They say defense wins championships. However, when you read who has the best defense in the NFL as we progress through the regular season, you’ll understand why we should be skeptical of that old saying.
The NFL is an offensive league now. The rules committee has mostly rightfully legislated away the unnecessary violence from the game, but they have also made playing defensive back in the NFL impossible.
Defense isn’t sticky from year to year. Consistency comes and goes because defensive personnel changes so frequently. But opposing QB play is sometimes an even bigger catalyst for defensive performance. Coverage is king, but the nature of coverage makes it tricky to predict.
The pass rush is more consistent, which is why those players often make more money than their defensive-back counterparts. But the great defenses boast both. Because of the volatile nature of defensive play in the NFL, all we can do until we see more regular-season games is look at the depth charts on paper and the games that have passed to stack these units.
From the current NFL standings to team depth charts to coverage of every game in the 18-week NFL schedule, we have all the news from around the league to keep you up to speed!
Who Has the Best Defense in the NFL?
The Cleveland Browns have the best defense in the NFL. It’s important, though, to note the competition they’ve faced thus far. They started with the Cincinnati Bengals in awful weather. Then, they moved on to a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that looked lost in Week 2, and they finished with a dominating performance against the Tennessee Titans, who have arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL.
But when you’ve produced the three best success rate games defensively on the season, the competition means very little. This defense has needed to show up every week, and so far, they have.
Even though their efficiency dropped after facing the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, they still ranked 11th in success rate on the week. Cleveland’s defense was put in precarious positions because their offense was unable to move the ball, sustain drives, or take care of the football.
Jim Schwartz has always had Kyle Shanahan’s number, and this iteration was no different. The Browns’ defense performed so well against the 49ers that the team beat the undefeated West Coast foe with backup quarterback P.J. Walker playing under center. The Browns are looking like one of the best defenses in the past decade through five games.
Ranking the Remaining NFL Defenses
2) Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens’ defense allowed 3.9 yards per play against the Indianapolis Colts. In 16 drives, they held the Colts to 22 points. The one Indianapolis TD came on a 73-yard drive, and it was their only offensive drive of more than two first downs gained (and the only drive of over 50 yards).
The Houston Texans were likely still trying to figure things out, and Cincinnati’s offense was a train wreck to start the year. Still, the Ravens’ defense has been outrageous so far. They’re currently second in EPA and in success rate.
Baltimore’s defense certainly wasn’t at fault against Pittsburgh. While they ended up allowing the final drive to seal the game for the Steelers, their unit as a whole played another outstanding game. They’re well-coached and incredibly fast at the second level.
Although Derrick Henry looked dominant on the stat sheet with his 97 yards on 12 carries, a 63-yard run complicates his production. The Titans only managed nine non-penalty first downs for the game. They also converted just one first down on nine attempts.
3) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers haven’t been as dominant as Cleveland, but they’ve been a steady presence at the top of lists like this for years now.
They put Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett through the wringer in Week 1 and kept a revitalized Matthew Stafford in check during their Week 2 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. The New York Giants’ offensive line also never stood a chance against the 49ers’ front.
The slight rankings drop is courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona reeled off five consecutive drives of three or more first downs after starting the game relatively slow.
The defense was back in action against the Dallas Cowboys, and the Cowboys’ “Texas Coast” offense had absolutely no answers for Shanahan’s defense. 49ers LB Fred Warner causes Dallas QB Dak Prescott to have nightmares.
The 49ers defense continues to produce, but their efforts weren’t enough to overcome the unbelievable Browns unit on Sunday.
4) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys’ defense partially laid an egg against the San Francisco 49ers and got bludgeoned by an offense that is simply too dangerous and efficient to slow down. Dallas’s safeties, a unit flourishing early in the season, have not played well recently since getting safeties Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson back on the field full-time.
Sure, LB/EDGE Micah Parsons, EDGE Demarcus Lawrence, and DT Johnathan Hankins keep showing up, but losing LB Leighton Vander Esch could be a blow from which they’re unable to recover.
The Cowboys absolutely got after Justin Herbert on Monday Night Football. Although they did not finish with sacks often, they pressured Herbert on about half of his dropbacks, and because of it, he missed throws he almost never misses.
