The Kansas City Chiefs are back among the very best teams in the NFL following an ugly start to the year, and their defense is driving that resurgence after ranking as low as 30th in Week 8. The Buffalo Bills remain on top, but their division rival New England Patriots are right behind them, with the Miami Dolphins’ improvement putting three of the division’s four teams at No. 11 or better. The less said about the fourth team the better, as the New York Jets prop up the rankings in 32nd place.
Other big moves include the Baltimore Ravens‘ defense tumbling as injuries just continue to decimate the group, and the San Francisco 49ers are back on the rise thanks to some impressive displays from their defensive front in recent weeks.
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1. Buffalo Bills (No Change)
Even the loss of Tre’Davious White — Buffalo's best cornerback — can’t slow down the dominance of the Bills' defense. The unit proved against New England in Week 16 that they can stop the run well enough to make it a balanced game, and they are elite when that happens. No defense in the league allows scoring drives at a lower rate than the Bills (28.7%), and they are doing that without a whole collection of players grading at an elite level. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are the highest-graded members of the defense, and neither carries an overall PFF grade higher than 85.0.
2. New England Patriots (Up 1)
The Patriots are coming off consecutive losses in which their opposition put up some points, but even in those games, the defense wasn’t overwhelmed as much as it failed to make stops in key situations. Only the Saints have allowed a touchdown drive at a lower rate than the Patriots this season (17.1%). Rookie Christian Barmore has already racked up 42 total pressures, the third-most among first-year players.
3. Dallas Cowboys (Up 13)
At some point, it’s time to accept that the Dallas defense isn’t just vastly improved from a year ago, but it’s actually one of the best in the NFL, driven by elite performances from several key players. Rookie Micah Parsons is one of the best defenders in the game already, and at multiple positions. Parsons has 60 total pressures despite playing as an off-the-ball linebacker most of the time.
Cornerback Trevon Diggs may not be quite as good as his league-leading interception total suggests, but those picks are the most valuable plays a defense can generate outside of also scoring on the turnover. No defense has forced more turnovers than Dallas.
4. New Orleans Saints (Up 1)
The Saints’ season has gone off the rails since losing Jameis Winston to a season-ending injury, but their defense is as good as ever. The unit made life very tough for Miami on Monday Night Football, only to still lose by 17 because rookie Ian Book was forced to start at quarterback. New Orleans has allowed a touchdown drive at the lowest rate in the NFL this season (16.6%) and has shown impressive depth despite injuries and COVID-19 leaving the team without key players.
5. Denver Broncos (Up 3)
Any defense with Vic Fangio involved as a coach is going to be good, and the Denver unit has had some elite performances this season despite lacking quality personnel in some areas. The Broncos have been forced deep into contingency plans at linebacker, with both starters lost for the season to injury, but players like Jonas Griffith are still performing well in relief. Denver ranks third in the league in touchdown drive rate and seventh in successful play rate as a defense. The team's stable of impressive defensive backs gives it strength in vital areas to defend the pass.
6. Arizona Cardinals (Down 4)
It would be harsh to say the wheels have fallen off this defense, but cracks have started to appear where none were earlier in the season. All of a sudden, the Cardinals are struggling to stop the run, allowing 4.5 yards per carry on average and the worst yards after contact per carry figure in the NFL. At the same time, they are keeping 2021 first-round rookie Zaven Collins — a player who might be able to do something about that — on the bench. This defense needs Chandler Jones, in particular, to be playing at his best, and his most recent elite PFF game grade came in Week 11.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No Change)
Tampa Bay’s defense continues to deal with injuries, forcing depth players to assume a greater role to varying degrees of success. They are going to be without Shaquil Barrett for the remainder of the regular season at least due to a sprained knee, putting more on the shoulders of rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The 2021 first-round pick has shown obvious physical ability but is not the pass-rusher yet that Barrett is. Barrett boasts 75 pressures and an 81.0 PFF pass-rushing grade, whereas Tryon-Shoyinka’s grade in that area is just 62.8.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (Up 13)
How good Kansas City’s offense is remains somewhat up in the air, but there's little doubt that their defense is cooking at this stage. A game against Cincinnati’s high-flying offense this week may propel them even further up the rankings. Chris Jones aligned back inside is a wrecking ball, amassing 58 pressures this season. Frank Clark has his highest PFF pass-rushing grade (69.9) since 2018, and Melvin Ingram has accrued multiple pressures in every game since the team acquired him from Pittsburgh. The Chiefs allowed over 17 points just once in their past eight games, and that came against Justin Herbert and the Chargers.
