Top 10 NFL defenses for the 2020 season: Steelers, Saints lead the field

You know what they say: Defense wins championships. Entering the final quarter of the regular season, Nick Shook examines which units are peaking at the right time. With some help from Next Gen Stats, here are the 10 best defenses in the NFL in 2020.

When diving into the numbers, it doesn’t take long to see what’s clear: Pittsburgh owns the NFL’s best defense.

The Steelers rank first, second or third in each of these categories: takeaways, sacks per pass attempt, points allowed per game, passing yards per game and total yards per game. They’re in the top eight in third-down percentage, rushing yards per game and red-zone percentage.

The Next Gen Stats are even more impressive. Pittsburgh ranks first by a wide margin in disruptions (184; the next closest is Cleveland with 151), QB pressure percentage (39.6), hurries (122, the only team to break 100 so far), owns a 38-pressure lead in QB pressures and is the only team to break 34 percent in disruption rate (Pittsburgh is way above it at 40.7 percent). The Steelers blitz plenty but trail two other teams on this list in frequency, yet they’re getting to the quarterback more often than any other unit in the league.

T.J. Watt’s performance has plenty to do with these astronomical numbers. Watt’s effectiveness has only been topped by his availability, as he’s used his additional games played to sprint past Cleveland’s Myles Garrett in total disruptions and disruption rate, owning the only disruption rate above 20 percent in the entire NFL. Watt leads the leagues in sacks with 12, and while he’s only caused one turnover via pressure, he’s also defended six passes. Only Emmanuel Ogbah and Jason Pierre-Paul are near him in that regard among the top 10 defenders in total sacks.

Pittsburgh’s play is the product of a group performing as a cohesive unit, led by the havoc-wreaking of Watt, even as other key players (Devin Bush, Bud Dupree) have been lost to season-ending injuries. Sometimes, the culture and system can elevate a unit even with personnel losses, and Pittsburgh serves as a prime example of this.

The Saints have vaulted up the rankings with their recent hot stretch of defensive play, having allowed fewer than 20 points in each of the past five games (the longest streak of any team this season). New Orleans has suddenly become a defensive monster, ranking in the top five in yards allowed per game (288.8 is best mark in the NFL), rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, interception rate, sacks per pass attempt and points allowed per game. The Saints are doing so by pressuring opposing quarterbacks relentlessly, ranking second in quarterback pressure rate (32.2 percent), total pressures (141), hurries (98) and disruption rate (33.8 percent), while also landing third in total disruptions (148). Oh, and they’re tied with Miami and Indy for the third-most interceptions (13). The Saints are hunters and ballhawks, and they’re ready to feast.

Trey Hendrickson’s unexpected rise is powering this statistical output. The former third-round pick just became the first Saint not named Cameron Jordan to record 10 or more sacks in a season since Junior Galette did so back in 2014, and he remains right in the thick of the race for the league’s sacks lead. He’s also tied for the fourth-most disruptions among all defenders with 47, sitting alongside the likes of Stephon Tuitt and Joey Bosa.

The best route to competing with the Saints? Find a way to get to the red zone. New Orleans is tied for 23rd in the league in red-zone percentage and is also outside of the top 10 in third-down percentage, ranking 13th. The problem for most offenses these days is they can’t manage to fight through New Orleans’ defense consistently enough to reach such opportunities, especially through the air. Even the Saints’ completion percentage allowed over expectation still ranks 10th at -0.4 percent. 

There’s no clear path to beating the Saints’ offense, and with New Orleans playing this well defensively, it makes for an incredibly tough task for the opposition — Saints quarterback selection be damned.

The Rams have Aaron Donald, who is again causing raging headaches for opposing offenses along the interior, but Los Angeles’ best all-around position group is the secondary.

L.A. is first in passing yards allowed per game (198.3), second in total yards allowed per game, second in third-down percentage and ninth in interception rate. The Rams’ -4.7 completion percentage over expectation ranks No. 2 in the NFL (trailing only Pittsburgh), their 12 interceptions rank fourth and their 78.6 opposing passer rating allowed is second.

