Today’s NFL is geared towards the offensive side of football, but as the old saying goes: Defense wins championships. The 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks’ defense known as the Legion of Boom is the last defensive unit to lead their team to a Super Bowl win, and that was seven years ago.
They beat the Denver Broncos 43-8 at MetLife Stadium in 2014, and Malcolm Smith was named MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII.
Despite offense leading the way, the defense is still crucial to any team’s success. With that in mind, ONE37pm decided to look at the top defensive units from the 2020-21 season and who had the most impact.
The Los Angeles Rams have their anchor on their defensive line Aaron Donald, who is on every offensive coordinator’s and quarterback’s scouting report. The Rams are first in passing yards allowed yards per game (190.7), first in points scored by a team with (296), second in opposing quarterback rating (80.4) to the Steelers, and second in timed sacks to the Steelers with 53.
In the secondary, they have shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey who normally shadows the opposition’s best wide receiver; they also have rookie Jordan Fuller and three-year veteran Darious Williams. They all helped give the Rams a deep and productive secondary this season.
The Rams are tied for sixth in QB pressure percentage (27.8) and rank seventh in disruptions (140). Donald’s production alone this season accounted for 53 disruptions, 11 sacks, and three turnovers.
The Rams would hold quarterbacks to an average of just 190.7 yards per game. Los Angeles would drop right behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the rush defense category, giving up 91.3 rushing yards a game.
The Ravens are an eternal power on defense, allowing only 17.6 points a game last year, third-best. The team’s talent improved during the off-season with additions from Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe on the defensive line, not to mention trading for pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue as well. They also added rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Despite cutting safety Earl Thomas on August 23, 2020, after a training camp altercation, the secondary remains elite with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.
The defensive schemes that Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is dialing up from the sideline have opposing quarterbacks confused. Baltimore is ninth in the league in opposing passer rating allowed (89.3) and completion percentage over expectation of -0.5 percent.
The Steelers’ defense is bursting with star power with Cameron Heyward on their defensive line, pass rushers T.J. Watt, who led the league in sacks with 15, and Bud Dupree, and a young inside linebacker in Devin Bush. In the secondary, they have safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.
They were ranked third with points scored by a team with (312), they were also ranked third for pass attempts against them with (526) behind the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers were also fourth in penalties commented and accepted with (103), third in penalty yards commented with (980), and their QB pressure percentage is (39.6).
The football team ranks ninth or better in each of the following categories: Yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, intercept rate, bags per attempted pass. They also ranked in the top-10 in points allowed per game, third-down percentage, and red-zone percentage. The last of these categories is Washington’s best because no other football team in the league is as good at stopping the run in the red zone.
They are also allowing the seventh-lowest passer rating in the league while holding a higher-than-expected completion percentage of -1.4, which is equal to the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL. Meanwhile, Rookie Chase Young out of Ohio State made a case for Defensive Player of the Year. The second pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, he finished the 2020-21 campaign with 7.5 sacks, 32 solo tackles, and four forced fumbles.
His play did not go unnoticed, as he caught the attention of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. After calling him out before their wild-card game.
“I want Tom Brady… I play ball,” Young told ESPN earlier this month. “I’m excited to go against the best. The media, their job is to stir it up. If you know me, I’m excited about every game. Tom Brady, you think I’m not excited to play against the GOAT? You trippin’. I’m not going to apologize for saying I want Tom. No, I want every quarterback I play against.”
Brady replied, “he is obviously a great young player…He went to Ohio State, so I think that Ohio State-Michigan thing wears off on him a little bit,” according to Fox Sports’ Paulina Dedaj.
After the Buccaneers beat Washington 31 to 23 on the road, Young asked Brady for his jersey.
The Saints finished the season with the fifth-best defense overall after turning heads this past season. At one point they went on a hot streak with their defensive play, after allowing less than 20 points during a five-game stretch, which was the longest streak of any team last season.
They also ranked in the top five in expected points contributed by rushing defense with (22.79), other categories include rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, interception rate, sacks per pass attempt, and points allowed per game. Trey Hendrickson also had a breakout season with 13.5 sacks, 22 solo tackles, and a forced fumble. and became the first Saint since 2014, not named Cam Jordan, to record ten or more sacks in a season. As for Jordan, he finished the season with 7.5 sacks, 34 solo tackles, and a forced fumble.
Teams had difficulty moving the ball against the New Orleans defense on a regular basis to reach the red zone, especially through the air. Even the percentage of completion of Saints permitted on expectations still ranks 10th with -0.4.
Miami is excellent at getting off the field in key moments, placing first in the third lower percentage, second in permitted points per game, eighth in sack bypass attempt, and ninth in red-zone percentage. The Dolphins are also among the league’s top in percent completion allowed on expectations to -3.5 per pass allowed. Their 18 interceptions are tied for first in the NFL along with New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Xavien Howard snatched ten of those 18 interceptions for the Dolphins this season and returned them for a total of 77 yards.
Dolphins also spent a lot of capital in the offseason on guys such as Shaq Lawson, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Byron Jones, to name a few. Lawson finished the season with four sacks, 17 solo tackles, Elandon Roberts 1.5 sacks, 33 solo tackles, one forced fumble, Kyle Van Noy 6.0 sacks, 46 solo tack two forced fumbles. In his first season, not in a Cowboys uniform, Byron Jones snagged two interceptions and returned them for 15 yards combined. Meanwhile, rookie corner Noah Igbinoghene and defensive lineman Raekwon Davis help round out the Dolphins defensive unit. Emmanuel Ogbah had a solid campaign with the Dolphins as he registered nine sacks, 25 solo tackles, and forced three fumbles last season. Miami finished the season 10-6, falling short of a playoff berth after being eliminated late in the season. Still, they are heading in the right direction under the leadership of second-year head coach Brian Flores.
The New York Giants’ defense was among the strongest units in football, allowing 22.3 points per game, the ninth fewest in the NFL this year.
A lot of credit goes to first-year defense coordinator Patrick Graham, who reinvigorated a defense that had been one of the worst in football in the past few seasons.
Their strength was on the defensive line, particularly Leonard Williams, who led the team in sacks with 11.5, which was the most by a Giant since Jason Pierre-Paul in 2014. Williams also registered 29 solo tackles. The Giants’ defense was a big reason why the Giants were able to upset the Seattle Seahawks on the road on December 6, 2020.
“I think schematically we did a good job making (Russell Wilson) feel pressure and making him uncomfortable,” Williams said. “He felt like he had a guy on his side and had to hold the ball. I felt like we were coming at him from many angles, and it made him a little bit confused sometimes. Overall, he’s the head of the offense; being the quarterback and making him uncomfortable is what we needed to do. I think we did a good job of that.”
The Chiefs’ high power offense gets a lot of the attention, as they should, with the reigning Super Bowl MVP featured on that side of the ball in Patrick Mahomes. However, don’t sleep on their defense.
Before the 2019-20 season, they opted to switch to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, then proceeded to sign Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu was brought over from the Cardinals in free agency.
They were also able to resign defensive tackle, Chris Jones. Clark had a solid year this season with six sacks, 21 solo tackles, and zero force fumbles; Mathieu had six interceptions, which he returned for a total of 70 yards, including one of them the house for a touchdown. Jones also had a solid campaign for the Chiefs recording 7.5 sacks, 23 solo tackles, and two forced fumbles to help Kansas City return to the Superbowl. The Chiefs are looking to repeat as back-to-back champions for the first time since the Patriots did it in 2015 and 2016 orchestrated by Tom Brady.
The Buccaneers still need to figure out how to keep opponents out of the end zone (19th in red-zone percentage) and limit their efficiency across the air. They were 22nd in passing yards per game, but the yardage totals tell the public that there are weaknesses in the Bucs defense. However, their lack of a strong pass defense doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Buccaneers are ranked 1st in allowed yards per game, 7th in yards per game and interception rate, and 6th in sacks per game. The Tampa Bay defensive line is stacked with veterans such as Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, and Lavonte David. Barrett registered eight sacks and 43 solo tackles, Pierre-Paul 9.5 sacks, 34 solo tackles, and four force fumbles, Ndamukong Suh had six sacks, 27 solo tackles, and a forced fumble. As for Steve McLendon, he finished the regular season with 15 solo tackles, and David has 1.5 sacks, 82 solo tackles, and three forced fumbles. The Bucs’ defense was able to frustrate Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints with multiple turnovers on their way to Super Bowl LV.
Indianapolis ranks fourth in intercept rate, fifth in yards per game, and seventh in racing yards per game and passing yards per game. The Colts are also tied for sixth place in the league in authorized completion percentage on expectations to -1.4 percent. Their pressure figures are not quite so strong (10th in sacks per attempt, for example), but the Colts are downright unpleasant when it comes to defending the run.
The Colts quickly approached the ball carriers and closed the running lanes just at the time of the opening, producing the league’s fifth-best percentage over 10 yards allowed at only 9.5%. This helps explain their standing among the top seven in the aforementioned categories. We can point to the addition of DeForest Buckner as a major reason for this success.
Indianapolis is close to average in third-down percentage and even worse in red-zone percentage (tied for 22.) Nevertheless, the Colts ranked 10th in points per game.
Head coach Sean McDermott did a good job building the Bills into a postseason team during his tenure, starting with the improved defense. The Bills gave away the second-lowest NFL points last season, just behind their rivals, the New England Patriots.
They lost some key pieces from last season like Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, and Lorenzo Alexander. However, their nucleus remains intact with Jerry Hughes, Tremaine Edmunds, and the secondary led by the corner Tre’Davious White. They were able to reach the AFC championship game for the first time in 30 years thanks to Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and their solid defense.
Tennessee has gone through a cultural transformation under head coach Mike Vrabel over the last two years, and the defense has made great progress, placing 3rd in points allowed in 2018 and 12th last season. They solidified the secondary, and 2019 first rounder Jeffery Simmons showed great flashes after returning from injury. The team found a ball hawk in Kevin Byard, and they hoped the additions from Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley would solidify their pass rush.
However, Byard only finished with one inception this past season for the Titans; meanwhile, the Clowney signing in the offseason was very disappointing as he only registered 14 solo tackles and one forced fumble.