Scoring in the NFL is at an all-time high. There are so many young, exciting quarterbacks and we see passing records being broken every single week, especially with Tom Brady and Drew Brees going back and forth for the title as the all-time touchdown leader. However, the best teams in this league still play great defense. Some of them may have the individual talent while others do a better job of game-planning and putting their players in position to succeed, but when we talk about the really special units, that’s where both those things come together.
I want to look at the top ten defenses in the NFL as of right now, which of course is largely based on what they have done through ten weeks, but I try to put things into context in terms of who they have played and how some of the statistics or point totals came to be. And funnily enough, only the very last one on the list is below-.500, while eight of these teams have won at least six games.
Make sure to also check out my detailed recap of week ten!
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
What really sets this group apart from the rest of the league to some degree is the combination of their defensive line and outside linebackers, because they have four legitimate All-Pro level players among it. T.J. Watt leads this group with the second-most sacks in the league (nine) and tackles for loss (14), while having ten more total pressures than any other player out there (38), but he also has a teammate in the top eight in all three of those categories.
They don’t let people move the ball on them, surrendering a league-low 163 first downs on the season, to go along with allowing just 19 points per game (third-lowest in the league), and they take the ball away, being tied for the league-lead with 17 takeaways. And when you look at where they give up their points, they don’t let opponents get started early and clamp down when they need to, as they are second in first quarter (3.0) and fourth quarter points (4.1) respectively.
The loss of second-year linebacker Devin Bush looked like it could be a major factor, but his fill-in Robert Spillane has been better than anybody could have imagined, whether it is smacking Derrick Henry short of the goal-line or opening the Ravens game with a pick-six. Plus Vince Williams alongside him is one the most physical downhill backers in the league. That combined with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt dominating on the interior has led to an NFL-high 65 tackles for loss.
The Steelers have really gotten back to their “Blitzburg” days, using their inside backers and nickel Mike Hilton in pressure packages. At times I even want them to do it less, because their front-four when they are in nickel is so awesome, that you want to flood zones and just force opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball for an extra beat (tied for third with blitzes on 41.7% of snaps). Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has adapted that aggressiveness from his time serving under Dick LeBeau as their linebacker coach. Pittsburgh leads the league with 36 sacks and a stupendous rate of putting pressure on the quarterback on 35 percent of drop-backs – Tampa Bay is the next-closest at 27.4%.
To go along with that, they are very diverse on the back-end with their zone coverages, with Minkah Fitzpatrick as their joker, who is an elite roaming free safety,that can make plays on anything in-between the numbers in single-high duty, but also shows great awareness as a robber and can be deployed on man-coverage in the slot, which he did a ton of at Alabama and as a rookie in Miami. Outside of him they might not impress you with the names in the secondary, but I believe since Teryl Austin came over last year as an assistant, they have been much more sound in their coverages and everybody gets their hands on the ball. They are confident in what they see in front of them and they look to punch at the ball out when they get there, whether it’s to break up passes or create fumbles.
The only real issues to me are their outside corners, since they can’t really play man-to-man for large stretches of games when they face elite receiving corps, but as long as they don’t ask them to do that and force you to chip away with underneath completions, they’ll come up with a play to change the momentum at some point of the game. And even when they faced what to me already is one of the most efficient short-area passers in Bengals rookie Joe Burrow, they showed that they won’t let that area of their game be taken advantage of.
2. Chicago Bears
I know that there are defenses that rank higher statistically in some categories, but I look at this from the standpoint of how much one unit has to carry the other and the Bears offense has been absolutely dreadful, as only the Jets have put up less yards (28.4) points per drive (1.59). I mean just look at this past game against the Vikings – the return game and the defense were the only things that kept them in that contest, since the offense put up a miniscule 32 yards in the second half despite an opening kick return touchdown putting them in great position and over half that yardage came on a dump-off to the running back at the very end, which Minnesota gave up willingly.
