Through seven weeks, we’ve been subject to a lot of bad offensive football, with only a few elite offenses across the league.
However, on defense there are at least five that can lay claim to the very non-specific “elite” tag. All of them are constructed differently with unique calling cards.
Now this is the internet, so as a rule, I must rank them.
So here are my rankings of the top-5 defenses right now, with a couple of honorable mentions thrown in.
Green Bay Packers:
It’s only right to show the Packers defense some love. After all, it’s not that long ago that defensive coordinator Dom Capers was the scorn of Green Bay. Now, he has an electric unit that is keeping the team in games, as the offense continues to sputter.
Thy have outstanding run defense — second in the league in run defense DVOA. Capers has diversified week-to-week against the run, showing different looks and getting creative
After weeks of facing backup running backs, the Packers’ Week 6 matchup vs. the Cowboys was billed as the No. 1 rush offense vs. the No. 1 rush defense. Although the Cowboys won, the Packers defense did some interesting things to give them a chance against the league’s best run-blocking offensive line.
Capers used bear fronts on early downs, covering both guards and the center, to take away some of the line movement and gap-scheme elements that makes the Dallas rushing attack so deadly.
By doing so, Capers forced the Cowboys to play “straight up”, removing some scheme wrinkles that routinely gets one of Dallas’ interior linemen on an opposing linebacker. The line is so good that Dallas still had a huge day on the ground. But when using the bear front, the Packers found success on first downs.
Where the real fun begins is when they get after the quarterback. Currently they sit third in adjusted sack rate, and have a quality and deep stable of pass rushers. All of whom are complete physical freaks.
Of course, Clay Matthews remains the most recognized, but the group rolls five deep with pass-rushing mutants. Each guy has a great first step and good length: Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Jay Elliott all rotate. And Perry, in particular, is having an exceptional season. Every time you look up it feels like he’s in the backfield.
That kind of quality and depth allows everyone to remain fresh, as well as giving Capers the ability to throw out as many creative looks and blitz packages as possible.
The secondary is what keeps them out of the top-5. They’ve dealt with unfortunate injuries and a decline in play from the likes of Damarious Randall.
New England Patriots:
Down-to-down, the Patriots defense hasn’t been all that special. In fact, they’re 18th in total defensive DVOA and 25th against the pass. That said, when it comes to what matters most, stopping the opposition from scoring, they’ve been among the best in the league, sitting at fourth in the NFL in points per game.
This season, we’ve seen a different look from the Patriots. With question marks at the second boundary corner spot, and constant change to who plays in the slot, they’ve been forced into using more split-safety looks than we’re used to seeing out of a Bill Belichick defense.
Ideally, Belichick likes to play with a single-high safety and run mostly bump-and-run press-coverage or pattern-match against vertical threats on the outside. With less confidence in his corners, Belichick has been forced into keeping two safeties deep. That has allowed teams to feast with quick underneath throws, but it has taken away some explosive plays.
However, given the construct of the roster, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the secondary to take away the deep ball, while All-World linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins roam sideline-to-sideline, cleaning everything up underneath.
Now that Hightower is back to full strength, the Patriots once again have the best “All-Freak” linebacking duo in the league. Both Collins and Hightower can align all over the formation, and each is as good against the run as they are rushing the passer, with Collins also able to match up with tight ends in coverage.
Getting after the quarterback is the team’s biggest issue, and what stops it from being a top-5 unit. Through seven weeks, they are 31st in adjusted sack rate and 19th in team pressure rate. That’s not nearly close enough to a championship level (though the 2014 Patriots are the only team in the last five years to win a Super Bowl while being outside the top-10 in adjusted sack rate).
5) Philadelphia Eagles
Alright, so onto the actual rankings.
When Schwartz arrived this offseason, it signaled a move to a four-man front, featuring the “wide-9″ alignment he had used to great success in Detroit and Buffalo.
The wide-9 front puts the two edge defenders wider than in a traditional four-man front. They align a full gap away from where a tight end would be, rather than shading the shoulder of an offensive tackle like a traditional four-man front.
From there, they run a one-gap-and-go system, with linemen getting up field on every snap, rather than reading and reacting. And the linebackers are left to mop everything up at the second level.
The transition to a one-gap system, compared to the read-and-react style run in 2015, has produced All-Pro type performances from Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. And we’ve seen a rebirth from Nigel Bradham at linebacker, who played for Schwartz in Buffalo.
Graham has been the standout player. He has developed into a one man wrecking crew off the edge. Against the run, he has been tremendous, and he has grown into one heck of a pass rusher.
Watching Graham is an education. He doesn’t overwhelm tackles with athleticism. Instead, he wins with great technique and hand usage, and closes with great speed.
