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What is a great defense in today’s NFL?

Shutdown defenses seem to be a thing of the past

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1985 NFC Divisional Playoff - Giants v Bears
Phil Simms is hit by Richard Dent during the Giants’ 21-0 1985 playoff loss to the Chicago Bears
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The 1963 New York Giants were an offensive juggernaut, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle and dangerous receiving weapons Frank Gifford and Del Shofner. They led the NFL with 448 points in 14 games (32 points per game). No other team scored more than 26.4 points per game. In the NFL Championship game, though, they ran into the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, who featured the best defense in the NFL (144 points allowed in 14 games). The Bears never allowed more than 21 points in any game and held opponents to 7 or fewer points 8 times. Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas had zero TD passes in two meetings with the Bears’ defense. In the championship game, the immovable object beat the irresistible force, and the Giants lost to the Bears, 14-10. (In fairness, Tittle took a hit to his left knee in the first half that limited his mobility thereafter.)

Throughout NFL history, there have been great defenses that left an indelible mark on the game. In the 1970s, Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” dominated the NFL, winning four Super Bowls in six years. In 1975, the Steelers allowed only 162 points. Their opponents scored 24 points or more only twice, and they allowed 14 or fewer points 12 times (including twice in the playoffs). In 1985, it was the Bears again, running the Buddy Ryan ‘46’ defense, that terrorized NFL offenses. They allowed 24 or more points only 3 times and shut out opponents four times, twice in the NFL playoffs (one of them being the Giants, 21-0).

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens only allowed 24 or more points once all season. They had 4 shutouts, 9 other games holding teams to single digits, and 2 more in which the opponent scored only 10 points. In 4 playoff games they gave up 3, 10, 3, and 7 points, the last of these in their Super Bowl victory over the Giants in which the only Giants points came on a kickoff return. The 2013 ‘Legion of Boom’ Seattle Seahawks’ defense only allowed 24 or more points twice that season and gave up 14 or fewer points nine times, punctuated by a dominant Super Bowl win over Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos.

How many more championships might the Giants have had if they hadn’t had encountered so many all-time great defenses in the playoffs? Fortunately, they were on the other side of that coin once. The 1990 Giants, while maybe not an all-time great defense, led the NFL with 211 points allowed. They gave up 24 or more points only once all season and allowed fewer than 14 points 10 times. Their crowning achievement was keeping the lethal K-gun offense of the Buffalo Bills in check and winning the Super Bowl against all odds.

That was then, this is now

The NFL is a different league today. Beginning in the 1990s, a series of rule changes placed restrictions on how and when defenses can hit receivers and quarterbacks. Meanwhile, innovative offensive concepts such as the spread offense, the use of slot receivers as primary weapons, and increasing use of the shotgun formation, play-action passing, and the run-pass option were introduced. Finally, the most recent era of the NFL has seen some of the most gifted quarterbacks in the history of the game arrive on the scene.

All of this has tilted professional football decidedly in favor of offenses. The 2000 Ravens and 2013 Seahawks are anomalies, the likes of which may not be seen again, in the 21st Century NFL. In 2021, 11 NFL teams scored more than the 26.4 points per game that the second most prolific team did in 1963.

Is there such a thing as a dominating defensive team in the NFL anymore?

Success rates for top NFL defenses today

Brian Daboll hired Wink Martindale to be the Giants’ defensive coordinator because he had a reputation for developing aggressive, attacking defenses that gave opposing offenses big headaches. Aggregate statistics such as points and yards allowed are useful, but what matters most to wins and losses are how a defense performs in individual games. Here is how the Ravens’ defense fared during each of Martindale’s four seasons as coordinator, including playoffs, compared to some other teams of interest:

Points allowed by various defenses

 24 or more 14 or less
 24 or more 14 or less
2018 5 7
2019 3 5
2020 5 7
2021 8 4
Total 21 23
2018 8 0
2019 12 1
2020 6 1
2021 8 2
Total 34 4
BUF 4 8
NE 7 8
DEN 5 6
NO 7 6
TB 9 4

No metric is perfect. Points can be allowed by offenses (on pick 6 interceptions and fumble returns) and special teams (on punt and kickoff returns). At the same time, though, offenses can help defenses with long, time-consuming drives, and special teams can pin teams deep in their own territory, so things tend to balance out over time.