Despite being on the field for more defensive drives than any other team in the league (115) because of how bad their offense is, only six teams have allowed less points on the season (209 through ten games). They have forced three-and-outs on 24.3 percent of offensive drives and they have allowed opponents to convert just a third of their third down attempts (lowest mark in the league). Plus, what really sets them apart is how often they hold opponents to field-goals when they get into scoring range, as they are easily at the top of the list in touchdown percentage in the red-zone (44.1%) and TD-to-FG ratio overall (0.69). Plus, they are the only team that hasn’t given up 30+ points all season (actually no more than 26).
This really is one of the most complete defenses in the league and they function so well as a group. While their nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out before the season, when Akiem Hicks has been in the lineup, opposing teams have had a tough time running the ball, with him and Brent Urban plugging the middle, while nobody wants to set the point of attack where Khalil Mack is lined up and then they have tremendous speed at the second level to scrape over the top of blocks or fill from the back-side. And and all of their guys in the secondary are tough tacklers. Here are the rushing totals of the All-Pro level backs they have faced in the last three weeks: Alvin Kamara – 12 carries for 67 yards, Derrick Henry – 21 for 68, and Dalvin Cook – 30 for 96 (and his only two runs of 10+ yards came with Hicks on the sideline late).
In the pass game, they can let Mack and Robert Quinn shoot off the edges with two pocket-pushers in the middle in nickel packages and Roquan Smith has turned himself into one of the premiere tight-end and running back erasers. Their sack numbers may not blow you away, but they never let opposing quarterbacks get comfortable in the pocket and Mack can deliver game-changing strip-sacks at any moment.
On the back-end, they can play basically any coverage, with Eddie Jackson being a true free safety at heart, but he is also highly instinctive when you put him closer to the line of scrimmage and they excel at passing on assignments in quarters coverage. Kyle Fuller is one of the elite off-man corners, who has also become one of the best at his position at separating opposing players from the ball, while they have found an excellent running mate for him in rookie Jaylon Johnson, who can crowd receivers with his length. The one real weak spot for this time right now is nickelback, where Buster Skrine has been getting worked on by some of the better slot receivers.
Chuck Pagano deserves a lot of credit for having this group continue to play at very close to the level they were at under Vic Fangio, the year they won the NFC North. Only the offense is so bad that nobody really pays attention. The two issues I have with them is that they at plays play too soft in their two-high shells, which was really the only way the Vikings moved the ball this past Monday Night (to go along with that long post route from Justin Jefferson), and the fact they have surrendered 30 first downs via penalty (only one behind the Saints, who lead the league in that category) and they are only 7 yards away from leading the league in penalty yardage.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This might seem a little high for a team that got blown out two weeks ago on Sunday Night and I know that is still heavily on the mind of people, but f you were looking for the team that closest resembles what Pittsburgh has up front defensively, I would point at Tampa. While losing Vita Vea for the season right in the middle of that unit following week five has certainly hurt, they brought in Steve McLendon to at least resemble that ability to eat up double-teams in the run game and keep their linebackers clean, while Rakeem Nunez-Roches has been played almost 50 percent of the snaps in space-eating role as well.
That allows the Bucs linebackers to run around freely and to me this is the most dynamic duo on the second-level in football, with Lavonte David and Devin White. In the run game, those two guys can string run plays out to the sideline and take away angles, they are like a blur when they come on blitzes and boy, they light people up. league-low Tampa is tied for allowing a league-low 3.3 yards per rush. David has been one of the most underappreciated players of the last decade and he made that transition from an outside role in a 4-3 to that hybrid 3-4 under Todd Bowles look seamless. And White is right up there with the very best in terms of talent, which I have to give their linebacker coaches Mike Caldwell and Larry Foote a lot of credit for, to let it flourish, since he certainly had issues ID-ing run fits coming out of LSU two years ago.
The two guys off the edge are special in their own right, as Jason Pierre-Paul is first on the team with 7.5 sacks and while Shaq Barrett isn’t leading the league in that category like he did last season (19.5), he isn’t far off his pace when it comes to QB pressures, with 28 through the first ten games, plus William Gholston has quietly been putting heat on the opposing passer, with a team-leading 14 hits on the QB. We saw JPP get a pick off Teddy Bridgewater last week on a delayed hook-up drop and Barrett has the athleticism to some spot-dropping as well, while both are physical edge-setters.
