Offense is king in today’s NFL. That being said, a defense that can bother opposing quarterbacks with tight coverage and a potent pass rush still gives a team a significant bump, as both of the league’s two remaining unbeatens — the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers — can attest.
Using expected pointed added (EPA — the expected number of points the offense should expect to score on the next scoring play given the down, distance and field position), we present to you the ranking of all 32 defenses by EPA allowed per play through Week 6.
32. Miami Dolphins
In our offensive rankings article released earlier this week, the Dolphins took home the last place spot, and lo and behold, the Dolphins are in the same spot on the defensive side of the ball. There really isn’t anything that you can point to that has worked for Miami defensively so far this season. They haven’t been able to get pressure (26.5% pressure rate ranks last in the NFL), and they’ve been a sieve on the back end, allowing a league high passer rating of 137.6 to opposing quarterbacks on targeted passes. The good news for Dolphins fans is that they have three first-round selections to right the ship next season. PFF Senior Draft Analyst Mike Renner has them selecting two edge rushers (Ohio State’s Chase Young and Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos) in his latest 2020 mock draft.
31. Atlanta Falcons
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Falcons this season. They were supposed to get back key contributors with a clean bill of health — Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen — and creep back towards where they were in 2017 as defense, the middle of the pack. Instead, they’re sitting at second to last in the entire league defensively on their way to a 1-5 start. They’ve been torn apart by receivers lined up out wide, allowing 12.7 passing yards per target on those 67 passes (worst in the NFL by over a full yard).
There wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about with the Cardinals defense before Patrick Peterson got suspended for the first six games of the season, and there was even less without him in the lineup over the opening stretch. Austin Hooper’s big Week 6 performance was only the most recent in a line of tight ends exposing the Cardinals in coverage. On the season, they have allowed 46 receptions, 599 yards, seven touchdowns, 29 first downs receiving and a passer rating of 150.8 to opposing tight ends. All those figures are the worst in the league.
29. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have leapt out to a surprise 3-2 start, but their defense still poses a major question mark moving forward. They took steps toward addressing their defensive woes from previous seasons by drafting three defensive players in the first 40 selections of this year’s draft. Unfortunately for Oakland, Clelin Ferrell has stumbled out of the gates with a 6.8% pass-rush win rate (third worst among all edge defenders with 100-plus pass-rushing snaps), Trayvon Mullen has seen his role reduced in the defense in recent weeks after recording a 55.5 overall grade across 77 snaps and Johnathan Abram will be sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn rotator cuff. It appears that those three will not have the kind of impact as rookies that the Raiders would have hoped for.
Quinton Dunbar has stepped into the largest role of his career this season with the Redskins, already notching 264 defensive snaps despite injury. He has rewarded them with a 92.4 overall grade (highest among all cornerbacks) and a passer rating allowed of just 35.3 into his coverage (lowest among all players with 25 or more targets). However, his running mates at cornerback — Josh Norman, Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland — have combined to allow 54 receptions on 67 targets for 644 yards and six touchdowns. That comes out to a passer rating of 130.4, and it’s the primary reason that they’re among the five worst defenses in the NFL.
The Bengals are one of two winless teams remaining in the NFL, so it should come as no surprise that they struggle across the board, defense not being an exception. As it was last season, the linebacker position has been the biggest weakness on their defense. The two linebackers that have played significant snaps — Nick Vigil and Preston Brown — both have grades south of 50.0. As a team, they’re getting gashed on the ground (5.3 yards allowed per carry are the most in the NFL) and through the air (8.4 yards allowed per pass attempt ranks 28th). That isn’t a recipe for defensive success.
26. Baltimore Ravens
Perhaps the first surprising team to pop up on this list, the Ravens were expected to have one of the top defenses in the league. They lost several key players such as Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith and franchise-fixture Terrell Suggs, but they also added one of the best defensive players in the league — Earl Thomas — to a team that finished fourth in EPA allowed per play in 2018. The Ravens are blitzing at the highest rate in the NFL this season (50% of opposing quarterback dropbacks), but despite that, they’re getting pressure only 32%of the time (23rd). Blitzing without getting pressure opens you up for failure on the back end, and the Ravens defense is finding that out first-hand.
The Chargers are another team that was though to have, at worst, a good defense heading into 2019. To this point, that hasn’t been the case, and it can’t be pinned solely on injuries. Not having their young defensive chess piece in Derwin James obviously hurts, but there is too much talent on that defense for them to be 25th on this list. Several of the stars, such as Casey Hayward (11th among cornerbacks in coverage grade) and Joey Bosa (7th among edge defenders in pass-rush grade), are playing up to their usual standards, but it’s the cast around them that will need to step up over the second half of the season if the Chargers wish to turn their season around.
