The wild-card round left the NFL’s playoff field markedly lighter on the defensive side of the ball. With the Bears, Ravens, and Texans all losing over the weekend, three of the top seven defenses by Football Outsiders DVOA—including the NFL’s clear-cut elite unit in Chicago, a group that looked uniquely equipped to take down some of the highest-octane offenses that dominated the league this year—have been sent packing. That’s a sigh of relief for offensive juggernauts like the Rams and Chiefs, but there are a few formidable defensive groups still standing.
Of the eight teams left in the postseason field, the defensive units of the Saints, Cowboys, Colts, and Chargers all look capable of derailing their opponent’s game plan and dominating a game. But which of these four remaining defenses will take the crown as the best defense left standing? Let’s take a look at a few of the most crucial areas, comparing the stats and personnel, to make the call.
The Saints—who pair a talented and physical group of defensive linemen like Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison, Alex Okafor, and rookie Marcus Davenport with physical downhill linebackers like Demario Davis and A.J. Klein—finished the year third in rush defense DVOA, ranked second to Chicago in rush yards allowed (80.2 per game), second to the Texans in yards per attempt (3.6), and tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns allowed (12).
The Colts weren’t far behind, even if they have far less star power. With Jabaal Sheard, Margus Hunt, Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, and Al-Quadin Muhammad controlling the line of scrimmage and keeping linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker clean to flow to the ball, Indy ranked fourth in run defense DVOA, eighth in rushing yards allowed (101.6), sixth in yards per attempt (3.9), and tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns (12). Leonard was the beating heart of that group, played like a heat-seeking missile, and somehow seemed to know where the ball was going before every snap: The Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and first-team All-Pro finished the year with a league-high 163 tackles—19 more than the next closest player—and racked up four forced fumbles and 35 stops (tackles that constitute a “loss” for the offense), per Pro Football Focus, tied for third most among linebackers (along with teammate Walker).
The Cowboys demonstrated their elite status as a run-defending team on Saturday and held the stubborn Seahawks to 73 rushing yards on 24 carries in their 24-22 win. Dallas took Seattle’s run-heavy game plan and turned it on its head, limiting the team’s running backs group to just 2.8 yards per carry in the game. The Cowboys mix a disruptive front (featuring Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Antwaun Woods, and others) with one of the best, rangiest linebacker duos in the league in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. On the year, this team finished fifth in run defense DVOA, fifth in yards allowed per game (94.6), fourth in yards per carry (3.8), and was yet another squad to tie for 10th in rushing touchdowns allowed (12).
The Chargers’ run defense was arguably even more impressive than that of the Cowboys last weekend. Los Angeles held the multifaceted, Lamar Jackson–led Ravens run game to just 90 yards on 23 totes. Narrow that number down to just running backs, and Baltimore’s backfield was able to pick up just 36 yards on 14 carries (2.6 yards per carry). L.A. employed seven-defensive-back looks for most of the game, had the speed to flow sideline to sideline, and dominated in the trenches with the likes of Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Justin Jones, Darius Philon, and Damion Square.
Overall, this is an even race pretty much across the board. The divisional round won’t be lacking in good run defense.
Edge: Too close to call
The Saints’ full-season stats don’t paint a picture of a shutdown coverage unit. New Orleans finished the year ranked 22nd against the pass per DVOA, surrendering a 100.3 passer rating allowed (27th), 30 passing touchdowns (tied for 22nd), 8.1 yards per attempt (29th), 268.9 pass yards per game (29th), and 14.0 passing first downs per game (30th) while grabbing just 12 picks (tied for 18th). Narrow it to the season’s second half, though, and the improvement is clear: Through the final eight games of the year, the Saints grabbed eight interceptions (tied for seventh) while pushing their opponent passer rating down to 87.8 (tied for 10th). New Orleans is talented across its defensive secondary: Second-year corner Marshon Lattimore and second-year safety Marcus Williams lead the way; corner Eli Apple, traded from the Giants in October, has brought some much-needed help; and they’re bolstered by safety Vonn Bell and slot corner P.J. Williams.
