NFL.com Contributing Columnist
Defense wins championships.
It’s a familiar refrain. But does it still hold true in this era of high-flying offense?
OK, so the 1985 Chicago Bears are not walking through that door. Neither are the Purple People Eaters, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the Legion of Boom. But there are defenses poised to make a real difference this year.
Here are my top defenses heading into the 2022 NFL season, Schein Nine-style:
Nick Bosa, who received my vote for first-team All-Pro last season, is a beast. In 35 career games, he’s compiled 24.5 sacks, including 15.5 in 2021, good for fourth in the NFL. He anchors a superb front seven, which welcomes Arik Armstead back into the fold after he missed time with a knee injury in camp. (And watch out for Javon Kinlaw, whom head coach Kyle Shanahan says “seems more like himself” after having ACL surgery last fall.) Fred Warner is a special player, earning the fourth-best defensive grade from Pro Football Focus among linebackers last season. He’s led the team in tackles in each of his four pro seasons thus far, surpassed in that category by only three players (Bobby Wagner, Shaquille Leonard and Roquan Smith) since he joined the NFL in 2018. And Charvarius Ward joins a defensive backfield that helped San Francisco rank sixth in passing yards allowed last season. In short, the core is legit.
DeMeco Ryans picked up the defensive coordinator torch last season when Robert Saleh left to coach the Jets, and the brilliant Ryans didn’t miss a beat, pushing the defense to its third consecutive top-five finish in yards allowed. When you combine the talent on the field with Ryans’ smarts, you have a potent combo worthy of the No. 1 position here.
The addition of Von Miller to the No. 1 defense (in terms of yards allowed) in 2021 was perfect. Miller might be 33, but he still has a ton of gas left in the tank as a pass rusher, judging by his otherworldly playoff performance with the Rams last season (four sacks in four games). I remain enamored with the talent up front; former first-rounder Gregory Rousseau is coming of a four-sack debut season, while Ed Oliver put up a career-best 10 tackles for loss and 14 QB hits in ’21. Miller brings it all together — the two-time Super Bowl champ will show the Bills the way.
I love coordinator Leslie Frazier’s ability to coach up this unit. First-round pick Kaiir Elam was a great addition to a secondary that also features veteran stalwarts Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde at safety. Whenever two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White, who went down with a torn ACL in November, makes his way back onto the field, it will be, well, everything for this defense.
The Packers traded away Davante Adams, one of the best receivers in the game today, this offseason. But they still have a great opportunity to make a legitimate Super Bowl run this season. And it’s not just because they have a legendary quarterback in Aaron Rodgers — it’s also because they have a lockdown defense.
That’s right; these aren’t your older brother’s Green Bay Packers, asking a top-10 offense to carry a bottom-ranked defense. The front seven is strong, with first-round pick Quay Walker joining tackling machine De’Vondre Campbell and veteran pass rushers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. The defensive backfield is special. Corner Jaire Alexander, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, is a rock star — and he’s paid like it. Alexander will be returning alongside 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes, who tied for most passes defensed (14) by a rookie last season. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry surely earned the trust of both his players and head coach Matt LaFleur after piloting Green Bay to a ninth-place finish in yards allowed in his first year on the job.
Teaming up four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Joey Bosa with three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack? Yes, please.
Adding J.C. Jackson to a secondary that also features newly extended safety Derwin James and promising youngster Asante Samuel Jr.? Yes, please — and thank you!
Bosa and Mack, who have both averaged over nine sacks per season in their NFL careers, are one of the most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the league, while Jackson (22 picks over the past three seasons) is the play-making corner this team has craved. Locking up James, who will hope to build on his 2021 season after missing all of 2020 and much of 2019 with injury, was monumentally important for head coach Brandon Staley’s Super Bowl-caliber roster. And don’t sleep on the defensive tackle help general manager Tom Telesco brought in to shore up the run defense, which last season pulled a defense that ranked 12th against the pass into the bottom half of the league (23rd) in yards allowed. Free-agent tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day earned the best defensive grade from PFF of his career in 2020, when Staley was his coordinator with the Rams.
