The 2021 NFL season is officially underway and Week 3 delivered some outstanding defensive performances across the league. With high-scoring games and some surprises, there’s plenty of shakeup among the league’s top defenses.
Let’s dive into our Week 4 NFL defense rankings, with nuggets on each team’s matchup updated updated throughout the week.
NFL defense rankings: Teams with room to improve
20. Chicago Bears (LW: Unranked)
This is what we were hoping to see from the Chicago Bears coming into the season. Facing a quality offensive line, Chicago’s defensive front combined for six quarterback hits and five sacks. Granted, after seeing this secondary burned in recent weeks, it was a new experience to see Chicago surrender 215 rushing yards. We wouldn’t trust the Bears against great offenses, but they draw the Detroit Lions in Week 4.
Looking at this matchup against the Lions, there is some appeal. For as weak as this Bears’ secondary is (103.3 passer rating allowed), Detroit lacks playmakers on the outside. Play-caller Anthony Lynn might take a different approach, featuring D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams against a run defense allowing nearly 120 yards per game. Don’t expect a lot of passing from either team in this low-scoring game.
19. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 17)
There just isn’t a lot we can take away from Week 3 for the Baltimore Ravens. They held the Detroit Lions to 17 points, but this is an offense led by Jared Goff and one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL. Teddy Bridgewater will provide more of a challenge next week, in what figures to be a low-scoring game.
There are some advantages to this matchup for Baltimore. Denver is without Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, leaving them with just Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick as reliable wide receivers. With Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey healthy, there is less for the Ravens to worry about. Just don’t count on Teddy Bridgewater making many mistakes or turnover-worthy plays.
18. Green Bay Packers (LW: 19)
On a night when Aaron Rodgers was phenomenal, Green Bay still needed a little something from its defense to have a chance on Sunday Night Football. Credit to this defensive line, which received plenty of fair criticism coming into Week 3. After struggling to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the packers recorded 11 quarterback hits and four sacks. That’s a confidence booster before a much easier matchup in Week 4 against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers pass protection.
For those in fantasy football looking for a defense to stream in Week 4, this might be the one. Ben Roethlisberger ranks 31st in passer rating when blitzed (40.1) this season, per Pro Football Focus. In addition, Najee Harris is averaging just 3.01 yards per carry and the Steelers’ offensive line is a collective turnstile. Week 4 is a great opportunity for Green Bay’s defense to record three-plus sacks and snag an interception.
17. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 14)
The Arizona Cardinals came away with a win on Sunday, but it’s hard to not be concerned. We witnessed the Jacksonville Jaguars explode for 159 yards on 29 touches (5.5 ypc). There were also holes in Arizona’s secondary that veteran signal-callers don’t miss. Speaking of, Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams are excited for Week 4.
This could be a matchup that really swings Arizona in our NFL defense rankings significantly. Either the Cardinals create real pressure on Stafford, sparking confidence in this team’s ability to hide its woeful secondary. Or, the MVP candidate picks this team apart and the Cardinals disappear from our ranks.
16. New York Giants (LW: 15)
We certainly aren’t putting all of the blame for this 0-3 start on the New York Giants defense. Holding an opponent to 17 points is usually a recipe for a win. But when your offense can’t sustain drives, the defense gets tired and we saw that with 10 fourth-quarter points allowed. One projection that feels safe, Alvin Kamara should feast in Week 4 against a front seven that just lost Blake Martinez.
With Martinez sidelined, Reggie Ragland steps into a much larger role. That’s not something New York should feel good about, especially for this matchup. PFF gave Ragland a 35.7 grade on 168 coverage snaps in 2020, one of the lowest marks in the NFL. That’s a mismatch Sean Payton will exploit with Kamara.
