It was really hard to compile this list, because of all the moving pieces, players being injured and just what these defenses have become as units. So the base I judge them on is the way they are constructed right now. Therefore, I couldn’t quite put the Seahawks and definitely not the Texans on this list, since they have suffered immensely with injuries to top of their three best defensive players. Sometimes the major statistics, like total yards allowed, can be misleading, for example, until a week ago, the Denver Broncos were the number one defense in terms of yardage allowed. Even though they still have an excellent trio of cornerbacks combined with Von Miller to rush the passer and they could easily bounce back big-time next season, that’s absurd, considering since after a hot start to the season at 3-1, they gave up an average of just over 30 points per game during an eight-game losing streak. The numbers I do care about are points allowed, takeaways, third down and red zone percentage allowed. Most importantly though, I want to look at the scheme each unit runs, how well they execute, and what my eyes tell me.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
This unit has been loading up on talent for years now and finally everything has come to fruition this season. They are elite at all three levels of the defense. The ten-year veteran Calais Campbell has taken the young members of this D-line under his wing and they’ve just gone after people all year long. The former Cardinal is in a situation, where opponents can’t double-team him constantly with those other guys around him and therefore he has taken his game to a new level with a career-high 14.5 sacks. Yannick Ngakoue has 12 QB-takedowns and six forced fumbles himself, while Dante Fowler has 7.5 coming off the bench for passing downs. That’s when they slide Campbell inside in nickel packages to team up with Malik Jackson, who has recorded eight a piece as well. Not only are those guys dawgs individually, they work incredibly well together. The way the execute stunts and twists is off the charts, which frees up their teammates. At the second level, they come out with all-time franchise leading tackler Paul Posluszny as their Mike in their base 4-3 and when substituting another DB in, they stay with Telvin Smith and Myles Jack as their linebackers. Those two guys are without a doubt the fastest duo of linebackers in the NFL and they can cover a lot of ground in coverage. Smith has recorded the highest mph in game-action at the position, while Jack covered slot receivers one-on-one at UCLA. The Jags love to give different blitz looks to confuse the protection, as they bail out of them and come with a different rush. In the secondary, they don’t back down from anybody. Sophomore trash-talker supreme Jalen Ramsey and free-agent acquisition A.J. Bouye are both among the top five cornerbacks in the league for me and they match up very well with different body types, which I described about a month ago. The safeties are the most underrated part of the unit. Tashaun Gipson is an excellent centerfielder, who can help get involved when the ball is in the air and he has to close towards the sidelines. The services of veteran Barry Church have been felt with his leadership, big plays in coverage and steady run defense, quite a bit as an extra member in the box. Altogether, this secondary has recorded 18 interceptions. The defense is principled on their defensive front creating pressure by creating different looks for opposing teams and not having to send additional rushers, the linebackers running sideline-to-sideline and playing a lot of tight cover one, while being able to drop their corners deep into more of a three-deep look as well.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Watching this Vikings defense on tape is really fun, because the way they counter offensive formations is just unorthodox. For the most part, teams align their linebackers and safeties by strong and weak side, while some just keep them on the left or right. Mike Zimmer’s unit however, differentiates between boundary and field (open) side. That means Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith line up on the side of the field that is closer to the sideline for the majority of the snaps, while Eric Kendricks and Andrew Sendejo stay on the across from them. While their corners and defensive ends stay true to their side, their interior defensive linemen follow the strength of the offensive formation. Those principles alone make it extremely hard for the entire offense to diagnose where everybody will be when they leave the huddle. After the snap they don’t do anything exotic. They have a bunch of big bodies inside to swallow up the run game, with Harrison Smith setting the edge better than anybody else out there. Their base look on passing downs shows double A-gap pressure with two linebackers lined on either side of the center, as they can bring either one, both or let them drop out of entirely. On the outside they play a lot of man-coverage or let those corners drop deep into a cover three. While Smith, who I called one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs a week ago, can function as a robber on the field, the middle of the field can be open in general as long as offenses keep the running game a threat and suck those linebackers in. The other area that can be attacked when they roll into a three-deep look it the intermediate level on the sidelines on deeper comeback routes. The problem for opposing teams has been the fact this unit has been schooled incredibly well and the old defensive guru that is their head-coach puts in the necessary wrinkles to adjust prior to matchups or throughout the games. They usually just don’t get burnt and this season we have seen what they are capable of with an offense that puts up points on the board. