They say defense wins championships. However, when you read who has the best defense in the NFL following the close out of 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 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. Still, 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 as we progress through each week of the regular season is look at the games that have passed to stack these units.
Who Has the Best Defense in the NFL?
The Cleveland Browns have the best defense in the NFL.
Jim Schwartz should never have to buy a meal in the Cleveland area for the rest of his life. If anybody tries to tell you that coaches are overrated, as a former radio colleague of mine used to say, show them the 2022-23 Browns defense compared to this season.
Schwartz’s rush packages paired with allowing his talented defensive backfield to think less (zone) and react more (man) took this defense to the stratosphere.
This Browns’ defense is one of the best we’ve seen over the past decade. Because the Cleveland pass rush was so devastating and its defensive backfield so sticky, they boasted the best success rate (36.5%) in the past decade. But what might be even more insane is their dropback success rate (36.3%) was lower than their rushing success rate (36.8%).
Ranking the Remaining NFL Defenses
2) Baltimore Ravens
In most seasons, the Ravens’ defense would surely be considered the best in the NFL. There are probably folks out there who, despite Clevelands’ statistical dominance, believe that Baltimore had the top unit.
Kyle Hamilton — unsurprisingly to anybody not worried about a single poor college performance — has quickly become one of the best safeties in the NFL. Jadeveon Clowney finally emerged as a pass rusher alongside his run-stopping ability, and Mike Macdonald’s scheme has flourished alongside the efforts of two above-average-to-elite linebackers.
Both Baltimore and Cleveland dominated that space, and it paid dividends. Cleveland ranked 10th in rushing success rate, and the Ravens were 22nd! They were 15th and 16th, respectively, in rushing EPA.
It pays to defend the pass while surviving against the run.
3) New York Jets
It’s impossible not to feel bad for the New York Jets defense, especially when looking at what Cleveland has accomplished. New York has the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL, and their second level flies to the football.
MORE: NFL Playoff Predictor
They force quarterbacks into consistent throwing windows the size of a half-window in a coupe rather than one of a New York City penthouse, but the second-most successful NFL defense has been let down in consecutive seasons by a horrendous offense.
4) Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys fans may argue with this placement, but they shouldn’t. While the Cowboys’ run defense is a bit of an Achilles heel — they’re dead last in success rate — their passing defense and pass rush more than compensate for that in what’s decidedly a passing league.
5) Kansas City Chiefs
Ja’Marr Chase downplayed the Chiefs’ individual ability to cover him, but in the same breath spoke about how their defense understands how to send help and make life difficult for him and the other Bengals.
That is a testament to Steve Spagnoulo, who is arguably the best individual game planner on the defensive side of the football in the entire league. In a year where the Chiefs’ offense looks suspiciously unlike years past, their defense has kept them afloat.
6) San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco ranks lower analytically than they do on this list, but anybody who has watched this unit player over the better part of three NFL seasons understands the vast talent at all three levels of the field.
Kyle Shanahan’s defense (yes, you read that right) can bring consistent pressure with four defensive linemen, have arguably the best coverage linebacker of all time patrolling the middle, and Charvarius Ward doing his best to lock down a side of the 49ers passing defense.
7) New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ defense never feels particularly impressive, but they’ve arguably been the most consistent unit in the NFL over the past half-decade. Dennis Allen and the New Orleans offense haven’t figured things out, but his coaching on the defensive side of the ball has kept them near the top of EPA and success rate for years now.
They finished the season fifth in EPA and third in success rate for the season.
8) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ defense doesn’t make sense either. The only explanation is that T.J. Watt is a wizard who lulls opposing offenses into underachieving.
Patrick Peterson is not it. Levi Wallace is not it. Somewhere right now (a random weekday with no football), Joey Porter Jr. has a firm grasp of a wide receiver’s jersey.
But the results speak for themselves: They’re 11th in EPA and eighth in success rate.
9) Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ defensive collapse and subsequent turnaround was a remarkable showcase from Sean McDermott. From Weeks 5-9, the Bills ranked 30th in defensive EPA. They were a shell of their former selves after Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White, and DaQuan Jones all suffered injuries in rapid succession.
From Weeks 10-18, they ranked fifth. That resurgence played a significant role in their late-season push for the division title.
