The NFC West is quietly becoming one of the NFL's tougher divisions, thanks to a host of underrated defensive talent. Here are the top five defensive players, currently dominating in the NFC West:
5. Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals
For a long time Adrian Wilson has been the best blitzing safety in the NFL. The rugged veteran can still pressure the passer, but he has become savvy and disciplined in coverage.
Since Ray Horton took over the Arizona Cardinals' defense and installed a multiple zone blitz scheme, Wilson has become more versatile. The 32-year-old remains the leader of a rapidly improving unit.
4. Chris Long, DE, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams may be mired at the bottom of the NFC West, but that's nothing to do with defensive end Chris Long. In the past two seasons, Long has finally lived up to his billing as the second overall pick in 2008.
The 6'3", 270-pounder has amassed 21.5 sacks in two years, including 13 in 2011. Long has a natural power that makes him a threat on the bull-rush.
However, takeoff speed is his most impressive attribute. It enables the 27-year-old to attack from wide alignments and quickly close on the ball.
3. Red Bryant, DL, Seattle Seahawks
He may be releatively unknown by pundits and fans, but just ask teams who try to run the ball against the Seattle Seahawks, about Red Bryant. He is the most important player in the Seahawks' schemes.
Head coach Pete Carroll runs a hybrid defensive front, made possible by Bryant, who plays the "Elephant" end role. He is a 2-gap, 5-technique end who commands a double team and sets a hard edge against the run.
With the 6'4" 323-pounder in the lineup, opponents are forced to take to the air against Seattle.
2. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
The NFC West is loaded with middle linebacker talent, including St. Louis Ram James Laurinaitis and San Francisco 49er NaVorro Bowman. However, fellow 49er Patrick Willis is the pick of the bunch.
Arguably the best inside linebacker in the NFL, Willis is a rare combination of sideline-to-sideline speed and raw power. He is a hammerblow tackler and can also be trusted in deep coverage.
As long as Willis patrols the middle, count on the 49ers defense being among the league's toughest.
1. Justin Smith, DL, San Francisco 49ers
As good as Willis is, the real linchpin of the 49ers' rugged defense is hulking lineman Justin Smith. The powerful veteran is one of the league's strongest players and his ability to hold up blockers, frees Willis and Bowman to flow to the ball.
Perhaps Smith's best attribute is the tremendous push he generates on the pocket. Smith regularly drives offensive linemen back into quarterbacks and has become a key part of coordinator Vic Fangio's pressure fronts.
At 32, Smith is coming off a fine season and finally getting the recognition he deserves.