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are monsters off the egde. Linval Joseph is a rock against the run and forces a lot of quarterbacks to step into the rush of their outside guys. Xavier Rhodes is one of the closest things we have to a true shutdown corner in the league today. Those are some extremely talented pieces, but what makes this defense special is the fact they play as a unit, which has prevailed to the number one ranking in total yards and points allowed.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Leading up to the final week of the regular season, the Ravens have already pitched three shutouts. The last team to do so before them were the 2003 Patriots. They also lead the league in takeaways with 33 and allow just 18 points per game. Baltimore has gone back to playing championship-calibre defense with 15-year veteran Terrell Suggs bringing all those guys together as a unit. It all starts up front for them, with Brandon Williams taking over the point of attack. With him in the lineup the entire team is 8-3 compared to 1-3 without. His statistics will never indicate his impact on the field, but he is a key run defender and pocket-pusher. Across from T-Sizzle, Matt Judon has taken a huge step in his second season as a pro. He is tied for fifth in the league with 16 TFLs, he has seven sacks on the year and he is outstanding in coverage for an edge-rushing linebacker, also being able to staying on guys out of the backfield. Plus, the Ravens can bring in guys like Za’Darius Smith and Tyus Boswer. C.J. Mosley has taken over as the heir apparent to Ray Lewis in the middle of this unit chasing plays sideline-to-sideline. Besides him, Patrick Onwuasor, who I talked about in the offseason as a potential contributor, has made most of his opportunity and put a second-round pick from last season on the bench. The loss of Jimmy Smith is huge, because he was playing like a top-three corner in the league before finally letting those nagging injuries get to him, but this team was equipped to overcome that, since they drafted Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey in the middle of the first round and he had played extremely well with experience on almost half of their defensive snaps. Brandon Carr has been burnt a couple of times, but he has been a solid addition in free agency as well. Like I elaborated about a month ago, this safety tandem of Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson might be the best overall in the NFL right now, with some other big names around the league injured. Weddle to me has been the best player at the position period this season. Those two guys function incredibly well together. They rotate a lot and line up in different spots. They’re both good blitzers, they wrap up tackles and don’t give away anything pre-snap. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees runs a lot of different schemes with all-out blitz looks, they mix up coverages on the back-end and those players get their hands on a lot of balls. When big DT Willliams is in the line-up their lone down-point of the year was getting carved up by Ben Roethlisberger for 500 yards and 39 points a couple of weeks ago.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles just clinched the number one seed in the AFC on Sunday with an MVP candidate Carson Wentz, who unfortunately will miss the remainder of the season, and a ton of weapons on offense. With all that hype surrounding an attack that scores more than 30 points per game, nobody really paid attention to the defense for most of the year. But let me tell you – those boys are for real. The strength of their team is the defensive line. Fletcher Cox might be most disruptive interior defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald, Brandon Graham is among the best in TFLs as well as QB hits and Philly has a multitude of bodies to through around. They just signed Timmy Jernigan to a multi-year extension for what he has been able to do so far, Vinny Curry has been a frequent visitor in the backfield, rookie Derek Barnett has five sacks coming off the bench and so does veteran Chris Long, who has been working himself into the rotation more and more as he season has gone along and just had a huge game versus the Raiders. Even though the Eagles lost Jordan Hicks in the middle of their defense, the linebacker playhas been very strong all year. Mychal Kendricks has been excellent against the pass, both in coverage and as a blitzer, while Nigel Bradham has been an absolute highlight reel for people, who watch the tape. He might have any statistics, that blow people away, but he has made some monster plays. Whether that may be blowing up screens, tipping balls that are thrown over his head, taking down Cam Newton in the open field or just an incredible amount of crucial third down spot.. Their breakout performer in the secondary has been Patrick Robinson, who went from signing a one-year, 775.000 dollar contract to one of the hottest names at the position in the upcoming 2018 free agent pool. He’s recorded four INTs, 17 pass-deflections and is rated as the fourth-best overall cornerback by Pro Football Focus. Jalen Mills and rookie Rasul Douglas have played a lot of valuable snaps as well, but he has been their best cover-guy so far, which will only be surpassed by the play of Ronald Darby, who was acquired via trade from the Bills before the season started. Darby’s quickness in short areas to play off-man coverage and attack routes has been outstanding. I’ve been a huge fan of Malcolm Jenkins for years now and he has consistently been one of the most underrated safeties in football. He can defend the run, blitz, cover slot receivers or play the high role. I also really like his partner in crime Rodney McCloud and long-time vet Corey Graham making plays. This Philly defense is number one in rushing yards allowed, sixth in points surrendered, third in takeaways and third in third-down percentage allowed. They have been a little suspect in recent weeks, but they can be dominant.
