By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) This is a season of the changing of the guard in the NFL. The battle plan is changing, and defense matters again.
A year ago, the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots were lighting up scoreboards and that's all that seemed to count.
Those teams were winning each week because they could score more than their opponents. Aspects like running the football, playing defense and special teams didn't seem to matter.
If the Packers could score 45 points, they didn't care if you scored 35. They won.
However, they did not win the Super Bowl, and neither did the Saints or Patriots.
But that's not how the game is being played this year. There is a renewed emphasis on the running game and defense. Not that these factors are more important than throwing the ball, but they have to be a part of the gameplan if a team has championship aspirations.
Here's a look at the players who are having the most emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.
DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans – The Texans are in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. One of the biggest reasons is that Watt is a factor on nearly every snap. He's got explosive quickness, leaping ability and the strength to overpower blockers. Watt already has a league-high 9.5 sacks and it wouldn't be a shock if he had 20 or more by the end of the season. He has batted down 10 passes, and had two fumble recoveries. Watt is also a solid tackler and has 34 stops. He has to be accounted for on every play and he is the league's leading candidate for defensive player of the year.
CB Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears – The Bears have the best defense in the league and Tillman is in the picture for the team's best defensive player. He's also a candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year. Tillman is an outstanding cover corner. He doesn't have the flash of injured New York Jet Darelle Revis, but that's because he's not the daredevil in coverage that Revis is when he's in the lineup. Tillman has returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns, has forced three fumbles and recovered one. He also has 27 tackles. He shut down Calvin Johnson in the Bears' Week 7 win Monday night win over the Lions and he shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 31.
LB NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers have a lot of big-name talent on the defensive side, including Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. However, it's Bowman who is the most productive player on the Niners' hard-hitting defense. He's one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He has 40 tackles, five passes defensed, one interception, and a sack. Bowman is all over the field and he makes plays. He's not spectacular but he can't be fooled and is almost always in the right position.
LB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers – Where would the Packers be if they did not have Matthews playing defense for them? Matthews already has 9.0 sacks and he should easily get past his career-high of 13.5 sacks set in 2010. Matthews is a missile on the field and his added strength this season makes him all but impossible to slow down. He's one of the hardest hitters in the league. He has forced one fumble this season, but that total seems destined to get a lot higher.
LB Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears – Like Tillman, Briggs seems to be playing the best football of his career even though he is 31 years old. He hasn't lost a step and his 37 tackles show that he is still going all over the field to make plays. Briggs has two interceptions and both were returned for scores and he has also forced two fumbles and been credited with a sack. The Bears are playing the best defense of any team in the league and he deserves equal credit with Tillman for their outstanding play.
DE Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks – Pete Carroll has his share of critics around the NFL, but he has always been able to get his teams to play aggressively on defense. Clemons may be the Seahawks' best defensive player. He has a pass-rushing groove that allows him to get past the guard of the opposing blocker, dip his shoulder and bring down the quarterback. Clemons' quickness has allowed him to register 7.0 sacks thus far. He should easily get to double-digits and this will be the third straight season he reaches that mark.
OLB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys – Ware continues to be a game-breaking force when rushing the passer. While he's not likely to match last season's 19.5 sacks (6.5 thus far), he should finish with 13-to-15 sacks. He has already forced three fumbles and recovered one. Ware has 30 tackles this season and he arrives with concussive force on most occasions.
LB Jerrod Mayo, New England Patriots – Bill Belichick has not gotten any relief from his pass defense, but his run defense has improved dramatically this year. The Patriots rank eighth in the league, giving up 86.0 rushing yards per game. Much of the reason for this is Mayo's relentless play. Mayo has a league-best 72 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two passes defensed, a sack and an interception.
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