NFL News & Analysis

NFL Week 12 Defense Rankings

Big swings took place since our most recent defensive rankings, but the top remains the same. Such is the nature of defense in the NFL.

The Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals rank first and second, respectively, despite Buffalo getting torched this past week. The New England Patriots are the biggest movers, with their defense suddenly looking like a vintage Bill Belichick-coached unit capable of stifling any NFL offense.

There have also been some major slides, with the New York Jets in the middle of a horrendous run of play on defense.

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Team EPA/Play Rank EPA/Run Rank EPA/Pass Rank
Buffalo Bills -0.181 1 -0.223 1 -0.158 1
Arizona Cardinals -0.157 2 -0.160 12 -0.155 2
Carolina Panthers -0.154 3 -0.197 5 -0.124 4
New England Patriots -0.146 4 -0.166 9 -0.133 3
Dallas Cowboys -0.097 5 -0.051 29 -0.122 5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -0.085 6 -0.198 4 -0.041 6
New Orleans Saints -0.083 7 -0.211 3 -0.006 10
Cincinnati Bengals -0.062 8 -0.137 15 -0.025 8
Denver Broncos -0.046 9 -0.096 24 -0.014 9
Philadelphia Eagles -0.043 10 -0.161 11 0.038 16
Pittsburgh Steelers -0.032 11 -0.135 17 0.032 14
Tennessee Titans -0.028 12 -0.114 21 0.012 13
Los Angeles Rams -0.028 13 -0.085 25 0.005 11
Miami Dolphins -0.024 14 -0.163 10 0.051 17
Green Bay Packers -0.021 15 -0.081 26 0.011 12
Indianapolis Colts -0.018 16 -0.212 2 0.091 23
Baltimore Ravens -0.001 17 -0.183 7 0.088 22
Minnesota Vikings 0.001 18 0.071 32 -0.039 7
San Francisco 49ers 0.001 19 -0.150 13 0.096 24
Cleveland Browns 0.003 20 -0.126 18 0.085 21
Chicago Bears 0.004 21 -0.103 22 0.081 20
New York Giants 0.008 22 -0.070 28 0.054 18
Houston Texans 0.013 23 -0.101 23 0.098 25
Seattle Seahawks 0.018 24 -0.147 14 0.124 27
Atlanta Falcons 0.022 25 -0.185 6 0.166 28
Las Vegas Raiders 0.026 26 -0.118 20 0.118 26
Los Angeles Chargers 0.027 27 0.018 31 0.034 15
Kansas City Chiefs 0.039 28 -0.019 30 0.071 19
Detroit Lions 0.050 29 -0.136 16 0.203 31
Jacksonville Jaguars 0.063 30 -0.121 19 0.196 30
Washington Football Team 0.064 31 -0.176 8 0.194 29
New York Jets 0.111 32 -0.077 27 0.242 32

Tier 1

1. Buffalo Bills (No Change)

The Bills were absolutely wrecked by the Colts in Week 11, but that was an outlier in a season of excellence, and there are few signs that the lowly performances will continue. The Bills are the No. 1 team in a number of defensive categories and are allowing just a 68.8 passer rating — almost 10 points lower than the next best team. No defense is better against the pass, and Buffalo is the only one that has surrendered explosive pass plays less than 10% of the time.

2. Arizona Cardinals (No Change)

The wheels still have not fallen off the Cardinals' defense, although some may think that’s coming. The loss of J.J. Watt looked significant, but Markus Golden has 36 total pressures and Chandler Jones‘ return has given them an elite sack artist once again. Robert Alford hadn’t played football since 2018 before this year yet currently boasts a 76.6 PFF coverage grade and is allowing just 8.6 yards per reception — not just holding up, but actually excelling at the position.


3. New England Patriots (Up 17)

The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick are masters at creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. New England is allowing points on just 27.1% of opposing drives, which is the lowest mark in the NFL — just ahead of Buffalo and Arizona. The Patriots will give up some plays and yards, but there has been no better defense in the league at limiting points, and they have only been getting better as the season wears on. What’s remarkable is that they are doing this with just one player earning an overall PFF grade above 75.0 who has played 100-plus snaps.

4. Carolina Panthers (Up 3)

While the entire Panthers team ran off the rails after a hot start to the year, the defense looks far closer to its original level than the offense is, even with the addition of Cam Newton at quarterback. The defense got some reinforcements of its own, and while Stephon Gilmore has played only 83 snaps so far, he is the best-graded defender on the team (88.3) and already has two interceptions from six targets thrown into his coverage. Brian Burns and Haason Reddick give the team a pair of edge rushers each with 30 or more total pressures, and the linebacker corps has been outstanding this season after suffering a downturn for a while following Luke Kuechly‘s retirement.