The ballyhooed 2018-2020 Baltimore Ravens’ defenses of Wink Martindale (top table) don’t look that impressive compared to those of the 2000 Ravens or 2013 Seahawks, much less the all-time great defenses of the 20th Century. They shut down opposing offenses in fewer than half their games in those seasons and had mediocre or worse results about a quarter of the time. Seven times in those three years they gave up more than 30 points. The Ravens nonetheless went 35-13 in those three years, so their sometimes-unstoppable offense led by Lamar Jackson had a lot to do with their success.

But everything is relative. The next table shows the same statistics for the Giants’ defense under James Bettcher (2018-2019) and Patrick Graham (2020-2021). We all know that the Giants’ defense has been bad the past few years, but this shows convincingly how bad. Only four times in the past four seasons has the Giants’ D held a team to 14 points or less. (It would have been 5 times were it not for the fact that Pat Shurmur let Kyle Lauletta play the fourth quarter of a game the Giants led 40-0 after the first three quarters, with disastrous results that led to the final score being 40-16.)

The four successes were a 24-3 victory over Washington in 2019 in Daniel Jones’ second start; the 17-12 victory over Seattle in 2020, Patrick Graham’s finest moment; and the 25-3 and 13-7 victories over the Panthers and Eagles, respectively, last year. Overall though, the bend-but-don’t-break defense of Graham was unfortunately bend-and-eventually-break about half the time. Martindale’s defenses look awfully good by comparison.

The final table shows the same statistics for the five leading NFL defenses of 2021 as judged by total points allowed. We can see that even the best defenses today only shut down their opponents less than half the time and get lit up by opposing offenses fairly regularly. Tampa Bay, the No. 5 2021 defense, gave up 24 or more points in nine of their games while holding teams to 14 or less only four times. In half the games in which these five teams gave up at least 24 points, they gave up 30 or more points. This is the extent to which offense rules the NFL now.

It’s all about the quarterback

The 1963 Bears’ defense shut down Johnny Unitas (twice) and Y.A. Tittle (as well as Bart Starr and Fran Tarkenton). The 1990 Giants kept Jim Kelly in check. The 2007 Giants’ defense (which did not actually have a great season) stifled Tom Brady. The 2013 Seahawks dominated Peyton Manning. This type of thing just doesn’t happen very much anymore, though.

Baltimore Ravens vs Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes passing against the Ravens in 2021
Set Number: X163807 TK1

There was a reason Martindale’s Ravens defense gave up 24 or more points 13 times in 2018-2020. The opposing quarterbacks in those games were Patrick Mahomes (three times), Baker Mayfield (three times), Ryan Tannehill (twice), Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton, and Carson Wentz. Some greats and a few who haven’t been consistently good but have been at times in the past (e.g., Dalton, Wentz, Mayfield). It wasn’t just bad luck all the time, either. Many of these were real beatings. Here are the relevant stats (points, total offensive yards) given up to a couple of these quarterbacks:

Mahomes: 27 points, 442 yards; 33, 503; 34, 517
Mayfield: 24, 426; 40, 530; 42, 493

Buffalo Bills v Baltimore Ravens
Josh Allen being tackled by Za’Darius Smith of the Ravens in 2018
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

In contrast, here are the quarterbacks Martindale’s defense shut down during 2018-2020: Mayfield (twice), Nathan Peterman/Josh Allen, Roethlisberger, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers (twice), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Finley, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Duck Hodges, Joe Burrow, Gardner Minshew, Daniel Jones, Brandon Allen, Ryan Tannehill. There are a few good ones in that list, but a lot of the names are quarterbacks who are lower tier starters, backups, or were lower tier when they played the Ravens (e.g., Josh Allen in his first game in 2018). In all but two of those games the Ravens gave up less than 300 yards in total offense.

Sometimes there is just no obvious explanation for why a defense looks good one week and bad the next. 2021 is an interesting case study. Martindale lost his starting cornerbacks for all or part of that season. As the table shows, the defense had eight bad games that season and only four good ones, a clear dropoff from their 2018-2020 performance. Consider two games from that season. In Week 6, the Ravens, who were 4-1 at the time, hosted the Los Angeles Chargers and their great young QB, Justin Herbert. The Ravens dominated the Chargers, winning 34-6, and giving up only 208 yards of offense. The following week they hosted the Cincinnati Bengals and their equally impressive young QB, Joe Burrow. The result? The Bengals demolished the Ravens, 41-17, putting up 520 yards of offense in the process.