The Chiefs have been prominently bullied by the Colts and the Texans in the run game in back-to-back losses, and while it is preferable to be porous on the ground as compared to the air, letting Carlos Hyde rumble on you to the point that he’s drawing Earl Campbell comparisons isn’t going to cut it. It comes as no surprise that their team run-defense grade of 49.2 is dead last in the NFL. Adding to that disappointment, the Chiefs appear to have lost the sequence of events that led to them replacing Dee Ford with Frank Clark. Ford has a pressure rate over 10 percentage points higher than Clark this season (19.1% and 8.8%, respectively).
Last season, the Colts had one of the more unique defensive philosophies in the NFL under Matt Eberflus with their zone-heavy scheme that allowed receptions underneath but limited anything deep. They rode that to a top-10 defense in terms of EPA allowed per play despite a lack of true Pro Bowl-caliber players. This year, they’ve taken a definite step back, particularly when it comes to allowing the big play. Twenty two percent of the pass plays against them have gone for 15 or more yards, which trails only the Giants and the Dolphins this season.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It wasn’t long ago that the Jaguars had one of the more dominant defenses in the NFL — a defense that they nearly rode to the Super Bowl in 2017. Now, they sit at 22nd in the league after trading away arguably their defensive cornerstone in Jalen Ramsey. That means a continued larger role for Tre Herndon and his 46.8 overall grade to this point in 2019. Herndon has allowed 15 of the 30 passes into his coverage to be completed for 232 yards and two touchdowns through six weeks.
21. New York Giants
There are 15 cornerbacks in the league who have allowed 300 or more yards on receptions as the primary coverage defender so far this season. The New York Giants have three of them — Deandre Baker (394), Janoris Jenkins (351) and Grant Haley (315). That sums up why the Giants are in the bottom half of the league defensively about as well as anything. The rookie Dexter Lawrence has been great thus far with an 87.2 overall grade to lead all defensive rookies, and their guys up front have been solid across the board. It hasn’t mattered, though, given the struggles on the back end.
20. Houston Texans
Similarly to the Giants in a sense, the Texans have a stout front-seven, but unlike the Giants they have a legitimate game wrecker on the defensive line in J.J. Watt. Watt appears to be fully recovered from the injuries that stalled what was on pace to be a historic career, registering a top-five pass-rushing grade on the season (87.3) and a league-high 39 quarterback pressures. Unfortunately for Houston, their outside cornerbacks have not been able to play to the same standard. They’ve allowed 70 receptions this season to players lined up wide, five more than any other team. Their 35.1 coverage grade on those attempts ranks second worst in the NFL.
19. Detroit Lions
Coming into the season, the assumption was that the Lions defensive line would be the strength of their team following the addition of Trey Flowers. Instead, they’ve struggled to generate a consistent pass rush — their 28.6% pressure rate through six weeks ranks 29th in the NFL — and it has been their secondary that has shone, particularly slot addition Justin Coleman. Coleman has been targeted heavily through the Lions’ first five games (43 times) and has allowed just 24 of those passes to be completed for 263 yards. The most impressive aspect of his game has been his ability at the catch point. His seven pass breakups are tied for the second most in the NFL.
18. Cleveland Browns
There was plenty of optimism for the Browns this offseason, and that extended to their defense after several additions, namely Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson via free agency and Greedy Williams via the draft. That optimism hasn’t yet been realized with the product on the field in Cleveland, and while some of that can be contributed to lingering injuries that have hampered players like Williams and the talented sophomore cornerback Denzel Ward, there is still blame to go around for systemic issues such as missed tackles. The Browns have missed 56 tackles on defense in 2019 (tied for second most) after leading the league in that category a season ago (169). Myles Garrett has been an undeniable bright spot, though. His 90.9 pass-rushing grade trails only Khalil Mack on the season.
17. Dallas Cowboys
One of the more intriguing storylines of the 2018 season was the young linebacker duo for the Cowboys — Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith — that was taking the league by storm. It hasn’t been quite the same this season. Smith’s grade is down from 84.5 last season to 59.2 in 2019 and Vander Esch from 85.7 to 62.9. The two have been attacked in coverage, as both are part of a group of 16 linebackers to have allowed more than ten first downs receiving through six weeks. On a brighter note, Robert Quinn has proven to be an excellent addition. His pressure rate of 15.6% this season ranks 14th among all edge defenders with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps, and it is the second-highest mark of his career (19.1% in 2013).
