Projecting the stingiest NFL defenses, from first to worst

It’s still said that defense wins championships. If that’s true, the teams at the top of the defense rankings put their team in a great position. Here’s a preview of the stingiest defenses heading into the 2022 season, from 1-32.


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1. New England Patriots

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For all the attention paid to Tom Brady, elite defenses are as much a part of New England’s Super Bowls. Bill Belichick has been able to deliver no matter the personnel turnover, with a unit that’s been top 10 in points allowed in 18 of his 22 seasons. Despite losing star corner J.C. Jackson, the Pats hope to keep ahead of the crowd with an elite pass defense anchored by Matthew Judon, Devin McCourty, and Kyle Dugger.


Buffalo Bills

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Buffalo’s defense returned to greatness last year, leading in the league in points allowed and yards. The unit looks better heading into 2022 with the additions of Von Miller and first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam, along with the return of star corner Tre’Davious White from a knee injury. Gregory Rousseau could be a terror entering his second season on the edge, and the rest of the cast is elite, including Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde.


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3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Bucs’ defense ascended at the same time as Tom Brady’s arrival, finishing eighth and fifth in points allowed over the last two years, respectively. Todd Bowles was promoted from coordinator to head coach, and the defensive unit remains extremely talented in spite of notable losses. The addition of Akiem Hicks somewhat offsets losses like Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh, while Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka should continue to scare quarterbacks. The linebacker duo of Devin White and Lavonte David is arguably the best in the league, and the secondary remains loaded with depth and talent, anchored by Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr.


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4. San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers

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The 49ers’ defense didn’t miss a beat after losing coordinator Robert Saleh last offseason, as DeMeco Ryans showed well with the promotion. The unit has been top five in yards over the last three seasons, with star power from the likes of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, and Jimmie Ward. The cornerback play was still subpar last season, so the 49ers spent big on former Chiefs corner Charvarius Ward while also adding more bodies late in the draft. The return of linebacker Dre Greenlaw from injury should further help the unit.


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5. Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

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Baltimore’s streak of five consecutive seasons as a top 10 defense was ended last season, and coordinator Don Martindale took the fall. Injuries were a big reason for the decline, but the front office has done more than just hope for better luck. The team spent big money bringing on Michael Pierce, Marcus Williams, and Kyle Fuller and also spent a first-round pick on safety Kyle Hamilton. The returns of Calais Campbell, Marcus Peters, and Marlon Humphrey provide stability, while young budding stars Patrick Queen and Odafe Oweh could anchor the next great Ravens defense.


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6. New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints

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The Saints were mostly known for offense during the Sean Payton era, but it was their defense that made the team competitive over the last two seasons. Dennis Allen was rightfully promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach after producing a defense that was top five in points the last two years and particularly dominant against the run. The defensive end trio of Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and Payton Turner is arguably the best in the league, while linebackers Demario Davis and Pete Werner are tremendous at stopping the run. The secondary is somewhat in transition with Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye patrolling the field at safety, the biggest threat to possible regression.


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7. Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans

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Tennessee’s defense returned to an elite level last year, and finished sixth in points allowed. That will need to continue after notable offensive losses, but the core remains in place. Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry have become elite pass rushers, and the team hopes for a better year from a healthy Bud Dupree. Strong drafts have rebuilt the secondary around veteran safety Kevin Byard, and the team hopes the trend continues with second-round corner Roger McCreary.


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8. Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts

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The Colts’ defense finished in the top 10 in points allowed in three of Matt Eberflus’ four seasons as coordinator, so new coordinator Gus Bradley has big shoes to fill. He has an embarrassment of riches in talent to do it, including Yannick Ngakoue, DeForest Buckner, Kwity Paye, Darius Leonard, and Stephon Gilmore. The additions of Ngakoue and Gilmore could make the Colts’ defense go from good to great if they play like they are capable, fixing some slipups the team had in the passing game last season.


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9. Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos

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Many Broncos fans weren’t thrilled with the Vic Fangio years, but he capped off his career in Denver with the third-best scoring defense. That will be difficult to repeat, but the talent is certainly there for new coordinator Ejiro Evero. Stars like Bradley Chubb, Pat Surtain, and Justin Simmons are now joined by Randy Gregory and K’Waun Williams to make what should be an imposing defense.


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10. Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers

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The Packers’ defense has been in the top half of the league for three consecutive seasons. That was especially impressive after the defense was decimated by injuries last year. Green Bay will see the return of star corner Jaire Alexander and are set for further boosts from first-rounders Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. The moves clearly address the team’s weakness against the run, when they allowed 4.6 yards per carry last season. Pass rushers Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, and Rashan Gary should continue to wreak havoc as the team defends leads late in games.


