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Power Ranking Every NFL Defense Heading into the 2014 Season

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2014

Power Ranking Every NFL Defense Heading into the 2014 Season

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Defense might not always win championships, but as the Seattle Seahawks proved last NFL season, it certainly helps.

    With this idea in mind, we're going to spend the next 32 pages examining every NFL defense heading into the 2014 season.

    Rankings will be based on each team's 2013 performance, roster turnover and front office makeup. Injuries and pending suspensions will also be considered in our analysis.

    Defenses will be ranked based on projected performance, starting with the very worst and ending with next year's potential defensive juggernauts.

32. Dallas Cowboys

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    Layne Murdoch/Associated Press

    Last season, the Dallas Cowboys fielded the league's worst overall defenses (415.3 yards per game allowed) and one of the worst statistical defensive units of all time

    The Cowboys should have pursued every possible avenue to upgrade the unit over the offseason. Aside from replacing former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin with Rod Marinelli and dumping pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, however, the team changed very little.

    Dallas' prize free-agent acquisition was defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has been stonewalled in practice by rookie Zach Martin, according to TheMMQB.com's Robert Klemko. The team's top defensive draft pick, DeMarcus Lawrence, is expected to miss eight to 10 weeks with a broken foot.

    Making matters worse is the fact that star linebacker Sean Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL.

31. Washington Redskins

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    While the Washington Redskins were not quite as embarrassing in total defense as the Cowboys last season (only 354.1 yards allowed per game), the team was awful in scoring defense.

    Only one team allowed more points in 2013 than the Redskins, who allowed an average of 29.9 points per game. Yet, new head coach Jay Gruden made the surprising decision to retain defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

    Thanks to the trade that netted quarterback Robert Griffin III, Washington was unable to draft a defender in the first round of May's draft. The team did, however, add linebacker Trent Murphy in the second round.

    Washington also added defensive ends Jason Hatcher and Clifton Geathers in free agency, but these are not franchise-altering moves.

30. Minnesota Vikings

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    No team allowed more points on a weekly basis last season than the Minnesota Vikings, who surrendered 30 of them per game. The Vikings also ranked 31st in total defense, allowing 397.6 yards per contest.

    Minnesota's biggest offseason addition will probably prove to be new head coach Mike Zimmer, who built his reputation by developing a playoff-caliber unit with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Offseason acquisitions like defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn should also help the Vikings improve defensively, while first-round selection Anthony Barr brings game-breaking potential as a pass-rusher.

    However, it is hard to see this unit going from atrocious to impressive in a single year.

29. Atlanta Falcons

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    When your team ranks 27th in the NFL in both scoring defense and total defense, you know there are problems. This is the reality faced by the Atlanta Falcons, who allowed 379.4 yards and 27.7 points per game a season ago.

    The Falcons had other problems, of course, but a lackluster defense was a major reason for the team's fall from contention.

    Free-agent additions like defensive tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson may help this group make some positive strides in 2014. However, the team chose to overlook a game-changing defender in order to draft offensive tackle Jake Matthews back in May.

28. Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins were far from the worst defensive team in 2103 (they actually ranked 21st, allowing 359.4 yards per game). However, the team has lost more than it has gained on that side of the football this offseason.

    Gone are defensive tackle Paul Soliai, cornerback Chris Owens, safety Chris Clemons and cornerback Nolan Carroll. Pass-rusher Dion Jordan has also been suspended for the first four games of the 2014 season.

    Miami did add cornerback Cortland Finnegan in free agency, but the team did not address the defense until the fourth round of May's draft.

27. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Much like the division rival Cowboys and Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles failed to make serious moves during the offseason to address a defense lacking in elite talent.

    Philadelphia did add safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency and spend a first-round draft pick on linebacker Marcus Smith, but these are far from sweeping changes. Considering the Eagles ranked 29th in total defense a year ago (394.0 yards per game allowed), sweeping changes may have been called for.

    The good news is that the Eagles should field an offense even more potent than the one that helped capture a division title in 2013. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis' focus on attacking the quarterback could also help this unit make positive strides in the coming season.

    "I anticipate the group as a whole will be better, individually and collectively at rushing the passer." Davis recently said, via Joseph Santoliquito of CBS Philadelphia.

26. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Only four teams surrendered more points during the 2013 season than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who allowed an average of 28.1 points per contest.

    The Jaguars also tied for 27th in yards allowed (379.4 per game), yet did surprisingly little to address that side of the football aside from the defensive line.

    The defensive line should be a much-improved unit, however. The team added defensive ends Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood in free agency, along with defensive tackle Red Bryant. 

