Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 6)
By Jene Bramel
August 23rd, 2011

Camp Update

Three weeks into the preseason, most teams have now shown us what they think of their defenses. We've seen confirmation of some philosophical changes, had our first look at a number of first and second year players now in starting lineups and learned who each team will trust in subpackages. There are still a few fluid situations to follow, and this week's third preseason game / dress rehearsal should provide clarity on those.

Here are the things that have caught my eye during the first two weeks of preseason action.

Arizona Cardinals

Paris Lenon continues to hold off Stewart Bradley at SILB, but it's hard to see that continuing through all 16 regular season games given the comments after Bradley's signing. The Cardinals are using the nickel package against three WR sets this year rather than the six DB/three safety alignment they preferred last year. That seems unlikely to change even if Adrian Wilson returns from a torn biceps. Daryl Washington becomes an every-down linebacker now and should finally see the upside we hoped he'd hit last year. Rashad Johnson will be worth a look as a DB3 if Wilson can't return, but the presence of two strong ILBs, Kerry Rhodes and three strong tackling corners will limit the upside of both safeties.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are using the same alignments as last season, with Sean Weatherspoon primarily in a protected SLB role. In the second preseason game, they also showed quite a bit of the 3-3-5 nickel package they've used to get Stephen Nicholas on the field in the past. I think Curtis Lofton and Weatherspoon are likely to see the bulk of the subpackage snaps, but the situation is worth a third look this week. Nicholas could be a sneaky matchup play if that look becomes the Falcons' primary passing down alignment.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills were expected to lean heavily 3-4 again this year, but have played the vast majority of their base defensive snaps in a 4-3. Dwan Edwards and Chris Kelsay have been the ends (with Kelsay replacing Shawne Merriman at SLB in the second preseason game), with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams inside. The change in base defense hasn't received any mainstream attention, but it could mean a nice bump in value for both Kelsay and Dareus if they get re-classified to DE and DT respectively. Andra Davis is playing MLB, with Nick Barnett at WLB. The Bills are using an underfront, however, which should hold Barnett's value around the top 20. Reggie Torbor is replacing Davis in subpackages, limiting his upside again.

Carolina Panthers

Everette Brown has buried himself on the depth chart again, failing to impress his second coaching staff. He's now behind Eric Norwood for starting snaps. Norwood has bulked up since entering the league as an undersized linebacker/pass rusher, and he'll join a three man rotation with Brown and Greg Hardy. Thomas Davis saw his first action in the second preseason game, lining up at WLB as expected. He looks a little rusty, especially with contact, but doesn't appear to have lost much explosiveness or range. Davis and James Anderson are the every-down linebackers, as Jon Beason continues to rest a sore Achilles tendon. If Beason isn't able to return to practice and see snaps in the third preseason game, it's time to get concerned.

Cincinnati Bengals

We began hearing whispers from camp observers that Rey Maualuga was looking good in coverage and might have a major role in nickel packages a couple of days before the first preseason game. That proved true - Maualuga has been installed as the every-down MLB. What wasn't evident until the preseason games began is that Maualuga appears to be a new player. The player who showed flashes of becoming a downhill force but was mostly an over-aggressive player who struggled to read run-pass and was limited in coverage is gone. In his place is a consistent, measured downhill force who shows good instincts and depth in coverage. He could be the first Bengals' linebacker to approach 100 solos in years.

Thomas Howard has replaced Keith Rivers (out for an extended time with a wrist injury) as the starting WLB and Brandon Johnson in the nickel. Manny Lawson has taken a few nickel snaps, but is primarily a base SLB. Howard hasn't played well enough to assume consistent fantasy value and there's no guarantee he remains the starter if/when Rivers returns later this year.

Though a knee injury has limited his camp reps, Carlos Dunlap was already ticketed by the coaching staff to remain a situational player behind Robert Geathers. There is still some upside for Dunlap, but he won't be a consistent top 15 force until he's allowed to play the run with the base defense. Instead, it's Michael Johnson who will get an opportunity to build on his late season 2010 performance as the every-down RDE. Johnson was a little tentative moving through the pile during the first preseason game, but was much more disruptive in the second. He looks like a nice upside DL3 target.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos have lined up as expected, with Von Miller at SLB, Joe Mays in the middle and DJ Williams at WLB. Miller moves down into a three point stance as a defensive end in the nickel packages opposite Elvis Dumervil (with Wes Woodyard replacing Mays), bumping LDE Robert Ayers into a 3-technique pass rushing role. Both Dumervil and Ayers look to be transitioning back to a 4-3 DE role well, but Miller has been extremely impressive. He's not going to blow up many running plays, but he's been decisive in a two point stance and shown good pursuit skill. On passing downs, his explosiveness off the ball and ability to get low has allowed him to toy with tight ends trying to block him and beat the bigger offensive tackles off the edge. I'm not certain he has 70 solo tackle upside, but he's going to be a better fantasy option that I gave him credit. Consider him a high upside matchup LB4 in balanced scoring systems.