What changed from one week to the next? The Ravens’ pass rush graded 62.9 vs. LAC and a little better against CIN, 68.9 according to Pro Football Focus, to no avail. But the pass coverage, which had graded 70.7 against LAC, dropped to 58.4 vs. CIN. And tackling, which had been very good vs. LAC (75.9), was abysmal against CIN (29.1). Different CB-WR matchups? A better game plan by Cincinnati? Or as the old NFL saying goes, on any given Sunday?

Is aggressive or non-aggressive defense the way to go?

There is a narrative about the evolution of the NFL that says that passive two-high safety zone defenses are becoming the big thing for confusing quarterbacks and striking back against the dominance of pass-happy offensive football. Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus predicted this before the start of the 2021 season, and TWSN claimed that it was indeed happening midway through the season. If so, then it would seem that the hiring of Wink Martindale by the Giants was a step backward to a style of defense the rest of the league is abandoning.

The reality (so far) is more nuanced. Here is what Martindale’s defense looked like in 2018-2020, when his cornerbacks were healthy and he had his greatest success. The chart, courtesy of Ryan Weisman’s app The Kneel Down, shows how often the Ravens played various defenses (broad bars) relative to the league average:

Courtesy of The Kneel Down

Martindale did indeed use more Cover 1 (single-high safety, man coverage) than the league average and about as much Cover 3 (also single high but zone coverage), with less than average Cover 2 and Cover 4. Here are the same charts though for the three top defenses in 2021:

Courtesy of The Kneel Down
Courtesy of The Kneel Down
Courtesy of The Kneel Down

All three of the top defensive teams played Cover 1 more than the league average. The details differ from team to team, for example, Buffalo played more two-high in Cover 4 especially than Baltimore did, while New England played fairly little two-high at all. Denver is the big surprise. Their head coach last year was Vic Fangio, the two-high safety guru whose disciples are spreading the two-high gospel around the league. Yet the Broncos played lots of Cover 1 and almost no Cover 2.

Instead, the trend toward two-high seems to be quarterback-specific. It was extensively reported last year that teams were trying (successfully for a while) to frustrate Patrick Mahomes with two-high looks, and the data bear that out:

Courtesy of The Kneel Down

The same was true of Matthew Stafford, who has a cannon arm and elite wide receivers and is not afraid to throw downfield to them. But teams didn’t run two-high all that much against Tom Brady, who eats zone defenses for lunch:

Courtesy of The Kneel Down

Surprisingly, defense coverage scheme usage against other great quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert was fairly close to the league average. The single-high safety, aggressive approach favored by Martindale does not seem to be heading toward obsolescence.

Whither the 2022 Giants defense?

The Giants’ defensive backfield situation is in a state of flux right now. Adoree’ Jackson is considered the closest to a sure thing, but he has never been CB1 before. Aaron Robinson is CB2, but his performance against the Patriots’ second-stringers does not inspire confidence. Darnay Holmes has been the star of training camp, but he has yet to show that he can do it in games that count. Dane Belton, Cor’Dale Flott, and Rodarius Williams are injured. On the other hand, the Giants’ pass rush looks like it can be a position of strength. The most likely result Giants fans can hope for on defense in 2021 is a season similar to that of the 2021 Ravens: A team that gets blown out a decent number of times but nonetheless has a few performances that exceed anything seen in the Bettcher and Graham eras. 2023 is really the season to target for the Giants becoming a great defense by today’s standards.

It’s clear from Martindale’s time in Baltimore that many of the great quarterbacks can handle the pressure that his defense creates and make the defense pay for it. Fortunately for the Giants, they will not see many top-tier quarterbacks this season: Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson are about the only ones. They will see QBs at the next level a total of six times: Ryan Tannehill, Dak Prescott twice, Baker Mayfield (if he starts for Carolina), Kirk Cousins, and Matt Ryan. They will also see 3 of the 2021 rookie class members whose development in Year 2 of their careers cannot be predicted (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Davis Mills).

The Giants’ offense is likely to experience growing pains in 2022, if the defense’s domination of the offense through much of training camp is any indication. Whether Martindale can get a good performance from the defense in most of those nine games against non-elite QBs may make the difference between another double-digit loss season and a late season playoff push.