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Can North Have Top 10 Defenses?

We’ve discussed how the NFC North teams have improved enough for a top 10 offense. Now we’ll focus on how they may have improved in order to dominate with a top 10 defense in 2016. The North did have one top 10 defense (top 5) in PPG in 2015 with the Minnesota Vikings earning that mark. The Vikings were 5th in the league allowing only 18.9 PPG and rode their defense and run game to a NFC North division title.

Green Bay was 12th in the league allowing 20.2 PPG. Chicago was 20th giving up 24.8 PPG and Detroit was 23rd with 25 PPG allowed after a terrible first half of the 2015 season on defense.

Top 10 Offenses on the Schedule

The Vikings play four top ten offenses from 2015 (Carolina, Arizona, Giants and Redskins). The Packers were 15th and likely to rebound in 2016. The Eagles were 13th and the Jaguars were 14th with the ability to improve. The Lions had a strong offense under Cooter in the second half of the 2015 season and improved their offensive line and running game on paper. Chicago has more weapons but still running game and offensive line questions. The Texans, Colts, Cowboys, and Titans seem to have much more work to do to improve on offense but the Texans, Cowboys and Colts should have much better QB situations with Osweiler, Romo (injury) and Luck (injury/poor play) under center in 2016. The Vikings defense will be tested by some good offenses in 2016.

The Packers play two top 10 offenses from 2015 (Giants and Redskins). The Vikings and Lions could crack the top 10 as discussed and the Eagles and Jaguars were in the top 15 during 2015 (despite some injuries and coaching problems). Green Bay’s defense could use this easier schedule to crack into the top 10 defense from 12th in 2015. Green Bay was close but faltered in the final 2 games of the season.

The Lions play three top 10 offenses from 2015 (Giants, Redskins and Saints). The Packers, Eagles and Jaguars could improve from their top 15 status and Adrian Peterson is always tough to stop. The Lions had trouble with Peterson in 2015 but took steps to shore up their run defense in 2016. As mentioned, the Cowboys, Texans, Titans and Colts have the talent to crack the top 10 as well. The Lions defense should face another stern test in 2016.

The Bears play two top 10 offenses (Giants and Redskins). The Bears revamped their ILB and defensive line this offseason and only play two former top 10 teams. We’ll see if the Bears can handle the Packers revamped offense with Jordy Nelson and Adrian Peterson this season. The Lions have swept the Bears the last three seasons but lose Bear killer Calvin Johnson. The Buccanneers and 49ers struggled but Tampa Bay can run the ball and Jameis Winston will be in his second year at QB. We’ll see if Vic Fangio’s defense can excel facing this schedule.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings kept their very strong front 7 in-tact and signed Harrison Smith for the long term at free safety. Everson Griffen is a monster and Shariff Floyd was a top 5 DT in 2014. Floyd could improve back to form and make the front 7 even more menacing. Robison is a solid veteran left end and Linval Joseph clogs the running lanes and offers some pass rush at nose tackle.

Danielle Hunter (DE) and Erik Kendricks (ILB) gain more experience in year 2 of their careers to improve the defense as 3rd and 2nd round picks. Former 1st round pick Anthony Barr (SLB) is a playmaking strong side/pass rushing LB with 1st round talent that needs to stay healthy.

Former 1st rounder (2015) Trae Waynes in year 2 will battle Terrence Newman for the CB 2 spot to add some youth to the position. Xavier Rhodes could actually play better as the Vikings top corner. Rhodes was a solid number 1 CB with room for improvement. The Vikings are deeper but were pretty healthy last year on defense. Health is always a key factor to remain a top 10 defense.

The Vikings must improve their run defense in 2016 after allowing 4.3 YPC and only forced 22 turnovers (18th). These are the areas the Vikings could improve in year 3 of Mike Zimmer’s system. The Vikings strong pass rush should provide opportunities to create turnovers. Minnesota should remain a top 5 defense in PPG with normal health.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers were 12th in PPG defense despite some defensive line and ILB issues. They have a very good young secondary and Damarius Randall (1st round 2015) and Quentin Rollin (2nd round 2015) should only improve in year 2. Green Bay did lose a good slot CB in Casey Hayward but Rollins has the skillset to try and replicate Hayward’s success and Micah Hyde provides veteran depth in the slot in a contract year.

Rookie Kenny Clark and Letroy Guion will take over for the retired BJ Raji. Raji and the Packers had some run defense issues while Packers allowed 4.5 YPC (29th in league). Green Bay only forced 22 turnovers (18th) which will be another area to improve in 2016.

Green Bay moves Clay Matthews to OLB and drafted Kyle Fackrell in Round 3. Datone Jones, in a contract year, will play more OLB replacing Mike Neal (solid in run defense but poor in pass rush). Nick Perry is in a contract year and should get some more snaps at OLB. Julius Peppers is still playing strong at the age of 36. The Packers are strong and deep at OLB.

The Packers added Evan Martinez in Round 4 and Sam Barrington returns from injury at ILB. They hope Jake Ryan can improve in coverage in year 2 of his career at ILB.

Mike Daniels is still a beast in both run and pass defense and the Packers coverage was 7th in QB rating allowed. Guion and the talented 1st round pick Kenny Clark must step up with solid play to improve the defensive line and run defense.

Green Bay has a very legitimate shot at a top 10 defense in 2016 with normal health but must improve their run defense and turnovers forced. The Packers secondary will give them a shot at great defensive success. Plus we’ll enjoy the crazy Capers blitzes.

