Defense wins championships – right? The jury is still out, with arguments being made on either side. For example, the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers fielded one of the better defenses (and surely the most explosive) in the NFL. However, the previous champion Kansas City Chiefs hung their hats on a great offense while their defense was just okay.
Below, we’ll take a look at the best NFL defenses of 2020. What made them great, how they project for the 2021-22 season, and how (or if) they stack up against the all-time units.
Calculating the Best NFL Defenses of 2020
It’s easy to rush to a box score and point out yards allowed and say whether or not a defense was any good. However, to get the real story behind the numbers, you have to determine which metrics hold weight. Of course, don’t completely discount yards allowed, but a number of factors can skew that – number of attempts, point margin, pace of play, field position, etc.
The main metrics utilized in this article are as follows:
- Defensive Expected Points Added (EPA): Measures how many points a defense added to the game on any given play. A negative number indicates that the defense allowed fewer points per play than the league average while a positive number indicates the defense allowed more points per play than league average. For a more thorough explanation, see this link.
- Defensive EPA on third and fourth downs (Late-down EPA): Same as above, but with a focus on later downs. The best NFL defenses excel at getting off the field in high-leverage spots.
- Second-half points allowed (with emphasis on the fourth quarter): Leads are great, but how well did a certain defense adjust at halftime? The great teams close out games. Of course, this stat isn’t an end-all, be-all considering it can be skewed by substitutions and pace of play, not to mention blowouts.
- Yards per play allowed: A more accurate measure of a defense than total yards allowed is yards per play allowed. Is the defense being continually gashed by 7-8 yard runs? Are they stifling opponents to just 3-4 yards per snap?
The following defenses are ranked based on “aggregate ranking.” That number is the weighted average of their 2020 finishes in all of the above categories, with each metric counting as a whole ranking, and the 4th quarter points allowed metric weighing 1/2.
Of course, this measure is based on my own interpretations and is subject to differences. Essentially, I took the measure of a defense’s overall performance with an emphasis on how they closed out games.
Best NFL Defenses of 2020
First, the near misses:
- Pittsburgh Steelers. They allowed 32 points per game over their last three games. If their first-half defensive performance kept up, they may have finished top three.
- Miami Dolphins. They led the NFL in takeaways behind an explosive secondary. However, like the Steelers, they melted down the last three games of the season, allowing 31 points per game.
- Chicago Bears. Perception was stronger than reality as they failed to crack the top five in any major category.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6.2 aggregate ranking)
2020 Summary: “Explosive” is the word that best suits Tampa Bay’s defense en route to their second Lombardi Trophy. The combination of freakishly athletic linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White led to a unit that not only could stifle the run, but also eliminate mobile quarterbacks and shut down passing lanes. Look no further than their Super Bowl LV performance to see all of these on display.
2021 Outlook: The Buccaneers became the first team in the Super Bowl era to return all 22 starters coming off a championship. This makes their 2021 expectations the most cut-and-dry of any in the NFL: expect more of the same. Barring any major injuries, the Buccaneers will pick up right where they left off in title contention.
4. New Orleans Saints (5.2)
2020 Summary: While the headlines were dominated by Taysom Hill, Alvin Kamara, and Drew Brees, the defense served as the real engine for the 2020 Saints. New Orleans won six games while scoring less than their season average of 29.1 points per game and went 2-1 in games where they scored 21 or fewer.
They finished the season third in points allowed per game (20.9) and second in YPP (5.0). That dominant defense came with just one All Pro – linebacker Demario Davis, who earned second team honors.
2021 Outlook: The defense might be New Orleans’ saving grace this coming season following the retirement of Brees. Older, more expensive players hit the market and left while the Saints were in cap hell, but younger core pieces like Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams stuck around. Their experienced secondary looks to follow up a season in which the Saints finished fourth in total takeaways (26).
The coaching staff remains intact and New Orleans should continue as a dominant force on defense, even if they don’t hit 12 wins again.
3. Baltimore Ravens (4.8)
2020 Summary: Most observers were so busy being disappointed by the Ravens in 2020 that their defensive unit got completely overlooked. The pre-2020 offseason saw the Ravens load up on defensive contributors Derek Wolfe and Yannick Ngakoue while also retaining key players like Matt Judon and Jimmy Smith.
