2013 Outlook: How do you improve a defense that allowed the fewest points per game and the fourth lowest total yardage? Bring in defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. With those new additions teamed with a recovering Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks, but a torn ACL) and surprise stud Bruce Irvin (although he'll be suspended for the season's first four weeks), Seattle could see a jump in sacks. And let's not forget the secondary. Richard Sherman's eight picks and shutdown corner play was supported by Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor's excellent coverage.
2013 Outlook: This San Francisco defense is mean. They may have ranked outside the top 10 in picks and fumble recoveries last year, but they ranked inside the top four in rushing yards and passing yards allowed and were second in fewest points allowed. The Brothers Smith (Justin and Aldon) are ferocious coming off the edges, and Navorro Bowman recorded 149 tackles in '12. Losing Dashon Goldson might hurt, but the Niners have high hopes for rookie strong safety Eric Reid, a first-rounder this April. Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio have built a winning defense by the Bay.
2013 Outlook: Can the Texans defense get any scarier? Apparently yes. If he can get healthy, veteran safety Ed Reed instantly creates another problem for opposing coordinators and QBs. Now it's more difficult to go over the top on Houston. Reed covers the deep middle and adds the kind of rare playmaking ability that can win you fantasy games. With sack king J.J. Watt's hands in QB faces, a healthy Brian Cushing stepping up to jam the run, and Johnathan Joseph marking opponents' top wideouts, the Texans have myriad ways to contain you and beat you on defense. Expect this unit to strengthen in '13 versus the pass.
2013 Outlook: The '12 Bears wrecking crew D led the league in takeaways (44) and touchdowns scored (10). Tim Jennings' league-high nine picks were complemented by Charles Tillman's league-high 10 forced fumbles, while Julius Peppers' 11.5 sacks kept opposing QBs cowering. There are definitely questions here. Will the departures of Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli slow down this machine? What will the loss of Brian Urlacher mean? Can Devin Hester and the return unit get back on track? Perhaps you'll get fewer big defensive plays out of Chicago in '13, but the personnel is still too good for a major drop-off.
2013 Outlook: Geno Atkins led an aggressive pass rush that tallied 51 sacks in '12, and when the Bengals slapped the franchise tag on Michael Johnson, they likely ensured continued pressure on opposing QBs. However, the real hidden gem in this defense may be Dre Kirkpatrick. The former Alabama corner sat out most of his first season, and his return could give the Bengals an instant boost in coverage, joining Leon Hall to form a daunting tandem. The safeties continue to be an issue and James Harrison must rebound from a poor final season with the Steelers, but this group should be a solid fantasy starter.
2013 Outlook: By recording 41 takeaways -- good enough for second in the league -- and drastically reducing their yardage allowed per game, Belichick’s ball hawks certainly showed progress in '12. The midseason snag of Aqib Talib was an immediate difference maker, Devin McCourty has turned into one of the best free safeties in the game, and the linebackers are stout against the run. Weaknesses include cornerback depth, strong safety play, and generating a pass rush in key situations. If Chandler Jones builds off a strong rookie year, it's possible he becomes a sack master, but overall we still do worry about this pass defense a bit.
2013 Outlook: John Fox's defense sacked opposing QBs a league-high 52 times last year. When opponents turned to their run game, they had similar problems, as the Broncos D allowed a league-low five rushing touchdowns. Denver signed Terrance Knighton, drafted Sylvester Williams and re-signed Kevin Vickerson to jam the middle, plus Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was brought in to join Champ Bailey in coverage. The big question mark here, however, is how the Broncos will deal with the six-game suspension of Von Miller. With no Elvis Dumervil around because of a fax-related mishap, veteran Shaun Phillips will have to fill Denver's primary pass-rusher role in September.
2013 Outlook: The Steelers were 25th in takeaways last year and only managed one scoring play. So how did this D/ST finish a respectable 12th in fantasy points? No one moved the ball on them. The black-and-yellow allowed only 19.6 points per game and a league-low 275.8 yards per game. And to be fair, losing Troy Polamalu for half the season factored into the lack of takeaways. This group will move forward without James Harrison and Casey Hampton. What's crucial is that younger players like Jason Worilds, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Jarvis Jones show they're ready to step up. We think they will.
