Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
Earlier this summer, we ranked the offenses in the AFC West. Now, it’s time to rank the defenses in the division.
While the offenses all have some good pieces, most of the division’s defenses aren’t in great shape. It’s one of the biggest reasons why this division is not expected to be strong in 2009.
Let’s rank them:
1. San Diego: The Chargers’ defense had an uneven season in 2008, but it finished strong.
A major reason why we expect it to start strong this season: Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has had a full offseason to prepare his team. He took over for the fired Ted Cottrell at midseason last year. The Chargers had instant success under Rivera, particularly in the pass-defense game.
The Chargers expect further improvement under Rivera this year, especially with the return of star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. He missed all but one game last season with a knee injury. The Chargers missed Merriman’s pass rush (he led the NFL with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons) and his fire. Without him, the Chargers got pushed around. He has acknowledged that his knee likely won’t be fully recovered for a few weeks into the regular season, but his presence alone should help immensely.
The Chargers drafted Larry English in the first round to improve the pass rush and they are excited about linebacker Shaun Phillips’ role. Expect a lot of creative packages to come from the mind of Rivera.
Those changes should help cornerback Antonio Cromartie have a rebound year. He struggled badly in 2008 but has looked good so far this summer.
If the Chargers don’t suffer any major injuries, expect a solid year from this talented unit.
2. Kansas City: It gets dicey here. The Chiefs, Broncos and Raiders all have big problems on defense. But from the look of the preseason, we are giving the Chiefs a slight edge. There isn’t much separating this trio, however.
OK, so it’s not a rousing endorsement, but there are some things to be encouraged about within the Chiefs’ defense.
New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has the team running a 3-4 scheme. So far in the preseason, the Kansas City defense appears to be further along than the offense. The unit has been aggressive and has not been embarrassed.
The Chiefs are excited about their defensive front, which features Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey, who were top five picks in the past two drafts. The Chiefs hope these two can create a semblance of a professional pass rush. Kansas City set an NFL record for the fewest sacks last year with 10.
Pendergast is creative and there is enough talent here that Kansas City could make some defensive strides.
3. Denver: Like Pendergast in Kansas City, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is doing some nice things with Denver’s defense.
Nolan is running a 3-4 scheme as the Broncos try to reconstruct one of the worst defensive units in the league. Nolan’s approach looks to be much more aggressive than it was last season and much more active in attacking the ball.
Still, in the second and third preseason games, the first-team defense allowed more than 300 yards passing. Denver concentrated on the pass defense in free agency as it reshaped the secondary to go along with star left cornerback Champ Bailey. Still, Denver did bring in some nice veteran talent to the secondary in the form of Brian Dawkins, Renaldo Hill and Andre Goodman. So eventually, this group should be fine.
The big issue is on the defensive front. The Broncos have a very raw front three. It if can play beyond expectations, Denver’s defense may not be as bad as expected.
4: Oakland: Raiders fans are going to be up in arms at this ranking. But really, do we have any other choice after what has happened this preseason?
No, no, we don’t.
The Raiders’ defense, which has struggled in recent seasons, has been brutal this preseason. Oakland’s first-team defense allowed New Orleans to score 31 points in the first half last weekend.
Oakland’s run defense has been alarmingly bad. It has allowed 507 yards on the ground in the second and third preseason games. Oakland was ranked No. 31 in the NFL against the run last season.
Oakland didn’t do much to change defensively other than to bring in new coordinator John Marshall. So far, the change doesn’t appear to have helped.
Again, there is not much separating the bottom three defenses here. They’ve all been bad recently. But the Raiders appear to have made the fewest strides in the preseason, so that why they head into the regular season with this ranking.