The result? A defense that ranked third in late-down EPA, first in scoring (18.5 points allowed per game), and sixth in YPP (5.1). Baltimore also finished third in fumble recoveries, due in large part to Marlon Humpherey, who finished with a league-leading eight forced.
2021 Outlook: Losing Judon to the Patriots was a big blow, and the Ravens had to let Ngakoue walk with his price tag. All-Pro Calais Campbell re-signed as did several other key defensive starters. The gang largely returns for 2021 with the addition of rooke pass rusher Ofedi Oweh.
Their early-season schedule features offenses in disarray like Las Vegas, Detroit, and Denver; with Chicago coming later in the season. Thanks to the combination of a fairly advantageous schedule and the return of core pieces, Baltimore’s defense should perform well.
2. Washington Football Team (3.8)
2020 Summary: There may not have been a team in the NFL with a more frightening pass rush than Washington. Led by Montez Sweat and rookie phenom Chase Young, the front seven was the most disruptive unit in the league. They finished third in EPA (-0.064), second in YPP (5.0) and first in second-half scoring (just 6.1).
Young won Defensive Rookie of the Year, but they rostered no All Pros. Impressively, they ranked sixth in sacks despite being outside the top 12 in blitz rate. First-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio coached them to a successful season.
2021 Outlook: Longtime Washington icon Ryan Kerrigan (Eagles) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (Texans) were cap casualties, but they drafted Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis to help fill the void. They also lost Ronald Darby (Broncos) and a handful of depth pieces. Of all the units on this list, Washington may have lost the most depth.
However, they still field a productive pass rush, with Young likely becoming even more fearsome. Expect Washington to remain strong.
1. Los Angeles Rams (1.7)
2020 Summary: To sum up Los Angeles’ defense from 2020 – they didn’t rank outside the top two in any major defensive category, nor the ones used for this ranking. They led the NFL in EPA (-0.141) and YPP (4.7), and ranked second in late-down EPA and second-half points allowed. It was total domination on every front.
It helps when your unit fields Aaron Donald, one the greatest players of his generation, and All-Pro Jalen Ramsey. The scheme under Brandon Staley was great, but the Rams also had great talent. They were by far the best defensive team in the NFL last season.
2021 Outlook: Staley took the Chargers head coaching job and the Rams replaced him with Falcons defensive coordinator/interim head coach Raheem Morris. Many scratched their heads considering the Falcons ranked 20th in EPA (0.071) and 19th in points allowed per game (25.9), but Morris worked with subpar talent. Once he overtook head coaching duties, Atlanta moved from 30th to 15th in EPA and 31st to 19th in points allowed per game.
However, L.A. did lose several key defensive pieces in safety John Johnson (Browns), corner Troy Hill (Browns), and lineman Michael Brockers (Lions).
While they still have some of the best defensive players in the NFL, the Rams defense may take a step back.
Did Any Of Them Stack Up To All-Time Best NFL Defenses?
To make a long story short, no.
2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history — over 700 more points than the previous record. Of the 40 highest-TD seasons in history, six came from quarterbacks in 2020.
Compared to recent great defenses like the 2015 Denver Broncos and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks (both crowned NFL champs), the 2020 Rams will be lost to the wind. Los Angeles allowed the same amount of touchdowns in their Divisional Round loss to the Packers as the ’13 Seahawks allowed in an entire postseason.
Previous Super Bowl Champions’ Defenses
Coming full circle, does defense win championships?
In Super Bowl LV, it surely did. However, over the course of the season, the Buccaneers defense just barely cracked our top-five list for 2020. Their defense features plenty of great players, but the unit as a whole wasn’t otherworldly on the stat sheet.
Here’s how recent Super Bowl champions ranked per our aggregate scoring system:
- 2019-20 Kansas City Chiefs: 12.5 aggregate score
- 2018-19 New England Patriots: 10.3 aggregate score
- 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles: 6.5 aggregate score
- 2016-17 New England Patriots: 5.0 aggregate score
- 2015-16 Denver Broncos: 3.5 aggregate score
- 2014-15 New England Patriots: 8.4 aggregate score
- 2013-14 Seattle Seahawks: 1.1 aggregate score
- 2012-13 Baltimore Ravens: 6.7 aggregate score
- 2011-12 New York Giants: 19.2 aggregate score
*Note: These figures are based on that season’s finishes. That indicates how dominant the defenses were comparative to the other teams of that season.