Defenses run the table right now. Other than Pittsburgh’s and Atlanta’s high-powered offenses it’s the defensive units that have carried the premier teams over the first five weeks. Sure those team’s offenses make the critical plays and Tom Brady will be the main figure in New England from now on, but the top defenses have made the winningest teams go. The criteria for what makes those units elite has changed over the past decade or two, since the focus has shifted more to being able to lock down receivers and mix coverages well, but I feel like being able to make offenses one-dimensional by shutting down the run has a lot of value.
1. Minnesota Vikings
What the Vikings D has done over the first five weeks has been remarkable. They have given up just 12.6 points a game even though they have faced Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Eli Manning and more explosive Texans offense in the past four weeks. They were tied with Denver in total sacks with 19 before last night and first in takeaways with 12. Linval Joseph can be easily argued for as the premiere run stuffer in the league, Everson Griffen creates havoc off the edge and their linebacker duo of Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr rivals anybody for the top tandem out there and Chad Greenway is mentoring those guys. Another thing that has to be discussed – is Harrison Smith the best safety in the game right now? I know Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu certainly belong in the conversation, but you could certainly make an argument for “The Hitman” to be ahead of them. Another thing I am impressed with are two surprising risers from last season – Andrew Sendejo and Danielle Hunter. I thought Antone Exum might move into the second starting safety spot, but Sendejo’s range and secure tackling have paired very well with Harrison’s free style of play. On the other hand I saw Hunter as more of the developmental guy coming out of LSU, but his freakish athleticism has taken over and no offensive tackle wants to face him right now. Starting nickelback Captain Munnerlyn has just proven he can still run step-for-step with Odell Beckham Jr. while Xavier Rhodes pretty much shut the Giants’ star wideout down with some help over the top. I really like the youngsters Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander if they learn how to keep their hands off opponent’s jerseys and the Vikings don’t even have guys like Sharrif Floyd back in the lineup. This defense is scary.
2. Denver Broncos
When I started working on this article before the weekend, this is what I had as my first sentence: “I won’t uncrown the Broncos until somebody beats them.” Well, somebody did and those Falcons and Chargers bunches had an outstanding game plan against them. Still, this unit is dominant. Up front they renewed Derek Wolfe’s contract at the end of last season for a bargain of eight million dollars a year. Jared Crick was another nice signing from the Texans. At linebacker they let Danny Trevathan leave for Chicago because they trusted in fourth-year man Todd Davis, who has rewarded them immensely, as a nice partner to Brandon Marshall, who is one of the most underrated players at the position. I know those two were exploited by the dynamic running back duo of the Falcons, but they are one of the more athletic linebacker duos in the league. In the secondary they have by far the best trio of cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Robey plus a tone-setter in T.J. Ward at strong a roaming free safety with Darian Stewart. And if that wasn’t enough they have the reigning Super Bowl MVP and probably the Defensive Player of the Year for the first quarter of the season coming off the edge. And even though Shane Ray has already picked up four sacks himself, they will only get better with DeMarcus Ware back for passing situations. The one thing I’m kind of worried about is their rush defense which is ranked 19th in the league right now.
3. Seattle Seahawks
This stop on the podium has been earned with consistency. For the last four years Seattle’s defense has been ranked number one overall in total points allowed. There’s not a lot of secrets to their success – they rotate a lot on the defensive line, they have linebackers that can really run and hit, they have one of the biggest playmakers at the cornerback position in Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor as their enforcer and Earl Thomas as the premier centerfielder on the back-end. They don’t run exotic blitz packages or mix up the coverage every single snap. They play a ton of zone, try to keep everything in front of them and they are outstanding at open field tackling. In fact their style of coverage is very frustrating for quarterbacks and receiver simply because they make you earn everything you do in the passing game. Plus they always bring in fresh pass rushers while moving Michael Bennett, who certainly is one of their biggest stars, along the line to create mismatches. I like their second round Jarran Reed up front as well because of his ability to shut down the run and the unquestioned effort he plays with. While not a lot of people talk about them, this is still one of the very best units out there. They will face a tough task against the number one offense in the league of the Falcons this Sunday though.
