Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

30 Jul 2006

FO Ranks All 32 Teams on FOX: Defensive Line

The AFC is clearly dominant over the NFC right now, but there's one place where the NFC is the better conference: defensive line. The Super Bowl champs are the only AFC line to break into our top six, and there are six AFC lines ranked below our bottom NFC line, Atlanta.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 30 Jul 2006

50 comments, Last at 15 Aug 2006, 3:54pm by wryyyyyyyyyyyy


by Vince (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 10:36pm

ATLANTA the worst line in the NFC? Yes, they're undersized and will give up a lot of rushing yards. But with THREE Pro Bowl pass rushers, they could easily lead the league in sacks. Plus, Coleman's penetrating style will turn opposing runningbacks into Deuce McAllister, giving up some long runs, but stopping some in the backfield as well. Defensive line is NOT the weakness of this defense.

by Drew (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:10pm

Re 1

Where would you have ranked them? While I don't necessarily believe that Atlanta's DL is any worse than Green Bay, San Fran or Detroit, they are not exactly awesome. They're a bottom-half unit, and saying they should be 22nd instead of 26th just isn't that big a deal.

by Vince (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:28pm

I'd say they're a middle of the road unit. They're not 26th, they're closer to 16th.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:31pm

I agree. Atlanta is clearly ranked too low because etc etc.

What I really don't get is the combination of Atlanta at 26th and San Francisco at 24th. OK, I get it, you guys like Bryant Young. But no matter how exceptional he is for a 35 year old on a terrible team, he's still thirty five, and the rest of the defensive line is absolutely abominable. I would expect Atlanta to be around 22nd and San Francisco to be around 30th or so.

I really like the ranking of the Bears at #1. I think their tackle combination is as good as that of the Jags.

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:38pm

Re: 1

Atlanta is clearly ranked too low because they beat Miami last year and you had them below Miami in week 8 all the other power rankings had them in the top 5. All the aforementioed other rankings are way better than this. U better strt a new thred cuz me & my Falcons friends are gonna come here and r0x0r ur s0x0rs

Yeah, maybe I've got third anniversary threads on the brain...

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:42pm

Maybe I should read the article first before posting some random BS...

For Pittsburgh, KVO is being replaced by Brett Kiesel pretty definately. Orien Harris is, in all honesty, fighting for a roster spot more than a starting job. Travis Kirshke was the other backup DE last year, so he probably has a job, and the coaches are high on last year's practice squader and undrafted FA Shawn Nua.

I also wonder why Jacksonville is ranked as far down as 17. Their starting players are good enough (especially the tackles) that the lack of depth shouldn't be putting them in the bottom half of the league.

by admin :: Sun, 07/30/2006 - 11:44pm

Let it be noted that Vince is not an angry Atlanta troll but a long-time FO reader, and he's not complaining about the objective stats but rather a unit ranking that was partially Mike's subjective choices. So his complaints are worth fair consideration. I probably would have put the Atlanta line higher too. (I think the LB are the bigger problem ... you won't want to read what I say about Keith Brooking in the book, Vince.)

by Vash (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:17am

Brett Keisel, KVO's replacement, sacked Jake Plummer twice in the AFC championship despite not seeing the field in the first half. His blocker was also called for holding on one of those sacks.

You think we're really going to miss KVO that much? He's a great lineman, but Keisel may be just as good.

by Rollo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:24am

I really think this piece underrates the Jag's D-line. First in adjusted sack rate and they're 17th? Their only proven backups are Meier at DT and McCray at DE, but Meier(6 sacks) has shown himself to be an excellent and complete player and McCray at DE added 5.5 sacks. Granted other teams have better depth but that's at least adequate for a playoff team.

As a fan who watched every game, the scheme also made the line's statistics look worse. Much of that low rating against the run is from games when the team kept people back against the pass (to protect RCB Kenny Wright) while weakening the run defense. Indy's drive to win their first matchup with the Jags, consisting of a steady pounding of Edge, was against a 3-3-5 defense with 6 men in the box - the team's formation almost all game, and one which showed up fairly frequently throughout the season. This makes the line look much worse than was actually the case - when they had the liberty to play run (as against Pittsburgh), they were quite effective.