9. Los Angeles Rams (Up 2)
The Rams boast the second-best pressure rate of any defense in the league, built largely on the back of Aaron Donald, who has been playing at his very best in recent weeks. Donald’s 81 pressures lead all interior players, and he is only six short of catching Maxx Crosby for the league lead at any position. Thirty-four of Donald's pressures are from the past four games, too.
10. Carolina Panthers (Down 6)
The back half of the season has not gone well for Carolina, but at least the defense remains a formidable unit. Brian Burns and Haason Reddick each have over 40 pressures on the edge, and three interior rushers have cleared 20 each.
The Panthers rank sixth in the league in yards per pass allowed (6.7), and Stephon Gilmore‘s play since he made it back onto the field suggests there are still plenty of high-quality performances left in the tank going forward.
11. Miami Dolphins (Up 7)
It’s hard to separate the run that Miami’s defense is on from the quarterbacks they have faced over that stretch. Among them, only Lamar Jackson is a formidable name in 2021, and even he has struggled for large portions of the season. That being said, Miami’s blitz-heavy nature is suffocating to those quarterbacks. No team blitzes more than Miami (43.1%), and the same is true for the team's defensive backs (26.4%). The Dolphins have trust in their coverage players on the backend to hold up if the pressure doesn’t get home and the ball comes out. A platoon of underrated defensive linemen — seven of whom have at least 20 pressures this season — help make the entire structure work.
Tyrod Taylor, Lamar Jackson, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, PJ Walker, Mike Glennon, Zach Wilson, Ian Book
The quarterbacks during the Dolphins 7 game win streak
— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) December 28, 2021
12. Philadelphia Eagles (Up 7)
One of the best seasons of Darius Slay‘s career has helped propel Philadelphia up the rankings, among other standouts. Slay now carries an 85.9 PFF coverage grade, is allowing a 73.9 passer rating when targeted and has multiple defensive scores to his name.
T.J. Edwards has begun to emerge as a quality linebacker to fill a desperate need for the team. He has above-average PFF grades across the board and a 75.2 overall mark, and his stat line in coverage includes an interception and four pass breakups.
13. Tennessee Titans (Up 3)
The strength of the Titans' defense is at the safety position, with both Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker arguably playing at an All-Pro level. They have the two best overall PFF grades on the unit, but Jeffery Simmons being able to turn it on and dominate up front has certainly been a factor in the defense's favor, as well. Simmons 57 pressures, two behind Harold Landry for the team lead. The Titans as a whole have been significantly better against the pass, ranking 11th in EPA per play allowed on passing plays, thanks largely to the play of those safeties.
14. Indianapolis Colts (Up 3)
The Colts have been a turnover machine for much of the season, with linebacker Darius Leonard, in particular, perfecting the peanut-punch method of tackling and punching the ball out at the same time. Leonard has forced six fumbles and tallied three interceptions alone, but eight other Colts defenders have also registered forced fumbles this season. Only the Cowboys are forcing turnovers at a greater rate than the Colts this season, and that has been able to make up for some weaknesses in personnel on defense.
15. Green Bay Packers (Down 5)
The Packers' defense has struggled in recent weeks against some impressive offenses and some not-so-impressive offenses. The good news for them, as they look to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, is that they are still expecting legitimate reinforcements in the form of Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith. Those two players were the team's best defenders in 2020 but have combined for just 237 snaps this season. In Smith’s absence, Rashan Gary has developed into an elite pass-rusher, racking up 68 pressures and an 86.0 PFF pass-rushing grade this season.