Meanwhile, Indy has gotten consistent play out of its secondary group with unheralded corners Pierre Desir, Kenny Moore II, and Quincy Wilson all showing surprising coverage chops. On the back end, second-year safety Malik Hooker has bounced back from a torn ACL last year to notch two picks and four pass breakups. Clayton Geathers has also emerged as a playmaker opposite Hooker. With the help of a rangy linebackers group, the Colts finished in the middle of the pack in most coverage stats. They ranked 20th in pass defense DVOA while surrendering a 93.5 opponent quarterback rating (16th), 7.4 yards per attempt (tied for 13th), and 237.8 yards per game (16th). Indy was stingy where it mattered, though, giving up just 21 pass touchdowns all season (tied for third fewest) while grabbing 15 picks (tied for ninth most). In their 21-7 win against the Texans last week, the Colts stymied Deshaun Watson, limiting the dynamic playmaker to 29-of-49 passing for 235 yards, one touchdown, a pick, and a 69.7 passer rating.
With cornerbacks Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and safety Xavier Woods patrolling the back end, Dallas has plenty of talent in its secondary. The Cowboys finished the season 16th in pass defense DVOA, allowing a 95.7 opponent passer rating (22nd), 7.4 yards per attempt (tied for 13th), and 234.7 pass yards per game (13th). They picked off just nine passes (tied for 26th), but allowed only 22 passing scores (tied for eighth). Overall, the Cowboys boasted a solid coverage unit, but their performance against the Seahawks on Saturday is a bit worrisome: Dallas’s season-long struggles defending against play-action passing reared its head again, with Russell Wilson connecting on nine of 10 passes for 111 yards on those plays, per PFF. The Seahawks stubbornly stuck with the run, though, and played right into Dallas’s biggest strength.
The Chargers stand out in this category. Rookie safety Derwin James and slot corner Desmond King II both won first team All- Pro honors, corners Casey Hayward and Michael Davis have both performed at a high level, and defensive backs Rayshawn Jenkins, Jahleel Addae, and Adrian Phillips add plenty of versatility. L.A. finished the year 10th in pass defensive DVOA, surrendering an 89.1 opponent passer rating (ninth), 7.1 yards per attempt (tied for ninth), and 227.9 pass yards per game (also ninth). They picked off 13 passes (tied for 15th) and allowed just 23 passing scores (12th). This is a deep, playmaking group.
Let’s go right to the numbers: The Saints led the way in the sacks department, racking up 49—far out in front of the Cowboys (39), Colts (38), and Chargers (38). But sacks don’t tell the whole story, and Dallas finished with a 31.9 percent pressure rate (sixth), per Football Outsiders, ahead of New Orleans (31.2 percent; 12th), Los Angeles (28.9 percent; 22nd), and Indy (27.6 percent; 25th). What these numbers don’t account for, of course, is the fact Bosa, the Chargers’ superstar pass rusher, didn’t return to action until Week 11.
While the Cowboys’ trio of Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Tyrone Crawford is nothing to sniff at, the Saints and Chargers are at the top of this category. Bosa and Ingram are one of the best pass-rushing duos in the entire league, and we saw the destructive power that combination can bring on Sunday when L.A. sacked Jackson seven times and hit him nine more. As a whole, though, the Saints might pack even more punch up front. New Orleans is capable of unleashing a five-man pass-rush rotation featuring Jordan, Rankins, Onyemata, Okafor, and Davenport—a unit that went on an absolute tear down the stretch. In the second half of the year, the Saints racked up a league-best 36 sacks. Led by the perpetually underrated Jordan, who had 7.0 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss, 15 QB hits, and a forced fumble in that stretch, this Saints front offers the deepest pass-rush front in this group of teams.
Edge: Saints, by a hair
The Bottom Line
This group of defenses may not be on the Bears’ level, but they’re all playing well of late; in fact, per Football Outsiders weighted DVOA (which accounts more heavily for more recent games), the Saints ranked sixth, the Chargers ranked seventh, the Colts ranked eighth, and the Cowboys ranked 11th. Each unit has speed, playmakers, and the ability to get after the passer. When it comes to overall balance, though, the Chargers stand above the rest.
L.A. finished eighth in points allowed (20.6) this year—third among the remaining playoff squads behind Dallas (20.2) and New England (20.3)—but a deeper look at the advanced stats tells the story of a group that looks ready to go toe-to-toe with any of the postseason teams left. The Chargers, who face off against Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium this weekend, finished 10th in DVOA against the pass and 10th against the run—the only remaining team to rank in the top 10 in both categories. That’s exactly the type of balance necessary to contend with a team like New England that game plans to exploit its opponent’s weakest link.
The Chargers have a pair of premiere pass rushers, incredible depth at corner, and one of the most versatile players in the league in James, who can make an impact deep in coverage or by blitzing through the line to sack the quarterback. The Chargers have the best remaining defense in the playoff field, and they’re about to face the perfect test playing the Patriots on their own turf.