The undefeated Carolina Panthers are one of several teams fielding a top-tier defense early on in the 2021 NFL season, joining the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Rams — last year’s No. 1 unit. But while some defenses are on the come-up, others are sliding down the charts, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers among the most notable fallers.
Here are the best and worst defenses in the NFL heading into Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season.
Click here for more PFF tools:
|New Orleans Saints||-0.178||4||-0.226||10||-0.157||6|
|New England Patriots||-0.147||6||-0.109||20||-0.180||5|
|New York Jets||-0.085||8||-0.310||5||0.105||19|
|Los Angeles Rams||-0.015||13||0.027||31||-0.031||8|
|Las Vegas Raiders||-0.015||14||-0.170||14||0.053||14|
|Los Angeles Chargers||-0.007||16||0.017||29||-0.023||9|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||-0.004||17||-0.349||4||0.121||21|
|San Francisco 49ers||0.045||22||-0.048||24||0.092||16|
|Green Bay Packers||0.092||28||-0.095||23||0.218||26|
|Washington Football Team||0.101||29||-0.117||19||0.227||27|
|New York Giants||0.107||30||-0.025||27||0.171||24|
|Kansas City Chiefs||0.176||32||0.131||32||0.211||25|
Head coach Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme is at the forefront of where the NFL is going, and he got a massive personnel upgrade this past offseason. Von Miller is back and looking like one of the best pass-rushers in the league once again, racking up 15 total pressures across three games. First-round cornerback Patrick Surtain II has already been making plays, and the Broncos can now go four deep at the position with Bryce Callahan, Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller once Darby returns from injury. Denver’s defense is allowing just a 60.6 passer rating, the best mark in the league.
It’s impossible to talk about the Panthers' defense without throwing out the caveat of who they have faced. The Jets and Texans were expected to be among the worst teams in the league this season, while the Saints have been away from home for a month due to a hurricane and were missing eight positional coaches due to COVID-19 when they played Carolina.
Other content you might like: Jaguars trade former first-round CB C.J. Henderson to Panthers via PFF News Staff
That being said, the Panthers' defense has been nasty, pressuring quarterbacks at a league-leading 47.6% rate and allowing just 30 rushing yards before contact across three games. Shaq Thompson is having a career year at linebacker, making plays in all facets of play, while Haason Reddick and Brian Burns have combined for 24 pressures as an edge-rushing duo.
Some regression from the league’s best unit was to be expected this year, but the Rams' defense is still a quality unit. They lost John Johnson III and Troy Hill to the Browns in the offseason, as well as the man behind the scheme in Brandon Staley. New defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has kept the same system, though, and that continuity seems to have worked.
Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey remain two of the best players in all of football, with Donald already racking up 19 total pressures and Ramsey now playing extensively in the slot to be closer to the action. An unexpected boost has come from linebacker Troy Reeder, whose 78.9 overall PFF grade reflects a big upgrade at the position from a year ago.
Lost in all of the offseason focus on Jameis Winston and the succession plan for Drew Brees at quarterback was the fact that the Saints' defense would likely remain extremely potent, and that’s exactly what has happened. Even dealing with several losses so far this season, the Saints have had a dominant run defense, allowing just 11 rushing first downs and 1.8 yards after contact per attempt, the second-best mark in the league. Only Denver and New England are allowing a lower passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
The Saints do have some weaknesses, and it will be interesting to see if they can continue to get by with their cornerback group beyond Marshon Lattimore as the season progresses.