5. Carolina Panthers
Although it seems like forever ago, it’s just been two years since the Panthers rolled to the Super Bowl with MVP Cam Newton and one of the top defensive units in the league. Outside of cornerback Josh Norman, most of their key contributors are still on the team and they have quietly been nearly as good as they were back then. After that loss in the big game, the Panthers made it a priority to sign Kawann Short and let go of the aforementioned Norman. Even though he seemed to have regressed after getting his multi-year deal, KK has been a terror as their three-tech disruptor. In the last offseason, Julius Peppers returned to the team that originally drafted him and while for some it seemed more like a feel-good story, everybody in the league quickly realized that the guy, who’s fourth all-time in sacks, still has a lot left in the tank. His 11 sacks on the season are the most of all-time of any player in his 16th year as pro, as far as I know. The crown jewels of this defense are the linebackers with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. Despite some concussion concerns, Kuechly has been of the top two middle linebackers in football, because of his intelligence and speed to play in space and track down ball-carriers. Davis is a still a beast after 13 seasons and three torn ACLs. He will smack opponents in the face, even though he took that a bit too literal a couple of weeks ago. Thompson was a tweener between linebacker and safety and he has taken those skills to help the Panthers to keep things inside and cover a lot of ground. To boost the cornerback position with the losses they had there, Carolina drafted the duo of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley last April. They trusted in their scheme being more important than star players and both those second-year guys have taken giant leaps from where they were as rookies. To along with veteran in Kurt Coleman, who is on his third NFL team, the Panthers signed 14-year standout Mike Adams, who has played incredibly well for them. With the ability of those linebackers to sink further than most guys at the position, they can cope with putting three guys deep. This defense wants to shut down the run first of all, as they allow just 90 yards on the ground per game, and then they are sound in coverage, letting quarterbacks throw the ball in front of them and then punish receivers for it.
6. Los Angeles Rams
There might not be another defense in the league that has improved as much throughout the season as the Rams have done. They went from allowing 39 points to a 49ers team that was led by Bryan Hoyer to annihilating Russell Wilson and the Seahawks two weeks ago. After a long time running the 4-3, Wade Phillips imported his scheme with three down-linemen and a lot of hybrid looks, where they move around defenders. Aaron Donald is clearly the Defensive Player of the Year for me. Despite their base scheme being a 3-4, the coaching staff puts him in position, where he can just get upfield and disrupt offensive gameplans, by aligning him in shed technique and covering up the next man. If teams do make it a priority to double him, not only does it free up teammates, I’ve seen Donald put a swim move on two guys consecutively and get to the passer. Michael Brockers on the opposite side has taken on more of the classic 5-tech control responsibility, while sliding inside as a nose quite a bit as well. Robert Quinn has never really gone back to the level he was at in some of his earlier years, but he has taken advantage of more one-on-ones and Connor Barwin has been a nice veteran addition to their squad. The Rams have a very fast linebacking corp with Alec Ogletree as their leader in the middle and the converted safety Mark Barron, who has exceled in his new role, after struggling to find a place to stay until last season. He has recorded three interceptions and brought a lot of speed to the position. Trumaine Johnson has developed into a top ten cornerback in the league, manning up some of the best receivers in the league with little to no help. He can press, he can play off, he’s long and can get receivers off their route. He was also one of the very few guys I’ve seen all year, that was able to keep the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins in check. L.A. was able to move Lamarcus Joyner to free safety with Nickell Robey-Coleman taking over the nickel role. The fourth-year man out of Florida State went from one of the elite guys in the slot, to joining that supreme class of safeties. Despite being part of a couple of high-scoring affairs, the Rams have allowed less just under 20 points per game, they get after the passer with 48 sacks, and they turn the opposition over with 25 takeaways – both marks being top five in the NFL.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
