Power Ranking Every NFL Defense Heading into the 2013 Season
Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.
It is one of the oldest cliches in sports, but it remains true even in this age of the quarterback-driven NFL.
For every Joe Flacco that throws 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during a four-game playoff run, there’s a club that totals 10 takeaways in those postseason wins. Hence the story of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens on their way to a Super Bowl title in 2012.
While quarterback Drew Brees was lighting up teams in 2009, the New Orleans Saints were forcing a total of 47 turnovers in 19 contests en route to winning Super Bowl XLIV.
Get the picture? But the purpose here is to rank, not preach. And submitted for your approval is how all 32 NFL defenses rank as the chase for Super Bowl XLVIII is underway.
And if your favorite club isn’t where you would expect them to be, we won’t take offense to you being a little defensive.
32. Philadelphia Eagles
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 15th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 29th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: Only two teams in the NFL gave up more points last season than these Birds, whose 444 points allowed was a dubious franchise record. This year, new defensive coordinator Billy Davis brings the 3-4 to the City of Brotherly Love.
The Eagles were a disappointing 23rd in the NFL versus the run a year ago, and the addition of free-agent nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will hopefully help. The linebacking corps now includes former Houston Texans standout Connor Barwin, while the Philadelphia secondary was completely rebuilt via free agency this offseason.
The Birds picked off just eight passes, one fewer than Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings in 2012.
31. Oakland Raiders
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 18th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 28th
2013 Analysis: The biggest news for the Silver and Back on the defensive side of the ball this offseason was the return of defensive back Charles Woodson. He is one of eight free agents on a unit that will have nine new starters in 2013, including rookie outside linebacker Sio Moore.
Joining Woodson in the secondary are veteran cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, while first-round pick D.J. Hayden waits in the wings. The lone incumbents on this drastically revamped unit are defensive end Lamarr Houston and strong safety Tyvon Branch.
30. Buffalo Bills
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 22nd
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 26th
2013 Analysis: Newest Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is very familiar with the AFC East after spending time with the New York Jets. A year ago, Buffalo laid down big money to bolster the front four, signing defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. But the latter is now gone and so is the team’s 4-3 alignment.
Marcell Dareus moves to nose tackle and Williams to left outside linebacker. Can rookie inside linebacker Kiko Alonso make an immediate impact? And will free safety Jairus Byrd (currently unsigned) rejoin the team soon?
29. New Orleans Saints
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 32nd
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 31st
2013 Analysis: New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is hoping to fix last season’s abominable unit.
The famed assistant coach, late of the Dallas Cowboys, will install his version of the 3-4 and was hoping former Cowboys Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman could help. But the linebacker and defensive lineman, respectively, don’t figure to see the field this season after suffering knee injuries.
Can Will Smith make the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker? Can free-agent pickup Keenan Lewis be a playmaker at cornerback?
28. Indianapolis Colts
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 26th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 21st
2013 Analysis: General manager Ryan Grigson is hoping his 2013 free-agent class is as successful as his 2012 draft class. Despite an 11-5 record and playoff appearance last season, the Colts gave up more points (387) than they scored (357).
Only three teams in the NFL surrendered more rushing yards per game. The additions of defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, outside linebacker Erik Walden, cornerback Greg Toler and Pro Bowl strong safety LaRon Landry hope to help.
But does this unit, sans outside linebacker Robert Mathis, have enough playmakers?
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 29th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 23rd
2013 Analysis: The additions of cornerback Darrelle Revis and free safety Dashon Goldson are first-rate and should help a team that finished dead last in the NFL in pass defense in 2012. But the lack of a pass rush remains an issue.
The Bucs were ranked first in the league versus the run last season but lost defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller in free agency. Linebacker Lavonte David and strong safety Mark Barron were productive rookies a year ago, but defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers must stay healthy.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 30th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 29th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: Of the eight new head coaches in the league this season, Gus Bradley was the only one of the group that was of the defensive variety. Recently, he was the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, a team that gave up the fewest points in the league in 2012.
