2023 NFL defense rankings: Best defenses in NFL Playoffs, Championship Weekend previews

Who has the best NFL defense in 2023? Our weekly NFL defense rankings examine every unit across the league on a weekly basis to determine the best defenses in the NFL.

The NFL playoffs have arrived and the proverbial saying that defense wins championships feels especially prevalent right now. Look at the latest Super Bowl odds. We’ve also seen plenty of instances over the past few years where key defensive stops or a huge takeaway created by a star player decides which team hoists the Lombardi Trophy.

Stats courtesy Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference, ESPN, and Pro Football Focus.

Let’s dive into our 2023 NFL defense rankings before the NFC and AFC Championship Games. Following the conclusion of NFL Championship Weekend, we’ll evaluate some of the top defenses in 2022 and where things stand entering the offseason.

5. Kansas City Chiefs

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 6 in NFL defense rankings

The Kansas City Chiefs have the worst defense remaining in the NFL playoffs and it’s not particularly close. While this group isn’t nearly as bad as it played earlier in the season, there are far more holes in the lineup than any of the other teams left standing.

Rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie’s return from a lengthy absence provided some stability for Kansas City’s secondary. Now primarily operating as a slot corner, McDuffie allowed just 9.3 yards per reception with a 57.8% catch rate (PFF) on targets thrown his way. When the Chiefs’ defensive front can’t get pressure, as Saturday’s game demonstrated, quarterbacks have no problem attacking the vulnerabilities in the defensive backfield.

Related: Super Bowl odds

Kansas City is also experiencing more difficulties stopping the run. After allowing just 65.8 rush ypg and 3.3 yards per carry through the first four games, the Chiefs allowed 120 rush ypg and 4.6 ypc in their final 13 regular-season contests. The Jacksonville Jaguars took full advantage, rushing for 144 yards and averaging 7.6 yards per touch.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the Patrick Mahomes injury only reduces their margin for error. If Kansas City’s defense gives up 28-plus points, which is likely to happen against an elite quarterback, Mahomes can’t save the day playing on a high-ankle sprain. Takeaways are the only way for the Chiefs’ defense to become AFC champions.

4. Cincinnati Bengals

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 5 in NFL defense rankings

Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves to be an NFL head coach. Against the best quarterbacks in the NFL, he finds ways to make everything difficult. Even with the Bengals missing No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, excellent coaching is putting this unit over the top.

QB Rating Sacks YPA Completion Rate TD % – INT %
79.9 19 6.67 59.2% 3.3% – 2.5%
Opposing QBs vs Cincinnati Bengals defense (Weeks 9 through Divisional Round)

We’ve seen Mahomes struggle, compared to his usual standard, against Anarumo. In the last meeting vs Cincinnati (Dec. 4), Mahomes completed just 59.3% of his passes with 223 passing yards and a 98.2 quarterback rating. In the AFC Championship Game a year ago, Kansas City’s quarterback posted a 1.4 ESPN QBR in the second half and overtime. Anarumo dropped eight defenders on 45% of the Chiefs’ passing plays and it made Mahomes look mortal.

Now, Mahomes is playing on a high-ankle sprain. While he is still a dangerously accurate quarterback from the pocket, losing his mobility poses a huge threat to Kansas City’s offense. If Mahomes can’t evade sacks and scramble for first downs when receivers are covered, something we saw in the Divisional Round against Jacksonville, Cincinnati gains a huge advantage.

As for players to watch on the Bengals’ defense, there are a few to choose from. Anarumo uses defensive back Mike Hilton as a slot blitzer. While blitzing Mahomes is typically ill-advised, it might be more effective because of his limited mobility. We’ll also spotlight the pass-rushing tandem of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, who combined for 115 pressures this season.

3. Dallas Cowboys

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Commanders
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 4 in NFL defense rankings

Finally, signs of life from the Dallas Cowboys defense. We saw reminders of the unit that dominated the league early in the regular season, earning praise as the best defense in the NFL. Naturally, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs played a huge part in the turnaround.

