2023 NFL defense rankings: Championship Weekend previews, offseason outlook for 32 teams

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.

Further down below, you can check out our NFL defense rankings for the eliminated teams with outlooks for all 32 clubs.

NFL defense rankings: Best defenses in NFL playoffs

4. 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.

3. 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.

2. San Francisco 49ers

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
  • Previously: No. 2 in NFL defense rankings

An NFC Championship Game matchup between the No. 1 defense in the DVOA rankings against the No. 3 DVOA offense. It’s hard to imagine a better matchup than the San Francisco 49ers vs Philadelphia Eagles. If that’s not enough to get you excited, let the chess match between DeMeco Ryans and Shane Steichen do it.

Related: NFL Playoff predictions

This is strength vs strength, the best players in the NFL battling it out head-to-head. Philadelphia finished No. 2 in PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency (89.9). It entered the Divisional Round with the fewest sacks (11) and quarterback hits (nine) allowed).

On the other side is a 49ers’ defensive line that finished with the fifth-best pass rush win rate (46%) in the NFL. Ryans doesn’t usually need to blitz to create pressure, especially with Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead healthy. However, San Francisco’s defensive coordinator might need to dial up a fifth pass rusher against an offensive line with first-team All-Pro selections at center (Jason Kelce) and right tackle (Lane Johnson).

San Francisco can feel extremely comfortable with its defense covering tight end Dallas Goedert, as linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw thrived at taking away the middle of the field. However, there are a few weaknesses in the 49ers’ secondary. Cornerback Deommondore Lenoire is a liability in coverage and we’ve seen plenty of instances where San Francisco’s safeties, especially Talanaoa Hufanga, get burned because of their over-aggressiveness. If Jalen Hurts gets time to throw, A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith can find some open spaces.

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.

NFL defense rankings: Offseason outlook for all 32 teams

32. Chicago Bears

  • Key Free Agents: N/A

The Chicago Bears had the worst defense in the NFL this season. Across 17 games, Chicago allowed opponents to average a 94.4 QB rating, 4.9 yards per carry and they allowed the most points per game (27.2) in the NFL. While building around Justin Fields is a priority, the Bears’ defense will also be completely overhauled.

Related: Chicago Bears mock draft 2023

31. Atlanta Falcons

  • Key Free Agents: CB Isaiah Oliver, EDGE Lorenzo Carter

Cornerback A.J. Terrell took a step back in 2022 after a breakout season a year prior. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons finished with the lowest pressure rate (14.6%) and the second-fewest sacks (20) in the NFL. The Falcons desperately need to find pass rushers this offseason.

30. Las Vegas Raiders

  • Key Free Agents: EDGE Clelin Ferrell, iDL Andrew Billings, S Duron Harmon, CB Rock Ya-Sin, LB Denzel Perryman, iDL Jerry Tillery

The Las Vegas Raiders defense fell well short of expectations under play-caller Patrick Graham. After allowing the seventh-most points per game (24.6), Las Vegas must upgrade a secondary that allowed the highest passer rating (98.8) and the third-highest completion rate (67.6%).

Related: Realistic veteran QB options for the Las Vegas Raiders

29. Arizona Cardinals

  • Key Free Agents: CB Byron Murphy Jr, iDL Zach Allen, LB Ben Niemann

Following J.J. Watt’s retirement, almost the entire Arizona Cardinals’ defense needs to be addressed. Arizona allowed the highest completion rate (69.8%) to opponents and it surrendered the second-most passing touchdowns (29). The Cardinals weren’t any better at stopping the run, allowing the 10th-highest yards per carry (4.5).

Related: NFL free agents 2023

28. Minnesota Vikings

  • Key Free Agents: CB Patrick Peterson, iDL Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Chandon Sullivan

When the Minnesota Vikings pass rush couldn’t create pressure, it was finished. Opponents posted a 92.7 QB rating with an 11-5 TD-INT ratio in the final eight games and Minnesota had one of the softest second-half schedules. With both Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson free agents, Minnesota needs to re-sign its starters and overhaul the cornerback room.

Related: NFL trade rumors

27. Detroit Lions

  • Key Free Agents: LB Alex Anzalone, S DeShon Elliott, S Will Harris, iDL Isaiah Buggs

The Detroit Lions defense showed tangible progress late in the season. After allowing opponents to average a 96.5 QB rating with 262.2 pass ypg and a 16-8 TD-INT line in the first 10 games, Detroit ceded a 59% completion rate 222.4 pass ypg and 10-4 TD-INT in its final seven contests. Most impressively, in a sign of things to come, the Lions averaged 3.1 sacks per game in those last seven games. Another year in Aaron Glenn’s system with additions to the secondary and defensive line can make this a top-15 defense in 2023.

26. Seattle Seahawks

  • Key Free Agents: CB Michael Jackson Sr., S Ryan Neal, LB Cody Barton, iDL Poona Ford

The Seattle Seahawks struck gold with rookie cornerbacks Tariq Woolen and Cody Bryant, who look like long-term starters. However, Seattle allowed 150.2 rush ypg, 21 rushing touchdowns and it ranked 28th in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate (34%). Adding an edge defender like Myles Murphy or Tyree Wilson would be an excellent step forward for this unit.

