OAKLAND – When the 2013 team profiles and scouting reports are listed, it usually mentions key losses and additions. And on defense, the "players acquired" section will have guys like Will Allen and Justin Durant. A more updated list could include guys like George Selvie and Nick Hayden.
So it makes sense for people to have their hesitations about this defense and how good it can be.
After three weeks of training camp practice, two preseason games and really just two series from the first-team defense, I've changed my tune about this squad. It's early but I've raised my ceiling and expectations for this group.
This defense has the ability to be better than good. It *could *be a great defense.
And it's not because of the additions like Durant and Allen and anyone else new to this unit. The real additions on this defense are Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli. And the impact they've already made is definitely noticeable.
The first-teamers didn't play long in Friday's 19-17 loss to the Raiders at O.co Stadium in Oakland.
It's not just the turnovers. To me, it's the pressure. They know how to generate a pass-rush and they've done it with players who don't have the credentials like DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
If you've watched one practice in Oxnard, you've seen D-Ware do anything he wants. He's been the best player at camp – on either side of the ball. He's been so good that we've started to have our doubts about Tyron Smith, who has lost way more battles than he's tied. I can't ever remember Smith actually winning one of those with Ware.
And he comes out here in Oakland and makes a nice tackle in the running game, showing this 4-3 switch shouldn't affect him at all in that department. Ware doesn't need a great scheme to be an All-Pro. It does appear that he's in one again and that will only enhance his performance.
"Lining up at defensive end is easier. You are down in the trenches," Ware said in a halftime quote Friday night. "There is no difference than playing outside linebacker, you are out wide, but when you are in the six technique, there are a lot more techniques you have to work on. But I felt like I did really well for the first game."
What I like about this defense is how aggressive they've been already – and there's a combined five Pro Bowls that hasn't even been out there. Anthony Spencer is better than Selvie. Jay Ratliff is better than Nick Hayden. If and when those guys return for the start of the regular season, the defense will be even more dynamic.
Spencer is such a tough matchup for opposing linemen because he plays with uncanny technique. That's part of his game that has really improved over the last few years. In this scheme, he might be even better, especially with the amount of attention that must be placed on Ware's side.
If Ratliff can come back soon and provide a 1-2 punch with Hatcher, this really can be an explosive front-four with a healthy rotation of guys like Kyle Wilber, Ben Bass, Selvie, Hayden and Sean Lissemore. I'm not sure all nine will make the team and/or be available on game days, but it's a solid group from top to bottom. And it has the potential to be even better because of the scheme.
But what I really like about this defense isn't just the front four. It's the ability to get pass rush from the linebackers. If, and it's the second-biggest "if-he-can-stay-healthy moniker on this team behind DeMarco Murray, but if Sean Lee can stay healthy, he'll be an absolute star. He's got everything going for him, except the fact he hasn't played a season from start to finish.
If that can happen for him, Sean Lee will be considered one of the NFL's best linebackers, possibly even in the same category with a guy like Patrick Willis in San Francisco. Yeah, I know what I just did – comparing Lee to a perennial Pro Bowler such as Willis. Again, the caveat is Lee must stay healthy – something he has never done. But that's literally how good he can be.
I mean, we all can see that. His instincts are off the chart. And you put him a defense like this, he can be every bit as good as Hardy Nickerson was in Tampa Bay. Now can he be Urlacher-good? That's a stretch but it's a nice goal for a player like Lee.
Now, if you really go back and dissect that sack play he had against the Raiders Friday night, Lee still got some help from his good friend Ware. That's why it's so important to have a complete superstar like D-Ware in the lineup. We all saw Lee make the hit. But it was Ware's rush inside that forced the line to adjust. If there's anyone that can't be unblocked on a play, it's Ware. But his hard rush inside freed up Lee to make the hit.
You'll see Lee in the backfield on play. And 25 yards down the field in pass coverage on the next. This middle linebacker position isn't for everyone. You've got to be good enough at both to play the run and the pass like Lee has shown. He's a special player and like Ware, has the chance to thrive in this scheme.
It's not just about the players, but takeaways, too.
The turnovers are evident. I guess they were always stressed in the past but not like this. The coaches talk about turnovers in the meeting rooms and then coming out of the meetings there is a football on display that defenders must grab. It's just always on the mind and it's starting to translate to the field.
On the second-quarter drive where the second-teamers were gashed for about eight straight players, leaving J.J. Wilcox to make every tackle, they still find a way to tighten it up. Wilcox finished off the drive with a pick in the end zone.
Last week, one of the rookie draft picks scored a touchdown on an interception. This week, they saved a touchdown by an interception. [embedded_ad]
All in all, I'm just getting these vibes the defense will be much better than people think.
And this is, in no way, a knee-jerk reaction from the game. In fact, I told some of my colleagues this idea and was just hoping the defense would hold its own in the one or two drives from the starters.
They did that perfectly.
It's early for sure. The defense has played the Dolphins and the Raiders. I get that. Ryan Tanneyhill and Matt Flynn are not exactly the NFL's elite. So it'll get better of course.
But the potential of this defense, at least from this perspective, is a squad that can be much better than good.