    The Jaguars did not draft a defensive player until the fourth round of May's draft (CB Aaron Colvin), but this is largely due to the team's focus on adding franchise-caliber offensive playmakers to the roster. 

    The presence of defensive-minded head coach Gus Bradley should help this unit to improve in future seasons, but it is difficult to predict drastic change in the coming season.

25. Chicago Bears

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    The Chicago Bears remained in the playoff hunt for much of the 2013 season, but it wasn't because of the strength of the team's defense.

    Chicago ranked 30th in total defense (394.6 yards per game allowed) and tied for 30th in scoring defense (29.9 pointer per game allowed) last season.

    Unlike some of the teams below Chicago in our rankings, the Bears did take the task of transforming the defense seriously. The team added guys like Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen in free agency and used four of its first five draft picks on defenders.

    The Bears also re-signed star cornerback Charles Tillman, who missed eight games in 2013 due to injury. Tillman, for one, appears ready to turn the page on last year's defensive struggles.

    "Defensively, we can’t hang our heads on being the worst defense in the NFL last year. Right now we have to focus on and prepare to be one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2014," he recently said, via ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson

24. Green Bay Packers

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    Losing star pass-rusher Clay Matthews for five games certainly hurt the Green Bay Packers defense in 2013. However, it was far from the only reason the team ranked just 25th in yards allowed (372.2 yards per game).

    Green Bay's strength remains its offense, but the team has taken steps to improve the other side of the football this offseason.

    Adding pass-rusher Julius Peppers in free agency was a good start for a team looking to increase its defensive ability in order to complement a high-powered offense.

    Drafting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should pay long-term dividends for the Packers secondary, though Micah Hyde appears to have the inside track at the starting job, according to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.

23. Oakland Raiders

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    The Oakland Raiders ranked just 29th in the NFL in scoring defense (28.3 points per game allowed) but should be in store for at least a marginal turnaround thanks to a strong offseason.

    Oakland focused heavily on the defensive side of the ball in free agency, adding cornerback Tarell Brown as well as defensive ends LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith. The team also added elite pass-rushing prospect Khalil Mack in the first round of May's draft.

    The biggest obstacle for the Oakland defense in 2014 may be the offense, which must play efficiently enough to stay on the field and allow the other unit time to rest.

22. San Diego Chargers

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    The defense of the San Diego Chargers was not particularly awful in 2013, but the team did rank just 23rd in yards allowed (366.5 yards per game).

    The majority of the yardage allowed (258.7 per game) by San Diego came through the air, and the team ranked just 29th in pass defense for the season. No team remaining on our list allowed more aerial yardage than the Chargers.

    The good news is that the selection of cornerback Jason Verrett in the first round of May's draft should make a positive impact on San Diego's secondary.

    The better news is that the Chargers are building on a season where the team slipped into the playoffs (and won a game) despite defensive inconsistencies. 

21. Detroit Lions

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    When it came to allowing points, the Detroit Lions were an average team a season ago. They surrendered 23.5 points per contest, 15th in the NFL.

    However, pass defense was a weakness for the Lions as they ranked just 23rd in that category (246.9 yards allowed per game through the air).

    Expect Detroit to take a slight step back in the defensive rankings after the departure of safety Louis Delmas and failing to sign any impact free agents on that side of the football. 

    The Lions also passed on a potential defensive star in the first round of May's draft, choosing instead to select tight end Eric Ebron with their first pick.

20. Indianapolis Colts

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    Like a few of last year's playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts reached the postseason despite fielding an average defensive unit. On average, the team allowed 357.1 yards per game (20th in the league) in 2013.

    The Colts did add linebacker D'Qwell Jackson during the offseason, but overall this is not a drastically improved unit. 

    Indianapolis did not have an opportunity to draft a defensive playmaker in May thanks to last season's trade for running back Trent Richardson. The team also parted ways with longtime safety Antoine Bethea and watched as star pass-rusher Robert Mathis was handed a four-game suspension for a PED violation.

19. Tennessee Titans

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    The Tennessee Titans ranked 14th in total defense a season ago, allowing an average of 337.9 yards per game.

    However, the Titans drop a bit in our power ranking for mostly standing pat on the defensive side of the ball this season.

    While Tennessee lost cornerback Alterraun Verner in free agency, the one big addition was experienced defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The team did not draft a defensive player until the fourth round of May's draft.

18. Buffalo Bills

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    Last season, the Buffalo Bills ranked a respectable 13th in scoring defense, allowing 24.2 points per game.

    However, the team said goodbye to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and safety Jairus Byrd during the offseason. The Bills have also lost star linebacker Kiko Alonso for the year with a torn ACL.

    Expect the Bills to take a slight step back in many defensive categories this season because of these losses, though this should still be a competitive group.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone 8-8 in each of the past two seasons, in part because of a defense that is no longer playing at an elite level.