Now he must fix a unit that allowed the third-most total yards per game in the league a year ago, a dramatic falloff for a Jacksonville team that was sixth in the NFL in total defense the previous year. Free-agent pickup Roy Miller could help up front, but there is a lot of uncertainty here.
25. Tennessee Titans
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 27th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 32nd
2013 Analysis: How bad was it last season? Tennessee allowed 258 points in the second half and overtime. Conversely, the Seattle Seahawks allowed 245 points in 16 games.
Despite numerous issues last season, the Titans only made a few tweaks on this side of the football during the offseason. Former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Sammie Hill can step up and improve the league’s 24th-ranked run defense from 2012.
And the addition of hard-hitting strong safety Bernard Pollard, late of the Baltimore Ravens, brings a little necessary attitude to this team.
24. Kansas City Chiefs
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 20th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 25th
2013 Analysis: There’s a lot of talent on this defense, and free agency bolstered this unit even more. Cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson, inside linebacker Akeem Jordan and defensive tackle Mike DeVito should make this unit better.
But despite a Pro Bowl-laden linebacking corps and star strong safety Eric Berry, only six clubs gave up more rushing yards per game a season ago. And with outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali bringing the heat, it was hard to believe the Chiefs forced a mere 13 turnovers in 16 contests last season.
23. Detroit Lions
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 13th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 27th
2013 Analysis: There is no denying the talents of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, with the former named to his second Pro Bowl in three seasons in 2012.
However, the Lions are counting on veteran Jason Jones and rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah to provide the outside pass rush. Fellow rookie Devin Taylor could have a say in the matter as well. There is a question mark with outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer.
And while free-agent pickup Glover Quin is a plus at strong safety, free safety Louis Delmas has been plagued by injuries throughout his career.
22. San Diego Chargers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 9th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 16th
2013 Analysis: It’s been a rough offseason for the Chargers’ linebacking corps, which lost Jonas Mouton for the season with a knee injury, while Melvin Ingram is on the physically unable to perform list after injuring his knee in May.
It will be interesting to see the impact rookie Manti Te’o makes, while veteran Dwight Freeney hopes to fare better in San Diego than he did his last season in Indianapolis.
A new-look secondary still includes free safety Eric Weddle, while young defensive ends Corey Liuget (7.5) and Kendell Reyes (5.0) combined for 12.5 sacks in 2012.
21. Baltimore Ravens
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 17th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 12th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: Although the Ravens came away with a Super Bowl win in 2012, it was a different kind of year for the Baltimore defense. But this side of the ball did its part to win a title, as John Harbaugh’s club forced 10 turnovers in four playoff games.
With stalwarts such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams gone, free-agent pickups such as linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith, defensive linemen Chris Canty and Marcus Spears and safety Michael Huff must step to the forefront immediately.
20. New York Giants
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 31st
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 12th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: A pass rush that was a pivotal part of the Giants' two recent championship teams just wasn’t the same in 2012. Tom Coughlin’s squad was also a disappointing 25th in the league versus the run last season.
The big question now is when will defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul be healthy following back surgery? The team delved heavier than usual into free agency this offseason, adding defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, linebacker Dan Connor and safety Ryan Mundy.
There are more question marks than answers for this Big Blue defense.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 12th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 17th
2013 Analysis: Given the lack of support by the Arizona attack, the team’s defensive ranking from a year ago was very respectable.
The Cardinals totaled 38 sacks and 33 takeaways last season, but there are numerous changes, starting with new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson are the safeties in place of Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.
Pro Bowl inside linebacker Daryl Washington (team-high 9.0 sacks in 2012) is suspended for the first four games of 2013. What does John Abraham have left in terms of the pass rush?
18. Denver Broncos
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 2nd
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 4th
2013 Analysis: Defensive end Elvis Dumervil is now a member of the Baltimore Ravens and two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller could be suspended the first four games of the season. The duo combined for 29.5 of the team’s 52 sacks, tied for the most in the NFL in 2012.
Despite finishing third in the league last season against the run, the Broncos were vulnerable in this area. Denver allowed 155 yards rushing in the playoff loss to the Ravens.
Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey is a year older, but is the Broncos’ secondary better than a year ago?
17. Washington Redskins
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 28th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 22nd
2013 Analysis: The Redskins find themselves a bit behind the eight ball at defensive end before the season even starts. Adam Carriker, injured in Week 2 last season, remains sidelined and Jarvis Jenkins will miss the first four games of 2012 due to suspension.
Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is back after missing nearly all of last season, so you can look for the team to improve on last year’s total of 32 sacks. And look for youth to be served in a big way in the secondary with rookie free safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerbacks David Amerson and Phillip Thomas.
16. New England Patriots
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 25th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 9th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: A year ago, the team invested first-round picks in defensive end Chandler Jones and outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo were Pro Bowlers last season.
Now add a pair of savvy free agents in veteran safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and this could be the Patriots' best defensive unit in years. This was a team that amassed 41 takeaways in 2012, second-most in the NFL.
And if cornerback Aqib Talib is on the field all season, this group will be hard to ignore.
15. Chicago Bears
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 5th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 3rd
2013 Analysis: Defensive end Julius Peppers has emerged as one of the league’s best overall defensive players and is a leader for a unit that will be missing linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Speaking of that position, this group will have some new looks with the additions of James Anderson and D.J. Williams. The Bears led the league with 44 takeaways in 2012, and Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings totaled nine of those thefts.
The team still has veterans in outside linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman, and they will need to have big years again.
14. Atlanta Falcons
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 24th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 5th
2013 Analysis: Despite the fact that only four teams in the NFL allowed fewer points than the Falcons last season, this was a club that had its issues against the run and elsewhere.
Last season, Mike Smith’s squad blew a 20-point lead before defeating the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs and also squandered a 17-point lead in the NFC title game loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Atlanta totaled only 29 sacks in 2012, 10 of those by now-former Falcons defensive end John Abraham.
Does free-agent pickup Osi Umenyiora make up for Abraham’s departure?
13. Dallas Cowboys
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 19th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 24th
2013 Analysis: For the third time in four years, the Cowboys have a new defensive coordinator. Monte Kiffin follows recent hires/fires in Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan and hopes that his 4-3 scheme is just what the Jerry Jones ordered.
Outside linebackers Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware are at defensive end, Ware having the most sacks in the NFL since 2005. Linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter could thrive if they can stay healthy. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne come off solid seasons and free agent Will Allen is the new free safety.
12. Cleveland Browns
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 23rd
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 19th
2013 Analysis: The news here is that the Browns have a new defensive coordinator in Ray Horton, who knows his way around the AFC North and comes off doing a phenomenal job with the Arizona Cardinals a year ago.
Although Cleveland was a mediocre 19th in the league versus the run last season, it was a big improvement from recent seasons. The Browns also totaled 38 sacks in 2012, getting at least one sack by 16 players.
And that pass rush could be even better via the addition of outside linebacker Paul Kruger and the selection of Barkevious Mingo in April.
11. Green Bay Packers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 11th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 11th
2013 Analysis: For the second time in three seasons, the Packers totaled 47 sacks. And 13 of those quarterback traps came courtesy of outside linebacker Clay Matthews in just a dozen games.
But all that pressure didn’t amount to much in terms of takeaways, as Green Bay forced only 23 turnovers, down 15 takeaways from their total of 2011 (38). Injuries were certainly a big factor a year ago.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers hopes to get something from rookie defensive end Datone Jones and more from second-year outside linebacker Nick Perry.
10. New York Jets
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 8th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 20th
2013 Analysis: The New York offense wasn’t the only unit on the team having its issues a year ago. Rex Ryan’s erratic defense, missing cornerback Darrelle Revis for the majority of the season, had its issues.
The Jets limited only five of their 16 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in 2012. But there’s a lot of young talent in defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and new outside linebacker Quinton Coples, making the switch from the defensive line.
Rookie cornerback Dee Milliner takes over for the traded Revis.