16. Cincinnati Bengals (Down 2)
Few defenses have as wide a range of performance as the Bengals this season. Sometimes they look excellent and cause real problems for opposing offenses, and on other occasions they little more than a speed-bump for the opposition. Trey Hendrickson has proved to be an excellent free-agent acquisition, building on the career year that got him paid in the first place. He has 71 pressures, already 21 more than a year ago, and an 84.5 PFF pass-rushing grade, a significant jump on his previous career high.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (Down 2)
The Steelers defense is no longer Blitzburgh, nor is it the best in the league at generating pressure. They rank just eighth in blitz rate (28.5%) and 18th in pressure rate as a unit. This time last year, they were leading the league in pressure rate and threatening all-time marks for how often they were putting opposing quarterbacks under duress. Even T.J. Watt, phenomenal as he has been, has generated pressure at a lower rate than in the past. However, his pressure numbers are skewed toward sacks, where he has one of the best rates relative to pass-rushing snaps in the game.
18. San Francisco 49ers (Up 6)
San Francisco has rescued its season and looks headed for the playoffs, even as a late-season injury to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo throws some doubt into the equation. Part of that revival in fortune has been down to the defense, which has massively picked up its game over the season.
Nick Bosa now has 70 pressures on the year and a 90.1 PFF pass-rushing grade. Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam and even Arden Key have also been real factors in recent weeks in applying pressure on the quarterback.
19. Cleveland Browns (Down 7)
The Browns are struggling to deal with the loss of key players to injury or the COVID-19 list, and that has certainly had an impact on their defense. They still held up against an elite offense when they effectively stopped Green Bay from scoring in the second half in Week 16, but it’s just been less consistent than it was earlier in the season. Myles Garrett has 71 pressures and a 92.7 PFF pass-rushing grade. He is arguably the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, and he is now more of a one-man band compared to earlier in the year.
20. Minnesota Vikings (Down 7)
If the NFL played only third downs, the Vikings would be one of the league's best defense. Mike Zimmer is still capable of dialing up plays to get his defense off the field, he just can’t hide the problems on all of the other downs. Minnesota ranks 18th in successful play allowed rate overall but fourth on third down. The team still has major personnel problems both at pass-rusher without Danielle Hunter and at cornerback, where four out of the top five players have allowed a 100.0-plus passer rating this season.
21. Baltimore Ravens (Down 12)
Few teams have been dealt as rough a hand as the Ravens when it comes to injuries. Baltimore enjoyed incredible depth in the secondary heading into the year and yet is still down to players who are being called up to the active roster during the same week to cover top NFL receivers. Rookie Odafe Oweh leads the team in pressures (49), and the team ranks just 28th in pressure rate, in part because it’s just too easy to pass the ball against that injury-riddled secondary.
22. Chicago Bears (Up 1)
In a year that makes no sense, few things will rival the madness of the Chicago Bears, while missing their entire starting secondary, holding Kirk Cousins to a career-low 87 passing yards in Week 15. The Bears have dealt with a lot of injuries, but it hasn’t always mattered, such as in games like that Vikings matchup. Robert Quinn is vying for the league lead in sacks but has just 42 pressures overall, giving him one of the most lopsided pressure-to-sack rates of any player in the league. Outside of Quinn, the next highest pressure total on the team is just 24, and the team ranks 27th in pressure rate overall.
23. Seattle Seahawks (Up 3)
Seattle’s defense has certainly been better than it was early in the year, but it’s still a far cry from being good. And any resemblance this unit bears to the famed Legion of Boom is purely aesthetic. Seattle isn’t quite catastrophic at anything but is below average at almost everything. Bobby Wagner is, predictably, the only member of the unit with at least above-average PFF grades in every facet of play, and he has 51 defensive stops to his name.
