THEY ALREADY had the best run-stopping line in the league, anchored by plus-300-pound tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. What was needed was an impact defensive end to make foes pay when they dropped back to throw, and the Vikings got one of the best when they traded for Chiefs All-Pro Jared Allen. He led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in '07—including two in a tour de force against Minnesota. "The cool part is that nothing is directed at me," Allen says. "It's not like, We brought you here to get us off the field [on third down]." The Vikings may not be saying it, but they're definitely thinking it.
NEW COACH John Harbaugh discovered in camp that his linebackers "practice just like they play in the game." It's demanded of them by coordinator Rex Ryan and unit leader Ray Lewis. After a completion by Troy Smith in one August drill, Lewis went to each of his 'backers, gesturing and shouting, "Unacceptable!" Of the four starters, only Lewis is older than 28. Jarret Johnson's a top run-stopper on the strong side; Terrell Suggs, a premier rusher on the weak; and insiders Lewis and Bart Scott are the sideline-to-sideline forces Ryan needs to clean up plays past the line of scrimmage.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
WITHOUT A falloff, the Bucs have rebuilt on the fly and continue to do so with '08 first-round pick Aqib Talib, who is slated to eventually replace Ronde Barber. In the last two years coordinator Monte Kiffin and tough-as-nails secondary coach Raheem Morris have slotted three new players, corner Phillip Buchanon and safeties Tanard Jackson and Sabby Piscitelli, into impact roles. The safeties attack. The corners cover. On nickel downs Barber moves inside and becomes the game's best blitzing corner. In '07 the unit allowed a measly 76.2 passer rating. Expect more of the same for years to come.
PART OF the reason Bobby April's units are consistently among the NFL's best is that the intense veteran coach fights for every one of his guys when final-cut day arrives. Says April, "I tell [everyone] a skilled special-teamer is a lot more valuable than someone who comes in for three plays as a backup safety." In '07 the Bills had the league's top punt returner in Roscoe Parrish; in April they picked perhaps the best return man in the '08 draft, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, a first-round choice who tied an NCAA record with eight career TDs on kick and punt returns. He's in the right place.