The NFL has more offense than ever, but defense still has a place in winning championships. Here's a look at how all 32 defenses stack up going into training camp.
Pittsburgh's defense is full of star power with Cameron Heyward up front, pass rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, young inside linebacker Devin Bush, and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. The result last season was a defense ranking tied for fifth in points allowed and fifth in yards. The offense might be able to take care of the ball better with Ben Roethlisberger under center, which could go a long way in improving the points allowed.
The Ravens are a perennial powerhouse on defense, allowing only 17.6 points per game last year, third best. The team's talent only got better in the offseason with the additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe on the defensive line, along with rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Despite recently cutting safety Earl Thomas, the secondary remains elite with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, and coordinator Don Martindale's scheme frequently confuses quarterbacks.
Head coach Sean McDermott has done a nice job building the Bills into a playoff team during his tenure, and that starts with the upgraded defense. The Bills allowed the second fewest points in the NFL last season, only trailing the rival Patriots. There have been some significant losses in the offseason like Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, and Lorenzo Alexander, but the core of the unit remains intact with Jerry Hughes, Tremaine Edmunds, and a star-studded secondary led by corner Tre'Davious White.
With an influx of talent and coordinator Robert Saleh's third season, the 49ers defense had the biggest turnaround in football during 2019, going from 5th most points allowed to eighth least, and leading to their Super Bowl berth. The defensive line was ferocious, recording 48 sacks with dominance from new pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. The team replaced DeForest Buckner with first-round pick Javon Kinlaw in the offseason, but they were able to extend Arik Armstead and likely maintain defensive line dominance. Cornerback Richard Sherman also revitalized his career last season with full health, and there's reason for optimism if he can repeat.
The Vikings defense has been one of the league's most consistent since Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014, ranking in the top 11 in points allowed each season. They were fifth best in that category last year, even with poor cornerback play. Minnesota saw significant offseason turnover with the losses of three of their top four corners, along with 10-year defensive end Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph. As a result, the cash-strapped squad drafted two new cornerbacks in the first three rounds, and also recently acquired form Jaguar Yannick Ngakoue. There remains star power at all three levels led by pass rusher Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks, and there's no reason to think Zimmer won't still be able to get the job done.
Head coach Bill Belichick helped produce one of the best defenses of his career in 2019, which is saying a lot considering the defenses he architected with the Giants and New England. The team led the NFL with 14.1 points allowed per game, and were especially elite in the secondary, led by Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. The loss of nearly the entire linebacking corps from 2019 is worrisome, along with safety Patrick Chung, but Belichick has continuously filled holes on his defense better than any coach in the game.
Tennessee has undergone a culture transformation under head coach Mike Vrabel over the last two years, and the defense has made great strides, ranking third in points allowed in 2018 and 12th last season. The team's recent draft picks have produced, as 2018 linebacker draftees Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry had solidified the second level, and 2019 first rounder Jeffery Simmons showed great flashes after returning from injury. The team has found a star in interception machine Kevin Byard, and they're hopeful the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley will spark the pass rush.
Denver has had a defensive reputation since winning the Super Bowl five years ago, and the defense still ranked 10th in points allowed last year despite the notable injury to Bradley Chubb. It's taken time for Vic Fangio to get his players in the scheme, but the transition could be complete with the addition of A.J. Bouye, joining 2019 cornerback acquisition Bryce Callahan. There remains plenty of talent at all three levels, but a possible season-ending injury for star pass rusher Von Miller will be tough to overcome.
The Chiefs offense got most of the attention last year, but it was their defensive improvement that made them a Super Bowl winner. The team switched to the 4-3 under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, spending huge money on Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu in the offseason. Those moves worked out perfectly, and the team was also happy to re-sign star defensive tackle Chris Jones during the offseason. Stopping the run remains an issue for Kansas City, but they allowed the seventh fewest points in 2019 and return all of their top talent from last season.
Defensive improvement has been key for the Saints getting back to the playoffs over the last three seasons, with coordinator Dennis Allen rebuilding his reputation. The team ranked 13th in points and 11th in yards last season while continuing to create turnovers, and the secondary is improved after bringing back Janoris Jenkins and signing Malcolm Jenkins. Cameron Jordan remains one of the most consistent defensive linemen in football, and Demario Davis' impact on the run defense over the last two years has been abundantly clear.
It shouldn't have been a shock to see the Bears regress from their elite 2018 unit with the loss of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and some personnel, but they still allowed the fourth fewest points in football last year. The pass rush disappointed with Khalil Mack having a down year, and the team hopes the return of Akiem Hicks form injury and addition of Robert Quinn remedies that issue. Still, the optout of nose tackle Eddie Goldman certainly hurts the team on the interior. The secondary also saw some major offseason changes with the losses of Prince Amukamara and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but anchors Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson remain.
