The old adage is that defense wins championships. And while the NFL may sell itself on many of its offensive superstars, that theory still holds true once the playoffs begin in January. It is essential to be playing well on defense at the end of the year.
Against that backdrop, here are the 10 defenses I think have the potential to be the best in the league heading into the 2020 season.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers defense that had Patrick Mahomes on the ropes for 53 minutes of the Super Bowl looks set to be just as dominant in 2020. The front – featuring Nick Bosa and Dee Ford – is elite, the linebackers are excellent in Dre Greenlaw, Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander and Richard Sherman patrols the secondary with skill and intelligence. The Niners play with a ferocity on defense that borders on frenzied craziness. And it works!
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers boast the perfect game-changing defense for today's NFL. They ranked fifth in fewest yards allowed last season but really did their damage in producing momentum-altering plays. Pittsburgh led the NFL in takeaways (38) and sacks (54) and could be even better in 2020 with defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt returning from injury. T.J. Watt is the star of the unit, coming off a season in which he recorded 14 ½ sacks and an incredible eight forced fumbles.
3. Baltimore Ravens
Lamar Jackson gets most of the headlines in Baltimore, but they also boast a Super Bowl-calibre defense. And the rich got a little bit richer in the offseason with the addition of Calais Campbell. Matthew Judon is an excellent edge rusher and the secondary is elite with four top-end cornerbacks, including Marcus Peters, and outstanding safeties in Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is also a star and he dials up some very creative and aggressive pressures.
4. Buffalo Bills
The Bills ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed in 2019 and should be just as efficient in 2020. The strength of this team is the secondary that is excellently marshalled by the safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Those two are also helped out by one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL today in Tre'Davious White, who considered opting out before committing to the Bills. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are 100-tackles-per-season linebackers.
5. New England Patriots
The Patriots were the top-ranked defense in the NFL a year ago and they excelled at taking the football away. They have been rocked by the loss of linebacker Don't'a Hightower for the season, but they should still be one of the best groups in football. Like Buffalo, New England's strength lies in a secondary that is led by Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Bill Belichick also does a great job of scheming pressure without elite talent up front.
6. Chicago Bears
Don't let Chicago's down year in 2019 fool you – this remains one of the very best defenses in the league and one that can get after the quarterback and create turnovers. The Bears were rocked by injuries in 2019, losing defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. They will all return to bolster a unit that still features studs in Khalil Mack off the edge and Pro Bowlers in the secondary in Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson.
7. Denver Broncos
Injuries forced the Broncos to start 23 different players on the defensive side of the ball in 2019. And they still remained a top-half-of-the-league defense. Now healthy heading into 2020, Denver can be a top 10 defense once again. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb off the edges produced 26 ½ sacks in 2018 and if they get back to that level, look out. Kareem Jackson shines at safety alongside the excellent Justin Simmons, who is fast approaching All Pro status.
8. New Orleans Saints
The defense carried the Saints on more than one occasion in 2019, especially when Drew Brees was out injured. The Saints boast one of the best run-stuffing units in the league led by All Pro linebacker Demario Davis. There are stars on all three levels of this group, though. Cameron Jordan is riding a wave of three straight 12+ sack seasons and Marshon Lattimore is one of the best cornerbacks in the game.
9. Kansas City Chiefs
It took the Chiefs a little while to get up to speed with Steve Spagnuolo's defensive scheme. But once this group got rolling, they were one of the better defenses in the NFL in the second half of last season. There are game-changing players up front in Frank Clark and Chris Jones, while Tyrann Mathieu is back at the forefront of opposing coordinators' minds each week as one of the best and most versatile chess pieces in the game.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Before Philadelphia, Green Bay or Dallas fans kick their computers in reading this selection, hear me out. This is a projection for 2020, remember. I think the way the Bucs finished 2019 suggests Todd Bowles' unit could take major strides in 2020. Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are brick walls against the run, Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul forces off the edge while a secondary publicly called out by Bruce Arians is growing. Look out for young cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting.