- TOP DEFENSES
- TOP OFFENSES
Offensive football rules in 2019, which makes identifying the NFL’s top defenses a scary proposition. I already revealed my top nine offenses entering the ’19 campaign, but of course, defense still matters, even in this high-scoring era. Of the teams that ranked in the top 12 in points allowed last season, nine made the playoffs and four won at least one postseason game.
So, which nine units appear to be the stingiest this time around? Well, if my last name rhymed with 10, you’d see the Ravens, who had the league’s top defense last season (292.9 yards allowed per game), in the No. 10 slot on the list below. But I am worried about some key offseason defections from that group, including Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith and C.J. Mosley. The Rams’ Aaron Donald is the best defensive player on the planet, but you won’t see his team in these rankings, not after it ranked 19th in the league last season and didn’t make any blockbuster additions in the offseason. You won’t see Bobby Wagner and the division-rival Seahawks mentioned below following the departures of Frank Clark and Earl Thomas.
But that’s enough about who didn’t make the cut. Here are my top defenses, Schein Nine style:
1) Los Angeles Chargers
Back in May, I boldly predicted that the Chargers would have the best defense in the NFL in 2019. I’m only feeling bolder about that now, thanks in no small part to the presence of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who will form the league’s premier 1-2 quarterback-sacking punch. Bosa has 28.5 sacks in his first 35 NFL games, more than players like Aaron Donald (20), Chandler Jones (20) and Khalil Mack (19) managed in the same span in their careers. And while Bosa has been dogged by injuries, Ingram has been as reliable as they come, starting all 16 games and averaging nine sacks per season since 2015. With Bosa back to full health, well, it’s safe to say that life is going to be difficult for anyone lining up under center across from the Bolts.
This is especially true when you consider the coverage opposing quarterbacks will be facing, with stud safety Derwin James leading a stellar defensive backfield. As a rookie, James — universally lauded as a steal at 17th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft — finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ third-highest-graded safety in pass coverage; as a second-year pro, James will become entrenched as a star. Now take into account new additions like promising rookie defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and savvy veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, who has gas in the tank in addition to serving as a quality leader, and it’s clear that coordinator Gus Bradley’s group is primed for a monster season.
2) Dallas Cowboys
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Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper might be stealing all the headlines in Dallas as young offensive stars trying to pry big-time contract extensions out of Jerry Jones, but don’t sleep on this Cowboys defense, which has finished in the top 10 in yards allowed two seasons in a row and surrendered just 20.3 points per game in 2018 (sixth-best in the NFL). After all, the crucial rising talent on this side of the ball has already been locked up, with pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence landing a five-year, $105 million extension in April. Don’t forget that over the past two seasons, only three players (Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones and Ryan Kerrigan) have more combined sacks than Lawrence (25). When offseason acquisition Robert Quinn returns from a two-game suspension, Lawrence should find even more fruitful ground as a quarterback hunter. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, meanwhile, form an elite young linebacker combo; in 2018, they were the only two linebackers from the same team to rank in the top 20 in the NFL in tackles, with Vander Esch finishing third (140 tackles) and Smith tying for 13th (121). And the defensive backfield is highly underrated and under-appreciated, led by Pro Bowler Byron Jones, who finished as PFF’s eighth-highest-graded cornerback in 2018.
Coach Jason Garrett will be looking to win more than one playoff game in a season for the first time in his nine seasons at the helm. This defense, which produced the best ranking in yards allowed in his tenure last season, will be counted on to help the Cowboys both fend off the Eagles in the NFC East and mount a serious postseason run, and this unit has the potential to do exactly that, assuming the recoveries from surgery that have confined Lawrence (shoulder) and Jones (hip) to the PUP list don’t limit them well into the season.
3) Chicago Bears
On Sept. 1, 2018, Khalil Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears. Eight whole days later, he commenced a season in a new city, with new teammates, under a new defensive coordinator, that ended with him posting the second-highest sack total (12.5) of his career. Who does that? Well, now Mack has had an entire offseason with the Bears, so, yeah: Good luck, NFC North quarterbacks.