Add this to the reality that Jacksonville's defense was a very basic one with relatively few blitzes, and you have most of the pash rush being generated by the starting d-line + McCray and Meier.

Granted these ratings are subjective and Jax doesn't get great TV coverage, but I think its off-target to say that the best unit on a 12-4 team ranks in the bottom half of the league.

by MJK (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:51am

The problem, of course, with ranking D-lines is that the role of the D-line is fundamentally different for 3-4 teams than it is for 4-3 teams. ON 4-3 teams, the line gets a lot more glamour, since the players actually get sacks and tackles in the backfield, whereas on a 3-4 team, those Sportscenter moments are mostly left to the linebackers. I wonder if part of the reason for the NFC's dominance in this area is that more AFC teams run a 3-4... Then again, I'm too lazy at the moment to confirm this--I don't actually know the breakdown of 3-4 versus 4-3 in each conference.

As a side note, my first thought when I read the comment that the only AFC team to be in the top 6 was the "Superbowl Champ" was "Wait a minute--Pittsburgh has a better line probably than New England, and sure enough, New England is down there at #7". Then I realized that this year New England isn't actually the Superbowl champ. Old habits die hard.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 1:03am

I recall from watching Panthers games that one reason the line was so effective against the run in power situations was the use of a package they called "Cinque" if I remember the name correctly, which I think was essentially a formation with 2 ends and 3 tackles on the field, and one of the DB's pulled. 5 big guys up front has got to be a big help.

by Sergio (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 1:29am

"The biggest question regards Johnathan Sullivan, whom the Patriots recently acquired in a trade with New England."

Is this like the riddle of the week? :P

by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 2:35am

Seriously guys, the ATL rank is way too low.

Clearly, the Falcons aren't elite against the run, but they're not that bad. The run troubles last year were significant, but not entirely the fault of the line. Consider:

(1) MLB Edge Hartwell was injured the entire year, moving Brooking to the center from his better OLB post and putting a rookie and 2d year at both OLB's.
(2) At RE, Brady Smith was injured several times and was out for the season by the 8th game. He was replaced last season by an out-of-position rookie DT. This season - John Abraham.
(3) This offseason, the two worst safeties in the league have been sent packing and were replaced by two at least average players. (If one were studying the importance of safeties against the run, the 2005 Falcons would make an excellent control group.)

Yeah, depth is still a problem, and if you don't have a single backup Defensive End, you deserve whatever you get.
But 26? A little harsh.

by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 2:41am

"The run troubles last year were significant"

And by "significant" I mean "shockingly awful."

remainder of comment stands.

by Ben (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 4:13am

I think if my beloved Cardinals line stays healthy they can outperform their twenty-one ranking. How good a run-stuffer is Kendrick Clancy? Is he good enough to automatically beat Gabe Watson?

by the K (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 5:05am

#12 Yeah, I noticed that, heh. I believe that should say "New Orleans" (shouldn't it?)

BTW, shame on you guys under miami at #8 not taking advantage of a "Wright Brothers" pun.

by wryyyyyyyyyyyy (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 5:41am

#13 pretty much dealt with everything I was gonna mention, but I'll just throw this out there. Maybe it's a reach, but the description for the 16 ranked Colts doesn't sound so different from Atlanta's - amazing (or potentially amazing in Atlanta's case) pass rush, "almost nonexistent" against the run. I'm curious what delineates the two. Indy was way better against the run last year, but it doesn't sound like the d-line had anything to do with that. Would the argument be that, because Atlanta was terrible against the run on all fronts, it has a greater need for a line that can stop runs, whereas Indy's d makes up for it with their other units?

by Israel (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 6:28am

Brett Keisel will be fine in Kimo's place. I hope someone will be as good at replacing Keisel on special teams.

