They say defense wins championships. However, when you read who has the best defense in the NFL as we near 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 recent history to stack these units.
Who Has the Best Defense in the NFL?
The Cleveland Browns have the best defense in the NFL. It’s important to note the competition they’ve faced thus far. They started with the Bengals in awful weather, then moved on to a Steelers offense that looked lost in Week 2, and have finished with a dominating performance against the 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’ve produced the best results in every single week.
How dominant have they been? Teams are averaging -.394 EPA per play with a 25.8% success rate. Jim Schwartz is in his bag, the pass rush is menacing, and the defensive backfield that has always been talented have finally realized their potential.
Ranking the Remaining NFL Defenses
2) San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 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 Kenny Pickett through the wringer in Week 1 and then kept a revitalized Matthew Stafford in check during their Week 2 matchup. The Giants’ offensive line never stood a chance against the 49ers’ front.
3) Buffalo Bills
Since a disappointing performance against the Zach Wilson-led Jets, the Buffalo Bills’ entire team has dominated. Despite not getting home against the Raiders in Week 2, Jimmy Garoppolo was intercepted twice, and Las Vegas managed 10 points. The veteran Bills defense toyed with Sam Howell, who threw more interceptions (4) in Week 3 than his team scored points (3).
4) New England Patriots
The New England Patriots are currently 11th in defensive EPA and fourth in success rate defensively. Before the season, we said that Bill Belichick wakes up with a top-five defense, and that has 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. Christian Gonzalez has been incredible as a rookie, and Belichick continues to make things difficult on opposing QBs.
5) New Orleans Saints
It’s nearly impossible to come away from a New Orleans Saints performance without being thoroughly impressed by Alontae Taylor. Every week, it seems he’s being tested to his absolute limits. And every week, he puts on teach tape on how to play through a WR’s hands at the catch point.
Pair him with Marshon Lattimore and a host of other veteran studs, and there is a lot to like about this roster. Add 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 Packers leaves a sour taste, but the Saints’ defense will be just fine in the end.
6) Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys’ defense might be the best in the league, but they forgot how to defend against the power rushing attack when they met the Arizona Cardinals. They played undisciplined football against a team they should have been able to dominate, which is about the best example of “any given Sunday” that we’ve seen.
They still rank third in EPA, third in dropback EPA, and second in dropback success rate. But getting bludgeoned by the run game won’t inspire confidence in Cowboys Nation.
7) Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens’ defense allowed 3.9 yards per play against the 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).
They are currently sixth in defensive EPA and second in success rate.
8) New York Jets
The New York Jets’ defense hasn’t seen the efficiency marks we expected from them, but having to face the Bills and Cowboys in the first two weeks certainly did not help. Although they rank 20th in EPA and 15th in defensive success rate, the talent on the roster is unquestionable.
They have talent at all three levels of the defense. The question now becomes how long will their spirits hold up having to play complementary to their offense with Wilson playing QB.
9) Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadlephia Eagles have a real problem in the middle of their defense, but that problem only exists at the second and third levels. Injuries and unique roster construction have made the safety and linebacker rooms unappetizing, but the assets they thrown on the defensive line, a long-standing tradition, continue to produce results.
Jordan Davis has played well so far. 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 so far as a rookie. His 15 pressures are second in the NFL for DTs, and his six pressures against double teams ranks second to Micah Parsons. And he hasn’t even started playing a ton of snaps yet.
10) Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals are 1-2, 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 Nick Chubb dominated the game.
The defense should get a bit of relief facing an underwhelming Titans offense next week. The Cardinals’ offense shouldn’t give them too many issues either, but if you ask Dallas, they’d tell them to be careful about that one, because James Conner runs incredibly hard.
11) Tennessee Titans
Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns was one that the Tennessee Titans’ whole team would like to put behind them. But the defense was particularly lackluster. Cleveland scored four times (three touchdowns, one field goal) on the final six offensive drives. Deshaun Watson played his most productive game as a Cleveland Brown.
However, it certainly doesn’t help to always be on the field. Cleveland held the ball for nearly 40 minutes because the Titans’ offense could only muster six first downs on the day.
12) Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers rank inside of the top 10 in EPA and are a middle-of-the-pack team when looking at success rate. The secondary is questionable, but T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith are an outstanding pair on the edges. They carry a large burden to produce because of the inconsistencies in the defensive backfield, but they continue to produce so far.
The unit is also opportunistic. Their eight turnovers forced ranks second in the NFL, and their four fumbles forced in three games ranks second as well.
13) Kansas City Chiefs
Don’t look now, but the Kansas City Chiefs have posted top-five defensive metrics so far in 2023. 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 Detroit and Jacksonville is an accomplishment.
14) Detroit Lions
These Detroit Lions are not your normal Detroit Lions. Although they were gifted mistakes against the Chiefs, the unit put on a strong showing against Kansas City. Although the Seahawks’ offense moved the ball consistently against them, that could be a trend for that particular offense moving forward if the past two weeks are any indication.