    Playmakers like safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Lawrence Timmons remain, but this is a unit in transition.

    Fortunately, this offseason saw the drafting of potential future stars such as linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt along with the signing of free-agent safety Mike Mitchell.

    These additions should help offset the departure of longtime veterans like LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel. This probably remains a middle-of-the-pack unit that has the potential to become a much better defense in the near future.

16. Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos reached the Super Bowl last season on the arm of quarterback Peyton Manning, not because the team boasted a stellar defense.

    In fact, the team ranked just 22nd in scoring defense, allowing 24.9 points per contest.

    Thanks to a busy offseason, this unit should be capable of holding its own in 2014. In free agency alone, the team added cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware. The team also spent a first-round pick on cornerback Bradley Roby in May's draft.

    These additions likely won't be enough to give Denver a truly elite defense, but they help increase the chances of another Super Bowl appearance.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should see some defensive improvements over last season thanks to a couple of key offseason additions.

    The first is the hiring of new head coach Lovie Smith, who brings a defensive background and successful playoff experience to the equation.

    The team also strengthened the roster with the free-agent additions of defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner.

    Tampa ranked 17th overall in total defense (348.0 yards per game allowed) in 2013 but should be better this coming season. 

14. New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots ranked just 26th in total defense a season ago (373.1 yards per game allowed) but ranked 10th in points allowed (21.1).

    Overall, this looks like an above-average unit that should benefit greatly at the back end from the free-agent additions of cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis. The first-round selection of defensive tackle Dominique Easley should help strengthen the defensive front as well.

    New England can afford to surrender yardage as long as it can limit scoring by the opposition. Expect the Patriots defense to take a step forward in 2014 and remain a playoff-caliber group.

13. Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs spent part of the 2013 season looking like a team that featured a fairly dominant defense. They ranked fifth in scoring defense, allowing just 19.1 points per game.

    However, defending the pass on a regular basis proved difficult for the Chiefs as they finished 25th in the league in that category (247.6 passing yards per game allowed). Kansas City also parted ways with a number of veterans during the offseason, such as defensive end Tyson Jackson and cornerback Brandon Flowers.

    The good news is that Kansas City addressed both the defensive end and cornerback positions early in the draft, snagging Dee Ford and Phillip Gaines in the first and second rounds, respectively. Expect the Chiefs to fall back to earth a bit in 2014 but remain above average defensively.

12. St. Louis Rams

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    The St. Louis Rams feature one of the league's more imposing defensive fronts. The defensive end tandem of Chris Long and Robert Quinn is especially fearsome (27.5 combined sacks in 2013).

    Yet, the Rams ranked just 19th in pass defense a season ago, allowing 242.1 yards per game through the air. 

    This is primarily why St. Louis remains closer to the middle of our rankings than the top, although rookie second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner could help the equation.

    Overall, this is a defensive unit with playoff potential but not an elite group. 

11. New York Jets

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    Believe it or not, the New York Jets ranked 11th in the NFL in total defense (334.9 yards per game allowed) in 2013, despite fielding a pretty pathetic offense (ranked 25th, averaging 318.1 yards per game).

    The offseason additions of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson (and perhaps Michael Vick, should he steal some playing time) should help bring balance to the Jets offense. This, in turn, should give the defense time to rest in order to play more efficiently in games.

    As long as Rex Ryan remains head coach, the Jets should have the potential to field an above-average defense. The selection of safety Calvin Pryor in May's draft could form the foundation of a unit that again ranks among the elite in the near future.

10. Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens may not have fielded a championship-caliber defense in 2013, but the unit was still above-average.

    Baltimore ranked 12th in both total defense (335.5 yards per game allowed) and scoring defense (22 points per game allowed).

    A defensive-heavy draft could have this team back into contention in the very near future. Back in May, the Ravens selected linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks with their first three draft picks.

    Baltimore did lose cornerback Corey Graham and defensive tackle Arthur Jones in free agency, but this is still a unit that should be among the top third in the league in 2014.

9. Houston Texans

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    Despite being the worst overall team in 2013, the Houston Texans were still good defensively.

    Houston ranked seventh in total defense (317.6 yards per game allowed) and tied for third in first downs surrendered per game (17.6).

    The Texans added pass-rushing phenom Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in this year's draft and nose tackle Louis Nix in Round 3. These selections should help solidify a front seven that already includes defensive powerhouse J.J. Watt.

    If the Texans offense can rebound from last year's debacle, this team could jump right back into playoff contention.

8. New York Giants

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    If you weren't paying attention to the New York Giants over the last half of the 2013 season (and few will blame you if you were not), you probably overlooked the fact that the team won seven of its final 10 contests.