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11. Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles Rams

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Aaron Donald has an argument as the best interior pass rusher ever, and the Rams defense has consistently been ferocious rushing the passer during his career. Even with the cap concerns caused by employing Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the Rams managed to add Bobby Wagner and Troy Hill during the offseason. They will miss Von Miller and could get old quickly without many draft picks, but there’s reason to expect stability as long as Donald is playing so well.


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12. Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Steelers are synonymous with defense during their history, so last year’s decline to 20th in points was disconcerting, to say the least. The overall production rushing the passer was so-so despite All-Pros T.J. Watt and Casey Heyward, with a secondary that got burned all too often. As such, it wasn’t a surprise to see the Steelers install new corner Levi Wallace, and linebacker Myles Jack also adds speed at linebacker. The team is also hoping for more big plays from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick after he was less disruptive in coverage last season.


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13. Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

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Cleveland had a strong defense compensating for their inconsistent offense in 2021, and they might need to continue if they have quarterback issues again. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward have become stars at their positions, while the 2021 draft has paid off quickly with Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The Browns have depth at all three levels but need to do a better job situationally, particularly in the Red Zone after allowing the fifth-worst touchdown percentage.


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14. Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs

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The Chiefs’ defensive turnaround under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put them over the top in 2019, but the unit has slowly declined. It was often burned in the secondary last season, both due to poor play and a lack of pass rush. The front office addressed that issue with safety Justin Reid replacing Tyrann Mathieu and also adding first-round picks Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis to further fix the problems. Stopping the run has also been a weakness for the last several seasons, though linebackers Willie Gay and Nick Bolton have elite upside at their positions. With Mathieu’s departure, interior lineman Chris Jones is the clear leader of the unit.


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15. Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles

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An injury to Brandon Graham spurred Philadelphia’s struggles rushing the passer last season, but they’ve addressed that area by signing Haason Reddick and drafting giant interior lineman Jordan Davis. That duo should make the jobs of Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and company much easier, and the team also got a steal in third-round middle linebacker Nakobe Dean. The addition of cornerback James Bradberry opposite elite corner Darius Slay could be as impactful as the Eagles look to improve from 18th in points allowed.


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16. Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

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The Panthers have invested major draft capital in the defense in recent seasons, and it shows with potential franchise cornerstones like Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn, and Jaycee Horn. Unfortunately, a poor offense and some bad injury luck busted the defense last year, but the unit still finished second in yards allowed. The additions of Matt Ioannidis and Xavier Woods further strengthen a unit that is on the upswing.


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17. Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals

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The Cardinals have seen significant changes on the defensive side of the ball in recent seasons but remained in the top half of the league in defense over the last two years under Vance Joseph. The unit will be tested with the loss of Chandler Jones, though the hope is that a healthier J.J. Watt can make up for him. The cornerback questions also remain, though perennial Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker helps make up for the deficiencies. The emergence of linebacker Isaiah Simmons last year was a nice boost, and the team is hoping for a similar jump this year from former first-round pick Zaven Collins.


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18. Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins

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Whether Brian Flores deserved to be fired is debatable, but he had a clear positive impact on Miami’s defense over the last two seasons. The unit will try to remain in the top half of the league under Josh Boyer, with a talented front seven and elite secondary that employs Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Jevon Holland. After investing so much in the defense recently, the Dolphins were mostly stagnant in the offseason, using most of their resources on offense. The defense didn’t have any clear weaknesses last season, and still have strong depth in all areas.


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19. Los Angeles Chargers

Los Angeles Chargers

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Brandon Staley did an incredible job as Rams’ defensive coordinator in 2020, but he wasn’t able to rub off on the Chargers’ defense in his first season as head coach. The unit finished 29th in points and was particularly bad on third down and in the Red Zone. As a result, the Chargers made some huge personnel moves, with the additions of Khalil Mack, J.C. Jackson, and Bryce Callahan to solidify the pass defense in a brutal AFC West division. Joining stars Joey Bosa and Derwin James, the Chargers defense should be expected to make big strides.


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20. Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

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What a difference a coordinator can make. Dan Quinn helped orchestrate a complete turnaround on defense last season, with the unit going from 28th in points allowed in 2020 to seventh. Of course, the huge breakout seasons from Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons were major contributing factors, and neither player will take teams by surprise this time around. Some turnover on the defensive line and secondary could leave fans concerned about improving, but Parsons is looking like a generational player.


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21. Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals

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Recent spending on the defensive side of the ball finally paid off for Cincinnati last season, as the unit ascended to the middle of the pack and got better late in the year. The defensive line is back in fantastic shape with Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson on the edges, and the secondary has big names like Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. Chidobe Awuzie was a surprisingly elite addition at cornerback last season, and the Bengals are hoping early draftees Dax Hill and Cam Taylor-Britt can have similar impacts after the defense allowed nearly 250 passing yards per game last season.