They are currently 13th in EPA and 10th in success rate.
15) 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 19th in EPA despite ranking seventh in success rate. The miscommunications on the back end in 2021 have reared its ugly head once again through three weeks of play.
16) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia 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 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have long been arguably the best run defense in the NFL since 2019. They still very well could be, but having the Eagles on the schedule early on will skew production in that area.
17) Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons’ defense went from complete liability to competency in the course of a single offseason. However, the Falcons have faced Bryce Young, Jordan Love, and Jared Goff. While Love and Goff have played well in 2023, we won’t know the true talent of the Falcons’ defense outside of a few individual weeks this season.
The best QB they’re set to face in 2023 is either Trevor Lawrence, Kirk Cousins, or Derek Carr, depending on how one ranks the three passers.
18) Miami Dolphins
The Bills will be the Miami Dolphins’ first real test since Week 1 against the Los Angeles 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.
Getting Jaelan Phillips back healthy for the Bills game will be huge for their defensive line, which must contend against Josh Allen for four quarters.
19) Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis 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 Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson. The third, C.J. Stroud, just decimated the Jaguars and has thrown for the third-most yards ever for a rookie through three games.
20) Los Angeles Rams
Despite facing the Seahawks, 49ers, and Bengals, the Los Angeles Rams currently fall just outside of the top 10 in defensive success rate. They’ve managed decent defensive results while managing just one takeaway in the first three weeks of the season. It will be fascinating to see how well the Rams’ defense can produce when they finally come across some “lesser” offensive opponents.
21) Jacksonville Jaguars
If someone told you four weeks ago that the Jacksonville 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, who thoroughly dominated all three phases of the game on their way to a 37-17 victory against Jacksonville.
22) Green Bay Packers
Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark are outstanding talents, and there are more on the roster. But the Green Bay Packers’ defense has consistently underproduced. Much of that boils down to lackluster execution. Despite facing the Bears, Falcons, and Saints (without Derek Carr for a portion), the Packers’ defense ranks 14th in EPA and 20th in success rate.
23) Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks’ run defense has been surprisingly sturdy so far. However, their passing defense has been horrific through three weeks. Only five teams have worse dropback EPA metrics, and only a single team (Broncos) have a worse success rate on dropbacks — and they faced the Dolphins.
Only the Rams’ defense has allowed a higher positive play rate over the middle of the field so far in 2023. However, they’ve seen less than half of the attempts to that area of the field (24) as the Seahawks (50).
24) Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers’ defense has been disappointing so far in 2023, and they have nobody to blame but themselves. Brian Burns is the only legitimate pass rusher they have, and they absolutely refuse to extend him to a long-term deal. Derrick Brown is a great player, but he’s not necessarily the strongest pass rusher in the world.
25) Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals’ defense isn’t talented on paper, but it’s outperforming expectations so far, particularly against the pass. Marco Wilson, Kei’Trel Clark, and Jalen Thompson is not an attractive unit on the back end, but they’ve competed like crazy on the back end, even without Budda Baker on the field.
They tackle well, and they rank in the middle of the pack league-wide in pressure rate.
26) Houston Texans
The Houston Texans’ defense hasn’t found consistent production yet, but they have a legitimate weapon in first-round pick Will Anderson. It doesn’t help that their two best defensive backs, Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley Jr., are both injured at the moment.
27) Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota 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.
The Chargers and Eagles both possess talented offenses, and each had good days against Minnesota, even though the Vikings had chances against LA.
28) Los Angeles Chargers
On the flip side, Tuli Tuipulotu has already outproduced the entire New York Giants’ EDGE group in sacks and pressures so far in 2023. However, the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense is a wreck. They’ve posted the fourth-worst success rate in the NFL so far, although facing Miami doesn’t help their production.
Unfortunately, many of the issues against Miami were self-inflicted, particularly on the back end. J.C. Jackson scored a huge contract in free agency, but missed last season and was a healthy scratch in Week 3.
29) New York Giants
Wink Martindale and the New York Giants are putting an incredible amount of pressure on their two rookie cornerbacks, especially considering Deonte Banks keeps getting banged up during games. That burden becomes even greater when their pass rush is averaging fewer than one sack per game while ranking 26th in pressure rate.
Considering only the Vikings have blitzed more often, that is a massive problem.
30) Las Vegas Raiders
Ranking 29th in defensive EPA and 30th in success rate despite facing the Broncos and Steelers offenses is… not good. 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.
31) Denver Broncos
If the Bears were an even greater embarrassment than allowing 70 points in an NFL game, the Broncos would have the worst defense crown locked up.
Who Has the Worst Defense in the NFL?
The Chicago Bears have the worst defense in the NFL. The entire Bears team looked lifeless against the Packers, and the defense was just as culpable as the offense. Calling the Bears’ 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 them and could have scored many more points if they had wanted to.