Last week, we took a look at where all 32 offenses stood through the first quarter of the 2020 NFL season, so now it’s time to do the same with defenses through the first five weeks.
Below, you will find all 32 NFL defenses ranked based on expected points added (EPA) per play allowed. As a refresher, EPA is the measure of a play’s impact on the score of the game.
This ranking is not a prediction of what’s to come, nor is it a list of our favorite schemes, systems or playcallers. These rankings solely reflect each defense's performance on a per-play basis through the first five weeks of the 2020 NFL season. We must also note that we have removed all garbage-time plays so as to ensure that these rankings are as fair as possible.
The Ravens have been one of the league’s heaviest blitz proponents and have called one in 2020 on nearly half their pass plays faced at 49.6% — the second-highest rate in the NFL and over 20 percentage points higher than the league average. Their daunting blitz terrorized rookie quarterback Joe Burrow this past week and is one of the biggest reasons why Baltimore had the best EPA per play allowed of Week 5 at -0.46, the best in a single game by an NFL team this season. With the help of Marlon Humphrey shining in the secondary (eighth highest-graded cornerback) and the stout defensive front led by Calais Campbell, this Ravens defense is one of two defenses to rank in the top five in both EPA per rush and pass allowed.
Ever since the emergence of Jamel Dean in the midst of the 2019 season, this Buccaneers coverage unit has been in the league’s top-tier. Through the first five weeks of play this year, Dean has produced an 83.6 coverage grade that ranks fourth at the position. He and Carlton Davis have been locking down the oppositions outside receivers and have combined to allow a league-best 20.8 passer rating on throws of 10 or more yards downfield. Since Dean first saw substantial game action in Week 9 of last year, he and Davis rank first and second at the position in forced incompletions with 19 and 16. If Davis can stop being needlessly physical at times and crack down on the pass interference penalties, there’d be a reasonable argument to be made that those two form the best outside cornerback duo in the league.
I never thought I’d say this, but the signing of cornerback Xavier Rhodes this offseason after he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings has turned out to be perhaps the biggest reason why the Colts have a top-three defense through Week 5. After producing one of the lowest coverage grades at the position in 2019 at 45.3 while allowing a whopping 83.5% catch rate and 131.1 passer rating in coverage, Rhodes is on pace to have one of the biggest year-to-year improvements we have recorded at the position.
For the Colts in 2020, Rhodes has improved his coverage grade to 79.7 and lowered his catch rate allowed to 42.9% and passer rating allowed to 45.2. All three of those rank among the 10 best at the position thus far. While trading away their 13th overall pick and for DeForest Buckner and subsequently giving him Aaron Donald-like money wasn’t the best move, the interior defensive lineman has been a force in the pass-rush for the Colts. His 85.9 pass-rush grade is the fourth-best at the position.
Donald has been in his same dominant form in 2020 by generating 33 pressures in his five games (eight more than any player at the position) and winning on 26% of his pass-rush reps (4 percentage points higher than second). Simply put, Donald is still a game-wrecker, and when you pair that with a strong secondary like they have, it makes life difficult for the opposition's passing attack. The Rams have allowed -0.15 EPA per pass play, which is significantly higher than second at -0.09 and the league average at 0.12. The play of outside corners Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams has played a big role in that, as they are one of two tandems that rank in the top-15 at the alignment in coverage grade.
With Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller back to their normal selves after a down year in 2019 as well as the emergence of rookie Jaylon Johnson, this Chicago defense is once again a top-five unit in the league. Mack had the lowest-graded season of his NFL career last year as he earned a PFF grade of 86.2, which is still really great, but it wasn’t a top-five mark like he had produced in the previous four seasons. He is back to being a game-wrecker, as he is the second-highest-graded edge rusher of 2020. Among cornerbacks with at least 10 targets in coverage, Fuller’s 47% catch rate is the second-lowest in the NFL. His 77.1 coverage grade is a top-10 mark, and it’s fair to say Fuller was the key reason why Chicago beat Tampa Bay in Week 5 with his hit-stick fumble near the end of the first half that set up a touchdown. As for Johnson, he has given up a few big plays in recent weeks, but he has produced the second-most forced incompletions at the position with seven.