4. New England Patriots
All three defenses mentioned so far had a very good duo of linebackers and even though not everybody might know them by now, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are studs. In fact I think Collins is the most underrated player in the NFL today. To me there’s no way he’s not one of the top five linebackers out there. He can shoot gaps in the running game, he has outstanding range in coverage, he’s an excellent blitzer and he is in control of this Patriots bunch. Bill Belichik’s defenses are being known for shutting down opponent’s number one options in the passing game. And they do it by getting physical with that guy and have a safety on top of him. Of the four receptions DeAndre Hopkins made against them, when they shut the Texans out, at least two of them only one receiver in the league would have made and that’s him. Then they let Malcolm Butler lock down the number two receiver and he does a great job at that. What I really like about their defense is how many players they use and how they are put in position to succeed. Their safety tandem of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung has also quietly developed into one of the best in the NFL. And I think even their question mark in the pass rush department has shrunk with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard stepping up. I know their 3-1 start without Brady was a big testament to the excellent work the coaching staff has done, but the defense has carried this Patriots team.
5. Buffalo Bills
After starting the year slow this Bills defense has been on fire the last three weeks. Zach Brown runs around like a mad man (already 60 total tackles) to support the steady Preston Brown in the middle. This front seven makes this unit go with a nice combination of veterans and youngsters on the defensive line. Kyle Williams is still one of the top DTs out there and Lorenzo Alexander seems like he’s 23 instead of 33 as he leads the league in sacks with 7. So far the other guys up front have done a nice job as well, but they are just getting Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus and their first round pick Shaq Lawson out of Clemson back. Their first line of defense will only get more ferocious. On the outside they have one of the top combinations of bump-and-run corners in Stephon Gilmore and sophomore stud Ronald Darby, plus their biggest playmaker last week was Nickell Robey-Coleman, who had two INTs with one going to the house. And I don’t think their safeties get enough credit. Aaron Williams is one of my favorite players in the league and Corey Graham feels very good in his safety position. I think the fact that they both started as corners and learned from a lot of receiver’s tendencies serves them well in coverage.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles defensive roster was constructed to run a 4-3 scheme and Jim Schwartz has this unit going wild. It all starts up front where Fletcher Cox dominates O-lines as a penetrator and Brandon Graham bringing pressure off the edge. I really like the trio of linebackers with all-around star Mychal Kendricks, sophomore sensation Jordan Hicks and their free-agent acquisition Nigel Bradham from Buffalo. My biggest question was the cornerback position, but the one guy I wasn’t worried about was a healthy Leodis McKelvin who they also picked up from the Bills. And even though they are not quite settled at them number two CB stop this secondary has played significantly better than it was in 2015. This is thanks in large part to the heroics of Malcolm Jenkins who has played as well as anybody at safety over the first quarter of the season. But I also thought the signing of Rodney McLeod was very important after Walter Thurmond’s retirement. No question – Carson Wentz is the real deal, but Philly’s defense only gave up three points against arguably the best offense in the league in the Steelers and over their first three games they have given up a mere average of nine points per contest, before Matthew Stafford tossed three TDs against them.
7. Baltimore Ravens
Every good defense starts with dominant play up front. Brandon Williams is a rock. When it comes to eating up space and making runners bounce it I don’t think there’s any better nose-tackle out there. Timmy Jernigan has turned into a leader for this front as well and they seem to have more life with their captain T-Sizzle back in the mix. He has made some nice plays for a guy who’s come off multiple devastating lower body injuries. Zach Orr has improved immensely to pair up with C.J. Mosley, who has safety-type skills in coverage while being able to come downhill in the ground game. Even though he’s probably still thinking about that interception return he fumbled through the opposing endzone for a touchback, he is one of the brightest stars at the position. The converted Ladarius Webb and their free agent signee Eric Weddle bring a ton of leadership and experience to the back-end, which was kind of a question mark in recent years, but Jimmy Smith plays up to his big contract and the veterans Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers have been solid, while fourth round pick Tavon Young has been raising some eyebrows. My concern with this unit has been their inability to put pressure on opposing QBs at times. They need to get guys like Elvis Dumervil, who came back from injury last weekend, and Matthew Judon, who had three sacks in the preseason, going.
