Projecting the stingiest NFL defenses, from first to worst

It’s a cliche to say that defense wins championships, but recent NFL champions certainly show its importance. A few months before the start of the 2021 season, here’s a look at how the 32 NFL defenses stack up.


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Few defenses have shown more consistency in recent seasons than Baltimore, ranking in the top 10 in points allowed in five straight seasons and six of the last seven. They’ve done a masterful job drafting and developing talent, though their eye for adding players from outside the organization like Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell has paid dividends. They’re set to bring back most of last year’s top talent, with the notable exception of leading sacker Matt Judon, but hope to offset that loss with first-round pick Jayson Oweh and a healthier Campbell.


Washington Football Team

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Washington showed drastic defensive improvement last year with a new coaching staff and off-the-charts defensive line talent spurred by Chase Young’s addition. The team has four former first-rounders on their defensive front, with talented depth behind them. The addition of first-round pick Jamin Davis at linebacker really helps the second level, and the team will also be getting star safety, Landon Collins, back from injury. Free-agent cornerback William Jackson could complete the most talented defense in the league.


Pittsburgh Steelers

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Like the AFC North rival Ravens, Pittsburgh has shown defensive consistency in recent seasons. They’ve ranked in the top seven in points allowed in three of the last four years and top six in yards in four consecutive seasons. Stars like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick headline the defense, though the team is also excited to get linebacker Devin Bush back from injury. Cap issues caused the team to lose some pass rush and cornerback talent like Bud Dupree, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton, contributors that won’t easily be replaced.


New England Patriots

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Despite a series of opt-outs and free agency losses, the Patriots remained in the top 10 in points allowed for the ninth consecutive season. They expect a turnaround this year remaking the first seven with Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, and Davon Godchaux. The return of Dont’a Hightower after an opt-out should also greatly help. Bill Belichick is arguably the finest defensive coach the NFL has ever seen, and the additional talent is a scary prospect for the AFC East.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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It all came together for coordinator Todd Bowles‘ unit last season, going from 29th to eighth in points. We shouldn’t have been surprised about the improvement, with the team in much better position to succeed with fewer offensive giveaways. The pass rush is elite with Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett leading the way, while Devin White had a monster year himself with 140 tackles and nine sacks. Rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. completed the secondary, and the front office was somehow able to keep the unit intact this offseason.


New Orleans Saints

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The Saints are known for their offense in the Sean Payton era, but the defense could be the strength of the team in 2021. New Orleans did finish fifth in points allowed and fourth in yards last season with a continued elite run defense and outstanding secondary play. Stars like Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, and Marshon Lattimore continue to play at an elite level, though the team will have a tough time replacing breakout pass rusher Trey Hendrickson. The Saints used their top three draft picks on the defense, led by defensive end Payton Turner, giving coordinator Dennis Allen talent to shape.


Miami Dolphins

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Head coach Brian Flores completed quite a turnaround last season, with the Dolphins going from dead last to sixth-best in points allowed in one year. A spending spree in free agency was part of the difference, but Flores certainly deserves credit. The team spent two high draft picks on that side of the ball again, and still have one of the top secondaries in the NFL with All-Pro Xavien Howard coming off a 10 interception season. The losses of Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson could sting, but there remains enough talent to compensate.


Los Angeles Rams

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The Rams were the most dominant defense in the NFL last season, ranking first in points and yards allowed after replacing veteran coordinator Wade Phillips with Brandon Staley. Staley departed to take the Chargers head coaching job. Experienced coordinator, Raheem Morris takes over a unit that remains highly talented, led by elite plays Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, though the team has lost numerous strong players in the supporting cast like Troy Hill, John Johnson, Michael Brockers, and Samson Ebukam. Those losses might finally start to show.


Denver Broncos

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Losing Von Miller to a season-ending injury prior to Week 1 was a sign of things to come for Denver in 2020. The defense allowed the eighth-most points in the league, its worst performance since 2010. The return of Miller should make a huge difference, and the team has also revamped the secondary by signing Kyle Fuller and selecting Patrick Surtain II in the draft. There is almost as much talent on Denver’s defense as any team in the NFL, and they will need it in the offensive-minded AFC West.


New York Giants

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The Giants defense showed drastic improvement under new head coach Joe Judge and coordinator Patrick Graham. A weak NFC East division played a role, but free-agent additions like Blake Martinez, James Bradbery, and Logan Ryan made a clear impact. The team has added more talent this offseason with linebacker Ryan Anderson and cornerback Adoree Jackson, and they did a great job getting the most out of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence on the defensive line in 2020.