2013 Outlook: The Rams tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks last year, which is partly a product of having defensive ends like Chris Long and Robert Quinn who regularly charge around the end, barely acknowledging the possibility of a running play. Indeed, run defense is an overall weakness here: St. Louis allowed a whopping 18 rushing TDs in '12. It's also a bit alarming that despite all that pass rush, neither Cortland Finnegan nor Janoris Jenkins had strong seasons in coverage. But let's accentuate the positive: There's talent at all three levels, and Jenkins is a playmaker supreme, with three pick-sixes in his rookie campaign.
2013 Outlook: The Packers D/ST is no longer elite, but it finished fourth in sacks last year, and boasted a six-INT corner in Casey Hayward. Clay Matthews only played 12 games, but still finished fifth in the NFL in sacks. And B.J. Raji is an elite run-stuffer on the d-line. The Pack will have to replace Charles Woodson at strong safety with untested Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings, and they can't seem to find a linebacker opposite Matthews, as Nick Perry looked like a bust in '12. But the corner depth is solid, and it never hurts having Randall Cobb returning punts and kicks.
2013 Outlook: Ray Lewis? Gone. Paul Kruger? Gone. Ed Reed? Gone. Dannell Ellerbe? Gone. Bernard Pollard? Gone. After essentially the entire Ravens defense said, "Peace out," what's left is a work in progress. Adding Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty and rookie Arthur Brown to the front seven looks pretty smart, signing Michael Huff as Reed's free safety replacement could work, and getting Lardarius Webb back as their top corner is crucial. This is what GM Ozzie Newsome does. Every year folks think the Ravens D is finally cooked. And every year it's pretty good. That's where we stand on them for '13: They'll be pretty good.
2013 Outlook: Rob Ryan out, Monte Kiffin in. 3-4 defense out, 4-3 defense in. Change is good, especially when you allowed 25 points per game in '12. We don't worry about the pass defense. Converted outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer should be fabulous as rushing defensive ends, and while Brandon Carr was so-so as a big-money corner and Morris Claiborne was basically awful as a top-six draftee, we're willing to be patient with their young talent. But what about the run D? This unit looks awfully light up front, and its success will likely come down to how well it stops opposing rushers.
2013 Outlook: In '12, the Dolphins quietly finished seventh in both sacks and points allowed, but GM Jeff Ireland shook things up. Dannell Ellerbe is better against the run than Karlos Dansby; Brent Grimes is coming off a torn Achilles but is probably a better pure cover man than the departed Sean Smith; Philip Wheeler replaces Kevin Burnett at outside linebacker, and rookie Dion Jordan will try to be a sack-making bookend with Cameron Wake. Miami's pass rush still looks formidable and the run D looks above average. But pass coverage was the Dolphins' bugaboo last year, and it doesn't look any better in '13.
2013 Outlook: The Bucs' numbers looked strong against the run last year: Only 82.5 yards per game, the NFL's best. But were they really so great, or were they just easy to throw against? We'll give guys like Gerald McCoy, Da'Quan Bowers and Lavonte David credit for nice seasons up front, but yeah, this was way more about stinking on the back end. Tampa signed Dashon Goldson to pair with Mark Barron at safety, and most importantly traded for a recuperating Darrelle Revis (torn ACL). If Revis gets right, it could change everything, and this fantasy D could vault into the starting ranks.
2013 Outlook: Arizona's 22 interceptions were bested only by Chicago last season, but Patrick Peterson is the last man standing in this secondary. Greg Toler, Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson are gone, while rookie Tyrann Mathieu, Jerraud Powers, Antoine Cason, Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson step in. Calais Campbell and Dan Williams are stout up front (Darnell Dockett fell off a cliff in '12) and John Abraham will be fascinating converting to 3-4 linebacker, but Daryl Washington is suspended for the first four games of '13. It's nice owning a piece of Peterson's and Mathieu's special-teams playmaking greatness. But for all the talent the Cardinals have in some spots, they're untested in others.