It’s hard to find a defense worse than what the Detroit Lions put on the field last season. There were very few positives to be had on the sinking ship helmed by Matt Patricia, every facet struggling in most, if not every, game.
However, things are looking up for Detroit. New coaches and new players will hopefully bring about a much-needed turnaround. The Lions are entering the 2021 season with some optimism, if tempered. While the Lions defense has a new look, many of the Lions opponents also saw improvements on defense this offseason.
Capping off our series on the Lions 2021 opponents, we take a look at the defenses Jared Goff and company will have to navigate if they want to establish some winning ways.
14. Atlanta Falcons — Week 16
2020 Defensive DVOA: 14th
The Falcons are the Grady Jarrett show, and not much else. For as dominant of a defensive tackle as Jarrett is, the Falcons defense has floundered. Dante Fowler Jr. had a rough first season with Atlanta, a team in desperate need of a pass rush. The secondary isn’t much better, with A.J. Terrell performing modestly in his first season. Meanwhile, rookie safety Richie Grant might already be the best safety on the team. With no established linebackers aside from Deion Jones, there isn’t really an area of strength for the Falcons.
13. Cincinnati Bengals — Week 6
2020 Defensive DVOA: 27th
The Bengals have an exciting offense, but their defense leaves much to be desired. Losing defensive end Carl Lawson was a big blow as one of the few bright spots on defense, although they signed pass rushing specialist Trey Hendrickson to take his place. Similarly, corner William Jackson is replaced by Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie. Coupled with signing defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, the Bengals have been spenders this offseason to shore up some weaknesses. An improvement from a 27th-ranked defense should be expected, but as we’ve seen in the past, free agency isn’t always the answer. The talent is still lacking to push this unit into good territory.
12. Seattle Seahawks — Week 17
2020 Defensive DVOA: 16th
We’re a long way from the Legion of Boom. With a mere three draft picks in 2021, the team had limited opportunities to build up the pool of young talent. Tre Brown was selected in the fourth round, but he might be able to compete with Tre Flowers (not our Trey Flowers) and newly-signed Ahkello Witherspoon for a starting spot. The struggles of high draft picks have plagued Seattle’s defense, with neither Jordyn Brooks (LB, 2020) or L.J. Collier (DE, 2019) proving their worth as first-round picks. Bobby Wagner remains one of the best linebackers in the league, but the team needs a rebound from safety Jamal Adams to prove he was worth the massive cost to acquire him.
11. Philadelphia Eagles — Week 8
2020 Defensive DVOA: 15th
For as much of a train wreck the offense was for Philadelphia, their defense flew under the radar. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are still valuable pieces despite their age. The offseason additions have been modest, with Anthony Harris and rookie Milton Williams perhaps being the two biggest newcomers. However, if the Eagles can get a resurgence from Ryan Kerrigan, then the defensive line is looking pretty good when coupled with Derek Barnett and Javon Hargrave. Darius Slay heads the cornerback group, but the talent behind him is lackluster.
10. Baltimore Ravens — Week 3
2020 Defensive DVOA: 9th
The Ravens might be 10th on this list, but don’t let that fool you—their defense is solid. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are a great cornerback duo, even if Peters is coming off a down year, while Jimmy Smith is underrated as ever. DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark are two young but talented safeties for what could be a no-fly zone. The questions for Baltimore are up front, as the Ravens lack a star pass rusher. Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon are gone, so that leaves the likes of Tyus Bowser or rookie Odafe Oweh to step up. The defensive interior is decent, helmed by Brandon Williams and the ageless Calais Campbell.
9. Minnesota Vikings — Week 5 & 13
2020 Defensive DVOA: 18th
2020 was a rare step back for the Vikings defense, usually a perennial threat to Lions and foes alike. However, the pieces are there for a quick rebound, and head coach Mike Zimmer should be able to orchestrate another good defense. Danielle Hunter missed most of the season, a massive blow to the defensive line, and a healthy return is a welcome sight for Vikings fans. Meanwhile, the Vikings will finally see how free agent Michael Pierce performs, having opted out last year. Anthony Harris will be missed, but Harrison Smith remains a great safety. Questions arise with the cornerback group, however. The team added Patrick Peterson, but his prime days are behind him. Jeff Gladney, their top pick in 2020, is in limbo due to off-the-field issues, so Cameron Dantzler will have to shine yet again.
8. Green Bay Packers — Week 2 & 18
2020 Defensive DVOA: 17th
The Packers defense is a lot of good and a lot of ugly. Jaire Alexander is a top three cornerback in the league, while Adrian Amos, Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith, and Darnell Savage are all good-to-great at their respective positions. However, the falloff is steep. Rashan Gary alternates between incredible and poor, but he is still a young talent. The cornerback across from Alexander needs improvement, either from Kevin King or first rounder Eric Stokes. The linebackers are uninspiring too, with neither Kamal Martin nor Krys Barnes having a lot of starting experience. Still, the stars should be able to carry this unit.
