NFL defense rankings: NFL defenses came into the 2020 season at a disadvantage without preseason games. Nearly three months into the regular season, we’re starting to see some hard-hitting, well-executed football from defenses across the league.

In Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts displayed their dominance once more. It’s not always about a shutout, which the Carolina Panthers did, as a defense that creates turnovers can be the ultimate difference in the NFL.

As we look across the league, it’s evident that defenses will be crucial to the final NFL standings. For Super Bowl contenders like the Steelers and New Orleans Saints, this is their moment to shine with No. 1 seeds and home-field advantage at stake.

Let’s dive into our NFL defense rankings entering Week 12 of the season.

NFL Week 12: Schedule and game-by-game predictions

NFL defense rankings – Top defenses for Week 12

20. Philadelphia Eagles (Last Week: Unranked)

Philadelphia’s defense is experiencing, to a lesser extent, what the Bears are dealing with. The Eagles held the Cleveland Browns to 22 points on Sunday, with seven of those coming on a pick-six. This defense is allowing just 342.7 total yards and 25.4 points per game. 

Those numbers are especially impressive, given Avonte Maddox (99.6 quarterback rating when targeted) is the worst starting cornerback in the NFL. Thanks to Carson Wentz, though, Philadelphia’s spot atop the NFC East won’t last long.

19. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 17)

The Chargers welcomed back Joey Bosa on Sunday and he made an impact (five quarterback hits). Unfortunately for Los Angeles, its secondary was attacked by Joe Flacco and Denzel Mims with regularity. If Chris Harris Jr. returns soon and this secondary improves, they’ll stay in our NFL defense rankings. Looking ahead to 2021, it can’t be overstated how much the return of Derwin James will help.

18. Denver Broncos (LW: 20)

If the Broncos stood any chance of competing on Sunday, they needed a stellar outing defensively. Sure enough, that’s exactly what Vic Fangio’s group provided. Tua Tagovailoa was miserable, completing just 11-of-20 attempts for 83 yards before being benched. Frankly, Miami’s entire offense (3.7 yards per play) stunk. Let’s see how Fangio attacks Taysom Hill and the Saints in Week 12. 

17. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 15)

Everyone expected a shootout on Thursday Night Football, with Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson capable of making four-plus touchdowns look easy. Credit to Arizona’s defense, which did a nice job containing Russell Wilson. Once the MVP frontrunner, Wilson couldn’t crack 200 passing yards, and he was sacked three times.

Looking ahead to Week 12, stopping the run will be key against the New England Patriots. It’s not exactly a strength for this defense. Opponents are averaging 4.6 yards per carry against the Cardinals this season, with the Seattle Seahawks most recently rushing for 165 yards and a score. Even if this defense doesn’t deliver, Murray and Co. can win this game.

16. Carolina Panthers (LW: 18)

NFL defense rankings
Nov 22, 2020; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) is sacked for a loss by Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown (95) and defensive end Brian Burns (53) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After a brutal showing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina’s defense turned things around in Week 11. Missing D’Andre Swift and Kenny Golladay, Matthew Stafford stood no chance. Carolina took him down for five sacks, with Brian Burns (two sacks) strengthening his Pro Bowl-worthy resume. Stafford completed just 18-of-33 attempts for 176 yards, and Detroit’s run game was non-existent with 40 rushing yards on 17 carries. If this defense can contain Dalvin Cook in Week 12, they’ll climb up the NFL defense rankings once again.

15. New England Patriots (LW: 10)

Having a healthy Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson was supposed to revitalize New England’s secondary. Instead, Deshaun Watson ripped the Patriots apart on Sunday. Most of the damage came in the first half, when Watson blew past 200 passing yards and three total touchdowns.

New England also really struggled to generate pressure in this one, failing to record a sack and getting just two quarterback hits. It’s problematic, especially with Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins ready to feast on the Patriots in Week 12. The slide down our NFL defense rankings might continue next week.

Patriots news: Will Bill Belichick return in 2021?

14. Buffalo Bills (LW: 13)

Buffalo’s defense has fallen well short of its expectations entering the season. Once a shutdown unit, the Bills have allowed 28-plus points in five games this year. There are signs of life. Across the first six games, per ESPN, Buffalo allowed opponents to convert on 53.5% on third-down attempts and a red-zone efficiency of 69.2%. In the last four games, those numbers have fallen to 34.9% and 50%, respectively. Coming out of the bye, this defense will have a great chance to build on their improvements in Week 12 against the Chargers.

13. Cleveland Browns (LW: 16)

Expectations weren’t absurdly high for Cleveland’s defense on Sunday. With Myles Garrett sidelined, it was reasonable to think a defense would struggle without the player providing 43% of their sacks. That’s exactly what made this performance so impressive.

The Browns made it a miserable day for Carson Wentz. He was sacked five times, took 10 quarterback hits, had eight passes deflected, and threw a horrendous pick-six. Quite frankly, this defense carried Baker Mayfield to a victory. Heading into Week 12 with a 7-3 record, the Browns look like a playoff team and Garrett should help them wreck the Jaguars next Sunday.

12. New York Giants (LW: 11)

The New York Giants don’t generate much respect among NFL fans, which is understandable because of Daniel Jones and Co. It’s evident that this offense is inept, but its reputation overshadows an underrated defense.

Coming out of the bye week, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham can be proud of his group. New York boasts the NFL’s ninth-highest pressure rate (24.4%), has allowed the 11th-fewest points per game (23.6), and allows the seventh-lowest yards per carry (4.0). New York’s defense could carry this 3-7 team to the playoffs with the NFC East up for grabs.