Detroit Lions

It was a tale of two seasons for the Lions defense in 2015. The Lions secondary was terrible in the first half of the season but strong in the second half of the season after personnel changes were made.

Detroit had six very poor games in run defense with 10 good games in run defense. Detroit allowed 4.2 YPC and only forced 18 turnovers on the season. Detroit was 28th in QB rating allowed but it improved drastically in the second half of the season. Offensive turnovers in the first half of 2015 really hurt Detroit’s defense as well.

Detroit gets a huge boost with DeAndre Levy returning at weak side linebacker. Levy is a difference maker in both run defense and coverage. The Lions also should get more health from veteran Haloti Ngata (calf/hamstring) and Tyrunn Walker (broken leg) to improve at defensive tackle. Detroit doubled down by adding AShawn Robinson in Round 2 and Stefan Charles for good depth in free agency. Carraun Reid was a solid defensive tackle in 2015 in his second year of his career. Reid provides quality depth as well. The Lions are strong and deep again at defensive tackle.

Ziggy Ansah is a monster and Devin Taylor had 7 sacks in 2015. Wallace Gilberry will be the veteran DE depth but the Lions lack a proven 4th DE (rookie 6th rounder Anthony Zettel).

Tahir Whitehead was re-signed and will start at MLB after two good seasons with plenty of snaps on the inside. The Lions defense was reborn when Whitehead took over for Tulloch in coverage.

Kyle Van Noy will look to finally improve and play more snaps in 2015. Van Noy has talent but lacked the recognition skills in run defense and coverage. We will see if Van Noy can turn his talent into production. If Van Noy fails, the Lions have a good option in Josh Bynes who played well in 2015 while filling in for Levy.

The Lions coverage was much better with Nevin Lawson at number 2 CB and Quandre Diggs in the slot. Third round pick Alex Carter returns from injury and can prove his worth at depth along with veteran Darrin Walls. Slay is a shut-down corner and Glover Quin is a good free safety that can guide the defense.

Finally, getting James Ihedigbo off the field at strong safety helped the Lions coverage. The Lions have plenty of new strong safety candidates in Rafael Bush, rookie 4th round pick Miles Killebrew and Tavon Wilson. One of them must step up and improve the strong safety play.

Detroit has plenty of talent with difference makers on defense. This defense played really well in the second half of 2015 and Teryl Austin is a very good coordinator. Detroit has a legitimate shot to return as a top 10 defense and maybe a top 5 defense like in 2014 with some proper health.

Chicago Bears

The Bears allowed 4.5 YPC, a 99 QB rating and only forced 17 turnovers. They needed to improve the talent and they accomplished that in the 2016 offseason.

The Bears improved tremendously on the defensive line and ILB. Danny Trevathan and Jerell Freeman should make the Bears defense much better in run defense and coverage. The Bears are strong at OLB with Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Leonard Floyd (1st round pick) and Lamar Houston. The Bears LB crew is formidable once again.

Vic Fangio will be in his second year as the DC. Improved experience in the 3-4 switch will help the young Bears players from last season.

The Bears defensive line has a solid nose tackle in Eddie Goldman and Goldman should only improve in his second year.GM Ryan Pace added Akiem Hicks (FA) and Jonathan Bullard (Round 3). The Bears lack depth but should have improved starters at defensive end with a solid nose tackle.

Chicago has some good young secondary players in Kyle Fuller (top corner) and Adrian Amos (free safety). Tracy Porter and Sherrick McManis must improve after sub-par seasons in 2015. Harold Jones Quartery, Chris Prosinski, Deon Bush (4th round rookie) and DeAndre Houston Carson (6th round rookie) are young players that could nab the strong safety job. If the young talent can play well, the Bears coverage should improve. This is very questionable on paper however.

How it Could Fall Apart

Vikings run defense and turnovers forced doesn’t improve. Waynes wins the job and struggles at CB 2 in his first year starting and strong safety and LB coverage become issues. Rhodes is just an average number 1 CB. The Vikings pass rush takes a small regression could be Minnesota’s issue. I don’t see the Vikings defense getting worse. The likelihood of regression is small.

The Packers still have run defense and turnovers forced issues. The secondary struggles with sophomore slumps from Randall and Rollins while Casey Hayward is missed by the Packer faithful. ILB remains a big problem despite the changes and return of Barrington and the pass rush has some regression with less support from the defensive line without Raji and Jones.

The Lions CB2 and slot CB success was a mirage from Lawson and Diggs. They struggle in 2016 and have strong safety coverage issues with Bush/Killbrew/Wilson. Slay regresses slightly from a shut-down corner to just a good CB. Levy isn’t the same player he once was after his injury and Kyle Van Noy never develops. The Lions offense has way too many turnovers again and screws the defense.

The Bears have major run defense issues and don’t force many turnovers. The Bears defensive line isn’t deep enough and the Bears secondary gets torched with continued problems from Porter, McManis and strong safety.

Finally crushing injuries to Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Clinton Dix, Ansah, Levy, Ngata, Quin, Slay, McPhee, Goldman, Fuller, Everson Griffen, Harrison Smith, Shariff Floyd and Anthony Barr could hinder any of these defenses.

Overall

The Vikings have a slam dunk top 5 defense with health. The Packers should have a top 10 defense and the Lions could crack the top 10 as well given their improvements, second half finish with new personnel, health and return of a playmaker. The Bears have a very strong LB unit but their defensive line and secondary may limit them to a top 15 defense in year 2 under Vic Fangio. It will be a fun and exciting year in the NFC North.