Carlton Davis has developed himself into a true number one corner, who they don’t shy away from manning against elite receivers, which gives them flexibility with how they deploy the rest of that group in coverage, Sean Murphy-Bunting can play inside and out for them and their two safeties Jordan Whitehead and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. are completely interchangeable. I love seeing those two guys drive on routes in quarters coverage and no other team blitzes their safeties more than the Bucs.
Todd Bowles is one of the most aggressive defensive play-callers with his blitz packages, as he will attack on all three downs and really only stepped off the gas when playing New Orleans – and we saw how that worked out for them. Only Baltimore has blitzed on a higher percentage of snaps (42.3%). The Bucs are second in the league to the Steelers with 32 sacks and a pressure percentage of 27.6%, while also being tied with Pittsburgh for the league-lead with 17 takeaways. Per Football Outsiders, the Bucs have the best DVOA defensively (-22.0%) of any team in the league, and they are third in yards per play (4.9).
The issue for them and why they haven’t been even better is that they have been undisciplined at times. They are tied for second in the league with 604 yards off penalties and they have had three games of over 30 points allowed, to go with the six in which they gave up 20 or less. The one guy that has been targeted frequently with success in coverage is Jamel Dean, who has been highly susceptible to double moves.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Coming off an NFL-best 14-2 season last year, all the Ravens did is bolster their defensive roster and while their offense has been sputtering in some spots, their season really only had one bad game versus Kansas City – which happens to many teams out there. Baltimore is now back to leading the league by allowing just 18.3 points per game and pretty much exactly half of their total have come in their three losses, while usually not letting opponents get started early, with a league-low 2.9 points in first quarters.
Unlike three teams I have ahead of them, for me the Ravens defense starts with the secondary. They two All-Pro level corners in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, while they found a way to bring back Jimmy Smith, who is still a high-quality starter and has been used more as a matchup piece and even at safety this season. Other than Jalen Ramsey, I don’t think I’d pick anybody other than Humphrey to build my defense around as far as the cornerback position is concerned. He has great length and speed to match physical X receivers, but works in the slot a whole lot against 11 personnel, he is big hitter and has become of the true specialists at knocking the ball loose, being tied for the league lead with four fumbles forced. While Peters has great anticipation but also studies route patterns and offensive tendencies at an extremely high level, which has made him the greatest ball-hawk since coming into the league five years ago.
And Baltimore might have the most underrated safety tandem out there, with last year’s breakout player on that unit in Chuck Clark, who can play deep but also match tight-ends and line up as a dime backer, and then Deshon Elliott, who is replacing Earl Thomas this season, and I have always liked since studying him at Texas. Every time I saw him in preseason he jumped off the screen and I thought he could turn into a quality starter, but missed most of his first two years in the league. Both of those guys are highly involved in the Ravens blitz packages and they have a lot of different responsibilities in coverage.
Because with Wink Martindale calling the shots, the Ravens have the most diverse pressure packages in the league and they have the highest blitz-rate of all 32 teams at 44.0 percent. This trend of putting seven people at the line of scrimmage, while I now of course the double A-gap pressure looks was already a common element of several teams, former DC Dean Pees and now Martindale have really taken this to a new level, and because the Ravens have guys that can hold up in man-coverage to go with great execution when they do bail out of those looks, they create a lot of problems for opposing teams. Only the Bears have allowed a lower percentage of third downs to be converted against them (33.6%) and the Ravens have also given away the least free yardage through penalties (298).
Up front, Brandon Williams is a rock for them in the middle of it all, while Derek Wolf can play anywhere from a 1- to a 5-technique and Calais Campbell can create issues along the front as well, with incredible length and power to never allow more than stalemates in the run game to go along with being an all-timer in the pass-rush department. Matt Judon may not be an elite-level pass-rusher, but he is a very complete outside backer, while Pernell McPhee is a man at the point of attack with experience of moving along the front and now with the trade for Yannick Ngakoue, they have a true speed ball off the edge, which none of those other guys are.