Detroit Lions

Buyer beware (still) in Detroit. As expected, the Lions are using a ROLB/LOLB alignment, with DeAndre Levy taking snaps at ROLB and Justin Durant at LOLB while Stephen Tulloch plays MLB. Unfortunately, the nickel situation is muddy at best. The Lions have used all three possible combinations during the first two preseason games. The third preseason game will probably tell the tale, but it would appear that Jim Schwartz will mix and match his linebackers according to the offensive personnel. All three starters are risky as more than a LB4, with Tulloch probably the best roster as a matchup play for now. Amari Spievey has locked down the starting safety job alongside Louis Delmas. Both safeties have limited upside behind the rangy OLB group, but Spievey has been very sudden in run support at times.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts remain without Ernie Sims, who was challenging for the starting WLB before his appendectomy. Kavell Conner has been inconsistent, but is getting nickel snaps ahead of Pat Angerer. Angerer looked like he was forcing the issue during the second preseason game, overrunning his pursuit angle more than once, before settling down and playing better. Without subpackage snaps, though, Angerer is a priority watch / LB5 candidate only. Don't trust Conner as a fantasy starter either.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Matt Roth started for Aaron Kampman (who's still easing himself back from his latest ACL injury) alongside Jeremy Mincey. I thought Mincey again looked like a capable every-down end in the second preseason game, but most local observers believe that Roth will start over him at LDE on opening weekend. The Jaguars' starters spent only one or two snaps in a nickel alignment in their first preseason game (Clint Session went off) and Session wasn't active for the second game. That severely limits his upside. Courtney Greene continues to hold off Chris Prosinski in the secondary, but remains too risky to trust as more than a matchup DB3.

Miami Dolphins

I thought the Dolphins might elect to move Karlos Dansby to the strong inside linebacker position with the addition of Kevin Burnett. Early preseason action suggests that Dansby will still get the majority of his snaps at WILB. He looks quicker (likely due to recovering from toe and ankle issues that hindered him last season) and has been getting the call in every subpackage (with Burnett leaving in the dime). The defensive line in Miami is very underrated as a run-stopping unit, propping up Burnett's value some, but Dansby should again be considered a strong LB2.

New England Patriots

The Patriots, as had been rumored early in camp, look to be morphing into a 4-3 Under as their base defensive front. That's not to say that we won't see plenty of 3-4 looks from Bill Belichick and his deep hybrid playbook, but the vast majority of snaps through two preseason games have been 4-3. Eric Moore and Andre Carter are starting at end, with Mark Anderson replacing Moore on nickel downs. That's terrible news for those hoping that Jermaine Cunningham could breakout as a pass rusher this season. Carter has gotten off to a tremendous start and looks like he'll represent nice value as a DL3 with upside.

We could have a long playbook discussion on Belichick's comments about Jerod Mayo or again note the skepticism you should have for some of the blurbs you may read on some news sites regarding Brandon Spikes. Suffice to say that Mayo will play WLB in the base 4-3, but have a role very similar to that of a Tampa-2 WLB. And it's unquestionably going to be Spikes at MLB (when he's able to practice again), not Gary Guyton. Don't overreact to the scheme changes, however. Mayo, who's also being used as a frequent blitzer in subpackages, still belongs among the top ten fantasy linebackers. And Spikes is likely behind Guyton for nickel snaps, which means he'll be a stronger matchup LB4 than last year, but shouldn't yet be elevated to top 25 fantasy status.

New Orleans Saints

Remember that Will Smith still faces a four game suspension when you're drafting over the next two weeks. Expect him to have a better season this year, but the Saints could struggle on the edge until he returns. Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring have run with the first team at OLB throughout camp, but neither have been great in the preseason games. Casillas has been the every-down WLB and has some upside, but he's blown multiple assignments and struggled to shed blocks. Herring has missed as many tackles as he's made. There's going to be some value somewhere, but I can't find anyone I like as more than a LB2 (Vilma, who hasn't impressed much either).