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22. Washington Commanders

Washington Commanders

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Washington can’t turn the page on their 2021 season soon enough, with a defensive unit that finished 21st in points and 25th in yards despite elite talent. Chase Young struggled in his sophomore season before a season-ending knee injury, while former first-rounders Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, and Daron Payne are also capable of more. The secondary allowed an embarrassing 7.3 yards per pass, but bring back much of last year’s same talent. Coordinator Jack Del Rio could be playing for his job early in the year, as the talent is capable of much more.


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23. Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings

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Mike Zimmer’s undoing in Minnesota was ultimately the decline of the defense, which went from consistently elite to near the bottom of the league over the last two seasons. Danielle Hunter’s injury issues are a big reason for that decline, and the team signed Za’Darius Smith to help in the pass rush. The secondary has been consistently brutalized, but three additions in the first four rounds of the draft show a team that’s at least willing to try something new. Veterans Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith are still going strong as the core of the unit.


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24. Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks

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Seattle’s defense has been middle of the pack over the last five seasons since their elite run of the 2010s, with the salary cap taking its toll. The Seahawks have also received disappointing production from safety Jamal Adams, and sit in a transition period after moving on from Russell Wilson. The front seven is starting to develop and is getting further help from newbie Shelby Harris, while the second and third levels feature acquisitions like Uchenna Nwosu, Sidney Jones, Justin Coleman, and multiple draftees. After saying goodbye to Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks defense is in a completely new era.


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25. Las Vegas Raiders

Las Vegas Raiders

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It’s unbelievable, but the last time the Raiders finished in the top half of the league in scoring defense was in 2002. Most recently, that speaks to some very poor drafting. Edge rusher Maxx Crosby is a notable exception, and the team further spurred the defense with big-ticket additions Chandler Jones and Rock Ya-Sin. There remain some clear issues at all three levels, but new coordinator Patrick Graham does have more to work with than what the team fielded in 2021.


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26. New York Giants

New York Giants

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The Giants have been a mess recently, and that includes a defense that went from ninth to 23rd in points allowed last season. The team struggled to rush the passer despite the presence of Azeez Ojulari, Leonard Williams, and Dexter Lawrence last year, so first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux should come as a relief. Those pass-rushing weapons fit former Ravens coordinator Don Martindale’s aggressive blitz scheme. Just as pressing is a run defense that allowed 129 yards per game last year, so new nose tackle Justin Ellis should come in handy.


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27. Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars

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It’s difficult to remember a defense that declined faster than the Jags over the last five years, sinking to the bottom of the league after showing elite performance in 2017-2018. Poor drafting and development have been a culprit, though the team hit on Josh Allen and hopes to have done the same last year with first-round picks Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd. The secondary does have strong veteran talent, as well, including Shaquill Griffin and Darious Williams.


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28. Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears

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The Bears had an elite defense as recently as 2019, but the unit aged very quickly. The front seven has huge voids to fill following the losses of Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, though some elite talent remains with Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith. The hiring of head coach Matt Eberflus has the potential to get safety Eddie Jackson back on track, and the Bears further addressed the secondary by spending second-round picks on Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon. Chicago is in a clear rebuild on both sides of the ball, though it might not take long for Eberflus to fix the team defensively.


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29. Houston Texans

Houston Texans

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Lovie Smith made his name as a defensive coordinator, and the Texans defense exceeded very low expectations under his watch last season. Jonathan Greenard quickly filled the void left by J.J. Watt’s departure, and the team spent heavily in the draft on defense with Derek Stingley Jr., Jalen Pitre, and Christian Harris. Like the offense, Houston’s defense has promise but is very much a work in progress.


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30. Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons

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Veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees has seen it all in his coaching career, but the talent deficiencies he had to overcome last year were beyond coaching help. Atlanta did have some keepers, with franchise staple Grady Jarrett and developing cornerback A.J. Terrell, and they’ve made significant front seven additions in Lorenzo Carter, Rashaan Evans, and Arnold Ebiketie to help. The team also strengthened their secondary by adding veteran corner Casey Hayward.


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31. Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions

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Matt Patricia left the defense in shambles when he was fired in 2021, and the unit improved from last to 31st last season. Of course, former first-round pick Jeff Okudah’s injury last season didn’t help, and the unit will get further help from first-round pick, Aidan Hutchinson, up front. Other additions like Chris Board and DeShon Elliott should have a marginal impact, but this unit is in the midst of a major rebuild.


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32. New York Jets

New York Jets

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Head coach Robert Saleh didn’t have the defensive impact the team hoped for last year, though rampant injuries didn’t help. The team gets Carl Lawson back from injury at defensive end, and he will be joined by first-round pick Jermaine Johnson. Sauce Gardner shores up a leaky secondary along with free-agent acquisition Jordan Whitehead. Former first-round pick Quinnen Williams remains the face of a defense that is hoping for better luck this year after finishing dead last in points and yards last season.

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