Much like the entire team has turned their season around after a 0-4 start, the Chargers defense has shifted into a different gear. They have yet to allow any team to score more than 30 points over the course of the season. This L.A. team has the most threatening one-two-punch off the edge in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. I did a more detailed analysis on those two guys about a month ago, if you’re interested. Denzel Perryman has been a beast since coming back from his ankle injury, controlling the middle and really packing a punch for whoever is looking to invade his area. Last year the Chargers were forced to keep then-rookie Jatavis Brown in their base defenses a lot and even though he did a tremendous job overall, he had his troubles taking on big bodies in the run game. Now he is being used much more as a rotational impact player on passing downs, since they returned to full strength at the second level of their defense. By now we all know about the heroics of cornerback Casey Hayward, as he is rated as the number one player at the position by PFF, but his running-mate Trevor Williams and rookie nickelback Desmond King have been the untold story of this team, being 8th and 12th in those rankings respectively. Those guys have been outstanding, challenging the likes of the Aquib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby as the top trio of cover-guys in the league, and they made the rookie debut of the Bills’ Nathan Peterman feel more like a nightmare. Compared to the Broncos DBs, they play a lot of cover two and three though, in which the can read the eyes of the quarterback and attack the ball in the air. Both of the Charger safeties can dish out some big blows. The Bolts D is last in rushing yards allowed, but they are really tough against the pass with that combination of cover-guys and pass-rushers as well as playing excellent situational football. Heading into the final week of the regular season, they are the only team to allow less than 40 percent of opponent’s red-zone possessions to end up as touchdowns. They are top five in both sacks and takeaways in the NFL as well as slowing down some of the most high-powered offenses. Unfortunately, they had their worst performance a couple weeks ago versus the Chiefs, when they were fighting for the AFC West lead. Now they need some help to get a Wildcard spot, but I believe with Philip Rivers & company, combined with this opportunistic defense, they are a scary out for anybody in the playoffs.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
This Steelers defense would easily be a few spots higher if Ryan Shazier was in the line-up. Without him out there, I’ve seen too many problems in run defense and just communication throughout the unit. Vince Williams and Sean Spence will have to really step up going forward. Cam Heyward probably has been the biggest Pro Bowl miss with a ridiculous 12 sacks for a base 3-4 defensive end. Stephon Tuitt doesn’t have numbers quite like that, but he has been tremendous as well pushing the pocket, and Javon Hargreave has turned into an excellent nose in his second year, with veteran Tyson Alualu as a rotational player. Rookie T.J. Watt started the season on fire, but while he hasn’t boosted his stat sheet quite like that, since recording two sacks and a pick in the season-opener, he has gotten only better as the year has progressed. He is tough as an edge-setter in the run game, he can rush the passer very well and he has been playing off the ball quite a bit as well, as a key piece in pass coverage. The guy lined on the other side in Bud Dupree focuses more on going forward with another six sacks and 12 TFLs. When Joe Haden and Artie Burns are both healthy, they make for one of the best cornerback-duos in the league. In contrast to prior years, those guys on the outside are not afraid of getting into the face of opposing receivers and clustering them throughout games. Mike Hilton has been outstanding for Pittsburgh in the slot, with four sacks and two picks. Even without long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, they love to bring their linebackers on zone-blitzes. Overall, they are second only to Jacksonville in total team sacks and top five in yards as well as points allowed. I really want to put them higher in these rankings because of the confidence they’ve shown to play man-coverage against Brady and the Patriots, but I also saw Sean Davis play some solid coverage snaps against Gronk and he still went off on them. They will have to show guts again though to challenge receivers off the line of scrimmage, but to keep Brady off balance, the have to give him different looks, play mixed coverages and not let him expose that man-coverage with his running backs, if it comes to a rematch in the AFC Championship game.
