"Offense wins games; defense wins championships". It's quite the cliche quote in sports, but for NFL defenses, that has held true since 2015. The higher-rated NFL defense has won the Super Bowl since 2015.
The quote isn't an exact science either, since the last time the #1 defense in the NFL went to the Super Bowl was the 2016 New England Patriots. In 2011, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl as the 25th-ranked NFL defense.
Nevertheless, having an elite defense puts a team in a great position for a playoff run and can keep them in contention. On that note, here are the top ten NFL defenses entering the 2021 season.
#10 New England Patriots (#7 in 2020)
The New England Patriots added several pieces, and LB Dont'a Hightower returns from his 2020 NFL opt-out. Matt Judon was a huge addition, along with draft picks DT Christian Barmore and EDGE Ronnie Perkins.
If CB Stephon Gilmore plays and improves on his 2020 performance, New England could have a top-six NFL defense by the end of the season.
#9 New Orleans Saints (#5 in 2020)
The New Orleans Saints have taken some hits to their defense and roster as a whole. Their best defender from 2020, David Onyemata, serves a suspension to open the season. They still have Cameron Jordan, Kwon Alexander, Malcolm Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore as playmakers, though.
Depth at DT and secondary are weak areas. Lattimore is the only real playmaker, and they could end up leaning on third-round rookie Paulson Adebo to step up early.
#8 Indianapolis Colts (#10 in 2020)
The Indianapolis Colts' zone-heavy scheme worked wonders for them, with CB Xavier Rhodes having a breakout year. Rhodes had double-digit passes deflected for the first time in five seasons.
The Colts are well-equipped upfront with rookie Kwity Paye, rookie Dayo Odeyingbo, DeForest Buckner, Tyquan Lewis and Zaire Franklin. The offense could have issues out the gate, but the defense should be able to keep them around late in the fourth quarter against a rough opening stretch against the Seattle Seahawks, LA Rams and Tennessee Titans.
#7 San Francisco 49ers (#17 in 2020)
Injuries took a toll on this unit last year. First-year DC DeMeco Ryans is the youngest DC in the NFL, but has been ILB coach with the San Francisco 49ers since 2018, making him familiar with the scheme and players already.
There are already some injury concerns, but the 49ers are ranked this high, as their playmakers have remained healthy. There is so much talent on the roster, especially upfront with Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford. They also added several depth pieces in the draft, including potential starter CB Ambry Thomas.
#6 Washington Football Team (#4 in 2020)
In 2020, the Washington Football Team were second in yards, fourth in points and third in DVOA. This is a very young but experienced group on the DL, and all are under 28: Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat and Matt Ioannidis. They added potential superstar CB William Jackson lll to pair with Kendal Fuller.
There are some questions and concerns about the secondary and LB groups, but this NFL defense could finish top three, and it could help carry the team to a wildcard spot. First-round rookie LB Jamin Davis and third-round CB Benjamin St-Juste could make an impact early in their first year.
#5 Baltimore Ravens (#2 in 2020)
The Baltimore Ravens fell in the rankings in 2021 as other NFL teams rose around them. Matt Judon left the Ravens, who also let go of Earl Thomas. The front seven is still elite, but the safety position has a large void.
Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey are one of the best CB duos in the league, though. The LBs with Patrick Queen and rookie Odafe Oweh remain a strong point. As long as the young players progress and the safeties don't get shredded by QBs, Baltimore should be fine.
#4 Pittsburgh Steelers (#3 in 2020)
The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense has taken a step back with a loss of talent. They will be without Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson and Bud Dupree, and will rely on young DBs to step up for Hilton and Nelson.
The three main pieces on the DL are returning, and are some of the best against the run in the NFL. There is an improved LB group with the addition of rookie Quincy Roche, Joe Schobert and Melvin Ingram ll to pair with TJ Watt, Alex Highsmith and Devin Bush.
The CBs seem to be developing well, but Pittsburgh have a rough schedule this year.
#3 Denver Broncos (#25 in 2020)
Yes, the Denver Broncos went from #25 to #3 in just eight months. Denver look like an elite group heading into the season by loading up the secondary with Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and first-round pick Patrick Surtain ll.
They practically created a superstar crew overnight. Von Miller returns and head coach Vic Fangio has a slew of playmakers to create disruption with. Their QB position is shaky, but the offense is strong. If Denver make the playoffs, they could knock out a top-tier NFL contender or two.
#2 Los Angeles Rams (#1 in 2020)
The Los Angeles Rams have lost several key components from 2020, including DC Brandon Staley (now head coach for LA Chargers).
John Johnson ll, Troy Hill, Morgan Fox and Michael Brockers are all at other NFL teams this season. Having two players who are the best at their positions (Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey) helps, but it's not enough for LA to remain the best NFL defense.
#1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#8 in 2020)
The Buccaneers retained every defensive starter and added more pieces to their depth. Their entire Super Bowl defense returning is quite a feat. Their rookies are now seasoned players, with star DL Vita Vea returning.
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Rookies Joe Tryon and KJ Britt don't have big expectations early on behind NFL stars Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David, but they do give TB quality backups to give the starters a breather. The secondary in the 2021 NFL will be better than in 2020, but the DL has to hold up with aging starters like Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul, though.