Kansas City Chiefs

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The Chiefs saw a complete turnaround with their defense in 2019 by hiring coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and switching to the 4-3. They ranked top 10 in points allowed for the second consecutive season, with excellent play from their young corners and continued dominance from defensive tackle Chris Jones. The team has concerns on the edges with Frank Clark struggling last year and some free-agent losses, but have actually improved the defensive line by adding defensive tackle Jarran Reed. The promising young talent at the second and third levels, along with leadership from Tyrann Mathieu, should make the Chiefs strong again in 2021.


Buffalo Bills

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While Buffalo’s offense took a huge step forward last season, the defense regress severely in points allowed. They went from second to 16th, with some struggles in the secondary and costly injuries like linebacker Matt Milano. The defensive line is getting long in the tooth, and the team has heavily addressed it in the draft recently. Cornerback Tre’Darious White remains one of the top players at his position, and the same can be said for middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. On paper, the defense has improved its depth with the hope of a bounceback.


Cleveland Browns

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For all the high-end talent Cleveland has on the defensive side of the ball, finishing 21st in points and 17th in yards allowed last year was another disappointment. The struggles shouldn’t come as a shock with a new coaching staff, and the team has done a nice job addressing some major holes. Additions like Jadevon Clowney, Anthony Walker, John Johnson, and Troy Hill show huge upside, and the team also spent first and second-round picks on the defensive side of the ball. The return of 2020 drafted safety Grant Delpit from injury should also make a difference, helping support stars Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, in what looks like one of the most improved defenses of the offseason.


Indianapolis Colts

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Coordinator Matt Eberflus has helped improve the Colts since his addition in 2018, as the team has finished 10th in points allowed in two of the last three years. The losses of Denico Autry and Justin Houston are major concerns for the pass rush, but the team spent their first-round pick on defensive end Kwity Paye. The loss of middle linebacker Anthony Walker is also a big concern, but the unit has shown an ability to fill in the gaps with stars like Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner leading the way.


Arizona Cardinals

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Arizona’s defense saw a huge improvement last year, going from 28th to 12th in points allowed, and was more impressive considering star pass rusher Chandler Jones played only five games. The team not only has Jones returning this year but have added J.J. Watt to the fold. The second level looks improved with first-round pick Zaven Collins joining 2020 first rounder Isaiah Simmons, and Malcolm Butler should be a viable replacement for the level of play we saw from Patrick Peterson last season.


Chicago Bears

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Chicago’s defense has slowly deteriorated in recent seasons, with a unit that’s aging and shedding talent in the secondary. The loss of cornerback Kyle Fuller is likely to be felt this season but stars Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, and Eddie Jackson remain. The promotion of assistant Sean Desai to coordinator is an intriguing one with his teaching and analytics background.


Tennessee Titans

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Tennessee’s defense cratered last season with a poor pass defense but has taken major steps to fix it. The Titans added Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, Janoris Jenkins, and first-round cornerback Caleb Farley, while also promoting Shane Bowen to coordinator. Joining stars Jeffery Simmons, Harold Landry, Rashaan Evans, and Kevin Byard, the Titans expect better results.


Carolina Panthers

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The Panthers rebuilt their defense through the draft last year, and actually showed improvement in spite of their youth. Former first-rounders Brian Burns and Derrick Brown look like building blocks on the defensive line, and the team greatly improved at linebacker by signing Haason Reddick and Denzel Perryman. First-round cornerback Jaycee Horn could be the piece that makes the defense more than middle of the pack.


San Francisco 49ers

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The 49ers’ defense was plagued by injuries last season, and have moved up from some of significant pieces this offseason like Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, and Solomon Thomas. The loss of coordinator Robert Saleh could be the most significant, but there’s still plenty of star power on the defense, led by a now-healthy Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Fred Warner.


Green Bay Packers

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The Packers went in a new direction on defense by hiring coordinator Joe Barry after some struggles at inopportune times last year. Green Bay’s defense has still been strong since adding pass rush help in 2019, finishing the top 13 in points allowed in consecutive seasons. There’s more talent than the results we saw last year with stars like Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, and Jaire Alexander, and the team expects better results and fewer big plays allowed in 2021.


Minnesota Vikings

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Defense was the identity of the Vikings under Mike Zimmer, but that changed last year between personnel losses and injuries. The team is excited to have star pass rusher, Danielle Hunter, back in the fold after missing all of last year. The secondary added Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, but off-field issues for 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney complicate an area of the team that has to play better.