The Chargers defense regressed last season, going from eighth best in points allowed to 14th last year, though the offense also put them in bad spots far too often with turnovers. Derwin James' injury also played a big role in the Chargers struggles, and he will miss 2020 with another injury, unfortunately. The team looks better on paper this year with James' return, along with nose tackle Linval Joseph, first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray, and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Elite pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram still performed well last year, but got little help, as the team had a total of 30 sacks.
The Colts successfully addressed their pass rush issues last offseason by signing Justin Houston, but they couldn't account for the collapse of the offense, going from 10th in points allowed in 2018 to 2019 last year. They made even more effort to improve the pass rush this offseason by trading their first-round pick for DeForest Buckner, and the Colts also have new corners with T.J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes. The front seven remains the clear strength, with young linebackers Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, and Bobby Okereke showing elite potential together. Coordinator Matt Eberflus has made a name for himself since establishing his Cover 2 defense, and has had more to work with each season.
Todd Bowles has a great reputation as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, and he certainly deserves part of the credit for Tampa Bay's defensive resurgence last year, going from sixth most yard allowed to 15th least. Unfortunately, the yardage didn't carry over much points improvement due in large part to Jameis Winston's 30 interceptions on offense. The team did build an elite pass rush with the additions of Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Ndamukong Suh, and they also got great contributions from rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting and Devin White. Most of Tampa's offseason additions this year were on offense, but second-round safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has a chance to make an immediate impact.
Few defenses showed bigger improvement in 2019 than the Packers, who addressed their pass rush by signing Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, while also drafting Rashan Gary in the first round. Green Bay has top players on all three levels with Kenny Clark at nose tackle and a great cornerback tandem of Jaire Alexander and Kevin King. Christian Kirksey's addition will be key, as the team opted to led tackling machine Blake Martinez walk in free agency. The Pack went from 22nd in points allowed during 2018 to ninth last season, and hope to keep rising.
Leighton Vander Esch's neck injury played a big role in the Cowboys defensive regression last year, ranking 11th in points allowed. Now the team will contend with the losses of Robert Quinn and Byron Jones, and also have a new coordinator in Mike Nolan. The defense was also strengthened in free agency with veteran defensive tackle Dontari Poe and defensive end Everson Griffen. Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith remain the centerpieces of the unit.
Like their offense, Cleveland's defense underachieved last year considering their talent, allowing 25 points per game. The pass rush was particularly disappointing with Olivier Vernon struggling to stay healthy and Myles Garrett missing the end of the year due to a suspension. Garrett's return should make a difference, and the experience gained by the very young secondary led by Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams could also lead to improvement. New coordinator Joe Woods is inexperienced but comes with acclaim from the 49ers.
Coordinator Jim Schwartz helped produce an elite defense in Philadelphia's 2017 Super Bowl season, but the team regressed to average over the last two years with poor play in the secondary. They traded for cornerback difference maker Darius Slay from Detroit, and have also spent on the defensive line with tackle Javon Hargrave. As usual, this is a defense built up front with stars Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, and the team is hopeful for a breakout from Derek Barnett in his fourth season.
Last year's defense was the second worst in Pete Carroll's 10 years with Seattle, ranking 22nd in points allowed, yet it didn't show in their final 11-5 record due to continued dominance with takeaways. The biggest concern going into 2020 is clearly the pass rush, as Seattle ranked second worst in sacks last season and have lost Jadeveon Clowney. Still, the linebackers remain terrific with first-round pick Jordyn Brooks joining veterans Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, and the team has gone all-in by trading two first-round picks for former Jets safety Jamal Adams. Adams gives the team the ability to get creative with blitzes, which they will need to overcome Clowney's absence.
The Rams defense has ranked about average in Sean McVay's three seasons, which has been enough to keep the team on a winning track. They finishing 17th in points allowed and 13th in yards last year, but the losses of Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler are concerning going into 2020. Defensive stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are still set to be around for the long haul, and the team moved on from acclaimed coordinator Wade Phillips after three seasons. It will be interesting to see the impact of the transition from Phillips to Brandon Staley, formerly an outside linebackers coach for the Broncos.
The Jets defense showed improvement last year with experienced coordinator Gregg Williams on board, going from 29th to 16th in points allowed. The development of 2019 first-round pick Quinnen Williams and return to health of linebacker C.J. Mosley should help up front, but the team clearly downgraded at safety after giving into Jamal Adams' trade demands. The team has undergone further changes in the secondary with the addition of cornerback Pierre Desir. With the loss of Adams, even holding serve this year should be considered a success for Gregg Williams and company.
The defense was constantly Kliff Kingsbury's shortcoming at Texas Tech, and that continued into the NFL last season with the Cardinals ranking fifth worst in points allowed (27.6 points per game) and dead last in yards. Vance Joseph has a lot more pressure in his second season as the defensive coordinator, particularly with the additions of Jordan Phillips, De'Vondre Campbell, and rookie Isaiah Simmons. It also should be noted that the team was without star cornerback Patrick Peterson for much of last year. Pass rusher Chandler Jones remains one of the most productive at his craft. It would be a surprise if the Cardinals don't see some improvement.