5) New York Jets
The Jets’ defense hasn’t seen the efficiency marks we expected from them, but having to face the Buffalo Bills and Cowboys in the first two weeks certainly did not help. While they rank 20th in EPA and 15th in defensive success rate, the talent on the roster is unquestionable.
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It was pretty clear that Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes was not playing at 100% against the Jets, but New York’s defense is perfectly set up to stop the explosive offenses of Buffalo and Kansas City. Despite losing some integral pieces on the back end, New York finally slowed down the talk about Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson being back in form.
The Jets defense doesn’t stack up to the rest from an EPA perspective (13th through six weeks), but what they’ve done to Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts is proof of how well-rounded this defense is, even when they’re not at full strength.
6) Buffalo Bills
Since their disappointing Week 1 performance against the Zach Wilson-led Jets, the Buffalo Bills’ entire team has dominated. Despite not getting home against Las Vegas in Week 2, Raiders QB Jimmy Garoppolo was intercepted twice, and his team only managed 10 points.
The veteran Buffalo defense toyed with Washington Commanders QB Sam Howell, who threw more interceptions (four) in Week 3 than his team scored points (three).
A solid defensive performance against the seemingly unstoppable Miami Dolphins’ offense was impressive, but the most impressive part of the day was seeing Buffalo’s defense adjust on the fly. After allowing consecutive touchdowns to start the contest, the Bills didn’t allow a first down on the next four Miami drives.
The adjustments worked.
Unfortunately, the Bills’ defense was unable to survive the turf at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. They lost LB Matt Milano for the season, and a handful of other defensive contributors were injured during the game.
7) Kansas City Chiefs
Don’t look now, but the Kansas City Chiefs have posted top-five defensive metrics so far this season. That should be a terrifying revelation for the NFL, considering their only weak points during their special five-year run have come on the defensive side of the ball.
To have top-five production over a three-week span while playing the Detroit Lions and the Jacksonville Jaguars is an accomplishment. At some point, we must acknowledge that this defense is legitimately good. They’re currently sixth in success rate and EPA, despite facing the Jaguars, Lions, and Minnesota Vikings.
The Chiefs defense continues to impress. They allowed just a single touchdown against the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football, and they held Russell Wilson to under 100 yards passing.
8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Vikings and the Eagles each possess good offenses that ask tough questions of opposing defenses. The Bears’ offense doesn’t, even though it did just one season ago.
The Buccaneers have arguably been one of the top run defenses in the NFL since 2019. They still very well could be, but having Philadelphia on the schedule early on will skew production in that area. In Week 4, they held the Saints to just 197 yards.
The Lions moved the ball against Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers are an outstanding bend-but-don’t-break unit. Their talent at all three levels really shows out in the red zone when space becomes tight. The Lions were unable to score in each of their red zone trips.
9) New Orleans Saints
It’s nearly impossible to come away from a Saints performance without being thoroughly impressed by CB Alontae Taylor. Every week, it seems he’s being tested to his absolute limits, and every week, he puts on a clinic on how to play through a WR’s hands at the catch point.
Pair him with CB Marshon Lattimore and a host of other veteran studs, and there’s a lot to like about this roster. Add HC Dennis Allen’s mark on the defense, and we have one of the best units in the league. A three-score fourth quarter for the Green Bay Packers leaves a sour taste, but New Orleans’ defense will be just fine in the end.
The Saints absolutely rocked the Patriots in Week 5. They allowed just one third-down conversion on 14 attempts and just 3.1 yards per play for the entire game. New England could only manage eight first downs, three of which were from penalties.
New Orleans is fifth in EPA and third in success rate, but they have yet to face a “good” offense. They did, however, give C.J. Stroud his first career interception while also holding him to under a 50% completion rate.
10) Detroit Lions
These Detroit Lions are not your normal Lions. While they were gifted mistakes against the Chiefs, the unit put on a strong showing against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Seattle Seahawks’ offense moved the ball consistently against them, but that could be a trend for that particular offense moving forward if the past two weeks are any indication.