This sack vs. Minnesota in Week 7 is a great example: Out of the wide alignment (left defensive end), he converts speed-to-power, uses a rip move to keep the right tackle off his breast plate, and closes to the quarterback with a great angle and sudden speed.
Win the hand fight, win the rep. Graham rarely, if ever, loses the hand fight.
On this sack of Ben Roethlisberger in Week 3, Graham wins on a dip-and-rip move.
Again, he rushed from a wide alignment, giving him a natural arc to the quarterback. He played with great leverage and got his hands onto the chest of the Steelers right tackle, while sealing off his own pads. Roethlisberger was not able to get to his second progression before Graham was in the backfield.
The Eagles secondary issues prevent them from being higher on the list. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been asked to do everything; double-team top threats, drop into the box as a pseudo linebacker and move into the slot. An injury to slot corner Ron Brooks is going to force Jenkins into the slot more, potentially taking him away from where he is most effective: making plays at the line of scrimmage.
Without top-level cornerbacks (though Leodis McKelvin has been a great value pickup) or playmakers, they could be in trouble if they don’t sustain the volume of pressure that they’ve been creating early in the season.
4) Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals spent the offseason revamping their front, knowing they couldn’t sustain the number of blitzes they were sending each and every week in 2015.
Last year, the Cardinals blitzed as much as any defense in the league. They would bring players from all different angles, and lock down in man-coverage in the secondary.
Now, with the addition of Chandler Jones, along with the development of Markus Golden, they create more organic pressure: pressuring and collapsing the pocket while rushing just four, with extra defenders dropping into coverage. Sunday night’s game vs. the Seahawks was the perfect example. Golden and Jones spent the entire night camped in the Seattle backfield, with two safeties staying deep and taking away any escape valves.
Not sending extra defenders to create pressure has been a big boost for the secondary. Arizona’s second cornerback spot was a major weakness coming into this year and has remained a problem at the start of the season
The changes have worked. They finished 27th in adjusted sack rate a year ago and are now 9th through seven weeks.
But there is one elephant in the room: the play of Tyrann Mathieu.
Mathieu has not looked like the same player since he has returned from his injury. Now, in fairness, he started the season being asked to play a different role. He was being utilized much more as a middle of the field safety, rather than playing in the slot or blitzing off the edge.
By doing that, the Cardinals removed some of his impact from the game. Whether that was by design, or because they feared he could not do some of those things at the same high level just yet, will only become clear as we get toward the end of the season.
3) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have the league’s hot new defense. They flashed potential each of the last two years, and now they’re blossoming into a dominant unit down-to-down.
Numbers-wise they’re extremely impressive. They’re second in total defensive DVOA (third against the pass and seventh against the run), third in adjusted sack rate (despite being 12th in team pressure percentage), and tied for first in points per game. And critically, they’ve been turning defense into offense, leading the league in takeaways (16) and scoring 3 defensive touchdowns. That’s all while carrying a poor offense that often leaves them with awful field position.
The jump from last year (14th in total defensive DVOA) to this year has been all about internal development. Players who have flashed talent have become more consistent. They’ve spent another year in Mike Zimmer’s system, and the coaching staff have spent another year of refining that scheme to the talent.
Zimmer is well known for his use of mug fronts (a linebacker in each A-Gap).
They allow the Vikings to cloud the quarterbacks vision and disguise their blitz package: How many are they bringing, and from where? And, who’s dropping and where to?
In Week 3, they relentlessly attacked Cam Newton and the Panthers offensive line, confusing the quarterback and forcing blown protections.
Here: They line up with the mug front. Defensive lineman Brian Robinson is going to drop out and safety Harrison Smith blitzes of the edge. Newton sets the protection and slides the chipping running back to account for Robinson. That leaves a free path for Smith to come off the edge and crush Newton from his blindside.
Uber-athletic linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks allow them to run the mug front at such a high volume. They are good enough to stack and shed linemen, and athletic enough to drop into coverage and get to their spots quickly.
Disguising is critical to the Vikings defense. On first and second downs, they’re fairly vanilla, running more press-coverage this year than they have in the past. But on third downs is when they get really creative.
Harrison Smith makes it all work. He essentially plays the Troy Polamalu role: You never really know where he’s going to be, but the offense better find him. He can play in the box, deep in center field, or blitzing off the edge. That versatility allows Minnesota to bluff coverages; rotating Smith late, or starting him in the box and bailing him out.
And all of that is without mentioning perhaps Minnesota’s best three players this year: Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes. Hunter and Griffen have been responsible for creating pressure, and Rhodes has been taking away opponent’s top receivers in man-to-man coverage.