Mack is the crown jewel of the group, but this defense is loaded, especially in the secondary led by first-team All-Pros Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller. Losing safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan in free agency could have been painful, but GM Ryan Pace did a nice job of filling the voids by signing veterans Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Buster Skrine. When you pair Mack with arguably the league’s top defensive backfield, that is the stuff of nightmares for offensive coordinators.
Oh, and I absolutely love linebacker Roquan Smith (121 tackles as a rookie). The 2018 first-round pick going to blossom into a star in Year 2. Akiem Hicks, a Pro Bowl selectee last year, led all interior defensive linemen with 34 run stops in 2018, per PFF. And you have guys like Danny Trevathan and Eddie Goldman, who are so solid at what they do. Losing Vic Fangio to the Broncos is a blow, but his successor at coordinator, Chuck Pagano, certainly knows defense (he has a quarter century of experience coaching that side of the ball) and has an embarrassment of riches to set loose on offenses. No team allowed fewer points than the Bears last season (17.7 per game), and I expect more of the same from them in 2019.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
I fully expect the Jaguars’ defense to get back to dominating in 2019. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like it completely unraveled last year. This D still ranked in the top five in points and yards allowed, but the unit saw big declines in both sacks and takeaways. The 2018 campaign was just a bit chaotic in Jacksonville, with Blake Bortles playing his way onto the bench (and ultimately out of town), locker-room drama and an on-field brawl. The arrival of Nick Foles should be a breath of fresh air, easing the burden on the D and allowing it get back to consistently wreaking havoc.
The Jaguars’ defensive line is unreal. Calais Campbell has 25 sacks since joining the team before the 2017 season, tied for fourth-most in that span. Yannick Ngakoue has terrorized quarterbacks, racking up 56 QB hits since ’17 (only Aaron Donald has more in that stretch). Marcell Dareus is still a load on the interior, too. And I still cannot believe Jacksonville stole Josh Allen in the draft. He fell into the Jags’ lap with the seventh overall pick and I expect him to develop into a monster off the edge. Now, the linebacker corps took a hit with Telvin Smith’s decision to step away from the team, but the cupboard is not bare at the position with Myles Jack, entering his contract year, manning the middle.
We know how good this pass defense can be. The Jaguars rank first in passing yards allowed (182.2 per game) and passer rating allowed (76.4) since 2017, thanks in part to Jalen Ramsey, who seems to be maturing in Year 4. He’s tied with teammate A.J. Bouye with a 90.4 coverage grade over the last two seasons, which is the fourth-highest coverage grade among CBs over that span, per PFF.
5) Buffalo Bills
Now, let me start by saying the Bills are my Cinderella team this year. I went on the record with them as my pick in early April. The defense is going to help take this club to new heights.
A big part of my confidence in this group is tied to Sean McDermott. I know on paper his 15-17 record in two years at the helm isn’t going to wow anyone, but he’s one of those coaches who leads teams with a sum greater than its parts. Just look back at 2017, when he led an overachieving Bills team to the playoffs, snapping a 17-year postseason drought. He’s a fantastic defensive mind and motivator.
And don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here — I love the talent at every level of this D, from Tre’Davious White in the secondary to Tremaine Edmunds at linebacker to Ed Oliver, a steal in this year’s draft at No. 9 overall, up front. Don’t forget about Jerry Hughes, who pressured the QB on 16.2 percent of his pass rushes in 2018, which was the highest rate in the NFL (minimum 350 pass rushes).
Buffalo ranked second in total defense and first in passing defense last season, but ended up 18th in points allowed. Expect that last number to shrink in 2019.
6) New England Patriots
Bill Belichick himself might be calling the defensive plays for New England this season following Brian Flores’ departure for Miami, so the entire NFL should be on notice. BREAKING: The man can coach! It helps that he has the bulk of the unit that held the high-flying Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII returning intact.