Detroit’s pass rush is dominant, and it should only improve as EDGE Julian Okwara returns to action from injured reserve. Fellow EDGE Aidan Hutchinson continues making plays that defy logic. He was seen by many as the best defensive player from his draft class, and he’s already performing as one of the best defensive players in the NFL in the trenches.
Losing CB Emmanuel Moseley after just getting him back is a tough blow for him and the team, but this organization is different than it’s been. After a dominating defensive performance against Tampa Bay, the Lions are seventh in EPA and 12th in success rate.
11) Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons’ defense went from a complete liability to competency in the course of a single offseason. Still, the Falcons have faced Bryce Young, Jordan Love, and Jared Goff.
While Love and Goff have played well so far this season, we won’t know the true talent of Atlanta’s defense outside of a few individual weeks this season.
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The best QB they’re set to face this season is either Trevor Lawrence, Kirk Cousins, or Derek Carr, depending on how one ranks the three. They should perform at a high level for most of the season.
Atlanta’s offense laid an egg against Jacksonville in London, but the Falcons’ defense came away with the week’s eighth-best success rate against Lawrence. They had another good day against a Texans offense that has been surprisingly perky in 2023.
Atlanta is currently 12th in EPA and fifth in success rate.
12) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ secondary is questionable, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are an outstanding pair on the edges. They carry a large burden to produce big plays because of the inconsistencies in the defensive backfield, but they’ve produced well so far.
Pittsburgh’s middle-of-the-pack production seems right when looking at the roster on paper. If CB Joey Porter Jr. can come along quickly, it would go a long way in the secondary, but they have more than a few holes on the back end.
Pittsburgh’s efficiency and ranking are both elevated by the Ravens’ inability to catch the football. Still, that pass rush makes them a legitimate nightmare for opposing teams. If their secondary can actually figure things out, this unit could be incredibly dangerous.
13) Jacksonville Jaguars
If someone told you four weeks ago that the Jaguars’ defense would outperform its offense, you’d have admitted that person to Arkham Asylum. However, that has been the case so far in 2023, despite facing one of the best QBs in the NFL.
But things didn’t go as well against the Texans in Week 3, who thoroughly dominated all three phases of the game on their way to a 37-17 victory against the Jags.
Since their ugly performance against the Texans, the Jaguars defense has been on a tear. Turning the ball over at a high rate has helped spike their EPA ranking to ninth, but their 41.2% success rate is eighth-best in the league.
14) Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks’ run defense has been surprisingly sturdy so far. Their passing defense, however, has been horrific through three weeks.
The Seahawks are currently 20th in dropback EPA and 30th in dropback success rate. However, they are the most successful team against the run in the NFL.
The Seattle defense played well against the Bengals, but their offense could not get the job done late in the game, even though the defense kept affording them chances.
15) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have a real problem in the middle of their defense, but that only exists at the second and third levels. Injuries and unique roster construction have made the safety and linebacker rooms unappetizing. Yet, the assets they have thrown on the defensive line — a long-standing tradition — continue to produce results.
DT Jordan Davis has played well so far, and DT Jalen Carter, unsurprisingly because he was the best player in the 2023 NFL Draft, is looking like one of the best players in the NFL as a rookie. His 20 pressures are second in the NFL for the position. He’s also playing very well against the run.
Philly’s offense held the ball for 37 minutes against the Rams, which certainly helped the defense. However, Philadelphia’s defensive unit played an outstanding game against L.A., which returned WR Cooper Kupp to the lineup for the first time in Week 5.
16) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are 1-3, and their defense hasn’t been outstanding. Nonetheless, they’ve faced three talented offenses. Week 1 was a bit chalked because of the weather, but the Browns’ offensive line and RB Nick Chubb dominated the game.
The Ravens and Rams can both move the ball up and down the field, but Cincinnati was supposed to get back on track against the Titans. That is not what happened at all. Tennessee’s passing attack produced .418 EPA per play in Week 4.
The Cardinals’ offense made the defense answer difficult questions, but the Bengals were opportunistic with QB Josh Dobbs’ few mistakes, and the pass rush did a nice job of making his life difficult. They followed that performance up by dominating against the Seahawks’ passing attack.