7. Chicago Bears — Week 4 & 12
2020 Defensive DVOA: 8th
The Bears have had an elite defense for years now, but we might be looking at the beginning of the end for that unit. Khalil Mack is well worth the money he has been given, and should remain productive for awhile. The pieces around him have suffered, however, and the roster- and cap-juggling of Ryan Pace is largely to blame. Kyle Fuller is a significant casualty, especially for a secondary lacking any dependable corners—Chicago will be trotting out Desmond Trufant, and Lions fans know how that turned out in 2020. Jaylon Johnson has promise, but needs to show improvement in year two. The interior is far better, with Eddie Goldman returning from his opt-out to join Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols. The Bears could use some help at linebacker, with Roquan Smith being the lone reliable player. The safety group is in good hands with Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson.
6. Arizona Cardinals — Week 15
2020 Defensive DVOA: 10th
Remember when the Cardinals got destroyed by T.J. Hockenson in his first career game in 2019? The Cardinals are a very different team from then. Even if J.J. Watt is past his prime, the group of him, Chandler Jones, and Markus Golden is a threat for most offensive lines. Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are two athletic freaks in the linebacker corps, with Collins helping mitigate the loss of Haason Reddick. Budda Baker is a young star, although the secondary could use some support. Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick are gone, leaving players like Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford to fill the void.
5. Los Angeles Rams — Week 7
2020 Defensive DVOA: 4th
With all the offseason losses, regression for the Rams looks likely. Losing your defensive coordinator is a big blow, as are the departures of John Johnson, Troy Hill, and Michael Brockers. However, having the best defensive player in football will make up for a lot of weaknesses. Aaron Donald continues his Hall of Fame trajectory and still remains one of the best players since entering the league—he has literally never had a PFF grade below 90! As the Lions know, one player doesn’t make a team, but his supporting cast is solid too. Jalen Ramsey, a top corner in the league, and Darious Williams lead the secondary, while Leonard Floyd provides some pass rushing pop. The safeties and linebackers are middling, however.
4. San Francisco 49ers — Week 1
2020 Defensive DVOA: 6th
I mentioned injuries plaguing the 49ers last season, and it certainly took a toll on their defense. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Jaquiski Tartt each finished the year on the Injured Reserve. Missing your top two pass rushers will hinder any team, so the return of Bosa and Ford should greatly help the defensive line with Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw. The 49ers took shots on two Raiders cast-offs too, picking up Arden Key and Maurice Hurst. They could be low-risk gambles. Fred Warner is an incredible linebacker, and Dre Greenlaw is up-and-coming. The secondary lost some key names, and their replacements have a tough task. Gone are Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. Jason Verrett, Dontae Johnson, and K’Waun Williams will have to fill their shoes. Verrett played well in 2020, but injuries have always been a concern for him. Perhaps the biggest loss for San Francisco is Robert Saleh, now coaching for the Jets. The 49ers have the talent to continue their success, however.
3. Cleveland Browns — Week 11
2020 Defensive DVOA: 25th
You might be surprised to see the 25th ranked defense from 2020 this high, but Cleveland made some big splashes this offseason that could vault their defense up the charts. Already boasting an elite pass rusher in Myles Garrett, the Browns added to their arsenal by signing Jadeveon Clowney. Not to be outdone, they also signed Troy Hill and star safety John Johnson from the Rams. A secondary of Hill, Johnson, Denzel Ward, Grant Delpit (who missed his rookie season with injury), and rookie Greg Newsome has plenty of promise. The linebackers are the greatest weakness for Cleveland, even with newly-signed Anthony Walker.
2. Denver Broncos — Week 14
2020 Defensive DVOA: 13th
Much like the Bears, the Broncos have boasted a solid defense for awhile. Unlike the Bears, however, Denver’s remains a top-tier unit. The Broncos will get Von Miller back from injury, and the 32 year old still figures to be a dominant edge rusher alongside the talent Bradley Chubb. The secondary is a gold mine of talent. Safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons are ever-reliable, while the cornerback group is comprised of Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and first rounder Patrick Surtain II—this could be the best secondary in the league. The interior and linebackers aren’t spectacular, but the likes of Shelby Harris and rookie Baron Browning should provide enough of a spark.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers — Week 10
2020 Defensive DVOA: 1st
The 2020 Steelers are a prime example of an excellent defense only going so far. After starting the season 11-0, Pittsburgh stumbled into and out of the playoffs thanks in part to a struggling offense. The Steelers got lit up 48-37 in the Wild Card game against the Browns, but 28 of those points came in a first quarter where the offense imploded with turnovers.
The defensive line for Pittsburgh is incredible, featuring many players among the best at their positions. T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt are studs in nearly every aspect of their game, while Tyson Alualu had the best season of his veteran career. While they lost Bud Dupree to a massive contract in free agency, the downgrade to Alex Highsmith isn’t as significant as many expect. The safety group of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds is another solid part of the Steelers defense. The linebackers will hopefully see a healthy Devin Bush, but whether Vince Williams or Robert Spillane starts beside his is uncertain.
The biggest knock against the defense is their cornerback group, having seen Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton leave in free agency. That will leave Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne, James Pierre, and veteran Joe Haden to pick up the slack. However, the secondary will benefit from a ridiculously talented front seven. Unless a lot goes wrong in 2021, expect the Steelers to be a top unit in the league.