The inside linebackers are in a very favorable system in Baltimore, because they are usually kept clean by those big guys up front and get free on plenty of their cross-blitzes and loops. Rookie Patrick Queen has had some issues recognizing plays and been the subject of falling for eye-candy, but his closing burst has made him a frequent visitor in the backfield and he has been a magnet for the ball, with a couple of fumbles forced and recovered, including a long scoop-and-score. The Ravens just allowed 173 yards on the ground to the Patriots, but that had a lot to do with missing Campbell and L.J. Fort, as well as losing their big nose-tackle mid-game.
5. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts defense had one elite players these two years prior with linebacker Darius Leonard, who has such easy athleticism and flies around the like the “Maniac” he is nicknamed as. I could talk forever about his ability to beat blockers to the spot, how much ground he can cover in the pass game and the fact he is the first guy I have seen have no issues spying on Lamar Jackson a couple of weeks ago. However, this offseason Indianapolis traded for another All-Pro level guy in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who might not have been looked at as one of the premiere players at his position in recent years, because he doesn’t put the kind of numbers that scream out to the casual fan, but I thought he was the best player on that dominant 49ers defense last season and could have been named Super Bowl MVP, if San Francisco had found a way to finish that game. DeFo is one of the most disruptive players in the game, whether it is blowing up run plays on early downs or overwhelming guards in passing situations.
While most people are familiar with names of veterans like Justin Houston and Xavier Rhoades, I want them to watch Grover Stewart and Denico Autry up front as well, who have been penetrators along that D-line all season long. And most importantly, I want to point out that rookie free safety Julian Blackmon has looked amazing so far. He has incredible range and I have always loved his football IQ, transitioning from corner for his senior year at Utah, but I didn’t expect his speed to be where it is now on a field with other pros. He is everything the Colts hoped Malik Hooker would be.
Let’s talk more about the scheme that they run, which is your classic 4-3 Over front in base with a 31 alignment by the defensive tackle, meaning the strongside D-tackle (mostly Buckner) lines up over the outside shoulder of the guard – determined by the tight-end – and they have a shade-nose on the opposite side of the center. That 3-technique is allowed to just fly upfield and wreak havoc, while the bigger D-tackle has to deal with more double-teams in the run game and is often taken off the field when they switch to nickel, to bring on fresh bodies. And then have of speed on the second level to shoot gaps and spill from the back-side. Right now the Colts are third in total rushing yards(826) and yards per attempt allowed (3.5), despite having already faced four of the six rushing offenses (Ravens, Browns, Vikings & Titans).
In terms of the pass game, they used to play a lot of soft cover-two zone, where they excelled at rallying to the ball, which still reflects in the numbers, as they missed by far the fewest tackles of any team in the league (35) and only the Steelers have allowed less yards after the catch (866). However, with the emergence of Rock Ya-Sin as a number one corner in the making and Xavier Rhoades having a resurgent season, to go with Blackmon giving them the ability to run single-high looks, they have transitioned to more of a cover-three match defense, where nickel Kenny Moore is asked to match a lot of routes from the slot and they can be more aggressive with press-bail technique on the outside. They still play plenty of cover-two and they don’t blitz a lot, as only the Chargers and Raiders have done at a lower percentage of plays (19.4%), but because they can be more aggressive with forcing quarterbacks to make throws into tighter windows, they have been responsible for an NFL-low passer rating by opposing quarterbacks (78.9).
Give a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who came over in 2018 from Dallas to take over the 30th-ranked defense in yards and points allowed respectively, Since then the Colts have finished 10th, 18th and 4th in points allowed, while in 2019 not having Darius Leonard for multiple games among others and the final five games, where they were knocked out of the playoffs, pretty much after losing that first one, heavily influenced the final results. This season only three times have given up less points per game (19.7) and the Colts are tied for a league-low 4.8 yards allowed per play. However, playing against the two worst offenses in the NFL in the Jets and Bears, who combined for 18 points against Indy, certainly helps.
6. Miami Dolphins
No defense has been more impressive since the end of the first quarter of the season than this group in South Beach. The Dolphins have allowed just 17.2 points over these last five games, while having faced the three NFC West teams not named Seattle and red-hot rookie quarterback Herbert, to go with a shutout of the lowly Jets. More importantly, they have forced ten turnovers over that stretch and scored two touchdowns themselves, to go along with directly setting up a couple of one-yard touchdowns for their offense, if you count in Andrew Van Ginkel’s blocked punt to start the game last week.