24. New York Giants (Up 1)
While many Giants have put together solid individual performances on defense, the unit is far from a well-oiled machine. Leonard Williams leads the team with 43 pressures and is one of New York's highest-graded players. Xavier Mckinney is showing the talent that made him a second-round pick in 2020, intercepting five passes and grading well across the board. The issue has been in the poor performers, with four players who have at least 150 snaps earning a PFF grade below 50.0.
25. Los Angeles Chargers (Down 3)
Joey Bosa is one of the best defensive linemen in the game, but lately, this defense hasn’t been giving him enough help. Bosa is responsible for 62 pressures, yet he and Derwin James are the only Chargers defenders with 70.0-plus overall PFF grades for the season. Brandon Staley’s Rams defense last season led the league in passer rating allowed to opposing quarterbacks, but the Chargers this season rank just 21st, and that’s the stronger area of their game. Against the run, they rank 29th in yards per attempt and 31st in EPA per play allowed.
26. Las Vegas Raiders (Down 6)
The Raiders no longer lead the league in pressure rate. At 38.0%, they now have the third-best pressure rate of any team, trailing the Rams and Packers. Maxx Crosby still leads the league in total pressures (87), but the gap is closing between him and the chasing pack. The biggest issue for the Raiders, though, is that their pass defense has nose-dived, with the team allowing a 107.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
27. Houston Texans (Up 3)
The Texans' entire approach to this season appears to have been scattershot and absent of a coherent strategy. They have now used 40 different players on defense this season, with the majority of them earning poor PFF grades. Some success stories have arisen — such as Jonathan Greenard’s 87.0 overall grade — but they have been few and far between. Cornerback Tavierre Thomas is the only defensive back to see significant playing time this season with even an average grade, and he has been impressive, allowing just a 44.1 passer rating when targeted.
28. Detroit Lions (Up 3)
The Lions certainly play hard for head coach Dan Campbell, but they don’t necessarily play well, especially on defense. There isn’t a member of the unit with an overall PFF grade this season over 77.0, and just one full-time starter is even above 70.0. The biggest issues have come in coverage, where the Lions have allowed a 17.3% explosive pass rate, 30th in the NFL. Only the Atlanta Falcons are generating pressure at a lower rate than Detroit, which has applied heat on the quarterback just 24.3% of the time.
29. Atlanta Falcons (Down 1)
There is no team worse at rushing the passer this season than the Falcons. The team now has a pressure rate of just 20.2%, by far the lowest mark in the NFL. Over the past month, the entire Atlanta defense has two fewer pressures than Aaron Donald has by himself. The Falcons are allowing a 107.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks despite having a cornerback in A.J. Terrell who is playing at an All-Pro level. Terrell has allowed just 42.9% of passes thrown his way to be caught this season, the best mark in the league.
30. Washington Football Team (Down 1)
Washington’s defense isn’t just bad; its worst play comes during the most high-leverage situations. The Football Team are extremely vulnerable to the pass in general, but on third downs this season, they are giving up a 129.0 passer rating, by far the worst mark in the NFL. Losing Chase Young to injury, among others, certainly doesn't help, but this defense simply hasn’t been able to stop the leaks that have been apparent all year. The unit is simply too easy to attack when teams have to make a play.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (Down 4)
The Jaguars' defense can’t stop the pass well enough, and the problems originate in the secondary. Three cornerbacks hold sub-45.0 PFF coverage grades on the season, and even the better performers and those who have played the most snaps are giving up a 111.8 passer rating (Shaquill Griffin) and a 90.3 passer rating (Tyson Campbell). The team plays some variant of Cover 1 or Cover 3 on 59% of its snaps, and opponents are too easily attacking that.
32. New York Jets (No Change)
Whatever your favorite defensive statistic is, the Jets are probably the worst in the NFL at it. They are giving up the highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (113.6) and the highest rate of explosive passing plays (18.4%), and they allow both scoring drives and touchdown drives at the highest rate in the NFL.
John Franklin-Myers is a rare bright spot, notching 45 pressures and an 80.8 overall PFF grade. Bryce Hall has been in a tough situation in the secondary but has acquitted himself relatively well, and he may have earned himself a role in the future. He's broken up 13 passes on the season.