Parsons, who vowed to have a big game, generated eight of the Cowboys’ 10 pressures on Monday with an outstanding 22.2% pressure rate when lined up against the left tackle (Next Gen Stats). As for Diggs, who matched up against Mike Evans, he allowed just 45 yards on six targets in 42 snaps of man coverage vs Evans. Yes, we still have concerns about this defense against the San Francisco 49ers. However, this group looked so much better than it did over the last six weeks.

Here lies the problem for Dallas. It allowed 4.4 yards per carry during the regular season, largely from a nine-game stretch when opponents averaged 141.7 rush ypg (Weeks 6-15). Once Christian McCaffrey settled in, San Francisco averaged 156 rush ypg with 13 rushing touchdowns in nine games.

If the Cowboys sell out to stop the run, McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel will feast if Parsons doesn’t have the game of his life. Pressure is the only way for Dallas to stop the 49ers.

2. San Francisco 49ers

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers won on Wild Card Weekend, but it was far from their best defensive performance of the season. Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf turned Charvarius Ward around on multiple occasions, with San Francisco’s No. 1 cornerback allowing 98 receiving yards on throws against him. It served as a reminder of the 49ers’ issues vs No.1. receivers, especially late in the season and outside corner Deommodore Lenoir (96.8 QB rating allowed) is part of the problem.

Related: NFL Playoff predictions

The best run defense in the NFL also looked like much less of a brick wall than usual. For the second time in three weeks, San Francisco allowed a 100-yard game to its opponents and 4.2 yards per carry. It could just be a blip on the radar, but the defensive decline is worrisome entering the Divisional Round.

Everything on Sunday rests on the Cowboys’ offensive line vs 49ers’ pass rush. If Dallas gives Dak Prescott time to throw, he will attack this secondary through CeeDee Lamb, T.Y Hilton and Michael Gallup. If the best pass rush in the NFL wins at the line of scrimmage, Prescott will throw multiple interceptions and San Francisco wins by two scores.

1. Philadephia Eagles

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 1 in NFL defense rankings

The Philadelphia Eagles defense is healthy and that makes them a terrifying unit that can help lead this team to the Super Bowl. After becoming the fourth team in NFL history to record 70-plus sacks in a season, Jonathan Gannon’s group continued its domination in the Divisional Round.

Led by Haason Reddick (1.5 sacks) and Josh Sweat (1.5 sacks), the Eagles took Daniel Jones down for five sacks with eight quarterbacks hit on Saturday. Philadelphia overwhelmed Jones, pressuring him on 64% of his dropbacks in the first half. Combine that with the best secondary in the NFL and it’s easy to see why the Eagles are headed to the NFC Championship Game.

Matching up against the San Francisco 49ers will prove far more challenging for Philadelphia. Opponents had a fair amount of success against the Eagles over the past six games. From Weeks 14 through the Divisional Round, Philadelphia allowed 128.5 rush ypg and 4.8 yards per carry. Kyle Shanahan is better than anyone at creating explosive runs with Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell each capable of big games.

However, the Eagles do have advantages in their favor if the game is put on Brock Purdy‘s shoulders. While left tackle Trent Williams is one of the best pass protectors in the NFL, the interior and right side of the 49ers’ offensive line can be attacked. Considering Philadelphia set an NFL single-season record with four players recording double-digit sacks, it could find success pressuring Purdy and forcing him into bad decisions.

Related: Best Philadelphia Eagles teams ever

If this turns into a high-scoring game, it will then all come down to the Eagles’ secondary. While James Bradberry and Darius Slay don’t necessarily have the speed to match with Brandon Aiyuk, they are high-end cover corners. As long as Philadelphia’s defensive backs don’t miss tackles in the open field, San Francisco’s quick passing game shouldn’t hit many explosive plays.

This article was originally published on Sportsnaut.com and is republished here with permission.

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