If you want to know how the Dolphins prioritize different positions, just look at where they allocate their ressources, as their two highest-paid players on their team are their starting outside corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, while they also spent a first-round pick on Noah Igbinoghene this past draft, who struggled when thrown in the fire as a boundary corner, as Jones missed some time early, but has shown some signs of growth, when they have deployed him more in the slot since then. Howard might be the best off-man corner in the whole league, while Jones is more of a size-speed specialist, who can match big X receivers. Eric Rowe is another extremely smart player, who is listed as their starting strong safety, but has no issues moving to the outside with tight-ends and keep his eyes on the quarterback even when he is matched up one-on-one, because he understands tendencies in combination with the blitzes they and when he can jump routes. He got a pick off Jared Goff in their dominant performance over the Rams and should have actually had another one just like it.
And very much like Flores is used to from his New England days, they have a lot of versatility up position, with old faces like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to go along with Jerome Baker on the second level, where those guys look to smack running backs in the face when they are sent on blitzes. On the D-line, Miami really wants to put big bodies out there that don’t allow guys to climb up to the linebackers, with Raekwon Davis being a truly immovable object, while 2019 first-roudn pick Christian Wilkins provides more juice in a slanting front and Zach Sieler was quietly played over half the snaps as well. While on the edges, Emmanuel Ogbah is quietly near the top of the league with eight sacks (only three players have more) and is tied with Shaq Lawson for the team-lead with 14 quarterback hits.
I have said that the Ravens use the most diverse blitz packages in the league, but I don’t think any team has confused their opponents as much with their pressure looks as Brian Flores & his troops. They constantly create issues for protections schemes and force quarterbacks into turnovers or to pull the ball down, as they drop something underneath the hot read or get somebody to come off the edge unblocked. What they did to the Rams in their week eight matchup was absolutely criminal, getting two easy picks and a couple of strip-sacks off Jared Goff, who seemed completely oblivious to what was happening at times. I even did a video on it on my Instagram if you want to check it out, because I’m still astounded that a team won a game scoring 28 points, despite putting together less than 150 total yards of offense.
Brian Flores in combination with his defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and the rest of the staff have been absolutely killing it with their game-specific plans and how much they have mixed up the looks they show to keep offenses off balance. Despite their 1-3 start, they only half a percentage-point away from allowing the league’s lowest third-down success rate (33.9%) and even in matchups against Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert these last two weeks, they have found ways to create big plays with their defense. Tua and the offense have done a good job sustaining drives and not turning the ball over themselves, but this defense is the biggest reason they have now won five straight.
7. Los Angeles Rams
That 23-16 win over the Seahawks this past Sunday I feel like really put the Rams on the map, as they got three turnovers off what was the early-season MVP Russell Wilson. However, they have been excellent pretty much all season long and that reflects itself in the numbers. L.A. is second behind only Baltimore with 18.7 points allowed per game and when you look it drive-wise, the Rams have allowed the fewest yards (27.32) and points (1.52) per offensive possession, while forcing three-and-outs on an NFL-high 26.8 percent of those possessions and being tied for first with Indianapolis for the lowest mark in yards per attempt (4.8). And they have surrendered the fewest touchdowns all season (15), while having taken the ball away just two times less (13).
When you look at the roster on paper, it looks like a lot of stars and scrubs, but they have performed really well as a group, executing at a higher level and hitting harder than they did a year ago I feel like. Of course it all starts with having best interior defensive lineman and cornerback in the game respectively. Aaron Donald is so damn good that we don’t even really talk about him anymore. He is only half a sack behind the league’s leader Myles Garrett in that category (9.0), while only Garrett and the Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey have forced more fumbles this season (three) and he Is top three in total pressures once again (26), whilst freeing up his teammates a lot. While Jalen Ramsey just put up a clinic against Seahawks superstar receiver D.K. Metcalf, who he travelled with for most of the game and really challenged, holding him to just two catches for 28 yards. When you look at his length, speed and the fact he won’t back down from anybody, he is one of maybe three true shutdown corners in the league. And he allows the Rams to put him in that one-on-one matchup for pretty much the entire day and run a lot of different coverages away from him.