And to these black and gold ears, the phrase "The loss of Kendrick Clancy will hurt" sounds really weird.

by Vince (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 7:11am

you won’t want to read what I say about Keith Brooking in the book, Vince.

Why? Did you call him overrated, overhyped, soft? Well, that's just the truth.

I think Brooking is pretty good at running down guys in space. He's atrocious at fighting off blockers.

by Gibson (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 7:24am

Atlanta ranked 8th in 2004 against the run with a lesser version of this year's defense.

Atlanta will have a top 5 pass rush - even if they are only average against the run - that would put them in the top third.

Harmon is closer to right - ranking the DL second.

by Gibson (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 7:29am

Another point concerning Atlanta's LBs.

Both their number 1 and number 2 MLBs did not play - forcing Brooking to play MLB.

Also - Atlanta had weakness at Safety that has since been rectified. Milloy is a run defender - and will play close to the LOS as a de facto fourth line backer.

by Gibson (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 7:45am

#7 Aaron - Where would you rank the Atlanta DL?

And have you been able to pay much attention to NT Shropshire who is expected to take over as starter?

Not fishing for an argument - just curious.

by Jets fan (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 9:58am

It ain't easy being green.

by admin :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 10:42am

Please don't post links that are wider than the space on the page! That's why there's a space for a URL linked to your name when you post.

by Dan (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 10:56am

I also respectfully suggest that the Eagles are ranked way too high, which pains me, because I'm an Eagles fan. Darwin Walker was hurt much of last year and was ineffective as a result. (He's hurt again this pre-season). The pass rush was practically non-existent last year, although the addition of Howard and (cross-your-fingers-and-hold-your-breath-cuz he's jinxed) McDougle should help. It seems that the high ranking is principally based upon the presence of Bunkley, but (1) he's a hold-out so far, which might set him back; and (2) oh, yeah, we haven't seen him play a down yet.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:16pm

Actually, I think the high ranking is due to the fact that 1) Philly's run defense was one of the best in the league last year, and their adjusted line yards were 5th in the league, and 2) while they struggled mightily in pass rushing, they addressed that problem heavily in the offseason.

Bunkley is just a nice addition. Adding Howard, and getting McDougle back (McDougle was expected to start last year - him getting shot was probably the worst thing that could've happened to the defense - Kalu was never intended to start) is what really is pushing the defense from "middle of the pack" (great run defense, poor pass defense) to "top 10".

by Peter (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:17pm

I don't usually do this, but I'm sorry. There is no way Jacksonville, with the best pass rush in the league last year without even blitzing 95% of the time has a below average D-line. McCray and Meier combined for 11.5 sacks off the bench, where's the weak depth?

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 12:53pm

(He’s hurt again this pre-season)

Oh, also: don't read too much into preseason injuries. Walker was out for one day, and that's it, and they were probably being overly cautious anyway.

I'm always greatly amused by people gasping at preseason injuries - minor ones happen all the time. The heat and practice schedule will do that to you.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 1:47pm

21: Whether or not he played out of position last season, Brooking is wicked over-rated and over-hyped. Also, Ed Hartwell is a thug and the sort of guy that I don't want on my team, based on what he did in practice yesterday. A scuffle is one thing. Being the third (or later) man in is something else, but kicking a man when he's on the ground is too much, especially when you do all of these things to a teammate.

by JonL (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 2:28pm

I doubt Urlacher sends Ian Scott a fruit basket. A gravy basket, maybe...

And I hesitate to say it, but I think Washington might be ranked too high, because I'm not sure everyone will survive the year injury-free.

by Dan (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 2:38pm

How much of the high ranking of the run defense last year was due to a stout DL and how much was due to Trotter, who run blitzes an awful lot? (Or the porousness through the air, which is another matter). Don't forget, too, that the Eagles said bye-bye to Hollis Thomas, whose only perceived value was in stuffing the run. I just don't understand the optimism surrounding a DL that relies upon two guys that have yet to play a snap for the Eagles (Howard/Bunkley), and five players who have endured subpar or non-existent years because of injuries (Rayburn, Kearse, Walker, Howard, McDougle).

by Gibson (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 2:59pm

Again - this same Atlanta line was top ten against the run when Brady Smith was healthy. (2004)

And Abraham is an upgrade on Brady Smith.