The secondary is terrific with Stephon Gilmore, the McCourty brothers, Patrick Chung and last year’s undrafted gem, J.C. Jackson. Gilmore is one of the very best corners in the league. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been a perfect fit for the Patriots and is coming off a career year. The Pats did let a key piece from last year’s team depart in Trey Flowers, but they acquired Michael Bennett, who has the third-most QB hits (103) in the NFL since 2015, to help fill the void. The return of Jamie Collins — one of eight players with 100 or more tackles and 10 or more tackles for loss in 2018 — is a strong addition, as well.
And did I mention they are getting coached up by Bill Belichick? No one’s better.
7) Minnesota Vikings
This squad ranked fourth in total defense last season, but it took a step back from its 2017 form, although it was much better in the second half of 2018 than it was in the first half of the season. Everson Griffen’s return after missing Weeks 3-7 played a huge role in the improvement, and having him back in the fold for the full campaign should help the Vikings play to their potential throughout 2019.
Mike Zimmer has a stout defensive line with Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter disrupting the backfield. Getting Anthony Barr to change his mind and spurn the Jets in free agency was big. The Vikings’ secondary, led by Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, is great. Smith is one of two defensive backs to make the Pro Bowl in four straight seasons (the other is the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson).
Bottom line: Minnesota has ranked in the top nine in scoring defense in each of the past four years under Mike Zimmer, so they seem like about as safe a bet as any to be a top-nine attack.
8) Atlanta Falcons
When the Atlanta defense was healthy in 2017, it was a top-nine unit. So this doesn’t remotely feel like a stretch. The Falcons’ D was decimated by injuries last season, but there’s no way they’ll have such bad luck again, right?
Getting a healthy Deion Jones and Keanu Neal back means everything to this defense. Just look at what a difference the presence of those two players make:
Both Keanu Neal and Deion Jones missed most of the 2018 season, but the Falcons defensive stars are looking to return strong in 2019.
Over the last three seasons, the @AtlantaFalcons are a different defense with @Keanu_Neal and @debo on the field together.
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Neal is the only defensive back in the NFL with eight or more forced fumbles and three or more fumble recoveries since 2016, even though he missed 15 games in 2018. And, yes, with a ranking this high, you bet I’m banking on Vic Beasley getting back to sacking quarterbacks with greater regularity and Takk McKinley living up to his talent as a former first-round pick. I’m also expecting Grady Jarrett to make the front office look very smart for signing him to a four-year deal worth $68 million in the offseason.
Plus, I like head coach Dan Quinn’s decision to go back to his roots and call the defensive plays. The last time he did this — down the stretch in the 2016 season — Atlanta ended up making the Super Bowl. He’s the right man for the job.
9) Green Bay Packers
Last season, Mike Pettine replaced the long-tenured Dom Capers as coordinator and got the Packers’ defense moving in the right direction, with Green Bay improving in yards (from 22nd to 18th) and points allowed (26th to 22nd). When Matt LaFleur took over as head coach this offseason, he could have wiped the slate clean. Instead, LaFleur decided to retain Pettine, a move that I loved. When LaFleur confirmed the news on "Schein on Sports" on SiriusXM Radio, it seemed like a no-brainer to allow the aggressive and smart DC to build continuity in Green Bay. LaFleur has plenty to worry about on offense; why upset the apple cart on defense when Pettine seems to have a good thing going?
And I was very impressed by GM Brian Gutekunst’s work in overhauling Pettine’s cast of characters. Yes, Clay Matthews is in Los Angeles, and Mike Daniels will be missed. But Gutekunst knocked it out of the park in the draft and free agency. The second-year GM came away from Round 1 with not one but two studs in edge rusher Rashan Gary, who made my list of the top non-QB prospects in the draft, and safety Darnell Savage, who became the latest high draft pick to join a secondary that already includes rising young talent Jaire Alexander at cornerback. And that was after Gutekunst made a series of calculated and savvy signings in free agency, boosting the defensive front with a pair of Smiths (Za’Darius and Preston) and pilfering safety Adrian Amos from the hated Bears. The Packers cannot afford to waste any of what remains of Aaron Rodgers’ prime, and giving Pettine the tools he needs to keep the defense trending up was an exceedingly smart thing to do.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.
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