However, there are plenty of unsung heroes, like Michael Brockers, who can dominate at the point of attack and has been a big reason they are a top-five run defense this season, while giving them flexibility along the front. Then there’s Leonard Floyd, who was labelled as a first-round bust his first four years with the Bears, but just received NFC Defensive Player of the Week, thanks to his three-sack performance against Seattle. He is top eight in sacks and total pressures this season, while not allowing runs to bounce out wide his way and also dropping out into some shallow areas. And how about cornerback Darious Williams, who just picked off Russ twice this past Sunday, once in the end-zone and another one on a beautiful job of undercutting an out-route by tight-end Greg Olsen? He already had two INTs before that.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the season, as the Rams moved on from the legendary Wade Phillips for him and he has that unit playing at a higher level on a week-to-week basis, while Staley has a very energetic young staff around him. They are tied for third in the NFL with 31 sacks on the year and fifth in third-down percentage at 35.40%. Most impressive to me however, every other team in the league has pretty much given up twice as many points in second halves than the Rams, who has given given up a miniscule four points on average. As much as Sean McVay deserves credit for scheming receivers open with the play-action, how he has adapted his run schemes and the way he has kept defenses guessing all season, the Rams defense has clearly been the most consistent unit. The only thing I have to say is that they have already faced all four NFC East, in which games they gave up just 13.8 points on average. So that will definitely prop up your numbers.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
When we think of the Chiefs, we think about Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and that high-flying offensive attack. Mahomes right now is in the best position to win another league MVP trophy, nobody is scoring on a higher percentage of their offensive drives and they are second in the league in both yards and points amassed. However, the reason I have had them as clear Super Bowl favorite since they demolished the Ravens in Baltimore on that week three Monday Night is that they are a really complete team and since they lost their last game of 2019, when the Titans beat them on a game-winning touchdown drive late, their defense has played as well as any unit not named Pittsburgh you could argue.
After the Chiefs D held opponents to an average of just 11.5 points over their last six games of last year’s regular season and then making timely plays in their Super Bowl run, they have only given up more than 20 points twice this season. There are just five teams in the league have allowed less points this season (20.3 a game) and that is despite being ahead in many contests and just protecting the lead on several occasions. And like I already kind of mentioned, those numbers are heavily influenced by their 40-32 loss to the Raiders, when Derek Carr played the game of his life and a late touchdown was set up by Mahomes’ only interception of the season, all the way to their own 2-yard line, and then their last game against the Panthers, who tried to play keep-away early on, before that Chiefs offense forced them to step on the gas, and they also stole a possession on a big punt fake.
Early on last year, Kansas City was highly susceptible to the run game and that’s the formular people tried to use in order to keep that explosive offense on the sidelines and control games, but down the stretch they really improved in that area with Derrick Nnadi controlling the point of attack, and while they are closer to the bottom of the list in most of those categories, they faced three of the top seven rushing offenses early on and are starting to hit their stride again, with just 114.5 yards on the ground allowed on average since their lone loss of the season, at the hands of Las Vegas.
However, it’s when they get you into a game where you have to throw the ball that they can really frustrate you. When they have a healthy Bashaud Breeland, Chavarius Ward and Rashad Fenton in the lineup, they are not scared to be aggressive with their man-coverage and force you to beat them outside the numbers. Rookie L’Jarius Sneed actually played exceptionally well at the start of the year and should probably at least return for a playoff run, which only gives them more depth. Second-year safety Juan Thornhill gives them a rangy player on the back-end to allow Tyrann Mathieu to roam around freely on certain snaps and does everything at such a high level – cover tight-ends or slot receivers in man, blitz or at times technically being a robber, but just moving around all over the place depending on he sees. And the Chiefs use as many three-safety sets as any team in the league, with Daniel Sorensen playing 80 percent of the defensive snaps and having made some tremendous plays because of the smarts he possesses.