    You might have also overlooked the fact that the Giants fielded the eighth-best total defense (332.2 yards per game allowed) in the NFL last year.

    A little more consistency from the offensive side of the football could allow the defensive unit to shine, and new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo was brought in for that very purpose.

    The free-agent additions of cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond should help bolster the back end of the defense, although the departure of defensive end Justin Tuck may weaken the front seven. 

7. Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals finished the 2013 season with a 10-6 record and just outside of the playoffs thanks in no small part to an aggressive defensive unit.

    The Cardinals allowed just 20.2 points per game last season (seventh in the NFL) and ranked sixth in total defense (317.4 yards per game allowed).

    However, the team lost a big piece of its defensive puzzle when All-Pro linebacker Karlos Dansby signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. Fellow linebacker Daryl Washington, who amassed 75 tackles and three sacks in 2013, was suspended for the entire 2014 season.

    The loss of these two key defenders weakens Arizona's defense, but this should still be a top unit on a potential playoff team. 

6. Cleveland Browns

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    New Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine inherits a defense that ranked ninth in total defense a season ago (332.4 yards per game allowed). He is a defensive-minded coach who helped the Bills rack up 57 sacks and 23 interceptions (both second in the NFL) in 2013.

    The Browns primarily used free agency to offset losses with veteran talent. Linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner replace D'Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward, respectively.

    May's draft saw the Browns add cornerback Justin Gilbert as a potential partner for star pass defender Joe Haden. Linebacker Chris Kirksey and cornerback Pierre Desir are rookies who could contribute as well.

    Thanks to new young talent and a coach with a proven defensive track record, the Browns defense should be much better than it was a year ago. The challenge will be for Cleveland to field an offense that doesn't squander its defensive advantage.

5. San Francisco 49ers

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    If not for a number of key losses (and one huge potential loss), the San Francisco 49ers would rank even higher on our list. After all, the team allowed a mere 17 points per game a season ago.

    However, the 49ers parted ways with cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Donte Whitner in free agency this offseason. The team is also likely to be without star linebacker NaVorro Bowman for a large portion of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn ACL.

    Stud pass-rusher Aldon Smith may miss a lot of time as well. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Smith is facing a "significant suspension" for off-field incidents including felony weapons charges and a DUI.

    Still, the 49ers should be able to field a defensive unit that borders on the elite.

4. Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals were easily one of the most dominant defensive teams in the league in 2013. Cincinnati ranked third in yards allowed (305.5 per game) and fifth in scoring defense (19.1 points per game).

    The Bengals added cornerback Darqueze Dennard in the first round of May's draft but lost defensive end Michael Johnson in free agency. However, the biggest change to the defense is the loss of coordinator Mike Zimmer, who left to take the head coaching job in Minnesota.

    The departure of Zimmer has the potential to negatively impact this defense to a large degree. However, the sheer amount of talent on the roster should help maintain defensive success.

    The biggest challenge, of course, will be trying to win a playoff game.

3. New Orleans Saints

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    For a team that has built a reputation as an offensive powerhouse, the New Orleans Saints fielded quite the defense in 2013. New Orleans ranked fourth in the NFL in both yards (305.7 per game) and points (19.0) allowed per game. 

    Much of the Saints' defensive success may be attributed to the presence of Rob Ryan, who joined the team as defensive coordinator last season.

    The scary part is that the Saints defense may be even better in 2014. The team landed prize target Jairus Byrd in free agency and grabbed cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of May's draft.

    Continuity earns New Orleans the No. 3 spot on our list, as the Saints return key defensive contributors and their coordinator for the 2014 season.

2. Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers finished the 2013 season ranked second in both yards (301.2 per game) and points (15.1 per game) allowed.

    While the loss of key veterans like wide receiver Steve Smith may hurt the Panthers' overall success in 2014, the defense should be as strong as ever in the coming season.

    The big free-agent loss for Carolina was safety Mike Mitchell. However, the Panthers added both Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, which should help offset that loss.

    The Panthers also added defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round of the draft, which should help reinforce a pass-rushing unit that led the league with 60 sacks in 2013.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seattle Seahawks were the only team to allow fewer than 300 yards per game in 2013. The team ranked first in scoring defense, surrendering a measly 14.4 points per contest on average.

    In case you haven't been paying attention, the Seahawks defense also helped bring home a 43-8 Super Bowl victory this past February.

    Seattle did lose a few defensive pieces in free agency, like defensive tackles Clinton McDonald and Red Bryant. However, the Seahawks will remain at the top of our power rankings until another defensive unit manages to knock them off the proverbial pedestal.

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