15. Dallas Cowboys (LW: Unranked)
Don’t look now, but new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has this unit playing absolutely stellar football. Through the first three games of the season, Dallas leads the NFL with eight takeaways. That included a Trevon Diggs interception of Jalen Hurts to seal Dallas’ Week 3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s important to note, there is some volatility with takeaways. Lucky bounces and receivers slipping play a role, but those are also things Dallas didn’t take advantage of a year ago. We’ll see if Dallas can maintain this in Week 4 against a Panthers’ offense with just two giveaways thus far.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 15)
Teams can’t miss out on takeaway opportunities against the Kansas City Chiefs, they’re just too rare. Thanks to deflections and some coughed-up footballs, the Los Angeles Chargers found the football on the Chiefs’ first three drives. It kept the game close and when the pressure got to Patrick Mahomes late, it led to a fourth takeaway. We love the Chargers’ defense against the pass, but this team can’t stop the run whatsoever.
Keep that in mind against the Las Vegas Raiders. Josh Jacobs might return in Week 4 and if he does, Jon Gruden needs to feed him. Opponents are averaging an absurd 5.8 yards per carry and 170 rushing yards per game against Los Angeles. If Jacobs doesn’t play, Peyton Barber will eat. One thing we can say, the Chargers do have the pieces to match up with Darren Waller.
13. Washington Football Team (LW: 6)
We’re officially concerned about the Washington Football Team. Once No. 2 in our NFL defense rankings. A week after Daniel Jones threw for 249 yards and rushed for 95 more against Washington, Josh Allen did even more damage. The NFL MVP candidate recorded five total touchdowns and might have gone for even more if Buffalo’s offense didn’t take its foot off the gas. Washington isn’t finishing on its pressures right now.
Even with the Atlanta Falcons (1-2) struggling this year, we can no longer count on Washington’s defense to get the job done. When your secondary allows a 105.2 passer rating and 307 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks, you can’t stop anyone. Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson shouldn’t have much trouble.
12. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 9)
Credit to the Packers’ offense and Aaron Rodgers for the new game plan against San Francisco. With Green Bay missing two elite talents on the offensive line (David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins), young players stepped up and Rodgers got the ball out quickly. The issue, from the 49ers’ perspective, is the secondary.
San Francisco left Davante Adams open far too often, committed three DPIs and there were repeated blown coverages. That’s not going to fly against great quarterbacks. Oh, look, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray the next two weeks.
11. Miami Dolphins (LW: 10)
The strength of the Miami Dolphins defense is supposed to be the secondary. In Week 4, three Las Vegas Raiders receivers (Bryan Edwards, Henry Ruggs III, Hunter Renfrow) eclipsed 75-plus yards. Now, it’s worth considering that Las Vegas boasts one of the best offenses in the NFL. But Miami’s defense had multiple chances to put the Raiders away and it never did.
Fortunately for the Dolphins, Week 4 offers them a chance to turn things around. Carson Wentz is stuck in the pocket on two bad ankles and he makes some ugly throws when pressured. Miami is second with the most blitzes sent (49), count on that happening Sunday. Start the Dolphins defense with confidence in fantasy.
NFL defense rankings: Top 10 defenses entering Week 4
10. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 18)
Not exactly the defensive performance we were expecting from the Cincinnati Bengals. It would be an understatement to say the Bengals’ pass rush didn’t show up on Thursday Night Football. They recorded just one sack and failed to register a quarterback hit. On top of that, Trevor Lawrence averaged 8.1 yards per attempt with an 82.5 QBR and the Jaguars rushed for 139 yards and a score. Cincinnati will be falling down the NFL defense rankings next week.
9. Carolina Panthers (LW: 7)
The Carolina Panthers defense did just about what you’d expect on a short week against the Houston Texans. Nine quarterback hits, six tackles for loss and four sacks is something to feel good about. But Brandin Cooks, the only quality receiver on the Texans’ depth chart, ripped Carolina’s secondary to shreds. That’s what happens when you lose Jaycee Horn, who could be out for the season.
T e addition of CJ Henderson makes this defense more interesting. He certainly offers the talent to be a quality coverage piece in Carolina’s secondary, filling the void created by the Horn injury. But there are reasons Jacksonville moved on from him so quickly. This Week 4 matchup against Dallas is a great test for the Panthers.