It never hurts to line up Jalen Ramsey against the opposition’s best receiving threat, but credit is due to the ascendance of youngsters like rookie Jordan Fuller and Darious Williams, who have bolstered Los Angeles’ secondary and helped it become a deep and feisty group.

And when we circle back to Donald, the numbers hold up for Los Angeles’ defensive front. The Rams are tied for sixth in QB pressure percentage (27.8), rank seventh in disruptions (140) and are tied for the third-most sacks as a team with 36. Donald predictably plays a large role in this production, accounting for 53 disruptions, 11 sacks and three turnovers caused by pressure. Believe it or not, these Rams are a complete unit.

Washington’s years-long investment in the defensive front is paying off in a significant way in 2020. The Football Team ranks ninth or better in each of the following categories: yards per game, passing yards per game, interception rate, sacks per pass attempt, points allowed per game, third-down percentage and red-zone percentage. The last of those categories is Washington’s best, as no one is as good as the Football Team when it comes to stopping opposing offenses in the red zone.

Interestingly, Washington isn’t in the top 10 in most pressure-related metrics, but is instead finding its defensive success by locking things down on the back end. The Football Team is allowing the seventh-lowest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in the entire league, while also owning an expected completion percentage over expectation of -1.4, which is tied for the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL.

Washington ‘s pressure hasn’t been as consistent as some of the other teams on this list, but when this team’s pass rushers do get close to the quarterback, they finish. The Football Team owns the third-highest sack rate in the league at 8.4 percent, behind only Philadelphia (8.8) and Pittsburgh (9.7). It seems as if these sacks are flustering opposing quarterbacks, which is showing in their passing numbers, even when facing an amount of pressure that is closer to league average.

Washington’s lone statistical weakness is in the run game, and even there, the Football Team is pretty darn good. Washington ranks 10th in rushing yards allowed per game (107.1) and is doing an excellent job of setting a high bar for opposing rushing attacks to attempt to reach, ranking sixth in the NFL in expected rushing yards for the season. The defense is executing in such situations, too, allowing 26 yards less than expectation, which doesn’t make for a stellar RYOE per attempt, but with such a low total of expected rushing yards, it’s tougher to create a massive difference.

Washington is playing sound defensive football, which is exactly why they’re still in the playoff hunt.

Here’s another team achieving at a top-seven-or-better rate in key categories. Indianapolis ranks fourth in interception rate, fifth in yards per game, and seventh in rushing yards per game and passing yards per game. The Colts also are tied for sixth in the league in completion percentage allowed over expectation at -1.4 percent. Their pressure numbers aren’t quite as strong (10th in sacks per attempt, for example), but the Colts are downright nasty when it comes to defending the run.

Indianapolis has allowed 131 yards less than expected in 2020, the second-best total in the entire league, and is fourth in rushing yards over expectation allowed at half a yard less per carry than expected. The Colts close on ball-carriers quickly and shut down running lanes just as they’re opening, producing the league’s fifth-best 10-plus-yard run percentage allowed at just 9.5 percent. 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 excellence.

If there’s one weakness, it’s in getting off the field. Indianapolis is near the middle of the pack in third-down percentage and even worse in red-zone percentage (tied for 22nd). Still, the Colts rank 10th in points allowed per game, telling us that while they aren’t the best at keeping opponents from scoring once they near the end zone, they’re very good at keeping them from racking up trips to the red zone.

Yardage totals don’t help Miami’s case, but Brian Flores’ bunch is effective in a few key defensive areas.

Miami is excellent at getting off the field in key moments, ranking first in third-down percentage, second in points allowed per game, eighth in sacks per pass attempt and ninth in red-zone percentage. The Dolphins are also among the league’s best in completion percentage allowed over expectation at -3.5 and passer rating allowed (83.1, good for third-lowest), and their 13 interceptions are tied for third-most in the NFL, with Xavien Howard’s league-high eight picks buoying this number.

Emmanuel Ogbah has enjoyed quite a productive 2020 campaign, recording 40 disruptions, including eight sacks, and his five turnovers caused by pressure are the third-most in the entire league behind only Myles Garrett (seven) and Shaquil Barrett (six). Miami also blitzes more than most teams at over 40 percent, helping explain the team’s interception rate.

The Dolphins appear to have turned a corner in their second season under Flores, taking on his defensive identity and riding it to an 8-4 mark. The future is bright in Miami.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see defensive coordinator Robert Saleh receive a healthy amount of head-coaching interviews after the season his group has put together.

Despite losing multiple key defenders, San Francisco still ranks sixth in yards per game, ninth in rushing yards per game and 10th in passing yards per game. The 49ers aren’t getting home as much as they did in 2019 (20th in sacks per pass attempt), but they’re still playing cohesively on key downs, ranking eighth in third-down percentage and 10th in red-zone percentage. After losing Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle to injuries, Saleh’s bunch has helped maintain the 49ers’ competitiveness.

San Francisco doesn’t rank extremely high in most Next Gen metrics, yet it is still allowing an opposing passer rating below 95. Combining that with the aforementioned yardage averages, we’re seeing a unit that isn’t doing anything especially great, but is playing consistent, effective defense.

The Buccaneers still need to figure out how to keep opponents out of the end zone (19th in red-zone percentage) and limit their effectiveness through the air (22nd in passing yards per game), but the yardage totals tell us what we see on film: You might get lucky a few times a game against the Bucs, but they’re going to make things difficult for the majority of the contest.

The Buccaneers rank first in rushing yards allowed per game, seventh in total yards per game and interception rate, and sixth in sacks per game. We shouldn’t be surprised by the latter when considering this is a defense that trots out both Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, and the former is again dominating off the edge. Barrett is tied for second in total disruptions with 53, and trails only Garrett in turnovers caused by pressure with six. He’s also third in the league in total QB pressures (47) and can only improve in finishing the play, as evidenced by his six sacks that come one year after he led the league in that category with 19.5.

Tampa Bay’s D isn’t perfect, but it’s a stingy unit. Pairing that with the potential of Tom Brady’s offense, the Buccaneers make for a scrappy bunch.

The Ravens won’t make a quarterback’s day a nightmare, but they will cause him to be consistently frustrated. Baltimore ranks eighth in yards per game, and is even better at limiting the opponent in the most important category: scoring. The Ravens are the third-best unit in points allowed per game and excellent at getting off the field, also standing as the league’s third-best unit on third down.

The yardage totals are what lift the Ravens to this standing, because they aren’t jumping off the page in many Next Gen metrics. But frustrating the opposing quarterback has been working for them, as evidenced by their ninth-best opposing passer rating allowed (89.3) and completion percentage over expectation of -0.5 percent.

If there’s one recommendation for the Ravens, it might be to blitz a little less. Baltimore is near the middle of the pack when it comes to causing disruptions, yet it blitzes at a higher rate than any other team in the league. Then again, maybe that’s the Ravens’ best chance at success. Right now, it has them in the heat of the AFC wild-card race.

Joe Judge’s first season in New York has seen the Giants become a problem for opposing rushing attacks. New York ranks fourth in rushing yards per game and 10th in total yards per game, helping the Giants land ninth in points allowed per contest. The Giants are also among the league’s best at taking away glimpses of opportunity on the ground, allowing the fifth-lowest rushing yards over expectation at -119.

Attempting to pound it inside the 20 won’t work against this team, as New York ranks sixth in red-zone percentage. The best route to success is likely through the air against a unit ranked 18th against the pass and 14th in interceptions, but only if you can get the ball out on time, as New York ranks eighth in sacks per game.

The Giants are just starting to peek around the corner toward legitimacy, and they’re doing so by shutting down the run and forcing teams to throw. So far, the pass is working at an about-average rate for opposing offenses, but give it time, and the Giants might lock it down in that department, too.

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