Ranking the Top Defenses in the NFL After Week 8
Fourteen of the 32 teams in the NFL have truly reached the halfway point of the season.
On Monday, we announced that this was as good a time as any to do a little evaluation of the league’s offensive units. Now we will look at the better defenses in the NFL these days. It’s worth noting that nine of the 10 teams played this past week, and seven of them came away with victories.
Yes, defense still works in this day and age of the onus on quarterbacks and offense. Once again, we are here to evaluate the best defensive units in the league, not the best overall teams.
Like Monday when we looked at the top 10 offenses, we utilized a combination of efficiency and consistency and overall production, along with a smattering of improvement from early September to Week 8.
And it’s safe to say given this past weekend’s results, the team at the top spot is hardly a shock.
10. Cincinnati Bengals
Back in 2013, only two teams had given up fewer total yards than the Cincinnati Bengals. They were also the only club in the league to finish in the top five against both the run and the pass, despite the fact that their best defensive lineman was lost for the season after nine games.
What a difference a healthy former Pro Bowler makes. While defensive tackle Geno Atkins was a 16-game starter in 2014, he was obviously not his former star self. Combine that with some free-agent departures, key injuries and the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to the Minnesota Vikings, and the Bengals fell to 22nd in total defense last year, ranking 20th in the league in rushing yards and passing yards allowed per game.
Ironically enough, Cincinnati once again owns the NFL’s 22nd-ranked defense. But Atkins is healthy, and former free-agent defectors such as defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Pat Sims are back with the team. The Bengals just saw former Pro Bowl outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict return to the lineup this week against the Steelers. Six-year pro Vincent Rey led the team with 121 tackles one year ago and is again in that position with 65 stops this season.
But the main difference may be the pass rush. A year ago, no team in the league totaled fewer sacks than the Bengals, whose 20 quarterback traps were fewer than Kansas City’s Justin Houston (22) and Houston’s J.J. Watt (20.5). Led by defensive end Carlos Dunlap (6.5) and Atkins (five), Cincinnati has already totaled 20 sacks in seven games.
This is a group that will bear a closer look as time wears on.
9. Philadelphia Eagles
There’s a lot to be said for progress, no matter how long it takes.
In head coach Chip Kelly’s first season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, only three teams in the NFL allowed more total yards per game, while the club’s league-worst pass defense was literally for the birds.
Last season, the Eagles moved up to 28th in the NFL in total defense and gave up the second-most passing yards in the league. They say you have to crawl before you can walk.
But after a shaky start this year, the Eagles have made strides. Philadelphia leads the NFL with 19 takeaways in only seven games. In 2014, the Eagles somehow managed to allow 30 touchdown passes despite racking up 49 sacks. This year, while high-priced cornerback Byron Maxwell has had his issues, Nolan Carroll has held his own at the position.
More significantly, you can find both Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond among the top 10 safeties in the league this season at Pro Football Focus.
In seven games, the Eagles have 15 sacks (five from defensive end Fletcher Cox) while allowing only 10 touchdown passes. Jenkins and rookie inside linebacker Jordan Hicks are tied for the team lead with 43 tackles. Thurmond has three of the team’s 11 interceptions (the Eagles picked off only 12 passes in 2014), while Carroll leads the club with seven passes defensed.
While the Eagles offense remains hard to watch at times, Kelly’s defense has come quite a way from a year ago.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
At the very least, defensive coordinator Keith Butler's unit has been one of the bigger surprises this season.
A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded one of the more dangerous offensive units in the league, while their once-proud defense was an afterthought.
This year and with a slew of key injuries and suspensions affecting Todd Haley’s attack, perhaps the biggest reason that Pittsburgh has been able to keep its helmet above water has been the play of the defense. While ranked 20th in the NFL in total yards allowed, the Steelers run defense has looked a lot better than it did a year ago.
In 2014, Mike Tomlin’s club allowed 39 offensive touchdowns—with 30 of those coming through the air. The Steelers have allowed just a dozen touchdown passes in eight games, with eight of them coming in their last seven contests.
However, a revived pass rush has keyed the revival of this unit. Butler’s defenders have totaled 22 sacks, 11 fewer than the team managed in 16 games a year ago (33). Defenders such as rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree, second-year defensive end Stephon Tuitt, veteran defensive end Cameron Heyward and relentless outside linebacker James Harrison have been studs.
This unit is far from perfect, but you can see this Steelers defense growing in performance and confidence on a weekly basis.
7. Minnesota Vikings
When you hear the name Mike Zimmer, you know that good things are attached when it comes to defense.
Only six teams in the NFL have allowed fewer total yards than the Minnesota Vikings. Performers such as free safety Harrison Smith, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and young linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are making their mark on a team that is allowing only 17.4 points per game while surrendering just 13 offensive touchdowns in seven games.
While Minnesota’s offense is slowly but surely showing improvement, Joseph and defensive end Everson Griffen (team-high 4.5 sacks) anchor the four-man front. A team that allowed the San Francisco 49ers to run for 230 yards in Week 1 has limited five of its last six opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground per game. A year ago, Minnesota was ranked near the bottom of the league in run defense, but this unit is beginning to turn the corner.
Smith, Kendricks and Barr are the team’s top three tacklers, while veteran cornerbacks Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn have been solid.
Minnesota’s defense is the main reason that the Vikings find themselves with a 5-2 mark and just one game behind the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.
6. Arizona Cardinals
Thanks to a slew of injuries at the quarterback position, the Arizona Cardinals held on for dear life last season and managed to grab a playoff berth.