25. New York Giants

  • Key Free Agents: S Julian Love, CB Fabian Moreau, EDGE Jihad Ward

New York Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale didn’t need to rely upon his habit of blitzing this season because of Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams and Kayvon Thibodeaux. However, New York ranked last in Football Outsiders’ Rush DVOA (11.6%) and it’s painfully thin at cornerback. Give Martindale more talent to work with and this can be a top-12 defense.

Related: 2023 NFL Draft order

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Key Free Agents: LB Lavonte David, CB Jamel Dean, S Mike Edwards, DL Akiem Hicks

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a staple of our NFL defense rankings for years. However, there’s no feasible way to call this one of the best NFL defenses in 2023. Cap issues might push either linebacker Lavonte David or corner Jamel Dean out. It will have ramifications on a unit that ranked 22nd in pass rush win rate (37%) and ceded the 11th-highest average QB rating (92.7).

Related: 2023 NFL Draft QB rankings

23. Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Key Free Agents: EDGE Arden Key

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense showed a lot of flashes late in the regular season, holding its final five opponents to 197.8 pass ypg with an 81.2 QB rating and a 6-5 TD-INT line. However, Arden Key is a free-agent Jacksonville must keep and it’s evident the Jags need help at corner.

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22. Houston Texans

  • Key Free Agents: S Jonathan Owens, EDGE Rasheem Green, EDGE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo

Lovie Smith deserves credit for getting the most he could out of one of the least talented defenses in football. While Houston allowed the sixth-most PPG (24.7), it allowed the sixth-lowest average QB rating (82.7) and ranked 14th in FO’s Pass DVOA (2.6%). Houston has a lot of problems, though.

Related: Houston Texans mock draft 2023

21. Tennessee Titans

  • Key Free Agents: LB David Long Jr, S Andrew Adams, iDL Teair Tart

The Tennessee Titans had the best run defense in the NFL this season, surrendering just 76.9 rush ypg and 3.4 yards per carry. Tennessee’s pass rush should also improve in 2023 with the return of Harold Landry. With that side, star linebacker David Long Jr. is a free agent and the Titans’ cornerback room is a mess.

20. Carolina Panthers

  • Key Free Agents: IDL Matt Ioannidis, CB Myles Hartsfield

There’s an opportunity for the Carolina Panthers to have one of the best NFL defenses in 2022. Jaycee Horn is an ascending No. 1 corner and the quarter of Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Frankie Luvu and Shaq Thompson gives Carolina a strong front seven. With the right defensive coordinator and the addition of a No. 2 outside corner, this could be an excellent unit.

Related: 5 NFL QB trades we’d love to see this offseason

19. Cleveland Browns

  • Key Free Agents: EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, iDL Taven Bryan, LB Sione Takitaki

It’s difficult to imagine the Cleveland Browns defense performing worse with a new defensive coordinator. Jim Schwartz has plenty to work with, but Schwartz’s approach doesn’t work without a strong defensive interior and improved play on the boundary. Cleveland needs to significantly improve at defensive tackle, while hoping Denzel Ward, Grant Delpit and Greg Newsome improve.

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18. Los Angeles Rams

  • Key Free Agents: S Taylor Rapp, S Nick Scott, iDL Greg Gaines, CB Troy Hill

The looming Jalen Ramsey trade was a long time coming. Once No. 1 in our NFL defense rankings, the Los Angeles Rams have rolled into a freefall. Even if Aaron Donald returns to his elite form and linebacker Bobby Wagner plays at an All-Pro level again, there are too many voids at cornerback, edge rusher and safety for Los Angeles to maintain a top-15 defense next season.

Related: 2023 NFL salary cap tracker

17. Green Bay Packers

  • Key Free Agents: S Adrian Amos, iDL Jarran Reed, iDL Dean KLowry, S Rudy Ford

Labeled as a top-five defense heading into the 2022 season, the Green Bay Packers didn’t play like it until late in the year. Green Bay is set at cornerback (Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes) but safety is now a weakness and a healthy Rashan Gary isn’t nearly enough of a pass rush. If Aaron Rodgers is traded, expect the draft picks coming over in return to be used on the defensive side.

16. Los Angeles Chargers

  • Key Free Agents: LB Drue Tranquill, S Nasir Adderley, EDGE Kyle Van Noy, CB Bryce Callahan, iDL Morgan Fox

Fans might not like Brandon Staley as a head coach, but he is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL. The Los Angeles Chargers ended the regular season averaging 2.7 sacks per game with a 77.1 QB rating and 55.7% completion rate allowed to opponents in their past seven contests. This can be one of the best pass defenses in the NFL, but we haven’t seen any signs of its run defense improving for two years now.

