When it comes to winning championships, defensive quality has consistently been more predictive of success in the NFL than offense (or special teams). This is especially true of pass defenses during the current era. Consider that defenses like the 2015 Broncos, 2013 Seahawks, and 2010 Packers all had dominating seasons, while the 2012 Ravens were a year removed from being the NFL's best defense, the 2014 Patriots built their unit around Darrelle Revis, and the 2016 Pats led the league in fewest points allowed.
Without any truly dominant teams in the NFL in 2017, it will be key to recognize which contenders at least have something special cooking on the defensive side of the ball.
New England has tightened up to allow just 38 points over the past three weeks, but they still look like they have a bottom-five pass defense and a brutal road schedule lies ahead. By FootballlOutsiders DVOA metric, the Bengals were third on defense going into Week 7, but after their loss to the Steelers dropped them to 2-4, they don't look like a contender. Same goes for the 3-4 Ravens, ranked fifth on defense by DVOA but have far too many "Joe Flacco problems" to overcome. The Chiefs defense is nothing special, especially without Eric Berry. The Lions were the worst defense in the league last season, and that still has to be considered given that they aren't quite dominant. Carolina gave up six points over the first two games, but are allowing 26.6 points per game since. The Texans lost too much with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, while the Broncos just seem to have completely lost their way.
10. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles might be a "surprise" team at 6-1, but their defense is actually worse than it was a year ago. Philly was ranked fourth on defense by DVOA last season, and they were 14th going into Monday night's game, in which they gave up 24 points (but beat Washington by 10). Still, they rank 13th against the pass and ninth against the run, plus are ninth in points allowed and haven't allowed more than 27 points in a game yet. With players like Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Timmy Jernigan, the front seven clearly has major talent, but the secondary is lacking even after the eventual returns of Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones. This is a fine defense for a team that has the best record in the NFL, but it is far from being anything special.
Not often spoken of as a top-10 defense, Washington was ranked exactly 10th in defense headed into Week 7, by DVOA. They had allowed just six passing touchdowns with five interceptions going into Monday night's showdown against the Eagles, but allowed four touchdowns to Carson Wentz without Josh Norman. That being said, Norman's rib injury isn't likely to keep him out for long and Washington is still in the thick of the Wild Card hunt.
8. Chicago Bears
Unexpected to be a contender, let alone a team with an above-average defense, Chicago has now forced six turnovers over the past two weeks en route to wins over the Ravens and Panthers, putting the Bears at 3-4 and in talk for the postseason. On Sunday, Chicago sacked Cam Newton five times, forced a fumble and intercepted him twice. Akiem Hicks has six sacks, Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee each have three. Mitchell Trubisky has done next to nothing as a starter but his defense has stepped up and given John Fox some earlier-than-expected hope. The underrated addition of Hicks has a lot to do with that.
7. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo gave up more touchdowns on Sunday to Jameis Winston (three) than they had given up all year long (two), but we can't ignore how dominant they were for that stretch. The Bills also still won the game putting them in a tie for first place in the AFC East and in the hunt to end their 18-year playoff drought. Buffalo has allowed only five touchdowns and nine interceptions -- and just 3.45 yards per carry -- over their 4-2 start.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
New city, same story. Once again, the Chargers must live in the "what if?" realm thanks to three losses by two points or less. But after three straight wins, LA has tied Denver and Oakland in victories and has the best point differential of the trio. That's in large due to a defense that pitched a shutout against the Broncos on Sunday and has yet to allow more than 26 points in a game this year; Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are both on pace for over 16 sacks. So the Chargers are that sneaky team that could have the last defense you would want to face in January. That would be a new city, new story.
Most pressures through 19 NFL games since 2006:- Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) October 22, 2017
5. Los Angeles Rams
The sleeper factor in LA's 5-2 start is not a resurgence by the offense but a top-five pass defense. The Rams held the Cardinals to 5.8 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 39.1, albeit with 14 attempts coming from Drew Stanton after Carson Palmer broke his arm. LA came into the week ranked sixth against the pass by DVOA. Aaron Donald is one of the top five players in the NFL, while eight players on the Rams defense have at least two sacks this season. Since inserting rookie safety John Johnson into the starting lineup, LA has allowed just 34 points in three games.
4. Minnesota Vikings
Few were ignoring Minnesota's defense going into the year based on talent at all three levels (Harrison Smith, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffin, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes), but they've yet to really become elite like you may have expected with this personnel. However, Week 7's 24-16 win over the Ravens was an example of how good they could really be. Joe Flacco was sacked five times, averaged 4.8 yards per attempt, and Baltimore rushed 20 times for only 64 yards. The Vikings haven't given up more than 17 points since Week 2. Griffen has nine sacks.
#Vikings underrated DE Everson Griffen is the 6th player (since 1982) to record a sack in each of his team's 1st 7 games of a season.- Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) October 23, 2017
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh started the week fourth in DVOA on defense, including fourth against the pass. Then they sacked Andy Dalton four times, intercepted him twice, held him to 4.7 yards per attempt and hit him seven times in a win over the Bengals. If not for run defense collapses against the Jaguars and Bears, the Steelers would be even more dominant, and Ben Roethlisberger's five picks against Jacksonville also hurt their numbers. Six players have at least two sacks, including four each for T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Vince Williams.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Facing a Giants offense that was playing without Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Weston Richburg, the Seahawks did exactly what a great defense should do: They dominated. New York didn't score a single point outside of a 17-yard drive off of a Thomas Rawls fumble. They had just 177 total yards of offense, were 2-of-12 on third down and averaged 3.1 yards a play. Seattle has given up 18 or less in five of their six games, with four of those already coming on the road. They should be an even more suffocating defense back at home.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
This transformation is sudden, but not that sudden. Jacksonville was 25th in points allowed in 2016, but sixth in yards allowed, sixth in yards per carry allowed, fifth in net yards per pass attempt allowed and 12th in DVOA. They were ranked first in DVOA on defense going into their 27-0 shutout win over the Colts this week and that was … well, a shutout. And Jacoby Brissett was sacked 10 times. That gives Calais Campbell 10 sacks on the year, followed by 6.5 by Yannick Ngakoue, 5.5 by Dante Fowler Jr. and three by Malik Jackson. Meanwhile, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye make a case as the best corner combo in the league. The Jags are last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed, but that's a significantly lesser problem than a team that couldn't stop the pass, and Jacksonville has built themselves the best pass defense today.