5. New Orleans Saints (Down 1)

New Orleans' defense contains a lot of talent, and it has yielded some impressive results so far this season. Only the Bills have a better record of preventing successful plays across every snap in 2021. The Saints' defense can be vulnerable to big plays, which drags down this ranking a little. They're allowing an explosive pass 15.5% of the time, the 22nd-ranked mark in the league. As talented as their defensive front is, they need more pressure from that group. They are pressuring opposing quarterbacks only 29.8% of the time, which is worse than 27 other defenses.

6. Dallas Cowboys (Up 10)

Lost in the analysis of Dallas' defeat this past week was the fact that the defense held Kansas City to just 19 points despite running a system from the same tree as the Las Vegas unit that the Chiefs torched the week before. The Cowboys have been very good at adapting on both sides of the ball this season, and they modified their approach to great success. Despite major injuries to key players, they continue to impress, with linebacker Micah Parsons now leading all rookies in total pressures (35) despite only moonlighting as a pass-rusher to cover for injuries. Parsons has over 100 fewer rushes than the two players immediately behind him on the list.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Down 1)

Injuries have assailed Tampa Bay’s defense, but it still has some teeth — as the Giants discovered on Monday night in Week 11. Only Maxx Crosby and Myles Garrett have more total pressures than the 52 that Shaquil Barrett has recorded this season, and the team has five different defenders with 20 or more pressures. Tampa Bay's secondary has been particularly badly decimated by injury. Still, Jamel Dean has allowed just 51.2% of passes thrown his way to be caught en route to a 57.2 passer rating. The Bucs have done a good job of patching over the holes in the secondary, and that group is now getting healthier.

Tier 2

8. Denver Broncos (Up 7)

Few teams sum up the variance inherent in an NFL defense better than the Broncos. They've been gashed on the ground and ineffective at stopping the pass in some games, and then they've looked like the best defense in the NFL in others. Trading away Von Miller was a blow that Bradley Chubb‘s return will hopefully help soften. Miller hasn’t played for the team since Week 7 but still has two more pressures for Denver than any other player on the roster this season.

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9. Baltimore Ravens (Up 3)

Baltimore’s defense is one of the most aggressive in the league. They rank fourth in the NFL in blitz rate despite a game against Kansas City where they dialed it back in to avoid playing into the hands of Patrick Mahomes. Marcus Peters‘ season-ending injury has made that aggressive style riskier than in previous years, though. The Ravens are giving up 8.1 yards per pass, which ranks 30th in the league. This defense is still formidable, but it's easier to exploit than in previous years. Where Baltimore offsets that damage is by tightening up in the red zone and bending but not breaking.

10. Green Bay Packers (Up 7)

Green Bay’s defense was on a tear until it ran into Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, but even in that game, there was evidence of good things. The Packers rank second in the league in pressure rate (40.2%), one of just two teams above 40%. They have done that without their best pass-rusher (Za’Darius Smith) for almost the whole season. Similarly, the back end has had to get by without the league’s best corner from a year ago, Jaire Alexander, who injured his shoulder early in the year. Green Bay’s defense is improving quickly and may still get both of those players back for the playoffs.

11. Los Angeles Rams (Down 8)

Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald are still elite — the team’s two best-graded players this season — and they alone can go a long way to ensuring a defense is ranked among the best in the league. Donald has 42 total pressures this season and a 91.5 PFF pass-rushing grade, while throwing the ball at Ramsey is generating just a 74.7 passer rating. And Ramsey's new role in the slot makes him far less avoidable to an offense than he was in previous seasons. It remains to be seen what impact Von Miller can have on this group, but the potential of Miller and Donald rushing in tandem is an exciting prospect.

12. Cleveland Browns (Down 7)

Myles Garrett is on a Defensive Player of the Year-type run this season, and only Maxx Crosby has more total pressures thus far. Jadeveon Clowney’s form has trailed off dramatically after a hot start to the year on the other side of the line. Garrett and Clowney both dominating were devastating. When it’s just Garrett, it’s far more manageable for an offense. The real key to this defense, though, has been the secondary, where an offseason overhaul has been paying real dividends. Troy Hill is the only one of the top four corners who has allowed a 100.0-plus passer rating when targeted.

13. Minnesota Vikings (Down 5)

The Vikings are getting solid results, but the players they brought in to solve their run defense issues haven’t been getting the job done — both through on-field play and absences due to injury. No team is allowing a higher average per rush than the 4.8 yards per attempt the Vikings are giving up. They rank second in yards per carry before contact (1.9) and are fortunate there aren’t too many teams wanting to lean on the run game as their primary objective. Minnesota has received a real boost from Everson Griffen, whose 33 pressures and 79.0 PFF pass-rushing grade lead the team.