10) Las Vegas Raiders
The only explanation for the Raiders’ resurgent defense is that Maxx Crosby’s selfless 150% defensive snap rate (don’t fact-check that) propelled this underwhelming roster to new heights. The Raiders’ defensive unit still largely lacks a spine, which is becoming evermore critical for NFL defenses.
But Nate Hobbs came back with a vengeance in 2023 after struggling in his sophomore season, and it finally feels like Patrick Graham’s schematic prowess is being met by his players.
11) New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is no more, and his presence on the defensive side of the ball in New England will be sorely missed.
He coaches circles around you on the defensive side of the ball. Despite losing what felt like every difference-making player on his defensive depth chart, the Patriots’ defense finished the season ranking eighth in EPA and seventh in success rate.
12) Atlanta Falcons
It’s easy to discount the Falcons’ defensive production considering the lackluster schedule they played. However, Atlanta deserves credit for realizing just how integral good safety play can be for defensive success.
The addition of Jessie Bates III completely changed the outlook of this defense. Adding veteran talents on the defensive line also helped, but Bates was unbelievably productive in Ryan Neilson’s defensive scheme derived from Allen in New Orleans.
13) Chicago Bears
It may have surprised casual viewers to see Matt Eberflus returning for 2024, but considering the Bears’ defensive and overall turnaround in the second half of the season, it makes sense. Chicago somehow ended up 16th in defensive EPA and 10th in success rate. And in the back half of the season, they ranked third in defensive EPA with the seventh-best success rate.
And they’ve accomplished that without a legitimate pass rusher.
14) Minnesota Vikings
There were better NFL defenses in 2023, but none have been more entertaining than the Vikings under the tutelage of Brian Flores. He found a way to bring Harrison Smith back to life in a big way while also making do with an underwhelming secondary, at least on paper.
Although they ended up falling statistically late in the year, what Flores accomplished with an underwhelming roster is nothing short of impressive.
15) Houston Texans
There’s something in the water down in the AFC South because the Texans’ defense tells a similar story to that of Indianapolis.
Houston was ninth in overall success rate. They have a ton of individual talent and some key glue pieces that could make this unit a legitimate contender for the top 10 a year from now if they can add a Robin to Will Anderson’s Batman.
MORE: PFN’s All-Pro Team
But Houston’s defense didn’t feel like a top-10 defense, despite their statistical output. In that respect, they are the antithesis of Minnesota. But their future potential is apparent.
16) Miami Dolphins
The Miami defense turned the corner after Jalen Ramsey’s arrival, but losing Bradley Chubb in a game that was already decided hurts their ability to consistently produce pressure.
The Ravens game was not indicative of the Dolphins’ defensive abilities. They were coming off a game against Dallas where they played well, and they shut the Jets out the week before. Even though it’s the Jets, it’s not easy to shut out teams in the NFL.
17) Jacksonville Jaguars
Josh Allen turned the corner in 2023. Travon Walker hasn’t rounded into a consistently dominant pass rusher yet, but he’s already an incredibly impressive football player. Their linebacker play is above average, and their defensive backfield is talented.
But for some reason, they don’t always feel like a cohesive unit. Baker Mayfield demolished them. They made Jake Browning look like Joe Burrow in his first NFL start.
Jacksonville started the season hot defensively but has fallen off since the 49ers game post-bye, which seems to be a trend for many defenses post-49ers offense.
18) Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ defense is young and, at times, inconsistent, but they’re well-coached despite that youth, and Aaron Donald is still very much Aaron Donald on the defensive interior. They hit hard on draft picks Kobie Turner and Byron Young in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, and the John Johnson III reunion has gone well.
19) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were an average defense, and their week-to-week variability perfectly encapsulates that. They’ve done a nice job turning the ball over, and they were also average in defensive series success rate, but they’ll also have series and games where they effectively fall apart, dropping their overall defensive efficiency.
20) Denver Broncos
The Broncos did a great job turning around their fortunes after arguably the most embarrassing defensive performance in NFL history. However, they still need to fine-tune their defensive personnel in the offseason. Randy Gregory did not work out in Denver, and they could use a complementary cornerback opposite of Patrick Surtain II.
21) Detroit Lions
The Lions defense has been a tale of two halves this season. They were great early on but faded as injuries started taking a toll on their secondary. However, Aidan Hutchinson can still turn it on when it matters. He’s growing into an impressive QB-hunter, but he needs a bit of help on the opposite side.
