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Doug Farrar

The Shutdown Corner All-Underrated Team: The Defense

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Recently, we did our "No-Pro" teams on offense and defense -- these were the players who underperformed more than any other. But now, it's time to get positive and talk about those players who have done the most with the least amount of fanfare. We put up the All-Underrated offense Monday; here's a good group of relatively unknown guys (unknown relative to their overall performance) who might stop that hypothetical offense in its tracks. (All advanced stats courtesy Football Outsiders, tabulated through Week 11).

Defensive Ends: Jason Babin(notes), Tennessee Titans/James Hall(notes), St. Louis Rams

Babin eventually disappointed in Houston, Seattle and Philly, but he's been a revelation since the Titans picked him up. He has nine sacks on the season and has also amassed one of the highest quarterback hits totals (10 through Week 11, tied for third highest in the NFL). Hall has benefitted from Chris Long's(notes) monster season, but the 11-year veteran has also been extremely strong at the point of attack, which is what a defense needs from the end opposite its primary pass rusher. Hall has forced four fumbles and has amassed 7.5 sacks, his highest takedown total since 2004. He's one reason the Rams are in first place in a very underwhelming NFC West.

Defensive Tackles: Terrance Knighton(notes), Jacksonville Jaguars/Jason Jones(notes), Tennessee Titans

Football Outsiders keeps a stat called "Stops", which tracks successful plays stopped by a defender based on down, distance and opponent. In the NFL through Week 11, there is one player with a total Stop Rate (stops divided by plays in which he is involved) of 100 percent, and it's Terrance Knighton of the Jags. The second-year tackle has four sacks and an interception, but unless you're Ndamukong Suh(notes), stats can be deceiving for defensive tackles, because they're generally soaking up blockers so that other defenders can make plays. But put simply in Knighton's case, he's had 25 total plays in which he's been involved through Week 11, and he's prevented successful first-down yardage (percentage of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down) and drive-extending yardage on every single one. Again, no other player in the NFL this season has done so well in this regard.

We like Jones because he's been the unheralded successor to Albert Haynesworth(notes) on the Tennessee line in a lot of ways -- he's that dual-threat disruptor who can aggravate quarterbacks and pound enemy running backs into the ground. His Stop Rate is second highest in the league to Knighton's (96 percent), and he's allowing minus-0.2 yards per running back carry on plays in his direction.

Linebackers

Outside: James Anderson(notes), Carolina Panthers/Parys Haralson(notes), San Francisco 49ers

Anderson may be the most underrated defensive player in pro football. The Panthers are 1-10, but that's because their offense is a hot mess -- it has nothing to do with their defense, which has been rock-solid. Few players at any position play the pass and run as well as a combined skill set -- he's great in the Panthers' frequent zone drops, and he's put a Stop on 39 of the 55 running plays that have come his way.

People have been waiting for Haralson to break out as a sack artist since he came into the league, but this season, he's become a more well-rounded player by allowing 1.8 yards per running back carry and putting up the fourth-highest Stop Rate among outside linebackers.

Inside: Scott Fujita(notes), Cleveland Browns/James Laurinaitis(notes), St. Louis Rams

Fujita has the highest Stop Rate among all inside linebackers in any scheme -- 4-3 or 3-4, but he's on this list because we're pretty sure that the former New Orleans linebacker's intel on the Saints' passing game helped the Browns upset the world champs in Week 7. He's been out the last two weeks, and it's no coincidence that Cleveland's tackling problems have exploded in Fulita's absence.

Laurinaitis may be on his way to being the best middle linebacker in the game. Coaches have raved about his intelligence since the Rams took him in the second round in 2009, and no 4-3 middle linebacker has done more this season to prevent successful plays.

Cornerbacks: Tramon Williams(notes), Green Bay Packers/Richard Marshall(notes), Carolina Panthers

Let's put it very simply: At the start of the 2010 season, Charles Woodson(notes) gave up his title as the Packers' best cover corner, because Williams has finally blossomed into one of the best in the game. Of course, Woodson can do much more than just cover, and we're not negating his value, but it's time for people to take a closer look at Williams when he's dealing with receivers. A recent film review of Williams' play told me that he understands route concepts and receiver spacing as well as any cornerback in the game.

Marshall is another Panthers player whose excellence has been hidden behind Carolina's sucktacular season. While there's been a question as to whether battery mate Chris Gamble(notes) should be benched in favor of long-term in favor of Captain Munnerlyn(notes), Marshall soldiers on. Right now, the Panthers rank third in overall efficiency against No. 1 receivers, and first overall against No. 2 wideouts.

Safeties: Roman Harper(notes), New Orleans Saints/Patrick Chung(notes), New England Patriots

Harper is playing out a one-year contract, and he's putting up numbers that should make the Saints (or some other team) pay attention. Pass plays in which he's involved average fewer than 6 yards, and that's a good stat even for strong safeties, who play the shorter pass more often. He's also a dynamic run defender, putting Stops to 19 of the 30 run plays that have gone his way.

Because he's been limited by injuries to a degree, Chung's effect on the Pats is less statistical and more see-it-to-believe-it. He's a whirling dervish on the field, and his ability to make plays, especially as a downhill tackler, really helps the young New England defense. Chung played a "rover" position, similar to what Brian Urlacher(notes) did in college, and he's bringing the same sort of versatility to the field.

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