New York Giants

It looks like the Giants could have three every-down linebackers this year. Both Michael Boley and Jonathan Goff have been on the field in the nickel during the first two preseason games and Mathias Kiwanuka often moves down into a pass rushing role. Goff may not have the range or coverage ability to have top 20 fantasy value, but he becomes a much better depth option than he's been. Jason Pierre-Paul continues his impressive play. He'll get more opportunity with Osi Umenyiora out for a few weeks with knee surgery. If he produces against the run, he'll join the elite DE tier quickly.

Philadelphia Eagles

Casey Matthews looked quick in the opening preseason game, stayed on his feet well and tried to use his hands to shed blockers but was rarely successful. Things were arguably worse in the second preseason game, when the Steelers mauled him on isolation runs between the tackles and almost always got a lineman to the second level on inside zone plays. More times than not, a blocker engaged, turned and ran him well off the play. When he did elude a block, he wasn't a sudden tackler and missed too many diving ankle tackles in the hole. Matthews is playing in the team's nickel package (the team was again using lots of dime in the second preseason game with Jamar Chaney the lone LB), but is going to be a LB3 at best unless the Eagles scheme a way to let him flow to the ball. They seem to have no plans to look at another option inside, but might have to consider moving Chaney back to MLB no matter how much Juan Castillo would prefer the current alignment.

Though the secondary has some coverage issues to work out, it appears that veteran Kurt Coleman has a strong hold on the SS job over rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett. Don't give up on Jarrett yet, though. Should the linebacker struggles continue, Jarrett has big upside as run-stopping force behind.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers installed Donald Butler as the starting WILB entering camp and he's played well enough to hold on any challenges from backups Jonas Mouton (who looks like the eventual heir to current SILB Takeo Spikes) and veteran Stephen Cooper (who wasn't a serious threat before his season ending injury). Butler is moving well after his Achilles injury last year, but he's not been dynamic. Still, he's an every-down linebacker in the right role for box score production. Consider him a LB2/3 who could improve as the season progresses. Antonio Garay is still destroying interior offensive linemen and is a top five defensive tackle. Bob Sanders? Still healthy, but he's not the same player. He'll have brief runs of nice numbers, but the ILBs and Eric Weddle are going to keep him from an elite ceiling.

Seattle Seahawks

There are going to be two elite IDP options from this defense this year. David Hawthorne has much less competition for nickel snaps this year with both Lofa Tatupu and Will Herring gone and he's an anchor every-down MLB. More on this in a From the Gut article to come, but don't shy away from putting players like him in your top ten just because they're not established players. And Kam Chancellor has done nothing but impress me in the two preseason games. He isn't a great turn and cover safety, but he's decisive and sudden in run support and showed very good open field tackling ability against Adrian Peterson in Week 2. The Seattle corners and OLBs aren't tremendous tacklers. The fantasy world has started to wake up to Chancellor over the past month. Hopefully, dynasty owners have already rostered him after I highlighted him late last year. If not, he's still available well after the top tier of safeties goes off the board.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett are the starting ends. Clayborn has been inconsistent, but has shown flashes of his potential. Don't reach for him as more than a high upside DL3. Da'Quan Bowers has been rotating in on the third series, but isn't getting off the ball well at all. He looked to be a full count slow in the first preseason game. Though he looked better in the second preseason game, he was still getting pushed off the line on running plays too easily. Hopefully, he's working off the rust as he grows more comfortable, but he's not worth rostering until his snap count increases and he shows he can be disruptive.

Mason Foster, as expected, isn't getting any subpackage snaps. That's not likely to change soon, as he was likely responsible for TE Aaron Hernandez wide open TD catch last week. He looks athletic and quick to the ball when he's quickly read the play. Otherwise, he's showing some of the same tentative footwork that plagued Rolando McClain early last year. Behind the front seven, the safety play continues to leave much to be desired. Be ready to move on Tanard Jackson as soon as he's re-instated by the league.

Washington Redskins

There was briefly good news on the LaRon Landry front, as he was supposed to come off the PUP list and test the Achilles tendon that continues to give him trouble. Unfortunately, a hamstring strain suffered while working out on the side kept that from happening. He's a very high risk - high reward DB1 right now. Rocky McIntosh is back in an every-down role and could again be a strong matchup LB4, but without much upside.

As always, thanks for reading. Questions and comments are welcome in the discussion section below and by email at bramel@footballguys.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@JeneBramel) for breaking news and analysis. Best of luck in your drafts over the next couple of weeks.

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