Only the Steelers, Bucs and Rams haven given up a lower passer rating on the season (81.4), even though Kansas City started the year versus Deshaun Watson, Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson, plus they also went against Josh Allen later on – all top ten quarterbacks this season. And while Herbert had a tremendous debut that caught everybody off guard, including the defense that didn’t even know he would start until he ran out there, this is how things went for the other three guys – Deshaun and the Texans scored just seven points through more than three quarters, Lamar didn’t even throw for 100 yards despite being in catch-up mode for most of the game and the Josh Allen-led Bills were held to just over 200 yards of total offense.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is one of the better game-planners when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. He is not afraid to sell out and stop what the opposing team does best, he is aggressive with his blitz packages in obvious passing situations to force quick decisions and he gives opposing quarterbacks a ton of different looks on the back-end. They can lock down receiving corps in man, but also play a lot of hybrid zone patterns, plus they have an elite pass-rush in Chris Jones with the third-most total pressures league-wide (27) and Frank Clark, who has created a lot of issues off the edge himself (13 combined hits and sacks). That combined with some free rushers Spags schemes up has the Chiefs fourth with a pressure percentage of 26.4 percent.
Kansas City’s one big issue has tackling, where they have missed 77 attempts on the season, which is sixth-most among all NFL teams. I don’t love their linebackers, even though they have shown up in some big games, but overall this unit is not quite as consistent as the ones of other teams in front of them I feel like, and that’s why they come in at number eight.
9. New Orleans Saints
This is a group that I was kind of concerned early on in the season. After giving 71 combined points to the Raiders and Packers in consecutive losses to set them off to a 1-2 start, I had serious questions about the age and overall play in their secondary, while their pass-rush wasn’t really coming along yet either. And they allowed 29 and 27 points respectively to the Lions and Chargers the two following weeks. However, since coming off their week six bye, they have given up just 15.8 points a game, including a 38-3 blowout of their division rival Bucs, who only tagged on that late field-goal so they wouldn’t be completely shut out.
I feel like they have played a so much more physical brand of football these last few weeks and for them it really starts up front. While people have been able to throw on them at the start of the year, nobody has run on the Saints with major in the last two years pretty much. They are tied with their divisional rival Tampa Bay at an NFL-low 3.3 yards per rush allowed and they have also given less yards (691) and first downs on the ground than any other team in the league (38). And a big reason for that has been All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis coming downhill and blowing up ball-carriers for minimal yardage, and they are tied for fourth in the league with 50 tackles for loss on the season. David Onyemata at that shade nose position has been doing a lot of the dirty work as well.
New Orleans might have the best trio of defensive ends in the league, with Cam Jordan obviously leading the way, but Trey Hendrickson has been a monster with his team-leading 7.5 sacks and even now that former first-round pick Marcus Davenport is back from injury, who Hendrickson filled in for originally, they can just overwhelm blockers. When they get into nickel sets they put all three of those guys on the field together, because they all have inside-out flexibility and can bully offensive linemen in the run and pass game. Just go back and watch what they did to those two Bucs tackles a couple of weeks ago. When you combine that with isolating Demario Davis against running backs as a blitzer, who he absolutely blows up at times, they can wreak havoc on passing downs.
Really the secondary was the problem child through the early stages of the season, but they have picked things up big-time. And it’s really nothing that they have changed – their guys have played better. They still play a ton of man-coverage and even when they show split-safety looks, they bring one of those guys down as a robber or have him check the back coming out. I actually think when they run two-high shells is when they have issues, because their safeties tend to be too aggressive with jumping routes. I can just think to a 74-yard touchdown for D.J. Moore, who was wide open on a post route off a scissors concept, because Marcus Williams went with the slot receiver on a deep out. Marshon Lattimore has done a complete 180, highlighted by holding Mike Evans catch-less in this second matchup, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is really coming into his as one of the top slot defenders in the league. Opposing tight-ends had a lot of success early on against New Orleans, when the Saints matched Malcolm Jenkins up against them, but he has now held Jimmy Graham to two catches for 13 yards and Rob Gronkowski to one catch for two yards. Overall he has been responsible for 22.8 yards per game as the primary defender in coverage in his last five outings.