11. Washington Football Team (LW: 14)

On a day when Washington’s offense struggled, its defense came through with the big plays. This team wins at the line of scrimmage thanks to a dominant front seven and that made Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals an ideal matchup. Sure enough, it made the difference in this game. Washington recorded four sacks, an eye-popping 12 quarterback hits and forced turnovers. It will be fun to see how this defense fares on a short week, in another great opportunity to shine against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

Related: Daniel Snyder blocking sale of Washington Football Team?

NFL defense rankings: 10 best NFL defenses

10. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 12)

NFL defense rankings
Aug 30, 2020; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman (25) walks to the field during training camp at SAP Performance Facility. Mandatory Credit: San Francisco 49ers/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

No defense has been decimated by injuries like the 49ers. It started early with Richard Sherman landing on injured reserve and Nick Bosa suffering a torn ACL. Along the way, Dee Ford, Jackquiski Tartt, Ahkelio Witherspoon, and K’Waun Williams have all missed time. Yet, this group keeps finding ways to compete.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft: Five QBs land in first round.

San Francisco’s defense enters Week 12, allowing just 315.9 total yards and 23.4 points per game, phenomenal numbers considering the injuries. Sherman is expected back against the Los Angeles Rams, which would give the 49ers an outstanding cornerback duo (Sherman, Jason Verrett). It gives us enough confidence to put them at the No. 10 spot in our NFL defense rankings.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 9)

Derek Carr and Co. really give Kansas City’s defense problems. In two games against the Chiefs, Carr has 622 passing yards, a 123.2 quarterback rating and a 6/2 TD/INT ratio. Considered this defense has held opposing quarterbacks to an 84.9 quarterback rating entering Week 12, that speaks volumes to the damage Carr has done compared to his peers. We could be in for a Sunday afternoon shootout between Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 8)

Midway through the season, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles looked like a top head coaching candidate as the mastermind behind an incredible defense. As of late, Bowles has been outcoached and this secondary has taken a massive step back. Kansas City’s offense matches up extremely well against Tampa Bay. Expect plenty of fireworks when these two Super Bowl contenders face off in Week 12.

7. Miami Dolphins (LW: 6) 

Miami’s run defense completely let this team down on Sunday. Denver dominated the trenches, creating holes for Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay to coast for 80-plus rushing yards apiece. It’s a bit troubling, but our confidence in this defense isn’t shaken. With the New York Jets (Week 12) and Cincinnati Bengals (Week 13) on deck, things will get much easier for the Dolphins defensively.

6. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 5)

It can be a grind to face the Tennessee Titans. When Derrick Henry isn’t wearing out the defense, receiver A.J. Brown is bullying defensive backs. The Ravens did a nice job containing Tennessee early, with just 11 points allowed in the first three quarters. Things unraveled in the fourth quarter. 

Missing Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, Henry started running over Baltimore’s defense in the final minutes. After Brown muscled his way into the end zone with a clutch score, Lamar Jackson took it to overtime. As you might expect, Derrick Henry put the Titans on his back and slammed the game-winning dagger into the Ravens.

NFL defense rankings: Top-five defenses entering Week 12

5. Chicago Bears (LW: 4)

We’re reading from the same script every week, so at least Chicago’s bye offers us a chance to reflect. Entering Week 1, the stats this defense puts up is remarkable. The Bears have allowed the sixth-lowest yards per attempt (6.8), the second-lowest completion rate (61.1%), and hold opponents to a 33.3% conversion rate on third downs. If an offense makes it to the red zone, they score a touchdown just 44.1% of the time. It’s a shame the Bears don’t have an NFL-caliber offense.

4. New Orleans Saints (LW: 7)

NFL defense rankings
Nov 22, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) celebrates with linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) after a sack against the Atlanta Falcons during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If the Saints want to reach the Super Bowl, they need their defense to shine. In the first half of the season, it looked like this group couldn’t come close to the preseason expectations. As of late, though, we’re seeing an elite defense.

Just look at the numbers from the past three games. The Saints have combined for 28 quarterback hits, nine takeaways, 13 sacks, and 25 total points allowed. The pass rush really came alive against the Falcons, recording eight sacks. Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos should be worried.

3. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 3)

Los Angeles has rediscovered the suffocating defense we saw a few years ago. Sean McVay surprised everyone by hiring Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator, but the decision is paying off.

Opponents have scored on just 28.6% of their drives against the Rams, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. Even more impressive, this defense’s ability to put games away. Los Angeles allows just 2.9 points per game in the fourth quarter and 4.0 points in the second half. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are the stars, but Darious Williams (PFF’s No. 3 CB) and safety John Johnson III (75.2 coverage grade) deserve recognition.

2. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 2)

We’ll excuse Indianapolis for allowing 31 points on Sunday, given it came against Aaron Rodgers. The Colts were abysmal in the first half, allowing 28 points. Props to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, a 2021 head coaching candidate, for his halftime adjustments. Indianapolis allowed just three points in the second half, and that flipped this game to give the Colts a 34-31 victory.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 1)

Pittsburgh’s defense has recorded at least one sack in 67 consecutive games; that is absurd. It highlights how dominant this front seven has been in recent years, but we see something even more special in 2020 and it’s why they sit atop the NFL defense rankings.

The Steelers entered Sunday with a league-high 35% pressure rate, 36 sacks, and 17 takeaways. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pittsburgh recorded X sacks and X takeaways. This is the best defense in the NFL.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Steelers, check out #HereWeGo rumors, rankings, and news here.

Matt Johnson
NFL, MLB & college football writer for Sportsnaut. Graduated from San Diego State University with BA in Journalism, 2019. Grew up in Sacramento, now based in Indianapolis. Seen on MSN. Previously: eDraft, The Connection, With the First Pick