9. St. Louis Rams
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 14th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 14th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: If the Rams can consistently put some points on the board this season, the final numbers for this unit may be even better.
A year ago, Jeff Fisher’s club tied for the league lead with 52 sacks. The front four is loaded with former first-round picks in defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis welcomes rookie Alec Ogletree.
And big-play cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are joined by rookie strong safety T.J. McDonald, a third-round pick in April.
8. Carolina Panthers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 10th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 18th
2013 Analysis: In a division where the Atlanta Falcons (24th), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (29th) and New Orleans Saints (32nd) were near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed in 2012, the Panthers were the exception.
It helps when you have NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly. The rangy linebacker has help up front in defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5) and Greg Hardy (11.0), who teamed for 23.5 of the club’s 39 sacks.
A healthy Jon Beason helps, as will rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, taken by Carolina in the first round this April.
7. Miami Dolphins
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 21st
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 7th
2013 Analysis: Although the Dolphins gave up their share of yards last season, only six teams in the NFL surrendered fewer points. There are new faces such as rookie defensive end Dion Jordan, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler and cornerback Brent Grimes.
There are also old faces in Pro Bowlers Cameron Wake and Randy Starks, who make up a solid defensive front. And second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon may be a player to watch. And look for Miami to improve dramatically on its 16 takeaways of a season ago.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 16th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 14th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: It wasn’t long ago that this was a much-maligned unit. But general manager Rick Spielman has added some talent via the draft in recent years, most notably free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Josh Robinson.
And in 2013, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes came via the first round. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Chad Greenway is a tackling machine, while defensive end Jared Allen remains one of the premier defensive ends in the league.
The Vikings have totaled an impressive 94 sacks over the last two seasons.
5. San Francisco 49ers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 3rd
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 2nd
2013 Analysis: Despite last season’s injury-related late slump, this remains one of the best units in the league. Still, the team seems to be in search of help at cornerback with the season-ending loss of Chris Culliver.
One-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Eric Wright is still on the radar. Veteran defensive tackle Justin Smith was injured late last season; combine that with a banged-up Aldon Smith and the slump makes sense. But this team has arguably the best linebacking corps in the NFL.
Rookie Eric Reid replaces free safety Dashon Goldson.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 1st
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 6th
2013 Analysis: It’s never wise to count out the Steelers, especially on the defensive side of the football. But this is a unit that has not produced a lot of big plays over the last two seasons (combined 35 takeaways) despite giving up ground grudgingly.
Perhaps rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones fixes that. But veterans such as LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu must bounce back from injury-shortened seasons. Steve McClendon is the new starting nose tackle in place of Casey Hampton.
Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons had a Pro Bowl-type season in 2012.
3. Houston Texans
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 7th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 9th (Tied)
2013 Analysis: Key injuries along the way were a major factor when it came to this team’s defensive slump the second half of 2012. But former Pro Bowl inside linebacker Brian Cushing is healthy again and that’s a major plus.
The Texans do have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt at their disposal and last year’s first-round pick, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, may make him even more effective. Who knows when veteran free safety Ed Reed will be available, but if cornerback Johnathan Joseph stays healthy, that will be a major plus.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 4th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 1st
2013 Analysis: Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was in the mix for 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
A secondary featuring cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, all named to the Pro Bowl within the last two years, added Antoine Winfield. The only question is the pass rush, at least early on. Chris Clemons is not healthy yet and second-year pro Bruce Irvin will miss the first four games of 2013.
Are defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett ready to help immediately? This unit is loaded.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Yards Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 6th
Points Allowed (2012 NFL Rank): 8th
2013 Analysis: The Bengals did not look like they had a big-time defensive unit the first half of 2012, allowing 218 points (27.3 points per game) during the team’s 3-5 start.
But Mike Zimmer’s unit settled down and gave up only 12.8 points per contest in their last eight games and only 19 points in the playoff loss to the Houston Texans. Cincinnati totaled 51 sacks a year ago, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins (12.5) and defensive end Michael Johnson (11.5).
Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison adds a little oomph to this talented group.