Aaron Donald is the best defensive player who has ever walked the face of the Earth.
OK, now that we have that basic fact of life out of the way, we can delve into the rest of this starry unit. Jalen Ramsey — who, along with Donald, made the list of players I think should be in the “Madden 99 Club” — is the best corner in the game. Scooping up linebacker Bobby Wagner after his release by the Seahawks was a stupendous move. The likely first-ballot Hall of Famer will be hungry to win another title — and show Seattle what it will be missing. I can’t wait to see what Raheem Morris, who is a great defensive coordinator, does in Year 2 with the team. L.A.’s regular-season defensive rankings — 17th in yards allowed and 15th in scoring — might not be much to look at, but Morris and Co. really turned it on during the championship run: The Rams ranked second among playoff teams in yards allowed per game (282.3) and third in points allowed per game (18.8).
Dennis Allen was promoted to replace Sean Payton as head coach after coaxing the defense to four consecutive top-15 finishes as coordinator, including two straight in the top seven. He’s great at what he does. Cam Jordan, who has recorded double-digit sacks in four of the past five seasons, is a stud. The front seven is reliably difficult to run against, helping New Orleans rank fourth or better in run defense in each of the past four seasons. Linebacker Demario Davis is a great leader and tackler. Marshon Lattimore is a play-making corner — he leads the NFL in passes defensed (74) since the Saints made him a first-round pick in 2017.
Signing veteran safety Tyrann Matthieu was the icing on the cake. The ex-LSU star will bring the kind of sizzle, swagger and experience that can help this defense win big.
Like Allen in New Orleans, Todd Bowles was elevated to head coach this offseason after a strong run as the team’s defensive coordinator (three straight top-15 finishes). His fingerprints will no doubt remain visible on this defense. He has a sharp mind and a loaded team at his disposal.
Only Bobby Wagner has more tackles than Lavonte David (1,220) since David entered the league in 2012. The veteran David and rising youngster Devin White (fourth in tackles over the past two seasons) form a dynamic linebacking duo. Shaq Barrett has been one of the league’s more effective pass rushers, ranking fourth in sacks (37.5) over the past three seasons. Jason Pierre-Paul is gone, but 2021 first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can pick up the pass-rushing slack. Vita Vea matched a career high with 12 QB hits last season and set a personal best in sacks (four) en route to his first Pro Bowl nod. Vea is joined on the Bucs’ mammoth line by veteran Akiem Hicks, whose signing in free agency was a top-notch move. And corner Carlton Davis, who has more passes defensed than anyone in the NFL in the past three seasons despite missing seven games in 2021, will be back, healthy and newly enriched.
Denver is on this list even after saying goodbye to Von Miller via midseason trade last year, and that’s in large part because of the clutch addition of pass-rushing ace Randy Gregory as a free agent this offseason. The ex-Cowboy should help provide room for Bradley Chubb, who was held to zero sacks and limited to seven games last season, to reestablish himself as a top-end pass-rushing threat.
Safety Justin Simmons has been a prolifically productive defensive back, piling up 331 tackles over the past four seasons, behind only Cincinnati’s Jessie Bates in that span. First-round pick Patrick Surtain II, meanwhile, had more interceptions (four) than any Broncos rookie since Steve Foley also recorded four in 1976. I love Surtain’s upside and talent. And the tough D-line was boosted by the addition of D.J. Jones.
Jadeveon Clowney, who put up one of the better seasons of his career last year playing alongside Myles Garrett, was smart to come back for more in 2022. Garrett is a star, one of just three players (along with Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt) to post double-digit sacks in each of the past four seasons. At 26 years old, Garrett is still squarely in his prime. Denzel Ward got paid this offseason, and he’ll anchor a truly talented defensive backfield filled with playmakers like Greg Newsome II, Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit. And don’t forget about linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, one of three rookies last season (with the Cowboys’ Micah Parsons and the Raiders’ Nate Hobbs) to notch 70-plus tackles and four-plus QB hits.
The Browns are going to need their defense to take over and win games during Deshaun Watson‘s 11-game suspension, and this unit is capable of doing exactly that.
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