2) Denver Broncos
Denver’s defense continues to feel like a high school bully that plays keep away. You know what they’re doing, and you still can’t stop it.
Wade Phillips doesn’t do an awful lot creatively, particularly in the secondary. For the most part, they play press coverage across the board and let the hellacious pass rush go to work.
Up front, Wade Phillips will move pieces around: aligning guys in different spots, using radar fronts, chaos fronts and putting Von Miller so wide that at times the Colts forgot about him (yeah, that actually happened).
But mostly the Broncos defense relies on having better players than almost every offense in the league.
It’s truly a thing of beauty to watch. There’s no one area that gets all the credit because the front and secondary have such a perfect symbiotic relationship. Up front, they create overwhelming pressure that forces early throws. On the back end, they have the best group of press corners in the league who don’t yield an inch of separation, allowing the pass rushers an extra beat.
Currently, they’re first in pressure rate. And while Miller is clearly the leader in that department, the rise of Shane Ray has been every bit as important. Entering the draft, Ray had the quickest first step in the class. Now, he has begun converting that speed to power and has become far more refined. He has gone from being a one-trick pony to someone who consistently beats up linemen in 1-on-1 matchups.
As a team, they’re most effective when they jump into their pass rushing sub package, and use a split front: two three-techniques (interior linemen shading the guard) inside with two linebackers.
That widens their front and allows them to get more creative with stunts and twists while also making it really difficult for the offense to double-team any of the pass rushers.
What’s been interesting is how teams have opted to attacke them. Last year, the collective mindset seemed to be that opposing offenses would get the ball out quickly, in a bid to avoid the pass rush. And while that’s carried over into 2016, there has been a greater emphasis on using switch concepts to attack Denver’s bump-and-run coverage, and trying to isolate its linebackers.
Atlanta did a great job of attacking specific matchups in Week 5. They used condensed formations pre-snap, then motioned a running back to isolate a Broncos linebacker in man-to-man coverage, specifically Brandon Marshall.
The Falcons used a similar concept for a 31-yard Tevin Coleman touchdown. They started with Coleman in the backfield, then motioned him into the slot. Marshall followed him, revealing the coverage and giving Matt Ryan an easy pre-snap read. Coleman won 1-on-1 and it was a pitch and catch throw for a touchdown.
San Diego mimicked the concept in Week 6, finding similar success. It’s something Phillips and his staff will need to adjust moving forward.
With the pass rush and two lockdown corners, the Broncos remain at the top of the defensive standings. But I have them second as they’re the only team in my top-5 that is outside the top-5 in points per game. It’s a dumb reason, but I had to create some kind of tiebreaker so that I could differentiate between the elite teams.
It’s incredible the Seahawks defense continues to roll along playing at a historically great level.
Traditionally, great offenses are more sustainable than a great defense. Usually, a team finds a Hall of Famer at quarterback and they’re set on one side of the ball for more than a decade. On defense, it’s much different, you have to find a way of keeping a core group of guys together, and they have to remain healthy, at positions that ravage the body in record time.
And like others, Seattle has succumbed to some of those things. They’ve had brain drain — losing two defensive coordinators in two years — suffered injuries, and seen some of their starters and depth pieces walk out the door to bigger contracts and new homes.
Yet, here they are. Once again they’re first in the league in points per game, and are fifth in adjusted sack rate, with multiple All-Pro caliber players at each level of the defense.
Sunday night’s game in Arizona was tantamount to defensive football pornography. The Seattle defense was on the field for longer than any other defense in league history, yet they conceded just 6 points, doing so without Kam Chancellor.
Even without Chancellor, the secondary has excelled. The biggest question of the last two seasons: who plays opposite Richard Sherman? Is gone. DeShawn Shead has gone from being a special teams piece to a legitimate starting cornerback. His growth has allowed two things: 1) Earl Thomas can move closer to the line of scrimmage and 2) they have been able to diversify their coverages.
They remain a base cover-3 defense, mixing pattern-match coverages with basic zone coverages. But now we see more disguises, more safety movement and giving opposing quarterbacks more things to process pre- and post-snap. Previously, they were an execution based defense. Often an offense would know what they were going to run, but they just had better players and they executed. Now, they use more complex looks and disguises, while still having better players.
Up front, they simply overpower teams. Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark is as good a trio as anywhere in the league (all of whom can shuffle to multiple spots). And they’re aided by the rare speed at linebacker from Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright.
What continues to amaze me is how infrequently any Seattle defender misses a tackle and how physical they look, even when they’re field with other quality teams. I know it’s irrational, but sometimes they just look bigger, stronger and faster than their competition.