Unlike the NFC defense which is very linebacker heavy, the AFC defense has its strength in its MASSIVE front four. In fact, three of the front four on our team are technically "interior" lineman (defensive tackles). Watt is the smallest in weight (if you can call 6' 5", 295 small). Everyone else tops 300 pounds. Every one requires a double block. And every one is capable of destroying an entire play on his own. In fact, linebackers shooting the gaps won't be necessary, this D line can take care of the gaps on its own. So while the NFC line is built on rushing the passer, this one is built upon being the immovable force. Even Mr. "Machine" Adrian Peterson couldn't get through this line.
Linebackers: Von Miller, Robert Mathis, Jerod Mayo
It's fairly fortunate that the defensive front is so stout because linebacker is an area of relative weakness. Of the three, Miller is the clear stud, racking up 18.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and 1 interception in his breakout season. He is only 23 and already an athletic force. projecting to have an incredibly high ceiling. Miller is part of maybe the best pass-rushing draft class ever, along with Watt and the 49ers' Aldon Smith.
Robert Mathis and Jerod Mayo are sort of included by default here. Everyone else in the running for the team (Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Jerrell Freeman, Vontaze Burfict) put up very similar sorts of numbers based on their position and their role on their respective teams. So we had to nitpick again. Mayo (147 total tackles, 3 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 pick) and Mathis (33 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pick) produced on teams that eventually made the playoffs. And while that's not a totally fair metric (they have better players around them than some of the others who didn't make the cut), it's really the only way to separate them from the rest. That being said, you could make a reasonable argument for any of them.
Antonio Cromartie (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Defensive Backs: Antonio Cromartie, Champ Bailey, Ed Reed, Eric Berry
The most surprising selection to me here is definitely Cromartie. He's always been a physical talent (6'-3", 210 pounds with blazing speed), but too often gets caught out of position or gambling and burned for big plays. Once Revis went out early in the year, I assumed that Cro would get exposed having to guard the opposing team's #1 receiver every game. Instead, the exact opposite happened. Along with LaRon Landry, the Jets never lost a beat, remaining one of the best defenses in the league against the pass.
Champ Bailey, at age 34 in his 14th season, is the old man of the group. And many assumed that he was done as an elite cover guy and would make a move to safety to end his career. However, the advent of the new (less physical) passing rules and the formidable pass-rush combo of Elvis Dumervil and Miller in front of him led to a resurgence for the veteran (66 tackles and 2 picks). He was the easiest choice of the bunch, if only because his resume can stand on its own.
Reed and Berry are cut from the same cloth (though a decade apart), and their inclusion here is a sort of passing of the torch. They play a similar ball-hawking style, and though they can both lay the wood, their reputations are built not on being physical, but instead on being smart. They read offenses just as a quarterback would, and always seem to be in the right place to make a play. Berry is especially good at this, consistently baiting quarterbacks into bad throws and cleaning up any messes that get through the front seven. I think it speaks volumes that the Chiefs had three top defenders (Berry, Hali and Johnson) despite being one of the worst teams in the league.