Which elite defenses really deserve recognition, and which teams are overrated?
One good way to determine the best defensive performances this season is to consider strength of schedule. Although certainly not definitive, accounting for a team's SOS can be a great tool in cutting through the bluster. Teams that are able to maintain dominance over elite opponents are recognized more so when considering SOS than teams that only face weaker opponents.
Inside, I've taken the Top 10-rated defenses in the NFL (based on yards allowed per game), and ranked them based on their adjusted SOS. Adjusted SOS removes the record of the team in question from the aggregate record of their opponents—revealing only their opponents' record against the rest of the league.
The results were remarkable.
So forget what you thought you knew about the NFL's best defenses. This list turns the league on its ear.
The Cincinnati Bengals—with their second-ranked rushing defense, and 10th ranked passing defense—have been a big surprise this year at 6-2. Their defense has allowed just 301.3 yards per game, good for fourth-best in the league.
But a brief look at the competition seems to qualify their accomplishments just slightly.
Cincinnati's opponents have the lowest winning percentage of all the teams ranked in the Top 10, at .421 percent, and they've yet to face a top 10 offense.
The Bengals may be as good as advertised, but until they prove it against elite talent, they'll continue to inspire doubt in some circles.
The Cleveland Browns slide down three spots from their sixth-ranked perch among NFL defenses when SOS is accounted for.
Their No. 1 ranked passing defense becomes slightly offset when compared to their 30th ranked rush defense—teams simply don't have to pass against them. At 3-5, that strategy has seemed to work for their opponents, who have just a .431 winning percentage overall.
Furthermore, Cleveland's defense has been unable to stop an elite offense so far—losing to both Top 10 offenses they've faced (the Houston Texans, and the Oakland Raiders) by a combined score of 54-29.
The Houston Texans' No. 1 ranked defense takes a big hit in the SOS rankings, coming in at No.8 with an aggregate opponent winning percentage of just .439.
Although they were able to subdue the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 9 ranked offense, contests against the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders were not as convincing, as they allowed an average of 32.5 points in losses to the No.'s 1 and 10 offenses in the league (respectively).
Still, with their uncanny balance (second in passing defense, fourth in rush defense) the Texans could be the real deal.
We may get a better idea after they play the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers in the latter third of the season.
Adjusted for SOS, the Pittsburgh Steelers drop three places in team defense—from third to seventh—as their opponents combine for just a .461 win percentage.
Their great balance seems to suggest that they do have staying power, though, as both their pass defense (third) and rush defense (sixth) are among the Top 10 in the league.
The Houston Texans scraped out 17 points in a win over Pittsburgh in Week 4, casting some doubt about their ability to handle an elite offense. But, after corralling the New England Patriots' second-ranked offense in Week 8, the Steelers will be riding high until their next big test—likely in the postseason, as they do not face another elite offense all year.
The New York Jets are the first benefactors of the SOS adjusted list, coming in at No. 6 (up two spots from No. 8 in total defense) with a .500 opponent win percentage.
However, it must be said that in four games against elite offenses, the Jets have allowed an average of 27.25 points per game—losing to the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, while holding off the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers in close games.
You know Rex Ryan can talk the talk, but can the Jets walk the walk?
Next week's rematch against the Pats will likely settle the debate.
Also moving up the board are the San Diego Chargers, from No. 7 to No. 5, with an opponent win percentage of .500.
Their strength is certainly in pass defense (No. 4 in yards per game), though it didn't help them much against two of the best passing teams in the league.
Two remaining division games against the Oakland Raiders should help determine whether San Diego is truly an elite defense, or just a pretender.
The Baltimore Ravens slide down from first to fourth in the SOS-adjusted rankings, but make no mistake—this defense is for real.
In three games against elite offenses (Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers twice) the Ravens have limited teams to just 40 points total. Their balance is awesome—No. 3 against the run, and No. 5 against the pass.
Baltimore's ranking may have suffered from the preponderance of anomalously poor records from the St. Louis Rams (1-7), Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6) and Arizona Cardinals (2-6), which do not seem to properly offset the combined record of their other opponents (27-13).
Expect Baltimore's SOS-adjusted ranking to rise as the season progresses, as their schedule continues to gain credibility in the second half with games against the Cincinnati Bengals (twice), the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers.
The San Francisco 49ers benefit hugely from the strength of their schedule, jumping from No. 9 all the way to No. 3, with their opponents having a .536 aggregate win percentage.
Although they have allowed 25 points per game in contests against Top 10 offenses, their top-ranked rush defense has allowed 100 yards rushing just once this season—to the Philadelphia Eagles' No. 1 ranked rushing offense—and is allowing just 70.8 yards per game on average.
They've already beaten three very good teams this season (the Cincinnati Bengals, Eagles and Detroit Lions), while falling just short against the Dallas Cowboys. With games against the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers remaining on the schedule, expect their SOS-adjusted ranking to remain high.
The Detroit Lions are also big movers on the SOS list, climbing from No. 10 all the way up to No. 2 with an opponent win percentage of .571.
Their sixth ranked passing offense has buoyed their cause, but their 28th ranked rush defense has been an Achilles' heel of sorts.
In their two losses this year, they gave up an average of 166 yards rushing per game to the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons—well over their shocking average of 137.6.
How does a team with both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley get run on like that?
Luckily for the Lions, they wont have to find out. The Oakland Raiders are the only elite run-oriented team they face the rest of the way. And with games against the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers (twice), New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers remaining on the schedule, the Lions will have plenty of opportunities to prove they belong atop the league's defenses.
You heard right.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the NFL's highest rated defense when adjusted for strength of schedule (.593).
What's even more remarkable is that the defense has remained dominant in spite of the fact that the offense averages just 29.35 minutes of possession per game. Even without accounting for SOS, the Jaguars were already third in the NFL in yards allowed. The fact that they have been on the field more than two-thirds of the teams in the league and still have a decent ranking is a miracle.
The fact that they register as the No. 1 defense is absolutely amazing.
Their offense averages just 12.25 points per game, yet they still boast the league's 8th ranked passing defense, and 11th ranked rush defense.
Apples and oranges you say? Hardly. Three of the top four teams in the league in time of possession (Houston Texans, San Diego Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers) also register in the top 10 defenses in the league.
It should be no shock to learn that time spent on the field and yards allowed have a corollary relationship.
That being said, Jacksonville's defense is still likely to be underrated as a result of their top-heavy workload.