Every fantasy football team is susceptible to an off week. Even the most consistent fantasy performers - those players that make up the foundation of your attempt at fantasy glory - have an occasional dud of a game. It's football. In those weeks in which your studly roster is not meeting lofty expectations, a good performance from your defensive unit can be a saving grace.
The best fantasy defenses do more than just stop opponents from scoring (though in most fantasy leagues, that helps). They dictate play; they make things happen on their own, whether it be via an aggressive scheme or superior talent. Sacks, fumble recoveries, interceptions, and defensive scores can make all the difference in the world in a closely-contested fantasy matchup. These five defenses are safe bets entering the 2010 fantasy season.
1. New York Jets: Even with Darrelle Revis holding out, this is still the most talented and innovative defensive unit in the league. Rex Ryan may be an arrogant loudmouth, but he backs up his shenanigans at the podium by coaching the league's toughest and most aggressive defense, year in and year out. The Jets will play in a more competitive division and conference, and they could make more plays; their 32 sacks in 2009 were middle-of-the-pack, as was their interception total (17). Still, this unit creates pressure, is very difficult to score on, and the additions of Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie should address the playmaking issues. You might be disappointed if you overdraft this unit, but it'll still be the most consistent fantasy defense this year.
2. Green Bay Packers: A surprisingly productive unit a year ago, Green Bay is very much on everyone's radar this year as a productive fantasy unit. It helps that they play in an NFC North division featuring the league's most pick-happy quarterback (Jay Cutler) and the Detroit Lions; indeed, scheduling may be the Packers' biggest advantage, though they'll play more potent offenses this year than they did in 2009. Dom Caper's zone-blitzing 3-4 defense is long on athleticism and experience in the secondary, and new wrinkles will be introduced as younger players like Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji grow into the system. Don't expect 30 interceptions again, but plenty of big plays and an entertaining brand of football are expected.
3. Baltimore Ravens: Similar to the Jets in many ways (thanks to the Ryan connection), Baltimore fielded its usual Top 5 unit a year ago, but slipped in rushing the passer and making plays in the secondary. With Ed Reed highly questionable for the start of the regular season and massive depth problems at cornerback, the latter isn't likely to change soon, but Baltimore should be able to dial up the pressure in year two under Greg Mattison. A Week 6 matchup against Tom Brady and New England is the only scary part of the schedule until late-season matchups with Houston and New Orleans, so while the Ravens heal, they'll have the benefit of playing against a relatively easy schedule.
4. Minnesota Vikings: Like the Packers, the Vikings benefit slightly from playing in a lopsided division. They'll play a first-place schedule in 2010, with matchups against Green Bay (twice), New Orleans, Dallas, New England and possibly Philadelphia looking tricky. Still, this unit - the only 4-3 unit on the list - boasts the league's best pass rush, featuring the league's best pass rusher (Jared Allen). Lots of sacks lead to lots of fumbles, and the Vikings are usually pretty respectable with yardage totals and points allowed. Where the Vikings can improve most is in the secondary; they picked off just 11 passes in 2009, but new additions Lito Sheppard and rookie Chris Cook are expected to help in that regard.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers were perhaps the most disappointing fantasy unit in 2009, thanks in large part to a pass defense that gave up far too many big plays. That situation should resolve itself now that star safety Troy Polamalu is expected to make a healthy return to the starting lineup; without Polamalu at strong safety, Pittsburgh goes from a top-five fantasy defense to just an average one. Even without Polamalu last season, the Steelers were still a Top 5 league defense, a dominant run unit, and sacked opponents 47 times, second to just Minnesota. A third-place schedule will help matters, as well, but like other teams on this list, more plays from the secondary are needed. Hence Polamalu's importance to this team's fantasy outlook.