Denver being this high is mostly due to the fact that they have stuffed the run as good as any team in the league. Their team run-defense grade is the best in the league and their -0.3 EPA per rush allowed ranks second. This also goes to show that being able to stuff the run doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, as Denver still ranks 22nd in our power rankings and sits at a 1-3 record. The coverage unit ranks 14th in EPA per pass allowed in non-garbage-time.
Bryce Callahan has been the bright spot in the secondary, and that’ll likely remain, assuming Vic Fangio keeps him in the slot. Callahan started out the year on the outside due to a depleted unit, but in the second half of their Week 4 matchup against the Jets, he was kicked back inside where he had spent most of his professional career and he shined. Callahan manned the slot for 26 coverage snaps against the Jets and allowed two catches on five targets for 14 yards while forcing an incompletion. That led to a 47.9 passer rating when targeted.
The Chargers secondary was one of the best in the league on paper entering the year, and while they haven’t been the best, they’ve still been pretty dang good. The Bolts have allowed the seventh-best EPA per pass in non-garbage-time. Desmond King II has reclaimed his slot role the last couple of weeks after Chris Harris Jr. landed on IR and has looked exactly like the same guy that produced the highest slot coverage grade from 2017-19. He currently has the third-best slot coverage grade among 45 qualifiers in 2020 and has tied for the third-fewest yards per coverage snap allowed in the slot at 0.58.
The 49ers have been wrecked by injuries this year and unfortunately saw their top two players on the defensive side of the ball, Richard Sherman (return timeframe unknown) and Nick Bosa (out for year), go down early in the season. San Francisco ranks third in EPA per rush allowed, but their pass defense has taken a clear step back without Bosa rushing the passer and Sherman locking down his side of the field. Since Week 2 (first game without Sherman and when Bosa got hurt), the 49ers rank 19th in EPA per pass allowed and they did that facing the Jets, Giants, Eagles and Dolphins. Next up, they get the Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints then Rams again. Their remaining schedule is actually the most difficult in the NFL. If Sherman is unable to go, we may see San Francisco slide down this list.
Along with the Ravens, the Blitzburgh Steelers have also been sending an extra rusher at an extraordinarily rate, and that's one of the main reasons why they have produced the highest team pass-rush grade in the league so far. They have blitzed on over half their pass plays faced, and they have recorded a pressure on over half of those blitzes (51.8% of the time to be exact, the best in the NFL).
Edge defender T.J. Watt leads the pack and is looking like the best player at his position at this point, as he ranks first in PFF grade at 92.4. The Pittsburgh defensive front has also been exceptional against the run, allowing only 24% of run plays to generate positive EPA, the best mark in the league by 4.5 percentage points.
The Bengals rounding out the top 10 is quite the surprise, given how bad they were last year and the fact that Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, the two free agents they brought in to help out the secondary, have battled injuries. Safety Jessie Bates III has without question been the best player at the position to start out the year, as he has earned a 90.2 coverage grade, nearly 14 grading points higher than the next best safety. He has broken up a whopping seven passes, leading the position by three.
The Football Team as a whole has had a brutal start to the 2020 season, but their coverage unit has surpassed expectations so far, allowing positive EPA on 45% of pass plays faced, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.
Kendall Fuller made his 2020 debut back in Week 3 and has impressed ever since, earning an 86.2 coverage grade and allowing a 16.2 passer rating in coverage while recording more pass breakups and interceptions (four) than catches allowed (three). Meanwhile, cornerback Ronald Darby has given up a handful of really big plays but has held his own overall by earning a 70.0 coverage grade — significantly better than the 39.8 mark he had in 2019 with the Eagles. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was signed to a one-year, $3.45 million contract this offseason, has been the secret superstar of this team, though. The linebacker has earned an 87.5 coverage grade through five weeks, the fifth-best at the position.