But Arizona also lost its share of players on the defensive side of the ball before the 2014 season began and along the way. Perhaps that’s why then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles earned NFL Assistant Coach of the Year honors a year ago.
It’s a different story this season, as free-agent additions such as Sean Weatherspoon, LaMarr Woodley, Cory Redding and most recently Dwight Freeney have complemented mainstays such as defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, free safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson. The recent addition of Freeney has lessened the sting of losing outside linebacker Alex Okafor, who hopes to be back soon.
The Cardinals have totaled a so-so 13 sacks but have amassed 17 takeaways; they are tied for the NFL lead with 13 interceptions. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher has done a solid job with a group that plays with as much confidence as quarterback Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offense.
5. New York Jets
Yes, Todd Bowles team has taken its lumps the last two weeks. But this New York Jets defense is still among the best in the league.
No team has allowed fewer rushing yards per game, and only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have given up fewer total yards per game. Despite the fact that quarterbacks Tom Brady and Derek Carr have had their way with the New York defense the last two weeks, the Jets have allowed only 14 offensive touchdowns—12 of those coming through the air.
Led by cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and a potent defensive front paced by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, this unit has had far more good moments than bad to date. This season, the Jets have totaled 15 takeaways (six by Revis), two more than their season total of a year ago. In 2014, New York defenders allowed 31 touchdown passes and totaled only six interceptions. This season, the Jets have already picked off three passes.
With underrated inside linebacker David Harris once again leading the team in tackles and a pass rush that may get better with time, don’t get fooled too much by New York’s defensive struggles in its last two outings.
4. St. Louis Rams
Talk about a team and a defensive unit to keep an eye on.
Yes, we have heard that the last few years when it comes to the St. Louis Rams. And now with both the offense and defense playing on somewhat similar levels, the talented defense is drawing even more attention.
In seven games, St. Louis defenders have racked up 26 sacks—tied for the second-most in the league—while being led by defensive end Robert Quinn (five) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (4.5). The Rams have totaled 13 takeaways as well and have not allowed a touchdown in nine consecutive quarters.
Then again, Jeff Fisher’s club has permitted only eight offensive touchdowns in seven contests. And only five teams in the NFL have allowed fewer total yards per game, with the Rams ranking in the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense.
This could get interesting soon. In an NFC West that boasts three of the top six defenses in the NFL in terms of fewest yards allowed, this talented club could emerge as the best in the business.
3. Carolina Panthers
Style points be dammed. The bottom line is that the Carolina Panthers are off to the best start in franchise history, and their defense has played an enormous role in that fact.
Led by outside linebacker Thomas Davis, red-hot cornerback Josh Norman and a front four paced by defensive tackle Kawann Short, the Panthers are ranked 10th in total defense but a less-than-scintillating 20th versus the run. Ordinarily, you don’t think one of the better defensive units in the league would have that many issues when it comes to rushing defense.
But Carolina more than makes up for it in other ways. With middle linebacker Luke Kuechly back on the field after a three-game absence, Ron Rivera’s defense may be even more formidable during the second half of the season.
We are talking about a unit that has totaled 20 sacks and 16 takeaways in seven games. Norman is tied for second in the NFL with four interceptions and has made countless other big plays as well.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
2. Seattle Seahawks
It’s taken some time, but the two-time defending NFC champions are once again looking like…the Seattle Seahawks.
Only one team in the league has allowed fewer total yards per game, and in the last two outings, Pete Carroll’s club has not allowed a touchdown.
In fact, it’s interesting to note that in their four wins this season, the Seahawks have not allowed an opposing offense to reach the end zone. Of course, in their four setbacks they have allowed a minimum of 27 points and have had their issues in the fourth quarter.
But it’s the latter performances that remind us that the Seahawks not only allowed the fewest yards in the NFL in each of the previous two seasons but surrendered the fewest points in the league each of the previous three years.
Defensive end Michael Bennett (6.5) and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (4.5) have combined for 11 of the team’s 20 sacks, while Seattle has allowed only 12 offensive touchdowns—all in the four losses.
With strong safety Kam Chancellor looking like himself again following some early issues after a two-game holdout, he and the rest of the Legion of Boom may be just rounding into form. And this defense could once again take the Seahawks a long way.
1. Denver Broncos
If there were any doubters when it came to the Denver Broncos, head coach Gary Kubiak’s team sent a resounding message Sunday night in the 29-10 conquest of the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers.
“The more naysaying we get, the more fuel we get,” said defensive end Antonio Smith to Cameron Wolfe of the Denver Post on Sunday. “So keep on doubting, keep on saying we're the worst 7-0 team all the way to the playoffs.”
And just in case anyone had any doubts regarding the defense, Wade Phillips’ unit answered any and all questions by limiting Green Bay to 140 total yards and reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards through the air.
The Broncos lead the NFL in total defense and pass defense, while only three teams have allowed fewer yards on the ground. No team in the league is giving up fewer points per game (16.0 average), and DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and 10 other players have combined for an NFL-best 29 sacks.
From linebacker Brandon Marshall to cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris and defensive linemen Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson, this team is solid from stem to stern. The Broncos have totaled 17 takeaways in seven games and returned four of their miscues for touchdowns.
But perhaps no number epitomizes how staunch the unit has been: It took Denver’s struggling offense seven games to score a first-quarter touchdown. But this team has thrived because the Broncos haven’t allowed a single point in the first quarter.
That’s some serious stuff.
All free-agent information and player signings/transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth chart information comes via Ourlads. Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus.