nolan (2009 DC). That was a major downgrade in defensive scheming. And Josh McDaniels isn’t defensively savvy enough to play puppet master on that side of the ball. In other words, I blame our defensive demise on the absence of Mike Nolan and Elvis Dumervil. Now we have Dumervil back plus some additional sack insurance in Von Miller. And now we have a defensive coach and defensive coaching upgrades.
Going into the 2011 season, we currently have the same starters in the secondary that we had in 2009 when we ranked third place. You can tell me Dawkins is getting older, but I’ll just tell you in return that we have twice the depth behind him that we had in 2009. You can tell me Champ has lost a step, but I’ll ignore you and stop myself from being mean to you. You can tell me Cox might go to jail. And I'll say sure, but go back and look at the depth we had in 2009. Yeah, we win there, too. Don't worry quite so much about losing Perrish Cox, our thrid CB on the depth chart. He might have to have Vaughn or Squid fill in as nickle back for a few weeks, but that's not a big deal. In fact, let's just be clear: Our secondary can easily survive the loss of any player, other than Champ Bailey, without a major downturn. Easily.
What else? Well, I want to underline my favorite move so far... Instead of putting all our eggs in Dumervil’s lone sack-basket again, we now brought in yet another sack artist. Pressuring the QB should no longer be a problem. If Dumervil gets hurt again, we're no longer quite so screwed. Now I know, some of you just argued in your mind that Von Miller has never had a professional sack. Sure, but it’s more likely than not that VonDoom pair up to immediately become the most feared pass rush duo in the league, top three at the very least. Yep, write that down. And if Dumervil were to get injured again, at least we have a player that could slide in and help stop the bleeding. We didn't have that last year. Don Martindale and Josh McDaniels are no longer here... largely because of that mistake.
Foxy Bear took over a Carolina defense that was last in the league in 2001, and immediately flipped it to a 2nd ranked unit. Fox added Julius Peppers where we added Elvis Dumervil (he wasn’t here last year). Fox had Mike Rucker to add pass rush at DE, where we added Von Miller at LB/DE for the same reason. Fox had a solid even if not spectacular linebacking corps in 2002, and even a had a rookie starting at MIKE for eight games (sound familiar?). But we have DJ Williams, and he's better than any linebacker Fox had. Coach had big Kris Jenkins where we have a yet to be named impact maker. I think the situations are comparable in many ways. We sucked, they sucked. Many of the moves are similar. But will the outcome be similar?
We haven’t signed our new defensive tackles yet, we’ll probably have a shortened offseason and we’ll likely have two rookies starting on the middle level, so I’m obviously going to give the advantage here to the 2002 Panters’ front-seven over ours. They were proven and we have yet to play a game. Still, I give our secondary the nod in a heartbeat. Which defense is better overall? Can Foxy Bear flip another defense so quickly? I don’t know. But I do know that this defense has a lot of star quality players. I could easily argue that this defense has as much or more talent than that defense Fox had in 2002.
The moral of the story here? Root for Nate Irving to upgrade the MLB position. This defense has more immediate potential than you'll ever hear it being given credit for. But it needs to remain fairly injury free in the front-seven and Nate Irving must be protected as the likely weakest link. Personally, I would be more surprised if this defense were ranked 16th than if it were ranked 5th. How do you like them rainbows?!
Oh, that last picture? Yeah, that's a Fox and a Bear.