17) Tennessee Titans
Week 3 against the Browns was one that the Titans’ whole team would like to put behind them, but the defense was particularly lackluster. Cleveland scored four times (three touchdowns and one field goal) on the final six offensive drives. In fact, QB Deshaun Watson played his most productive game as a Brown.
It certainly doesn’t help to always be on the field. Cleveland held the ball for nearly 40 minutes because Tennessee’s offense could only muster six first downs on the day.
The Titans’ defensive front is outstanding, but the unit as a whole has not produced to the standard we expected from a roster that impressive. Allowing Colts backup QB Gardner Minshew II to carve up your defense is not going to win this unit many fans over the next few days.
18) New England Patriots
The Patriots are currently 15th in defensive EPA and fourth in success rate. Before the season, we said that Bill Belichick wakes up with a top-five defense, and that has partially held true so far in 2023.
Those high rankings come despite facing the Eagles and Dolphins in the first two weeks of the season. Allowing 24 points to Miami feels like an accomplishment after watching them drop 70 against the Broncos.
However, against Dallas, New England had a rough day at the office. But that was mostly on the offense putting the defense in a bad position. It also doesn’t help that the Patriots were down most of their good defensive backs for the game and lost their best cornerback.
But with so many key pieces lost to injuries, it feels inevitable that their defensive performance will slip in the coming weeks.
19) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ defensive performance so far has been buoyed by a few high-quality turnovers.
Their pass defense has holes, but it’s also important to note that they’ve faced two great quarterbacks in Lawrence and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
The third, Houston’s Stroud, just decimated the Jaguars and has thrown for the third-most yards ever for a rookie through three games.
20) Houston Texans
The Texans’ defense hasn’t found consistent production yet, but they have a legitimate weapon in first-round pick EDGE/LB Will Anderson Jr. It doesn’t help that their best defensive back, Derek Stingley Jr., is injured at the moment.
With the Panthers, Buccaneers, Bengals, and Cardinals coming out of the bye week, we should have a better feel for this unit’s long-term viability.
21) Los Angeles Rams
Despite facing the Seahawks, 49ers, and Bengals, the Rams currently fall just outside of the top 10 in defensive success rate. They’ve managed decent results while managing just one takeaway in the first three weeks of the season.
It will be fascinating to see how well the defense can produce when they finally come across some “lesser” offensive opponents. Their EPA took a hit in Week 4 playing Anthony Richardson and the Colts’ explosive offense, but L.A.’s success rate remains inside of the top 10.
DT Aaron Donald is all the way back, and this young defense is outperforming expectations.
22) Green Bay Packers
LB Rashan Gary and DT Kenny Clark are outstanding talents, and there are more on the roster. Still, the Packers’ defense has consistently underproduced.
Much of that boils down to lackluster execution. Despite facing the Bears, Falcons, and Saints — who were without Derek Carr for a portion of the contest — the Packers’ defense ranks 14th in EPA and 20th in success rate.
23) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings blitz like crazy and have a lot of fun on the back end. However, their lack of high-caliber coverage players hurts them, but it’s been their underperforming run defense and schedule that have hurt them most.
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The Chargers and Eagles both possess talented offenses, and each had good days against Minnesota, even though the Vikings had chances against L.A.
The one thing to take from the Vikings’ defense so far is that they’ve found a way to reduce explosive plays better than anyone else so far in 2023.
24) Washington Commanders
The Washington Commanders’ defense shouldn’t be so low on this list, but they seem to be stuck allowing explosive plays in the passing game. They are currently 24th in EPA, despite ranking 12th in success rate. The miscommunications on the back end in 2021 have reared their ugly head once again through three weeks of play.
A defense cannot allow Chicago’s offense to put up 40 points on a short week at home and remain anywhere near where they were in the rankings the week before. There may not be a more boom-or-bust unit in the NFL. They’re either having communication issues 30 yards downfield or they’re intercepting opposing QBs three times.
25) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers’ defense has been disappointing so far in 2023, and they have nobody to blame but themselves. EDGE Brian Burns is the only legitimate pass rusher they have, and Carolina absolutely refuses to extend him to a long-term deal.
