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Patriots, Bills, Niners, Bears among top NFL defenses of 2019

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Offense seems to drive a lot of what happens in the NFL -- but several teams have reminded us in recent weeks that defense is still important, too.

Which defenses are playing the best in 2019? Below, I've listed the eight best defenses of the season as I see them.

RANK

1

PATRIOTS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 1st
Yards allowed: 1st
Against the pass: 2nd
Against the run: 3rd

How high is this defense setting the bar? Consider that the Giants' first-half touchdown pass on "Thursday Night Football" last week was the first allowed in the air by New England this season. The Pats proceeded to force two more turnovers after that score, holding New York to 83 yards for the remainder of the game. Smothering performances like that have become par for the course this season for a team that has yielded just 48 points total, 21 of which were scored on turnovers by opposing defenses. Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty and Jamie Collins are leading a stellar back seven, and it doesn't hurt that Bill Belichick is calling the defensive shots this year. The quality of the opposition has played some role in New England's dominance, but even so, the Pats are on pace to finish 2019 with 128 points allowed over the course of the entire season, easily surpassing the 2000 Ravens (165 points allowed) as the stingiest defense since 2000.

RANK

2

BILLS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 4th
Yards allowed: 3rd
Against the pass: 3rd
Against the run: 7th

This defense does not boast a single All-Pro player, and the unit's only Pro Bowler from 2018, Kyle Williams, retired in the offseason. No Bill ranks in the top 10 in sacks or in Pro Football Focus' coverage grades. And yet, under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the whole is much greater than the sum of the defensive parts in Buffalo. The Bills rank third in the NFL in points and yards allowed per game, which explains how a team with an offense that is barely averaging more than two touchdowns per game is 4-1. And Buffalo's defensive ranking should get even better after upcoming matchups against the Dolphins (Week 7) and Redskins (Week 9). McDermott is one of the top coaches in the NFL, and I'm feeling as confident as ever in my preseason prediction that the Bills will make the playoffs in 2019.

RANK

3

49ERS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 2nd
Yards allowed: 2nd
Against the pass: 1st
Against the run: 6th

It seemed curious that a team that finished 2018 with a historically low interception total (two) would not do more to bolster its secondary this offseason, but the Niners had a plan to shore up the back end by heavily investing up front -- and it appears to have worked so far. Veteran acquisition Dee Ford (3.5 sacks) and rookie Nick Bosa (3.0 sacks) have been outstanding complements to holdovers (and fellow former first-round picks) DeForest Buckner (3.0 sacks) and Arik Armstead (2.5 sacks), working well under defensive-line coach Kris Kocurek, a Wide 9 specialist. Weak-side linebacker Kwon Alexander, another key offseason addition, is second on the team in tackles with 25, behind second-year pro Fred Warner (31). So far this season, the secondary is playing better than it did in '18, collecting seven picks through the team's first five games. With coordinator Robert Saleh's group firing on all cylinders, San Francisco has held two straight opponents (Cleveland and the Rams) to less than 180 yards. The NFC West features two other teams known for their defensive prowess ( Seahawks and Rams), but the Niners are proving themselves to be the new neighborhood power.

RANK

4

BEARS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 3rd
Yards allowed: 6th
Against the pass: 10th
Against the run: 5th

Give credit to Raiders coach Jon Gruden, whose team has thus far been the only one to enjoy offensive success against the Bears in 2019. In constructing a 17-0 halftime lead in Week 5, Gruden used a quick passing game to nullify the Khalil Mack-led pass rush, while running the ball effectively with Josh Jacobs. Chicago also missed defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who later went on injured reserve -- his absence will present a real challenge to navigate for this team, as Hicks is excellent at clogging the middle. But the Bears still have Mack, the game's preeminent edge rusher. And they still have a strong complement of cornerbacks, led by Kyle Fuller, and plenty of speed. Plus, there's the encouraging fact that the defense is performing as well under coordinator Chuck Pagano as it did under Vic Fangio last season.

RANK

5

VIKINGS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 6th
Yards allowed: 5th
Against the pass: 7th
Against the run: 9th

Ever since Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator for the Bengals, became Vikings head coach in 2014, defense has been a strength of this team. The 2019 edition features a game-changer at every level. Danielle Hunter has six sacks already up front; he brings impressive speed (4.75 40) for a man his size. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr, meanwhile, has learned how to play better in space, while safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith both rank in the top 10 among safeties in Pro Football Focus' coverage grades. Continuity has no doubt helped this defense, which is in its sixth season under Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards. The Vikings' defense is a steady unit that just seems to refuse to give up big plays. And that has helped (and will continue to help) them weather whatever ups and downs come from the Kirk Cousins-led offense.

RANK

6

BRONCOS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 7th
Yards allowed: 4th
Against the pass: 4th
Against the run: 18th

The Broncos' inability early this season to force a turnover or register a sack was stunning, considering the amount of talent on a roster headed up by defensive guru Vic Fangio. Well, Fangio seems to have steadied this unit, getting it to click even after pass rusher Bradley Chubb went on IR with a torn ACL last month. In Week 5, Denver smothered the Chargers in a low-scoring win and held the Titans to just 204 offensive yards in a Week 6 shutout, making life miserable for QB Marcus Mariota, who was benched in the game and ultimately removed from the starting spot in Tennessee. Denver has collected six turnovers over the past two weeks and 12 sacks over the past three. The true gauge of this unit will come Thursday against Kansas City, a potent offensive team that has scuffled the past two weeks. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos follow the recent trend of Chiefs opponents focusing on coverage rather than rushing the passer.

RANK

7

SAINTS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 11th
Yards allowed: 10th
Against the pass: 11th
Against the run: 14th

Teddy Bridgewater should be commended for his work leading New Orleans to a 4-0 record in Drew Brees' absence, but the heavy lifting in New Orleans in that span has been done by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's group, which has limited the Saints' past three opponents to less than 257 yards each. Just consider what they did to the Cowboys, who were riding high as an offense coming into their Week 4 matchup but have not looked the same since failing to put more than 10 points on New Orleans. Cameron Jordan (5.0 sacks) is a fantastic pass rusher who doesn't get enough credit, while second-year pro Marcus Davenport (3.0 sacks) is starting to come on. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is producing at an elite level, and safety Vonn Bell is having a breakthrough season.

RANK

8

PANTHERS

2019 RANKINGS
Points allowed: 14th
Yards allowed: 11th
Against the pass: 9th
Against the run: 21st

Don't be fooled by the hefty yardage (914) and point totals (53) Carolina has allowed in the past two weeks -- this is one of the NFL's best big-play defenses. The Panthers lead the NFL in sacks (27) and are second in interceptions (nine) and takeaways (15), and, of course, they won both of those games. Head coach Ron Rivera's decision to become more involved in the defensive play-calling this season, blitzing less and using more multiple fronts, is paying dividends. Newcomers Brian Burns (4.5 sacks), Bruce Irvin (1.5 sacks) and Gerald McCoy (2.5 sacks) are all contributing. And let's not forget about linebacker Luke Kuechly, who continues to play at a level that will ultimately land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's everywhere on the field, acting like a 12th man of sorts, using his tremendous recognition to pile up tackles (62, tied for second in the NFL) and make plays in space (one pick, five passes defensed). I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a push for Defensive Player of the Year.

HONORABLE MENTION: Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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