9. New Orleans Saints
If you told me at any point of the last three years that the Saints were going to turn things around defensively to become one of the top ten defenses in the league, I would have probably laughed. There were just too many areas of concerns and I believed Drew Brees would finish his career beating all kinds of records, because of his defense forcing him to put up 30 a game to have a shot. Now they deserve a spot on my list and it’s crazy to say, but the key for this unit to function the way they it does, is a rookie cornerback. Marshon Lattimore has had a first year for the ages. He has put up some of the best numbers in terms of completion percentage, yards and touchdowns allowed. He has single-handedly changed the way the Saints call their coverages, because of his ability to take away number one receivers. That’s extremely rare for a first-year guy. But it doesn’t stop here. The other cornerbacks have taken their game to a new level as well, while Kenny Vaccaro has finally found a place in this system, closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can be more aggressive. Cam Jordan is the leader of this unit and his leadership style revolves around setting examples, as he has had a monster year himself, with 12 sacks, 16 tackles for loss and an interception in the opposing end-zone. He has been one of the most underrated defenders in all of football for a couple of years now because he didn’t quite have those numbers, but it certainly hasn’t hurt him that Sheldon Rankins has emerged as a 3-tech penetrator alongside him. The linebacking corp was restocked over the last couple of seasons and it’s showing dividends, especially when you look at what Mant’i Teo has developed into. New Orleans has had its fair share of injury problems with Alex Okafor out for the season, some cornerbacks missing time and things like that, but they have been fine as long as Lattimore has been out there for them. I can’t remember the last time the Saints were able to trust their cornerbacks and leave them on islands. Having one of the league’s top run games with a dynamic RB duo on the other side of the ball and a Hall of Famer running the show has definitely helped the Saints D, but this unit has been on a magical run. They just denied the Falcons several times in crucial moments last Sunday and balls just seem to bounce their way, if you watch that interception that was laying on Lattimore’s back against their division rivals.
10. Buffalo Bills
The new regime of head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane has really turned things upside-down for the Bills defense. They let their two starting cornerbacks go, with Stephon Gilmore leaving via free agency and Ronald Darby being traded to the Eagles. Right now they have the last laugh though, as they moved back in the draft to collect another first-rounder in the 2018 draft and still ended up with Tre’Davious White later on, as well as receiving E.J. Gaines in the Darby trade. Those two have taken over the starting cornerback roles and they have gotten better as the year as gone along. White to me is the only competition for the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The front-office has made something clear, I talked about with the Panthers as well – the system is more important than star players. That led to trading defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who signed a huge deal a couple of years ago and would have been a cap problem going forward, to the Jaguars simply for a sixth-round pick. Even though their run defense suffered due to a lack of big bodies without him, they were willing to take that step and now have all the ammunition to load up in the draft and free agency. Kyle Williams has been their veteran leader up front, Preston Smith has been a steady force for them in the middle and Micah Hyde probably was the best free agent acquisition and is among the second tier of Defensive Player of the Year candidates for me. The Bills had two really bad performances versus the Saints and Chargers consecutively. They were just gashed on the ground against the Saints after trading the aforementioned Dareus, while the Chargers offense was constantly set up with short field thanks to five interceptions in the first half by rookie QB Nathan Peterman. For good measure the Bolts D scored twice themselves and humiliated Buffalo and the decision of the coaching staff to bench Tyrod Taylor. Not counting those two matchups, the Bills have allowed just 17.8 points per contest over the rest of the season, which would rank fourth overall by all teams. In totality, Buffalo is ranked middle of the pack in most defensive categories, but they are tied for fourth with 17 INTs on the season and they have surrendered the least amount of penalty yardage defensively, which means they don’t give opponents any free first downs. I have no problem with putting them this high because I understand they are a run-stuffing nose tackle away from improving their rush defense, they run a lot of their base 4-3, with linebackers moving up to the line and then dropping back in basic cover two and three, while also having the personnel to play man-coverage on the outside going forward. They have a lot of young pieces, they can acquire more talent this offseason and whoever wants to see the field has to play disciplined.