By Jaylee Simonds Posted 9/9/2020 in SPORTS
While the Kansas City Chiefs may have ridden an unstoppable offense to a 2019 Super Bowl victory, many notable events this offseason centered around NFL teams making moves to bolster or maintain their defenses. Using information from 2019’s season and educated predictions about how roster shifts will affect 2020, this article takes a look at what should be the top tier of NFL defenses next season. (These teams are not ranked in any particular order.)
The Patriots are entering an unknown era thanks to their well-covered change of quarterback, but they should be able to rely on their defense for some stability. The team did lose some notable players in the front seven, including Kyle Van Noy and Danny Shelton. However, defensive mastermind Bill Belichick is still directing the show, and the back seven still features talented individuals like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty, and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore (at cornerback).
In 2019, the team had the league’s stingiest defense in terms of both yards and points allowed, per ESPN. Given Belichick’s track record of dealing with change and how strong this team’s secondary remains, it’s safe to expect another strong performance.
While New England’s defense is built around a stifling secondary, the San Francisco 49ers’ defense is constructed to benefit from a ferocious pass rush. Edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford pair with defensive lineman Arik Armstead to give the team a trio that was responsible for 25.5 sacks in 2019. Joining them will be rookie Javon Kinlaw on the defensive line. He replaces the departing DeForest Buckner, an extremely strong player. It is unreasonable to expect Kinlaw to be just as strong as a rookie, but he—along with Nick Bosa’s continued development—should help mitigate the loss of Buckner.
Not all of the 49ers’ talent is in the front seven, either: Pro Football Focus rated cornerback Richard Sherman as the NFL’s 14th-best player entering 2020, and young players such as linebacker Fred Warner—called a “field general” by NBC Sports—show promise. And Robert Saleh returns at defensive coordinator, despite garnering head-coaching consideration this offseason.
Among sports current events, one of the off-season’s more interesting ones was the Ravens’ doubling down on inside linebacker in the draft: They drafted Patrick Queen in the first round and Malik Harrison in the third. This was notable because both steps should help to shore up what Jamison Hensley called the contending team’s “biggest need.” The team also made a move to boost its past rush, acquiring defensive lineman Calais Campbell—who’s had 88 career sacks—from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The hope is that Campbell will give the team’s top edge rusher, Matt Judon, some help. In free agency, another defensive lineman, Derek Wolfe, came aboard. Wolfe, Campbell, and incumbent nose tackle Brandon Williams should give the team a stout starting defensive line.
Those new additions join a defense that, like the Patriots’, is built from back to front. Even before the new additions, the Ravens’ defense was already elite, ranking fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metric (Defense-adjusted Value Over average, or DVOA). The Ravens have at least four starting-quality corners, including Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, and Tavon Young. Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark provide a smothering duo behind them at safety. Coming off a great season of his own, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will return. All in all, the Ravens built on a strong 2019 and should have even fewer weaknesses in 2020.
The Buffalo Bills are New England’s biggest threat in the AFC East, and they hold that distinction in a large part thanks to a strong defense, which ranked sixth in DVOA in 2019. In fact, Buffalo’s defense was arguably directly responsible for putting the team in the postseason in 2019, as it held the Steelers to just 10 points in their postseason-clinching game.
It’s tough to pinpoint one part of this defense as its strength because there is talent on all three levels. At pass rusher, the quietly effective Mario Addison replaces the departing Shaq Lawson. Jerry Hughes and rookie A. J. Epenesa add additional juice on the edge. The defensive tackles are highlighted by potential star Ed Oliver at the three-technique.
Behind them, Pro Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds made 115 tackles and, perhaps more impressively, defended nine passes. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer team up in what The Athletic called “one of the best safety tandems in football” (article behind paywall). And cornerback Tre’Davious White snagged six interceptions and All-Pro honors in 2019.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense helped drag the team a respectable 8-8 record despite a depleted quarterback room. The defense ranked sixth in points allowed per game and fifth in yards allowed per game as well as third in DVOA. A large part of that success came from a strong pass rush: Rising star edge rusher T. J. Watt set a career high with 14.5 sacks, while his counterpart Bud Dupree did the same with 11.5 of his own. Another standout in the front seven is defensive end Cameron Heyward, who, like Watt, made the Pro Bowl. Joining them on the Pro Bowl roster were two members of the secondary: cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was a trade acquisition from the Miami Dolphins and finished with five interceptions, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.
In 2020, there is reason to believe the unit will perform well again. It will welcome back defensive lineman Stephen Tuitt, who missed the majority of 2019 because of injury. Rising sophomore linebacker Devin Bush enjoyed a good rookie season and will hope to build on that. And the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should theoretically relieve some of the pressure on the defense.
Though most sports current events coverage of the Bucs centered around the offseason arrival of Tom Brady, the team’s defense stands out as well. The unit had a hard time for the first few weeks of the season; however, they were very strong over the final month and a half and will hope to build on that in 2020. The team has experienced defensive coordinator Todd Bowles calling the shots.