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15. Indianapolis Colts

  • Key Free Agents: EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, LB Bobby Okereke, S Rodney McLeod

The Indianapolis Colts can no longer count on Shaquille Leonard to stay healthy for a full season. Given Bobby Okereke is a free agent, it adds linebacker to the pressing list of needs this offseason. The Colts might also need to upgrade at edge rusher over Yannick Ngakoue and even safety could become a position to address. Overall, this unit likely tops out as a top-12 defense.

Related: Indianapolis Colts mock draft 2023

14. Miami Dolphins

  • Key Free Agents: LB Elandon Roberts, S Eric Rowe, EDGE Melvin Ingram

The Miami Dolphins defense started putting it together midway through the 2022 season, allowing just 222.4 pass ypg with 23 sacks (2.9 per game). However, Miamis struggled to generate turnovers (12-4 TD-INT) with Byron Jones sidelined all season and Xavien Howard regressing. Looking ahead to 2023, the combo of Christian Wilkins and Jaelan Phillips will be phenomenal.

Related: 2023 NFL Draft rumors

13. Baltimore Ravens

  • Key Free Agents: CB Marcus Peters, EDGE Jason Pierre-Paul, EDGE Justin Houston

The Baltimore Ravens are set at safety and linebacker, but it will be losing No. 2 cornerback Marcus Peters and its top two edge rushers to free agency. Consistently a top-12 pass and run defense, the Ravens have room for improvement if they find younger plays to fill the voids left by Peters and Co.

12. Washington Commanders

  • Key Free Agents: IDL Da’Ron Payne, LB Cole Holcomb

Chase Young will be more than a year removed from his ACL tear and that bodes well for the Washington Commanders defense. We love the front of this group, especially if Da’Ron Payne returns. However, Washington allowed the fourth-most passing touchdowns because corner is a glaring issue that must be addressed via free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft.

Related: Latest on Washington Commanders sale

11. New Orleans Saints

  • Key Free Agents: IDL David Onyemate, iDL Shy Tuttle, EDGE Marcus Davenport

It’s quite remarkable that the New Orleans Saints defense continues to play at a high level every season despite constant turnover. With David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport both set to hit the open market, salary cap restrictions will likely force New Orleans to lose at least one of them. If Paulson Adebo and Marshon Lattimore can’t elevate their game in 2023, regression will come for this Saints’ defense.

10. Denver Broncos

  • Key Free Agents: LB Alex Singleton, iDL Dre’Mont Jones, iDL DeShawn Williams

The Denver Broncos defense played extremely well given the circumstances of the 2022 season. Patrick Surtain II is the best cornerback in the NFL and the ability to blanket No. 1 receivers helps everyone else on this unit. Heading into the offseason, especially with defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero likely gone, we’d love to see Denver upgrade its pass rush.

Related: NFL coaching candidates 2023

9. Buffalo Bills

  • Key Free Agents: S Jordan Poyer, LB Tremaine Edmunds, EDGE Shaq Lawson, iDL Jordan Phillips

Getting Von Miller and Micah Hyde back for the 2023 NFL season are huge boosts for the Buffalo Bills defense. Tre’Davious White will also be at 100% with a full offseason and Kaiir Elam should elevate his game in his second year. However, a tight salary cap means losing at least two impact defenders and that will have significant ramifications on the Bills’ defense.

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8. Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Key Free Agents: CB Cameron Sutton, LB Ddevin Bush, iDL Larry Ogunjobi, S Terrell Edmunds, LB Robert Spillane, iDL Tyson Alualu

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense ended the regular season with a dominant stretch, allowing just 151.1 pass ypg with 21 sacks and eight interceptions in the final seven contests. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Alex Highsmith and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the reason why Pittsburgh has one of the best NFL defenses in 2023. If the right additions are made at cornerback, this could be a top-5 unit.

Related: NFL offense rankings

7. New England Patriots

  • Key Free Agents: S Devin McCourty, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Myles Bryant

The New England Patriots defense played outstanding in 2022, with breakout campaigns from Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger and Ja’Whaun Bentley. With Bill O’Brien running the offense next season, Belichick can work with Jerod Mayo to make this one of the best defenses in the NFL. Although, New England would be wise to improve at outside corner.

6. New York Jets

  • Key Free Agents: LB Quincy Williams, S Lamarcus Joyner, LB Kwon Alexander

The turnaround from the New York Jets defense last season was incredible. Rookie cornerbacks aren’t supposed to be great early, but Sauce Gardner became an All-Pro in his first season. With D.J. Reed Jr. standing out in coverage vs No. 2 receivers and the Jets finishing with the second-highest run-stop win rate (33%) in the league, everything came together. If Robert Saleh can find a playmaking safety, the Jets could be No. 1 in our NFL defense rankings next season.

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5. Dallas Cowboys

  • Key Free Agents: CB Anthony Brown, S Donovan Wilson, LB Leighton Vander Esch

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is returning for the 2023 season, which might be the biggest offseason move for the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas must re-sign linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who proved to be an integral piece this year. After that, the Cowboys can go out and find a No. 2 corner to help this unit maintain its status as one of the best NFL defenses in 2023.

Related: 2023 NFL franchise tag projections

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

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