The Eagles are an interesting case in the pass rush vs. coverage debate. They possess one of the premier pass-rushing units in the NFL, spear-headed by All-Pro caliber players Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. Both rank among the top five at their respective positions in total pressures, contributing to a defense that leads the NFL in pressure rate at 44%. Despite that, they fall at just 16th on this list largely due to deficiencies in their secondary that were on full display against Kirk Cousins and Stefon Diggs last week. As a coverage unit, they’re prone to allowing big plays. No team has allowed more 30-yard touchdowns to opposing passing attacks (six) or more 100-yard receivers (six) than the Eagles have this season.
The first two weeks are holding them back at number 15, but the Saints defense has improved as the season has progressed, posting a top-ten mark in EPA allowed per play over their current four-game winning streak. That is largely due to the improved play from their duo of Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple at cornerback. Over those four games, they have combined to allow a completion percentage of 54.4% on passes into their coverage to go alongside a passer rating of 77.9 and a combined coverage grade of 80.6. If the Saints can continue to get play like that from those two former-first rounders and Drew Brees comes back at his level of play pre-injury, the Saints will be and should be favorites in the NFC.
14. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks current highest-graded defender is none other than offseason acquisition Jadeveon Clowney, who’s 87.1 overall grade ranks seventh among all qualifying edge defenders. It was expected that Clowney would be solid at worst, making their second-highest graded defender the more interesting story. Shaquill Griffin has been excellent thus far in coverage, as his 83.5 coverage grade on 23 targets would attest. He has forced nearly as many incompletions (7) as he has allowed first downs (8) this season, and he is on pace for a career season in Year 3.
13. New York Jets
The Jets' offense floundered and floundered hard while Sam Darnold missed time due to mono, but their defense was quietly very solid. Jamal Adams continues to prove that he is among the best young defenders in the NFL, regardless of position. His 90.4 coverage grade leads all qualifying safeties this season. And as you would expect from a Gregg Williams defense, the Jets are blitzing often (39.3% — fourth in the league) and generating pressure (37.8% — ninth in NFL). Last week against the Cowboys, the Jets blitzed Prescott on 53% of his dropbacks and saw success on those plays with a 48% pressure rate.
Last season, the Buccaneers finished ranked 30th in terms of EPA allowed per play, so their spot at tied for 12th on this season’s list through six games represents a marked improvement in defensive efficiency. Part of the reason for that is the addition of former Denver Broncos edge rusher Shaquil Barrett. He’s had an immediate impact on their pass rush with 25 total pressures and a league-high nine sacks. Vita Vea has taken a step forward in Year 2, as well. Vea has recorded 20 total pressures, and his nine pressures when shading or lined up over center rank behind only Kenny Clark this season.
The Packers were lacking last season when it came to generating pressure off the edge. Enter the Smiths. Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith have given a nice boost to a Packers pass rush that has generated a pressure rate of 42% in 2019 (second in NFL). The star of the defense has been Jaire Alexander, though. He’ll get beat on occasion due to his aggressiveness, but his ability to break on the ball and force incompletions is undeniable. On the season, Alexander has 13 forced incompletions. No other player has more than eight.
10. Los Angeles Rams
It’s hard to talk about the Rams defense and not begin with the absolute force in the middle of their defense that is Aaron Donald. Don’t fall for his pedestrian sack total of three. Donald has still proven to be one of the league’s best pass rushers with a pass-rushing grade of 90.3. The concern on the Rams defense is how their new-look cornerback unit will respond in the weeks to come. With Aqib Talib dealing with a serious rib injury and Marcus Peters being shipped to Baltimore, the cornerback room was dangerously thin for several hours, but those fears were quickly assuaged with the addition of Jalen Ramsey. Adding one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL can only help the Rams secondary, but will it be enough to propel them into top-five defense territory?
The Broncos have grown accustomed to having a top-ten defense in recent years, and that is no different in 2019. As in the No Fly Zone days, that effort has been led by the secondary. Among 198 cornerbacks and safeties with 100 or more defensive snaps, the Broncos can claim three of the top 20 players in overall grade – Kareem Jackson (90.1 — 4th), Justin Simmons (84.9 — 9th) and Chris Harris Jr. (79.7 1 20th). Opposing quarterbacks have just two passing touchdowns when targeting a member of their secondary, tied for second-fewest in the NFL behind only the Patriots. That will be put to the test against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 7.