Tier 3

14. Cincinnati Bengals (Down 4)

Cincinnati’s defense was playing at a very high level earlier in the season but has come back down to earth in recent weeks. The unit righted the ship this week against a struggling Raiders offense and is still hanging around on the fringes of the top 10 in terms of how often it's allowing scoring drives or successful plays, but there are cracks showing. Trey Hendrickson now has 46 total pressures, just four shy of his season total from 2020.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (Down 6)

Injuries have hit Pittsburgh’s defense hard. T.J. Watt is one of the best five defenders in the NFL, and the Steelers' primary source of pass rush, so for him to miss any period of time is damaging. Pittsburgh was also down multiple cornerbacks against the Chargers in Week 11. The biggest difference between this defense in 2021 and last season is the collapse of its ability to pressure the quarterback. In 2020, the Steelers led the league in pressure rate from start to finish, but they rank just 27th this season, pressuring the quarterback at a rate more than 10 percentage points worse.

16. Tennessee Titans (Up 10)

Tennessee’s defense is working minor miracles given the issues it has with personnel and injuries. Jeffery Simmons has been dominant up front in recent weeks and now leads the league in total pressures (49) from an interior lineman. Simmons also has 35 defensive stops, eight more than he managed last season. Three different defenders boast at least 40 pressures, which goes a long way toward patching over some of the cracks at the cornerback position due to injuries. The defense's two best-graded players, though, are safeties Kevin Byard — who is playing at an All-Pro level — and Amani Hooker.

17. Indianapolis Colts (Up 1)

The Colts are well set up to play the kind of defense that is all of a sudden flustering some of the league’s most high-octane passing offenses, and that was on full display against Buffalo in Week 11. No team has forced more turnovers than the Colts (22), and they have been good at limiting big plays while relying on critical plays of their own to turn the tide and grab possessions. Darius Leonard has four forced fumbles — one of eight different Indianapolis players to punch a ball out this season.

18. Miami Dolphins (Up 7)

No team is more blitz-happy than the Dolphins, who blitz opposing quarterbacks 43.9% of the time. There was no better example of that than when they played the Ravens in Week 10 and simply sent the house almost every snap to try and keep Lamar Jackson under constant pressure. The Dolphins invested a lot in their secondary in recent seasons, and the team evidently trusts the group to hold up while they manufacture pressure with that aggressive overload. Eleven different players have at least 10 pressures so far this season, and 12 have rushed the passer at least 50 times.

19. Philadelphia Eagles (Up 4)

The Eagles run one of the most vanilla defenses in the NFL, but that lack of diversity all of a sudden has been working as players simply execute the scheme better over the past few weeks. Cornerback Darius Slay is the best-graded player on the team and is now responsible for three defensive scores by himself this season, with his latest a pick-six against Trevor Siemian and the Saints in Week 11. Slay has three picks and two pass breakups in 2021. The Eagles' defense is trending in the right direction but still has more to unlock with a little extra schematic creativity.

20. Las Vegas Raiders (Down 9)

The Raiders are still leading the league in pressure rate, applying heat on opposing quarterbacks 40.5% of the time — thanks largely to an incredible season from Maxx Crosby. There is no doubt that he is being aided by a cupcake schedule of opposing tackles, but Crosby leads the league with 66 total pressures and is on pace to tie J.J. Watt’s single-season record with 119, albeit with an extra game to get there. Crosby has been effective even against better tackles and is teaming with a resurgent Yannick Ngakoue to give the Raiders a legitimate pass-rush threat on every dropback.

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Tier 4

21. Kansas City Chiefs (Up 9)

The focus has been on the Kansas City offense so much over the season that the defense quietly began to right the ship. And now it might be the biggest reason the team is back among the contenders again. It was probably never quite as bad as it looked, but a series of small personnel decisions have helped hugely. Chris Jones is second only to Aaron Donald in pass-rush win rate when lined up inside, whereas he was merely an above-average threat as an edge rusher. Melvin Ingram III has eight total pressures on just 66 rushes for the team already, and slowly weaning playing time away from their biggest weak links has been effective in changing results.

22. Los Angeles Chargers (Down 8)

The Chargers' defense is a little too reliant on two players right now, and while the Rams have shown that there can be merit to that strategy, it isn’t quite working as well for Brandon Staley’s new team. Joey Bosa and Derwin James are Los Angeles' two best-graded players, but there are key starters with PFF grades hovering around 50.0, and that’s just too exploitable for opposing offenses. Bosa has more than twice the volume of pressure of any other Chargers defender, and only three other teams have fewer total pressures on the season than Los Angeles.