One of the best DLs in the league...you can not discount the importance of the pass rush.

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 3:16pm

I'm a big fan of this site but this series of articles has disappointed me quite a lot. For Jacksonville to be in the bottom half of the league is absurd. Every team in the NFL would swap for their tackles and Spicer and Hayward are good two-dimensional ends. It seems that whenever statistics are used it is to justify some bizarre point that ignores the other problem with the squad. Atlanta's defensive line is perfect for the cover three scheme that Jim Mora loves to use, the scheme allows lots of eight men in the box alignments, meaning the linemen can be smaller. Why criticise Jacksonville's depth but not the Steelers or the Pats? The problem is that I could come up with ten points like this for each article. Again, I really like this site but I feel that this series is not up to the usual standard.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 07/31/2006 - 3:28pm

How much of the high ranking of the run defense last year was due to a stout DL and how much was due to Trotter, who run blitzes an awful lot?

It's a combination of the two - Trotter wouldn't be any good without the tackles, because the tackles force runners to his gap by not allowing other gaps to open.

The Seattle/San Diego games showed that a bunch - Tomlinson and Alexander were dropped for losses a lot, and that happened mostly because Trotter (as well as the other linebackers) was able to get through the line.

Don’t forget, too, that the Eagles said bye-bye to Hollis Thomas, whose only perceived value was in stuffing the run.

Thomas barely played down the stretch last year - he didn't start after the Seattle game, but even as far back as the San Diego game he was rotating out fairly often.

I don't think he'll be a big loss.

by Alex (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 6:00pm

I have generally liked and agreed with these rankings, but it seems like D-line would be the hardest to do, and this article doesn't impress. There are many teams in what seem to be the wrong position, by advanced metrics and by common sense.

Plus, if you're going to do the front seven, I think 3-4 teams and 4-3 teams should be split. The style requires a completely different set of personnel (for most teams) and a different defensive pilosophy.

by Adam (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 6:27pm

Seriously........Brett Kiesel is the freakin' man.

He's 300 pounds, it's all muscle, and he runs like a linebacker.

And he looks like a lumberjack.

He's got it all going on.

by Tom (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 6:37pm

Much as it pains me to disdain the love, I think Tennessee at #9 is probably too high. KVB was a revelation last year, but everywhere else is a question mark. Haynesworth is very good and can be dominant, but still hasn't played as he can for 16 games. And not one of the guys entering his third year (the 5 listed in the article) made quite the improvement you'd expect from a second year player, with Schobel being inactive for much of last year. DT Rien Long, the 8th DL, was also just lost for the season with an Achilles injury, but I'm guessing that came too late for the article.

by Just Another Falcon Fan (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 8:15pm

As a longtime lurker and occasional poster, I have to comment here, even after waiting 2 days for the website to come back up. In addition to the other comments on the ranking of the Falcons front four, it should be noted that the one player cited as showing promise was Chad Lavalamp...er Lavalais, who is on the way to eating himself out of the lineup, opening a spot for the aforementioned Shropshire.

by t.d. (not verified) :: Wed, 08/02/2006 - 8:44pm

i like the site, but i also think the jags' rank is redirkulous

by BigManChili (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 2:38am

Elaborating on #38:

Lavalais, like he has for the past two seasons, came into camp this year without having learned how to close his mouth at the buffet line. He's actually been replaced in the 1st team defense by 2nd year, 7th round pick Darrell Shropshire. He might not even make the team, and he's definitley not showing any promise.