EDGE Derrick Brown is a great player, but he’s not necessarily the strongest pass rusher in the world.
The Lions absolutely toyed with the Panthers’ defense in Week 5, averaging 6.3 yards per play on the day.
26) Miami Dolphins
The Bills were the Miami Dolphins’ first real test since Week 1 against the Chargers — a game that their defensive efficiency is still trying to make up for. The Patriots are a well-coached but unexplosive offense. The Broncos — well, Miami’s offense could have allowed 69 points, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Miami’s defense might be a bit of an issue for them. Buffalo absolutely torched their secondary in Week 4. They currently rank 27th in EPA, and they are dead last in success rate. The only thing keeping them from being lower on the list are the offenses they’ve faced.
Facing the Giants’ offense is the equivalent of a powerhouse college football team scheduling Wagner in Week 1. It’s a tune-up game and a way to pad stats. Luckily for Miami, the fun continued with the Panthers in Week 6, but the Dolphins still have a ways to go defensively, and the Eagles’ rushing attack lurks in the shadows of Week 7.
27) Los Angeles Chargers
EDGE/LB Tuli Tuipulotu has already outproduced the entire Giants’ EDGE group in sacks and almost pressures so far this season. However, the Chargers’ defense is a wreck. They’ve posted the fourth-worst success rate in the NFL so far — facing Miami doesn’t help their production.
Unfortunately, many of the issues against Miami were self-inflicted, particularly on the back end. CB J.C. Jackson scored a huge contract in free agency, but he missed last season and was a healthy scratch in Week 3. The Chargers ended up trading him back to New England.
LB Khalil Mack had a career day against the Raiders’ right side, sacking rookie QB Aidan O’Connell an outrageous six times. The Chargers’ defense played well against the Cowboys, but Dak Prescott decided it was a great time to play out of his mind.
28) Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals’ defense isn’t talented on paper, and that is catching up to them. CBs Marco Wilson, Kei’Trel Clark, and S Jalen Thompson are not an attractive unit on the back end, but they’ve competed like crazy — even without S Budda Baker on the field.
While Arizona’s unit looked strong for the first few weeks, it appears that they peaked in high school (Week 3) against the Cowboys because the 49ers and Bengals had their number for four quarters.
29) New York Giants
The Giants haven’t had the easiest schedule so far. Facing the Cowboys, 49ers, Seahawks, and Dolphins have undoubtedly hurt their defensive output. However, they have struggled in disappointing avenues.
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Despite a high blitz rate, the team has been unable to get to the quarterback consistently. But games against the Raiders, Commanders, and Jets after the Bills in Week 6 will be welcome sights.
30) Las Vegas Raiders
Ranking 23rd in defensive EPA and 14th in success rate, despite facing the Broncos and Steelers offenses, is not ideal. Every day, it seems that ignoring the defensive interior on a roster is often the best indicator that a defense will not succeed in the NFL.
The Chargers tried that and failed. The Browns did it last season. And the Raiders fell into the same trap.
But Las Vegas’ Week 5 performance against Green Bay certainly helped the cause. This defense, which had seven INTs in the previous 21 games, picked off Jordan Love three times. That is not something they can count on moving forward.
31) Chicago Bears
The entire Bears team looked lifeless against the Packers, and the defense was just as culpable as the offense. Calling Chicago’s effort a pathetic display of football would be offensive to pathetic displays of football everywhere.
They can’t get any pressure, and without pressure, their lackluster secondary has no chance against NFL-caliber receivers. The same held true in Week 3 against the Chiefs, who scored 40 on the Bears and could have scored many more points if they had wanted to.
A week later, Chicago gave up 17 fourth-quarter points in a 31-28 loss to the Broncos. However, a solid performance against the Commanders takes them from the bottom spot in the rankings. It’s hard to be the worst when another unit is historically bad.
Who Has the Worst Defense in the NFL?
The Denver Broncos have the worst defense in the NFL. They’re the worst-performing team against the pass and the second-worst against the run. So, kudos to them for being equally bad in both phases of the defensive game.
All of this comes from a unit that was outstanding a season ago and boasts arguably the best cornerback in the league!