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Damon Autry | Archive | Email
Staff Writer

Big Play Defenses

There’s a guy in my league who over the previous half-dozen years has drafted a defense before the eighth round every season. Some years he struck gold; other times his strategy fizzled. Those years in which he nailed his pick, his defense during some weeks put up RB1-type points. Chicago one year, Baltimore the next; it was a daunting task whenever his team was on the schedule.

Keep in mind, though, that solid defenses in the NFL and big-play fantasy defenses aren’t necessarily synonymous. If you recall, Pittsburgh last year had the league’s top-ranked defense, but they were completely devoid of big plays all season long. The list that follows, in contrast, highlights several defenses I see as capable of tallying points at a consistent clip, courtesy of the big play. They’re not necessarily of the smothering variety, but with their assortment of game-breakers on the defensive side of the ball, they are indeed poised to put up solid numbers in 2013.

Houston Texans When you think of the Texans’ defense, most assuredly you think of J.J. Watt. The pass-rushing stud wreaked havoc on the league last year in only his second season. The fact that no other Texan had more than seven sacks is a bit of a concern, but perhaps you can make the claim that Watt simply took most of the available sacks. Either way, Watt and his fellow D-linemen are sack-fumbles waiting to happen. Even if they don’t make it all the way to quarterback, there will be plenty of occurrences when the opposing signal-caller will feel the need to get rid of the ball before he’s ready, setting the table for the secondary to pounce on interception opportunities.

While Houston lost a couple of starters from last year’s secondary in Glover Quin and Conner Barwin, they will get linebacker Brian Cushing back from a season-long knee injury. He should shore up Houston’s front seven, making it one of the most dominant units in fantasy football. Expect some huge performances by Houston’s DST in 2013.

San Francisco 49ers Safety Dashon Goldson’s exodus to Tampa Bay may dampen the enthusiasm of some regarding San Francisco’s defense, but the league’s #3 defense from 2012 still claims Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis Donte Whitner and Aldon Smith as top players at their respective positions. With the dynamic linebacker duo of Willis and Bowman, running the football is a chore. And with Smith screaming off the edge chasing down the quarterback, throwing the football against the 49ers will be equally challenging.

San Francisco relinquishes yardage begrudgingly, and offenses fight for every inch of real estate they get. The Niners are a consensus top-5 unit heading into 2013—both in sheer dominance and in the reputation they carry. With Smith and his 19.5 sacks from 2012 controlling the pass defense and Willis and Bowman manning the run defense, fantasy owners can expect a consistent performance from this group most weeks.

St. Louis Rams The Rams have won only 22 games over the last six years, so it’s easy to see how St. Louis has, for the most part, become a fantasy afterthought recently. It doesn’t take much of a Fantasy Ph.D. to see the potential this team possesses, however, particularly on defense. Chris Long and Robert Quinn form a solid defensive end tandem, as the two combined for 22 sacks in 2012. The cornerback pair of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins will frustrate quarterbacks and wide receivers alike, and with the pressure put on by the front four, Finnegan and Jenkins should once again benefit.

The one additional benefit of this unit can be found in the prospect of rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin returning punts. Austin is a quick, darting player who’s dangerous in the open field. He’s a DeSean Jackson clone, and his 4.3 speed truly makes him a big play waiting to happen whenever he gets his hands on the ball. Don’t be surprised if this is a top-10 unit by the end of the season.

Seattle Seahawks Seattle’s defense finds itself the center of attention more from Mouth-All-Mighty cornerback Richard Sherman’s words than from its production. But no team gave up fewer points in 2012 than the Seahawks, and they finished second with only 15 touchdown passes allowed. All the mouthing off Sherman does often takes away from the fact that he is one of the top two or three cornerbacks in the league. He had eight interceptions last year to go along with three forced fumbles.

Only defensive end Chris Clemons finished with double digit sacks (11.5) in 2012, so the team looked to solidify that part of the defense by signing defensive end Cliff Avril, formally of the Lions. Avril brings his 9.5 sacks from last season and his tenacious off-the-corner speed to strengthen an area of need in Seattle. You won’t find Seattle ranked lower than fantasy’s #3 DST going into drafts this season. With such a high price for a defense, the challenge will be making the selection at the appropriate time in your draft. Regardless, having the Seahawks DST as a weekly option this year will be a good thing.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tampa had the league’s #1 run defense last season. That’s such a misnomer, though, because why run the ball against the Bucs when you can throw it? The team had the league’s worst pass defense, but they more than tightened up the loose screws that plagued them last year. What was once an obvious weakness is now a strength. Couple the arrival of cornerback Darrelle Revis via trade and rookie Jonathan Banks through the draft with the signing of Dashon Goldson and the return of second-year safety Mark Barron and you have the makings of one of top secondaries in the league. Teams should find it difficult to do much through the air when facing the Bucs.

Additionally, defensive linemen Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn return this year. The anticipated solid play in the defensive backfield makes it of paramount importance that the front seven does its part to solidify a unit that was the laughingstock of fantasy football last year. I would expect Revis’s arrival to bring heightened awareness to this unit, but those in the know may still hesitate making this selection. I say make this pick with conviction, knowing that the pieces are in place for Tampa Bay’s DST to really make some noise in 2013.