22) New York Giants
Wink Martindale and the Giants went in different directions, and it throws into question the future of Deonte Banks, a tried and true press-man cornerback. Will the Giants remain aggressive on that side of the ball or implement a more “modern” approach in 2024?
The New York defense underwhelmed from a pass-rushing perspective in 2023, but its defense could have been worse, considering what Martindale was working with at cornerback.
23) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have arguably the best safety in the NFL and what is supposed to be two above-average cornerbacks on the outside. Vita Vea is a monster on the interior, and Calijah Kancey has been wonderful as a rookie.
But that secondary has consistently allowed big plays at an unforgivable rate this season, and their pass rush has one of the lowest pressure rates in the NFL.
24) Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander was suspended, and Joe Barry is still calling the defensive shots. So … things are going well in Green Bay. Only the Seahawks, Eagles, and Cardinals have posted worse series results defensively. Few defenses turn the ball over at a lower rate, and no team allows a higher percentage of first downs at the start of an offensive series.
The players have underwhelmed, but at some point, Matt LaFleur needs to look at the coaching staff.
25) Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle defense hasn’t found its groove despite boasting some impressive defensive talent. The team’s new-look defense didn’t work. Pete Carroll did a nice job evolving with the times, but the unit never ironed out the kinks in their armor. In the end, Carroll and the Seahawks parted after a legendary run with the team.
26) Tennessee Titans
The Titans’ defense was supposed to be one of their team’s few strengths in 2023, but that’s been far from the case. Injuries haven’t helped, but the reality is that things fell apart in Tennessee before many of its serious injuries popped up.
MORE: PFN’s NFL Awards
Their strong defensive front wasn’t enough to make up for their problems on the back end. They finished 28th in EPA and 25th in success rate.
27) Cincinnati Bengals
Lou Anarumo is one of the greatest defensive minds in the game. Even though the Bengals’ defense never found its footing in 2023, Anarumo will be a head coaching candidate again this cycle because he is a leading defensive mind in the league.
In the end, sometimes scheme or deployment is a problem. For the Bengals, the middle of their secondary fell apart after letting both safeties walk in free agency.
28) Los Angeles Chargers
Joey Bosa can’t stay healthy, Kenneth Murray Jr. never really worked out at the next level, and the Chargers defensive backfield has been an abject disaster in 2023. J.C. Jackson was always an awkward fit for Brandon Staley’s defense, and that culminated in his departure from the roster in just his second year with the team.
He played seven games for the Chargers.
29) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers had produced a few impressive defenses despite somewhat lackluster talent in years prior, but the unit is the worst in the league rushing the passer.
According to Pro Football Reference, they have the lowest pressure rate in the league and their 27 sacks were three fewer than any other team in the league. Five teams have over double that amount.
30) Philadelphia Eagles
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Eagles banked their defense on no-name linebackers, underwhelming safeties, and multiple cornerbacks in their 30s. Even with an unbelievably talented defensive front, their unit fell apart.
They quietly demoted Sean Desai, but the switch to Matt Patricia hasn’t improved the product. They finished 29th in defensive EPA and 27th in success rate but were in front of only Seattle over the back half of the season in EPA.
31) Arizona Cardinals
Eagles fans can maybe take some solace in knowing that the Cardinals’ defense with Jonathan Gannon is statistically the worst in the NFL, but one look at their defensive depth chart makes it clear that the Cardinals unit should be much, much worse than Philadelphia, but the gap isn’t so large.
Arizona is feisty, which keeps them from the bottom spot. They might be “worse” than the Commanders, but their effort and relative success keeps them from the bottom spot.
Who Has the Worst Defense in the NFL?
The Washington Commanders have the worst defense in the NFL. There were analytically worse units in the league, but no unit is as embarrassing to watch.
Washington punted on their season when they traded their only two edge rushers, forcing a defensive backfield that already allowed big plays to take on even more responsibility, which they’ve skirted to make way for open receivers.
Want to predict the results of the 2023 NFL postseason with our FREE NFL Playoff Predictor? How about looking into in-depth breakdowns of team depth charts or the NFL playoff schedule? Pro Football Network has you covered with all that and more!