Out of curiosity, what is the major difference between Indy's line and Atlanta's? I read the site a lot, and I notice that you guys always talk about Freeney's deficiency against the run, and how that's symbolic of the entire defensive line. Is the reason they're ranked higher because the LB's/DB's in Indy are better at stopping the run than Atlanta's? Or because they have to less often because of the huge leads the offense gets?

by Guest (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 4:09am

I am a Chief's fan, but ranking our defensive line as high as 12, is pure insanity. Besides Jared Allen, our line is garbage. The Chiefs should be no higher than 25.

by PantsB (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 7:53am

I don't want to play the "disrespected" New England fan, but how are they #7? Take the Steelers... New England is clearly better at the top 3 DE positions, not that far behind at NT and even if Sullivan doesn't make the team (he won't) their backup situation is not so dire as to bump them that far down.
Would you really take Smith over Seymour? Or Hoke/Harris over Warren/Green?
I can see other 4-3 teams being ranked above a 3-4 team (because of different responsibilities) but the Patriots seem clearly ahead of the #3 team.

by johnt (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 6:49pm

42: Seymour is clearly better than Smith (he is the best, after all), but Smith is a pro-bowl quality player. I would take the rest of the Steelers DL over the Pats DL - Casey Hampton is one of the top 2 or 3 3-4 NTs and Hoke was an excellent starter for the entire 2004 season when Hampton was out. Keisel is a bit of a question mark, but the other Pats DL are known quantities - servicable but made to look much better by Seymour and the LB corps.

by David Ferrier (not verified) :: Thu, 08/03/2006 - 9:55pm

"The signing of Ryan Pickett as a free agent from St. Louis won't make much difference. Pickett never did much with the Rams."

what? His 47 tackles last year rank him 14th in the NFL among defensive linemen. He had 41 the year before. I call that a playmaker.

by bsr (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 11:17am

43: the other Pats DL are known quantities - servicable but made to look much better by Seymour and the LB corps.

Servicable? How about when Seymour was injured in the playoffs in 2004 and that D line manhandled Pitts and Indy's O lines? They are quite a bit more than servicable and probably underrated because of all the attention Seymour gets. They are all young and talented first round picks. Putting them seventh is too low and is probably more indicative of the site going too far in trying not to appear "pro-pats".

by mike (not verified) :: Fri, 08/04/2006 - 1:48pm

Re #31
The optimism surrounding the defensive line is based on talent and depth. Mike Patterson has a year under his belt. Ditto Trent Cole. Both were excellent as rookies, and can only be expected to improve. McDougle is fully recovered from his gunshot wound, slimmed down, and quick as a cat. I think the Eagles have the best rotation depth-wise in the league, and will be right back to being amongst the leaders in points allowed and sacks.. I guess we'll see.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Sat, 08/05/2006 - 12:45pm

Anthony Weaver doesn't have much left in the tank? The guy just finished his rookie contract. He should be entering his prime. Also, the Texans section really ought to make mention of the fact that Jason Babin and possibly Antwaan Peek will be converted back to end from linebacker with the shift to a 4-3, and are likely to see significant playing time, especially in passing situations. Babin could even be the starter on the weak side.

I'm not complaining about the rating - there are a lot of unknown quantities in relation to the Texans line, and they certainly could be as bad as 30. On the other hand, if Williams works out, Johnson progresses in his second year (first year DTs seldom look like much, let's face it), and Babin plays up to his potential in his natural position, they could be a good deal better than that. If you want a Houston unit that really is a hopeless case, that would be the secondary. If you don't have it at 32 when you get around to that one, I'll be intrigued to know who you think is worse.

by dave whorton (not verified) :: Mon, 08/07/2006 - 9:53pm

what teams led the league in qb hurries, qb hurries that resulted in failure plays,and qb hits. would love to know this

by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Tue, 08/15/2006 - 1:54am

Yesterday, I finally caught the ATL-NE game on the Tivo.

The only honorable thing to do: I take post #13 back, with apologies to all who were mislead.

by wryyyyyyyyyyyy (not verified) :: Tue, 08/15/2006 - 3:54pm

i wish i could disagree :(