Despite head coach Dan Quinn's defensive background, the Falcons defense was deteriorated over the last few seasons. The defense allowed the 10th most points, and continued to struggle both in the secondary and getting to the passer. The team address those areas by replacing Vic Beasley with Dante Fowler, adding Charles Harris, and drafting A.J. Terrell. Better health would also help, as safety Keanu Neal has missed most of the last two seasons. 2020 is likely do-or-die for the coaching staff, but this unit has potential.
Washington was bad in all phases last season, including a defense that allowed the sixth most points and yards in the league. That was disconcerting considering how much talent they had after the signing of safety Landon Collins, and the team has added to the defense this offseason with first-round pick Chase Young, Thomas Davis, Kendall Fuller, and Sean Davis. New head coach Ron Rivera's impact should also help, as should the return of veteran staple Ryan Kerrigan after missing time due to injury for the first time in 2019.
The Raiders defense has consistently been in the bottom half of the league in points allowed, with an incredible streak of 17 consecutive seasons. It's no coincidence that the Raiders have only one winning season during that time. The pass rush improved from dead last in 2018 in points allowed and sacks with the addition of draftees Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Trayvon Mullen, and Johnathan Abram. Abram returns from injury this year, and the team spent money on Maliek Collins, Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkowski, and Damarious Randall. There's still a lot of ground to cover, but the talent is light years ahead of where it was when Jon Gruden arrived two years ago.
Houston's defense has lacked consistency in recent years, and there were clear changes to be made after they collapsed in the playoffs vs. the Chiefs, blowing a 24-0 lead in the second quarter. Relying on J.J. Watt to be the pass rush is high stakes these days when he's struggling to stay healthy, and the team also allowed D.J. Reader to walk, replacing him with rookie Ross Blacklock. The play of the secondary has been flat out bad recently, with very little reliability beyond Bradley Roby last year. The Texans promoted Anthony Weaver to defensive coordinator over long-time coordinator Romeo Crennel, but it's difficult to see the unit improving without a full campaign from Watt.
Cincinnati's defense has been a mess over the last two seasons, but the work the front office did in the offseason can't be understated. The team added D.J. Reader up front, addressed linebacker in the draft, and rebuilt their secondary with corners Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Waynes is already set to miss significant time to injury, but the Bengals defense should improve after allowing 26 points per contest last season, especially with a strong defensive line still rocking with Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Sam Hubbard.
Former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is running out of time in Detroit with a defense that allowed the seventh most points in the NFL during 2019. As was the case last offseason, Detroit's answer has been to add more former Patriots familiar with the system. Trey Flowers cashed in last season, and this year former Pats Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon have come on board. The team also replaced star corner Darius Slay with first-round pick Jeff Okudah, a risky bargain for a team looking to win now.
To the surprise of no one, Miami's defense struggled after a complete firesale last season that even included the in-season trade of 2018 first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. The result was a unit that ranked dead last in points allowed and third worst in yards. With plenty of money to spend this offseason, the Dolphins added Shaq Lawson, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Byron Jones, among others. They also spent early-round picks on corner Noah Igbinoghene and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis. It could take a while for Miami's defense to develop, but they certainly have more talent in head coach Brian Flores' second year.
Jacksonville's talent went downhill quickly. Just a few years ago they had one of the most talented young defensive units in the NFL, with a group that included Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, and A.J. Bouye leading them to the AFC Championship. All of those players are gone, and the team is coming off a season in which they ranked 21st in points allowed. Josh Allen is a building block, and the second level was rebuilt with Joe Schobert and rookie K'Lavon Chaisson joining Myles Jack. Still, defense has clearly been downgraded after losing Ramsey, Ngakoue, and Campbell recently
Four years ago the Giants went 11-5 with a defense that allowed the second fewest points in the NFL. The defense has plummeted since then, allowing the third most points last year after losing Olivier Vernon and Landon Collins. Despite acquiring Leonard Williams at midseason, the team struggled to generate much pass rush. They haven't done much to address that issue, but the Giants did spent big money on linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback James Bradberry. 2019 first-round pick Deandre Baker was cut due to legal troubles, and there remain big holes for new coordinator Patrick Graham to fix.
Carolina built a defensive reputation under Ron Rivera but probably hung on to their players too long. As a result, they've basically blown up the defense during the offseason, with head coach Matt Rhule opting for a rebuild. Gone are franchise staples Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, and James Bradberry. This year will likely be a work in progress, as the Panthers spent their entire draft on defense, led by first-round pick Derrick Brown.
Seth Trachtman is a fantasy sports expert and diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan still hoping for a Super Bowl win during his lifetime. He doesn't often Tweet, but when he does, you can find him on Twitter @sethroto.