8. New England Patriots (LW: 3)
Bill Belichick is typically one of the best in the NFL at containing an opponent’s best player. Maybe the new Orleans Saints forgetting about Alvin Kamara in Week 2 impacted New England in Week 3. Kamara was the Saints’ offense, turning 27 touches into 117 total yards. This isn’t exactly the kind of performance you want to see from New England with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming to town. Tom Brady will make it his mission to sink New England further down our NFL defense rankings.
7. New Orleans Saints (LW: 12)
After putting on a defensive clinic in Week 1, the New Orleans Saints showcased what they are capable of once more. New Orleans erased the Patriots’ rushing attacks, holding their running backs to 21 rushing yards on 11 attempts. That forced New England to put this game in the hands of Mac Jones, who threw three interceptions. The New York Giants are on deck in Week 4 and Daniel Jones should be frightened.
Passing against the Saints is very difficult. New Orleans is allowing the fourth-fewest yards per attempt (6.3) and opposing quarterbacks have a 67.1 passer rating against New Orleans. Jones will also be dealing with a hostile crowd, making this a game the Saints can dominate.
6. Cleveland Browns (LW: 11)
All of the talent that led to so much buzz surrounding this defense showed on Sunday. The Cleveland Browns caused Justin Fields to experience a living nightmare, recording an absurd 15 quarterback hits and nine sacks. There are so many incredible numbers from this game, including Cleveland’s 55.2% pressure rate. One remarkable note, Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney combined for 15 pressures.
Can the Browns pressure Kirk Cousins? If he’s given a clean pocket on Sunday, he’ll find Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson creating separation from the secondary. But this Browns’ pass rush has a 14.1% quarterback knockdown rate and boasts one of the highest pressure rates (27.5%) in the NFL. So, our expectations are reasonably high.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 2)
The Richard Sherman signing reflects the Buccaneers’ desperate need for cornerbacks and an overwhelming desire to repeat. Sherman isn’t close to the shutdown guy he used to be, but he’ll provide quality snaps for a defense that badly needs it.
As for this matchup against the Patriots, the key is to pressure Mac Jones. If Tampa Bay’s pass rush gets home, Jones is going to have a rough Sunday night and t might result in a pair of interceptions.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 4)
Pittsburgh’s matchup against the Packers should be interesting. The Steelers get T.J. Watt back on Sunday and that is a huge boost for this pass rush. But there are weaknesses for Aaron Rodgers to exploit if he has just two seconds to throw. Pittsburgh should hold Rodgers and Co. to around 24-27 points, but it might be too much for the Steelers’ offense to overcome.
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3. Buffalo Bills (LW: 9)
Coming into the season, the Buffalo Bills defense was my biggest hesitation with this team. Through three games, a lot of concerns centered on Leslie Frazier’s group are fading away. After dominating with pressure in recent weeks, Buffalo got the job done by suffocating Washington’s run game. Really, outside of the Antonio Gibson touchdown, a correctable mistake, this unit looked sharp. The Texans await in Week 4 and that will just cement Buffalo’s rise in our NFL defense rankings.
2. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 5)
The Los Angeles Rams needed their defense to deliver in a big way against Tom Brady. That’s precisely what happened. This defensive front took Brady down for three sacks and recorded five quarterback hits against the future Hall of Famer. With the passing attack out of sync and the Bucs’ rushing attack (2.7 ypc) nonexistent, Los Angeles snapped Brady’s streak of consecutive 30-point games at nine.
One important stat to keep in mind when watching Sunday’s game. According to Pro Football Focus, Kyler Murray has a 152.1 passer rating against the blitz. But when a defense doesn’t send extra pressure, that passer rating falls to 95.3. Look for the Rams to play deep with the defensive line creating most of the pressure.
1. Denver Broncos (LW: 1)
Zach Wilson didn’t even make things a little bit difficult for the Denver Broncos in Week 3. Von Miller and Co. buried the rookie quarterback drive after drive, making his rough transition to the NFL even more painful. The Broncos have enjoyed beating up on bad offenses, earning the No. 1 spot in our NFL defense rankings. But to maintain it, we’re hoping for something noteworthy in Week 4 against Lamar Jackson.
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Author: Matt Johnson