23. Chicago Bears (Down 4)

Chicago’s best player (Khalil Mack) is lost for the year to injury, and the Bears can’t make the kind of impact they want on defense without him. Robert Quinn is doing a good job as the team’s impact pass-rusher in Mack's absence, racking up seven total pressures this past week against the Ravens, but there isn’t really any replacing a player of Mack’s caliber, even if this wasn’t his best season. The Bears' defense as a whole is allowing a 105.0-plus passer rating to opposing quarterbacks, well below the league average.

24. San Francisco 49ers (Down 11)

The 49ers just don’t have the personnel on this side of the ball that they did when last contending for a Super Bowl. Their elite players — Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, etc. — are still very good, but the gaps between them are where the erosion has taken place. Bosa and Arik Armstead are the only two players on the team with more than 12 total pressures this season, while Josh Norman – arguably their top cornerback — is giving up a 125.0-plus passer rating when targeted.

25. Seattle Seahawks (Down 5)

This ain’t your parent’s Legion of Boom defense in Seattle. The Seahawks once boasted elite players at all levels of the defense and in most positions, but the only player you could make a compelling case for still fitting that billing is linebacker Bobby Wagner. Jamal Adams certainly has that kind of talent, but he has still yet to tap into it within this defensive scheme, carrying just a 60.6 overall PFF grade this season. Rasheem Green leads the team with just 21 total pressures, and the Seahawks' 26.4% pressure rate ranks third-worst in the league.

Tier 5

26. New York Giants (No change)

A season ago, the Giants' defense felt like it was frequently overachieving and causing opposing offenses problems. And this year, that impact isn't nearly as prominent. More players on the unit are earning below-average grades than above-average. Leonard Williams has been the defense’s best player, and his current 62.5 PFF pass-rushing grade would be the lowest mark of his career. The Giants are already making moves to shake things up after a disappointing 11 weeks, but the defense shouldn’t be immune from criticism, either. 

27. Jacksonville Jaguars (Up 4)

A theme of the teams at the bottom of these rankings is that they can’t stop the pass or rush the passer, but the Jaguars buck that trend. Jacksonville actually ranks third in pressure rate in the NFL (37.3%), but its secondary is so bad that it doesn’t matter. The Jaguars are giving up a 109.6 passer rating and over 8.0 yards per pass attempt. Free agency acquisition Shaquill Griffin has been the team’s best cornerback, and even he has allowed a 109.2 passer rating when targeted and has yet to notch an interception.

28. Atlanta Falcons (Down 1)

No NFL defense pressures quarterbacks at a lower rate than the Falcons, who are applying heat on only 23.0% of passing plays. Sometimes, how a unit looks on paper doesn’t tell the whole story, but unfortunately for the Falcons, it’s right on in this case. Grady Jarrett leads the team in pressures, but he is the only Falcons defender with more than 15 on the season. The one bright spot for them this season is that second-year corner A.J. Terrell has been very impressive, earning an 86.1 PFF coverage grade and allowing a 67.5 passer rating.

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29. Washington Football Team (Down 1)

Washington’s defense was coughing up big plays at a historically high rate earlier in the season, and while that has eased off a little, it’s still the team’s Achilles' heel. The Football Team have allowed 66 explosive pass plays over the season, six fewer than the Jets, who rank last in the NFL. The defensive line, which was supposed to be arguably the best in the game, hasn’t been generating the kind of pressure it should be. The defense ranks 19th in pressure rate (31.8%), behind the Houston Texans, among others.

30. Houston Texans (Down 1)

The Texans don’t rank badly in several statistical categories on defense, but if you look closely enough, you can see the issues. They show up well in passer rating allowed, but it’s because they are playing soft enough to die from a thousand paper cuts. Houston ranks third-worst rate in both successful plays allowed and touchdown rate allowed. No defender who has played more than 200 snaps has an overall PFF grade above 61.0.

31. Detroit Lions (Down 1)

The Detroit Lions are the second-worst defense in pressure rate (24.4%), and are one of only two teams to apply heat on opposing quarterbacks less than 25% of the time. When you couple that with an overmatched secondary, it isn’t a good recipe for success on defense. Only the Jets are allowing more than the 8.3 yards per pass attempt the Lions are giving up this season, and there is no single defender who has played over 100 snaps for the team and earned a 70.0-plus overall PFF grade.

32. New York Jets (Down 10)

Think of a defensive statistic, and chances are that the Jets are the worst in the NFL at it. They have allowed the most explosive pass plays (72), the most passing yards per attempt (8.4) and the highest passer rating (116.5) while generating the lowest interception rate (0.9%). New York's defense has been surrendering points at a record-setting pace in recent weeks. One of the few positives has been the play of John Franklin-Myers, whose 36 pressures lead the team. He boasts impressive PFF grades across the board.


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