8. Houston Texans
Boy, does losing J.J. Watt hurt. You can talk it sweet all you want, but Houston just lost the DPOY of three out of the last four seasons. He’s a game-wrecker and he simply can’t be replaced. With that being said the Texans have two guys up front who they are really high on – Whitney Mercilus who finished 2015 with 13.5 sacks and former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney who’s finally starting to look like the player they were looking for when he came out of South Carolina. Brian Cushing returned from an opening week injury on Sunday, but he is surrounded by much better talent at the linebacker level than in years past with the big thumper Benardrick McKinney and John Simon rocking the jack position. Their number one ranked pass defense is not only a testament to what they’ve done rushing the passer, but also to the play of their cornerbacks. Kevin Johnson has been much improved in his second year in the league and Jonathan Joseph doesn’t look like he’s been out there for more than a decade at all. He has certainly been a top corner so far. I know they are rather at the bottom of the league in rush defense, but they have suffered from staying a lot on the field because of an inconsistent offense and I think they can stop the run in important stops.
9. L.A. Rams
If Von Miller wasn’t out there terrorizing opposing QBs Aaron Donald would be the Defensive Player of the Year right now. That guy disrupts everything. I know a lot of people only look at the conventional stats and see he didn’t have a single sack before getting 1.5 last week, but he was just taken over in most quarterback hurries with 11 a piece by Melvin Ingram who had one more game than him and he constantly forces running backs to change directions in the backfield because he breaks through the line. But it’s the entire defensive line that is taking over, which allowed just 3.7 yards per carry before Shady ran wild on them on Sunday. Robert Quinn seems to be back to his usual form, best proven by the game-sealing strip sack on Jameis Winston a couple of weeks ago. And while he probably still has even more potential Alec Ogletree has become one of the better linebackers in the league. A lot like the Patriots the Rams have six defensive backs they are fine with having out on the field at the same time. Gregg Williams is a very aggressive playcaller who doesn’t shy away from bringing the heat and counting on his DBs to hold up long enough in man-coverage to get home. Two other guys I want to point out are T.J. McDonald and Lamarcus Joyner. McDonald is the diamond piece in L.A.’s defense as a playmaker in the middle of the field and Joyner has turned into one of the premier nickelbacks after lining up at corner and safety at FSU.
10. Arizona Cardinals
Look at all the stars on this squad. Last year I had Patrick Peterson ranked as the top cornerback in the NFL and Tyrann Mathieu as the number one overall defensive back. Up front I think the giant Calais Campbell doesn’t get the credit he deserves. With his length he knows how to extend his arms and shed blockers, which he uses in the running and passing game equally as well. I like their depth up front which includes a lot of veterans plus a promising rookie in Robert Nkemdiche out of Ole Miss. Their free agent addition of Chandler Jones has payed huge dividends as their premier pass rusher on the 0pposite side of a rising star Markus Golden, but he might have been even more impressive with his TFL production in the ground game. I’m a big fan of their linebacker/safety hybrid Deone Bucannon, who gives them a lot of versatility on base and passing downs. The two big concerns of this defense are their 23rd ranked rush defense and the number two corner stop, in which they rotated Marcus Cooper, Brandon Williams and Justin Bethel in. Their opponents have found a lot of success at picking on the running mate to PP, especially since they like to be aggressive and let those guy play a lot of man coverage. But the one thing they’re great at is taking the ball away from the opposition, as they are tied for the lead league with Minnesota with 12 takeaways.
On the outside looking in:
Green Bay Packers:
This unit has given up a mere average of 43 yards rushing a game and they have some outstanding edge rushers. They’ve been banged up in the secondary in recent weeks, but they have some very talented young guys back there. When they’re healthy they certainly have an argument for belonging on this list.
Kansas City Chiefs:
This Chiefs bunch might not rank very high against the pass or the run when it comes to yards allowed, but what they do is they take the ball away from the opposition repeatedly and give their offense extra possessions. Dee Ford is having a breakout season and I can’t wait to see what Justin Houston can do when he comes back.