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5. Baltimore Ravens
While often out-shadowed by the 23-year-old MVP in Lamar Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense quietly had another magnificent season and found ways to improve even more during the 2020 offseason. While their 14-2 season ultimately ended prematurely to the hands of Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens remained among the top three defenses in points allowed and top eight in turnovers forced, including multiple defensive touchdowns from midseason acquisition Marcus Peters. Baltimore’s roster is loaded with talent and depth on all three levels of the defense, making them almost impossible to gameplan against.
Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Earl Thomas make up one of the best secondaries in the entire league, ranking sixth in passing yards allowed a season ago. While not household names, edge rushers Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson are essential in applying pressure in Baltimore’s 3-4 defense. The Ravens’ defensive line played at an excellent level last season, led by an elite run stopper in Brandon Williams, however, the addition of Calais Campbell puts them over the top. The former All-Pro is still a dominant player at age 33 and gives the Ravens a legitimate star on the front seven. The Ravens are looking to make a championship run after a disappointing 2019 playoffs, and their excellent, top five defense will give them a chance to win any game.
4. Buffalo Bills
The 2019 season proved to be a breakout season for the Buffalo Bills under head coach Sean McDermott, finishing 10-6 and challenging the New England Patriots for the division title. Despite ranking in the bottom 10 offensively in yards and points, the defense dominated opposing offenses on a weekly basis and still managed to earn a wildcard spot in the playoffs. Buffalo was able to finish second in points allowed and third in yards allowed, while only allowing over 30 points once the entire season. Shutting down almost every team they faced, Buffalo kept division rivals to under 20 points per game, including holding Tom Brady to only one touchdown pass in both games combined.
The most notable player on the Buffalo Bills’ defense is superstar cornerback Tre’Davious White. White, a third-year player, has already established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, leading the league in interceptions a year ago. Veterans Micah Hyde and Jerry Hughes still prove to be very good pieces on the defense even in their older age. Former top 10 pick Ed Oliver is a young star in the interior of the defensive line and is expected to take another step forward next season, along with middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who has been an excellent leader since stepping on the field at 19 years old. The Buffalo Bills have a championship-level defense, and expect them to continue their high level of play as Buffalo looks to contend in the AFC.
3. New England Patriots
Statistically, there was no better defense in the NFL last season than the New England Patriots. Bill Belichick’s defense ranked first in yards, first in points allowed and second in passing yards allowed. Despite a major drop-off from the offense statistically, New England was still able to have a 12-4 record in 2019, including an 8-0 start to the season. The Patriots allowed over twenty points only four times the entire season, while holding their opponents to ten points or less seven times. Even in their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, New England held Ryan Tannehill to under 80 passing yards and the offense to 14 points.
One cannot talk about the greatness of the Patriots’ defense without mentioning reigning defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is the undisputed best cornerback in the game, shutting down top receivers on a weekly basis. He, Patrick Chung and the two McCourty brothers make up an elite secondary, which is the strength of the Patriot’s defense and team. The Patriots’ front seven also had an extraordinary season, ranking top eight in rushing yards allowed, however, key contributors have left the team in the offseason. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins were essential to the Patriots’ success a year ago, but have both signed somewhere else for 2020. Despite the losses, Bill Belichick has proven time and time again that he is able to find serviceable replacements to execute their job within the defense. Second-year linebacker Chase Winovich is expected to take over the role of Van Noy, as the 2nd rounder from Michigan had an impressive rookie season a year ago. While New England did lose a couple of starters from a year ago, Bill Belichick’s coaching along with the best secondary in the NFL should be more than enough to remain among the best three defenses in the entire league.
2. San Francisco 49ers
No defense played better in the 2019 playoffs than the San Francisco 49ers. The reigning NFC champions shut down both the Vikings’ and Packers’ offenses and were even able to contain the great Patrick Mahomes for three quarters before a legendary performance in the last six minutes. There was no better team at defending the pass last season than San Francisco, as their elite pass rush and secondary led the league in passing yards allowed. Defensive coordinator Robert Salah is one of the best assistant coaches in the entire league, and their ability to retain him is essential to another dominant season in 2020.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman is the team’s undisputed leader and the face of the 49ers’ defense. While he is the biggest name in the secondary, young defensive backs, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and Emmanuel Moseley all had career seasons last season and are expected to continue to breakout for the defense for years to come. Linebackers Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner are two Pro Bowl, possibly All-Pro talents who are constant disruptors and playmakers for the team. However, San Francisco’s most talented unit on the defensive side is their line, filled with Pro-Bowlers and first-round picks. Reigning defensive player of the year Nick Bosa is accompanied by Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and rookie first-round pick Javon Kinlaw. Despite trading away DeForest Buckner, the 49ers are loaded with depth and talent to step up in his role. There may be no deeper roster on the defensive side of the ball than the San Francisco 49ers, and their combination of youth and veteran leadership should have no problem repeating their success of last season.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ranking at number one is the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose elite talent along with hall of fame coaching make them the most complete defense in the entire NFL. Despite not making the playoffs in 2019, the defense has had one of its best seasons in years, showing flashes of the Super Bowl-winning defense coach Mike Tomlin coached back in 2008. Horrendous quarterback play plagued the team all last season, however, the team still managed to finish 8-8 due to an elite front seven and a much-improved secondary compared to past seasons. No team was better at rushing the quarterback in 2019 than the Steelers, leading the entire NFL in both sacks and pressures. Pittsburgh ranked in the top ten in every major statistic, as Tomlin’s 3-4 Tampa 2 defense disrupted every team they faced.
The 2019 defensive player of the year candidates T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the pillars to the team’s defense, as the two all-pros lead the talented youth that fills the roster. Watt reigns as possibly the best edge rusher in the entire NFL, as he joins all-pro Cam Heyward on a loaded front seven. The midseason acquisition of 23-year-old ballhawk Minkah Fitzpatrick transformed Pittsburgh’s secondary into a top three pass defense. Fitzpatrick is joined in the secondary by Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, who had a breakout year in 2019. Second-year linebacker Devin Bush has already become an outstanding playmaker for the defense, leading all rookies in tackles and intercepted two passes. The similarities between this Pittsburgh defense and its championship teams are glaring, and with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup, expect the Steelers to compete with the top teams in the AFC in 2020.
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