Dennis Allen returned to New Orleans in 2015, where he had already spent five years as an assistant, and coordinated a defense that finished last and second-to-last in points allowed during those high-flying years with Drew Brees, but as this team has transitioned to more of a run-game oriented approach with complementary play from the other side of the ball, the Saints D has been above-average in yards and points allowed each of the last four seasons. And a lot of that has to do with the staff Allen has put together around him, which includes some of the most highly respected assistants in their field. And we have seen them improve heavily in situational football, as they have allowed just 32.5 of third downs to be converted against them and opposing teams have scored just two touchdowns on six red-zone trips these last three weeks combined.
Thanks to the defense and return game, the Saints have the best starting position for their offensive drives in the league, just beyond their 33-yard line. Their one big issues more them – and it has improved recently as well – is penalties. When you look at yardage, it may not stand out as much, but they have given up a league-high 31 first downs through flags. That is unacceptable.
10. New York Giants
Let’s not sugarcoat this – the Giants were off to a really bad start, losing their first five games of the season, and their defense got lit up by for 36 and 37 points respectively by the 49ers and Cowboys. However, I thought they showed signs in those other three games, when they held opponents to 20 yards on average and they have now won three of their last five, largely thanks to their defense. So they are still middle of the pack in yards and points allowed per game when you look at the whole season, but rarely any defense has played better these last few weeks.
The most points they have allowed over that stretch is 25 to a Tampa Bay team that is averaging 29.6 points a game and it took stupid interceptions from Daniel Jones in plus territory to even get there, when they could have easily upset the Bucs on Monday Night. They split the season series with the Eagles, once forcing three turnovers and losing by a point due to a game-winning pass with half a minute left, and then winning by double-digits thanks to holding Philly to 1-of-12 combined on third and fourth downs. And they beat Washington twice, which most of the credit once again goes to the defensive side of the ball, getting a strip-sack and returning it to the house when the scores was tied and the Football Team was already on the opposite side of the field, and then forcing five turnovers in the second matchup, including on each of the last two drives for the opposition.
When you look at this unit on paper, none of the names really jump out to you, but these guys deserve some love. The Giants play more of their three base down-linemen than any other team I believe and when you add the weight of Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams, that’s already almost 1000 pounds, plus then they bring in some other guys like B.J. Hill at times and move Williams out on the edge. Big Blue wants to be big up front and clog up lanes in the run game, which is why they are seventh in rushing yards allowed (100.9) and yards per carry allowed (4.0). And man, Blake Martinez has been so much better with filling his run fits compared to what he did in Green Bay, which shows you what a physical D-line can do for your second level.
However, they are also tied for seventh in the league with 25 sacks on the year, without a single elite pass-rusher, especially edge-rusher, and they have knocked opposing quarterbacks down an NFL-high 41 times. Big Cat Williams leads the way in both those categories, but Kyler Fackrell has been a play-maker for them, not only blitzing from different, but he also has a pick-six and set up another defensive touchdown on that scoop-and-score that won them the first game against Washington. The run a lot of games up front stunt their D-linemen, call up twists and open up gaps for their linebackers. The comprise the pocket a lot of times and when you look at the Bucs game, they forced Brady to pull it down a few times, before the rush collapsed on him.
And as far as their play in the secondary goes, how can you look at James Bradberry and say he doesn’t deserve All-Pro consideration. He had one bad game against Tom Brady and Mike Evans – which will happen everybody every once in a while. Other than that, he has been responsible for just 323 yards and only 83 of those have come after the catch, while leading the team with three INTs. Jabrill Peppers has been flying around for them and gotten home on a couple of blitzes and Julian Love is starting to make that transition to safety work.
I still don’t quite understand how the Giants swooped away defensive coordinator Patrick Graham from Brian Flores, but that might have to do with exclusively calling the signals. I have been so impressed with his ability game-plan for specific matchups and throw a lot of different looks at opposing teams, having learned under some of the top defensive minds in football in Bill Belichick and Steve Spagnuolo, to go with that one year serving as the DC for Flores. And the G-Men also quietly pulled Bret Bielema away from under Belichick’s nose, who brings a ton of experience to the table as one of Graham’s main assistants. Just like Joe Judge is used to from his time in New England, they are great at situation football, as over these last five games, the Giants are in line with the Bears, allowing only a third of third downs to be converted against them and they have also allowed just one of seven two-point conversions on the season.
Just missed the cut: New England Patriots & San Francisco 49ers