Forget the Bengals and the Football Team, there hasn’t been a bigger defensive surprise than this Carolina Panthers coverage unit.
Carolina had arguably the worst defense on paper entering the year. And while some members of the secondary have struggled — rookie CB Troy Pride Jr. and veteran safety Tre Boston, to name a couple — Carolina has benefitted from several players stepping up. Cornerback Corn Elder has been one such player. Elder has been rotating in and covering the slot on a part-time basis, but he currently leads the league in slot coverage grade after allowing only 0.48 yards per slot coverage snap, the third-lowest figure in the NFL.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson has earned has an 80.2 coverage grade through New England’s four games, ranking seventh at the position. All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore hasn't been as fortunate, producing sub-60.0 coverage grades in his first three games, but he did have a bounce-back outing in Week 4 that ended in an 85.7 coverage grade for the game. If we start to see that version of Gilmore, New England can climb higher on this list.
Kansas City isn’t this high because of their run defense, that’s for certain — they actually rank second-to-last in EPA per rush allowed and fifth-to-last in rushing yards per attempt allowed. However, as they proved in their Super Bowl run last year, you can still be good with bad run defense. The Chiefs have allowed the sixth-fewest EPA per pass and have been locking down the outside. Led by Rashad Fenton, the outside cornerbacks have combined to produce the best coverage grade in the NFL and have allowed the fewest explosive plays of 15-plus yards, with only four.
The Eagles' pass-rush rivals the Steelers' for the best in the league. They rank second to only their state rival in both pass-rush grade and pressure rate generated. This has helped out the secondary immensely — when the Philadelphia pass rush gets pressure on the quarterback, they have allowed the third-fewest EPA per pass. On the contrary, they rank third-to-last in EPA per pass allowed when the pass rush fails to get pressure on the quarterback.
Arizona has done a great job in limiting big plays downfield. They have allowed a catch rate of just 34.6% on throws of 10 or more yards downfield, the best in the NFL by seven percentage points. Granted, they have been helped out from time to time with some poorly thrown balls, but they’ve made plenty of plays themselves, as their coverage grade is the fifth-best on such throws.
17. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Looking solely at cornerbacks in single coverage, there is only one CB tandem that ranks in the top 15 in coverage grade on such reps: Cleveland’s Denzel Ward and Terrance Mitchell. Those two have helped Cleveland post the fourth-best outside-corner coverage grade this year. The safety unit, however, has been far from that level as Cleveland’s safeties have combined to produce the 24th-ranked coverage grade at the position. Prior to Ronnie Harrison’s strong Week 5 (80.1 coverage grade), the Browns were 30th in the same metric. Cleveland also has easily one of the three best edge rushers in the NFL in Myles Garrett — he joins T.J. Watt and Khalil Mack as the only edge defenders to earn a 90.0-plus grade in 2020, and he actually leads the position in pass-rush grade at 91.0.
18. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Cornerback Xavien Howard has anchored this Miami defense so far, earning a 76.5 PFF grade that ranks 10th at the position. He has been pretty boom or bust though, allowing 16 yards or less in three of his five games but then allowing 71 and 133 yards in the other two. Rookie corner Noah Igbinoghene, who had to fill in for Byron Jones while he was hurt, has been more bust than boom, as he has earned a 32.6 coverage grade so far. That’s not to say he won’t eventually develop into something great, but he still has a ways to go. The good news is Jones returned this past week, and he will try to get this unit above the league average, which hasn’t happened in Miami in years.
19. TENNESSEE TITANS
Considering they have been without top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, Tennessee coming in at No. 19 should be viewed as a win. So far in 2020, the Titans have allowed the 10th-lowest rate of explosive pass plays of 15 or more yards (13.5%) and rank 13th in EPA per pass play allowed. Despite having Jeffery Simmons (minus one game) and Jadeveon Clowney, Tennessee has struggled against the run. They have allowed the seventh-most EPA per rush and have allowed an explosive run of 10 or more yards on 17.8% of attempts faced, the highest rate in the NFL by 1.5 percentage points.
20. NEW YORK GIANTS
After three straight years of middling play in Carolina in which he earned a coverage grade below 66.0, Bradberry is turning things around with the New York Giants in 2020. His 87.3 coverage grade ranks second at the position, and he has racked up a league-high eight pass breakups. The rest of the coverage unit, however, is far off from finding that same success.
Every Giants defensive back outside of Bradberry has produced a coverage grade below 60.0. Bradberry actually has more plays on the ball than the rest of the defense combined. The Giants better hope Bradberry sustains this top-tier play — otherwise, things could get ugly.
21. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Seattle’s run defense ranks as a solid unit, slotting in the top 10 in expected points added per rush allowed and ranking second in team run-defense grade. Their pass-rush group, however, has been as bad as expected, producing the lowest pressure rate in the NFL.
More importantly, the secondary has been spotty in some areas. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin does have a couple of interceptions and four pass breakups, but he has also allowed more than 60 yards in coverage in four of his five games. Quinton Dunbar is starting to look like his 2019 self when he earned the second-best coverage at his position, but a shaky performance in Week 1 (119 yards and a 35.7 coverage grade) got his season off to a poor start. Then, in the two games he missed, Tre Flowers was not great in his stead, earning a 34.1 coverage grade for the year.
Consistency is key, and Seattle's secondary is far from it right now.
The coverage play of safety Harrison Smith as well as off-ball linebackers Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson have helped this Minnesota coverage unit not rank at the very bottom despite a cornerback unit that has been as bad as advertised. The team's cornerbacks have combined to produce the third-worst coverage grade in the NFL, surrendering a league-high eight catches that resulted in 30-plus yard gains. There may be some hope with rookie Jeff Gladney, who has played well in the slot the past couple of weeks and has produced the sixth-best grade at the alignment in that span.
23. BUFFALO BILLS
No team allowed a higher rate of plays to generate positive expected points added in Week 5 than the Bills, which caused them to slide considerably. There’s no doubt they were missing cornerback Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace, as Derrick Henry stiff-armed the soul out of Josh Norman, who posted a 38.0 coverage grade on the night. Taron Johnson hasn’t been great from the slot this year, either, as he ranks fourth-to-last in slot coverage grade while allowing an NFL-high 285 yards from that alignment — 74 more than anyone else.
24. DALLAS COWBOYS
The Cowboys' secondary is absolutely brutal. Looking solely at safeties and cornerbacks, Dallas ranks last in unit coverage grade. The team's 141.1 passer rating allowed on throws of 10-plus yards downfield ranks last in the NFL, nearly 15 points higher than any other team. Opposing offenses are picking on rookie Trevon Diggs early on, with him allowing 50 yards or more in four of his five games played. That has led to him earning a 42.9 coverage grade, which ranks 100th of 116 qualifying corners.
Anyone in the Packers' secondary not named Jaire Alexander has struggled in coverage. Alexander is the league’s highest-graded cornerback, establishing himself as one of the few elite corners in the game. But outside of him, every Packers defensive back has produced a PFF grade at or below 61.0. Taking Alexander out of the equation, the Packers have allowed a 118.5 passer rating in coverage (would be the third-worst in NFL).
The biggest reason they ring in here at No. 25 is due to the 0.11 expected points added per rush they have allowed — the third-worst mark in the NFL.
New Orleans’ secondary has been less than stellar in 2020, surrendering the fourth-most expected points added per pass. The Saints have been on the wrong end of a bevy of coverage busts this season. They have seven coverage busts (tied for second-most) — all of which were caught for a combined 156 yards and three scores. And multiple players were responsible, not just one or two guys.
The Saints have been great against the run, led by Cameron Jordan and his 85.0 run-defense grade (second at the position), but that’ll only get the team so far. New Orleans desperately needs Marshon Lattimore to improve, as he has allowed 158.3 passer rating in coverage (45.2 coverage grade). Marcus Williams also needs to get back to his 2019 form (89.5 coverage grade that year, 54.8 this year).