Seattle Seahawks

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The Seahawks ranked first in points allowed for four straight seasons from 2012-2015, but their defense has been a weakness over the last two seasons. The team continues to struggle retaining top talent due to the cap, losing Jarran Reed and Shaquill Griffin in the offseason. Bobby Wagner does continue to play at an elite level, and the addition of Jamal Adams last year was clearly felt on the field. The team continues to count on young players and astute free-agent signings to give the offense enough support to win.


Los Angeles Chargers

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The Chargers have their fair share of star power but have struggled to stay healthy. That’s been a common theme for the organization over the last decade, but perhaps they’ll get some better luck in 2021. The defensive impact of former Rams coordinator Brandon Staley could be significant, but there remain questions, particularly with consecutive seasons of major injury issues from star safety Derwin James. The defensive line also has to replace long-time edge rusher Melvin Ingram and hope that oft-injured star Joey Bosa can pick up some of the slack.


Cincinnati Bengals

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Cincinnati’s plans to revamp their secondary last year didn’t turn out as hoped, but they were aggressive again this offseason by adding Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. The return of Trae Waynes adds to a secondary that will certainly improve, and the team also brought on defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi. The Bengals has the talent to improve from 22nd in points allowed.


Dallas Cowboys

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The Cowboys’ defensive showing under Mike Nolan was downright pitiful at times, with the team getting pummeled in the secondary. Dallas spent most of its early draft capital on the defense this year, led by linebacker Micah Parsons, and they’re hopeful Trevon Diggs can make progress in his second season. Coordinator Dan Quinn will also be tasked with getting more out of pass rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.


New York Jets

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Over the last several years the Jets have spent big money on the defense without results, including finishing 26th in points allowed last year. There could continue to be heartache this year with a young rookie quarterback starting and possibly putting the unit in bad spots. The team does look forward to some additions like Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins, Jarrad Davis, along with linebacker C.J. Mosley returning from a 2019 injury and 2020 opt-out. New York is also hopeful defensive tackle Quinnen Williams can take another step forward in his third season.


Philadelphia Eagles

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The Eagles Super Bowl run in 2017 was partly built on the strength of an elite defensive line. The line remains strong despite Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox at more advanced ages, but the second and third levels could have major issues, as they did last season. Former Colts assistant Jonathan Gannon is being tasked with what might not be an easy fix as the coordinator.


Las Vegas Raiders

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Much of the attention in Raider Nation is paid to the offense, but their continued failures are mostly due to a defense that hasn’t progressed. Vegas allowed the third-most points last year and have finished in the bottom 13 in points allowed every season since 2007, a staggering streak. The team hasn’t received optimal value out of one draft pick after another, and recent signings like Cory Littleton also haven’t worked out. The hope is that new coordinator Gus Bradley and blue chip free agent signing Yannick Ngakoue will finally spur the defense to middle of the pack.


Atlanta Falcons

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Head coach Dan Quinn never had the remedy for Atlanta’s defense, though a lack of talent and injuries were much of the problem. Poor drafting and the salary cap have wreaked havoc on the defense, which allowed the fourth-most yards in the league last year, and hasn’t made any offseason additions that stand out. The team could use an edge rusher to emerge, but veteran coordinator Dean Pees is capable of making a difference.


Jacksonville Jaguars

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No defense has shed more talent than Jacksonville over the last five seasons. Since 2017, they’ve gone from second best to second-worst in points allowed, but an aggressive offseason in free agency should help. The additions included Jihad Ward and Shaquill Griffin, and the team still has other viable keepers like Joe Schobert, Myles Jack, and a healthy Josh Allen.


Houston Texans

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Houston has a problem on offense and defense. The Texans had little cap flexibility or draft capital to fix a defense that allowed the sixth-most points and third-most yards last season. The loss of J.J. Watt will be impossible to replace, though the team tried by adding Maliek Collins and Shaq Lawson. There remains some talent on the second and third levels like Zach Cunningham and Bradley Roby, but new coordinator Lovie Smith will have to be a miracle worker.


Detroit Lions

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Former head coach Matt Patricia’s vision for the defense turned into a complete disaster, with several big-money additions failing to make a difference. The team inexcusably ranked dead last in points and yards allowed last year, and still have expensive holdovers like Trey Flowers and Jamie Collins. A lack of offseason spending shows a team that very well could be in tank mode.

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