2019 has been disappointing for the Steelers for a number of reasons, but those reasons fall primarily on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has performed well to this point, and in all honestly it should given the first-round talent they have acquired on that side of the ball over the last six or seven seasons. T.J. Watt is quickly becoming one of the better pass rushers in the league, and his 83.9 pass-rush grade this season sits sandwiched between the Bosa brothers. The loss of Stephon Tuitt to a torn pectoral certainly hurts this unit moving forward, as he was on pace for a career year. His 89.4 overall grade ranked sixth among all interior defenders, right behind teammate Cameron Heyward.
If it wasn’t already clear at this point, let's restate: coverage matters. The Vikings have a top three PFF coverage grade in the NFL as a team, joining the Patriots and the 49ers. It has been their linebackers and safeties — Eric Kendricks, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith — that have been most impressive in coverage. The Vikings linebackers and safeties have combined for 15 forced incompletions, which is five more than any other team in the league. Meanwhile on their pass rush, both Danielle Hunter (39 pressures) and Everson Griffen (36 pressures) rank among the top five defenders league-wide in total pressures.
The Panthers have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 9.6% of their dropbacks (the second-highest rate in the NFL), and when quarterbacks do get the chance to get rid of the ball, they’re only averaging 6.3 yards per attempt (fourth lowest). Dominating on passing downs like the Panthers have is a sure-fire way to have success as a defense, and it’s showing in the results with four straight wins. Standout linebacker Luke Kuechly is once again off to a fantastic start. Among 56 linebackers with 200 or more defensive snaps, his overall grade of 83.9 ranks third.
When it came to 2018 defenses, the Bears were the cream of the crop with the lowest EPA allowed per play. They’ve taken a small step back this year, as was expected, but they are still a very formidable group, no one more so than Khalil Mack. Mack is PFF’s highest-graded pass rusher through the first six weeks of the season, notching 28 total pressures on 174 pass-rushing snaps. Getting pressure like Mack has been able to has been crucial to their defensive success this year. On pass plays in which they get pressure, they’re allowing just 1.1 yards per play (second in the league). That number jumps to 7.5 yards per pass play (19th in the NFL) when pressure doesn’t get home.
The headlines surrounding the Titans recently have focused on their offensive struggles and the decision to go with Ryan Tannehill over Marcus Mariota at quarterback moving forward, but their defense has impressed and put up a performance worthy of a top-five spot on this list. Cameron Wake has missed each of the last two weeks with injury, but prior to that he was doing what he has done his entire career: win his pass-rush assignments with a pass-rush win rate north of 20% on 70 snaps. Kevin Byard has impressed once again, as well. His overall grade of 80.9 ranks ninth among qualifying safeties.
The Bills are off to a hot 4-1 start, and it’s thanks largely to their lock-down defense through the first five games. Tremaine Edmunds has taken a big step forward in the middle of the Bills defense in Year 2, and the signs were there last season when he finished with a 70.5 overall grade post-Week 10 compared to 47.0 over the first eight games of the season. This season, Edmunds is carrying an overall grade of 72.6 (16th among qualifying linebackers). Both Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer grade out among the top 15 safeties in the NFL, and it shows in the success that opposing quarterbacks have had targeting Buffalo deep. The Bills have allowed just four completions on passes 20 or more yards downfield all season, and they are the only team in the NFL that is yet to allow a touchdown on such passes.
The image of Robert Saleh losing his mind on the sideline following stop after stop by the 49ers defense against the Rams this past Sunday is an accurate depiction of how this season has gone for the unit and just how far they have come from a season ago. If you had any doubts about Nick Bosa coming out of Ohio State, those should be gone entirely. His pressure rate of 25.2% this season is nearly four percentage points higher than the next closest defender with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps. Meanwhile, Richard Sherman appears to be trending back toward his pre-injury form, allowing a passer rating of just 46.4 on passes into his coverage.
The Patriots have been far and away the best defense in the NFL this season, registering an EPA allowed per play of nearly -0.5. Their defensive success can largely be attributed to their secondary, which has been playing outstanding football, granted against some of the most advantageous quarterback matchups a team could possibly have. They are the only team to allow fewer than six yards per targeted attempt (5.8), the only team to allow a passer rating below 65.0 on targeted passes (46.1), and their 14 interceptions are five more than any other team. It will be interesting to see them compete with a competent passing attack, but they have all the makings of a dominant secondary and defense overall.