The Las Vegas offense has been rolling under Jon Gruden, and the unit's aggressive approach in Week 5 helped the team beat the defending Super Bowl champions. The defense, however, is still among the worst in the NFL. By expected points added per play allowed, the Raiders ranked 31st in 2017, 32nd in 2018 and 32nd in 2019. So far this year, they have made a modest improvement to 27th.
Cornerback Trayvon Mullen flashed his potential in Week 3 against New England when he posted a 92.7 coverage grade and four pass breakups, but he hasn’t been able to come close to that in any of the other four games. Rookie Damon Arnette didn’t look all that great in his three games played, allowing 10 catches on 11 targets for 201 yards and one touchdown.
On the bright side, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is looking exactly as he did when filling in for the Bears in 2019 and ranks eighth at the position in PFF grade. In addition, edge rusher Clelin Ferrell is on the path to a Year 2 breakout, as he ranks 12th at his position in PFF grade.
28. HOUSTON TEXANS
Bradley Roby has performed fairly well this season as one of the starting outside corners. Among 54 qualifying corners with at least 100 coverage snaps at the alignment, he ranks 16th in coverage grade. Vernon Hargreaves III, however, has not been so hot, ranking 49th among that same group.
Among other issues within this Texans defense is a poor run-defense unit. It’s typically not a huge problem, but when a team allows a league-high 22 explosive runs of 10-plus yards, it becomes one. Houston's pass rush has also been among the worst in the league. The unit ranks second-to-last in pass-rush grade, and its star, J.J. Watt, has yet to make a dent; he ranks 61st among 101 qualifiers at his position in pass-rush grade.
29. NEW YORK JETS
Let’s start with the good news: Cornerback Brian Poole is sustaining his great play from his 2019 breakout campaign. He has earned an 81.6 coverage grade thus far, ranking fifth at the position. Then, the bad news: That's the only good news I have to share with the Jets' coverage unit.
The group ranks second-to-last in team coverage grade and is allowing the highest catch rate on throws over 10 yards downfield (67.3% — 4.4 percentage points more than any other secondary).
Jacksonville has given up more expected points added per pass play faced than any team in the NFL. Rookie CJ Henderson is a bright spot despite his lack of experience, earning a coverage grade above 65.0 in three of his four games played. Outside of him, though, there was no reliable play coming out of the secondary. That is, until Week 5 when Sidney Jones started due to injuries to Henderson and D.J. Hayden.
Jones had himself a career day by earning a 91.7 coverage grade, allowing just one catch for nine yards while intercepting one and breaking up another three. Jones and Henderson can help dig the Jaguars out of this bottom-three ranking, assuming Jones holds the starting spot and the rookie is healthy.
31. ATLANTA FALCONS
Outside of interior defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, who has produced the 12th-best pass-rush grade at his position, this Atlanta defense is playing extremely poorly. The unit has allowed 0.35 expected points added per pass play (second-worst in the NFL) and 25 plays of 20 or more yards (most by three).
Atlanta selected cornerback A.J. Terrell with the 16th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and after getting peppered in his debut for six catches, 100 yards and a touchdown, he hasn’t been terrible. Terrell featured in only two other games due to being on the COVID-19 list for a couple of weeks but allowed only 41 yards on 87 coverage snaps. If he can sustain that play, it’ll certainly help Atlanta not fall to 32nd on this list. However, the Falcons' defense still has holes all over the place.
32. DETROIT LIONS
Detroit's defense has struggled in every single facet. The Lions rank near the bottom of the league in each of run defense, pass rushing, coverage and overall tackling. They have allowed 0.18 expected points added per rush (highest in the NFL), generated pressure at the sixth-lowest rate (26%), earned the fifth-lowest team coverage grade and produced the fourth-worst tackling grade.
The team's cornerback unit, in particular, has been the most disappointing, struggling in Matt Patricia’s man-heavy defense and combining to produce the lowest coverage grade in the league.