Rams, Bills top NFL's 10 best defenses for 2022 season
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer
But clutch plays by the team’s defense secured McVay’s first Super Bowl with the Rams, a 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the big game.
That’s not lost on L.A.’s head coach, as he works to sign the best defensive player in the league in lineman Aaron Donald to a new contract.
"You’re not naïve to the fact that you’re the reigning champs," McVay said. "But that means nothing for the upcoming season. It’s a brand-new year, a brand-new team. And all 32 teams have the same mission. But for us, there’s a humility with the leadership of this group that understand we must get better every day. Last year was last year."
With the draft and free agency in the rearview mirror, and players starting work with their new teams in organized team activities, here’s a first look at the top 10 stingiest defenses heading into the 2022 season.
New coach Brandon Staley struggled to put together a consistent defense in his first season with his new team. However, the Chargers made wholesale changes at all three levels of the defense, trading for edge rusher Khalil Mack, signing defensive backs J.C. Jackson and Bryce Callahan, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox in free agency, along with adding safety JT Woods through the draft.
With those additions, Staley can use more versatile personnel groupings more like he implemented during his time leading the No. 1-ranked defense with the Rams two years ago. That should result in a jump in production for the Chargers, who ranked No. 23 in total defense a year ago.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn created an opportunistic defense in his first year with the Cowboys in 2021. Dallas led the league in interceptions (26) and takeaways (34) during the regular season last year.
The Cowboys have dynamic playmakers returning in edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence, linebacker Micah Parsons and ballhawk Trevon Diggs. However, Dallas failed to add many difference makers through the draft or free agency, and they lost edge rusher Randy Gregory to the Denver Broncos. Dallas did sign pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. during the second wave of free agency.
While one of the best defenses during the regular season, the Cowboys struggled to get off the field on third down in the postseason (46.15 percent).
While the Bengals held teams to a respectable 22 points per game during the regular season, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s group ramped it up during the postseason, which included taming an explosive Kansas City offense led by Patrick Mahomes in a playoff victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Bengals didn’t do much to add personnel through free agency, but linebacker Logan Wilson, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and safety Jessie Bates III give Cincinnati three difference-makers at each level of the defense, and Anarumo’s ability to adapt was impressive during this team’s Super Bowl run.
All 11 starters defensively return from the Cincinnati lineup that won the AFC Championship last season.
Bill Belichick hasn’t forgotten how to coach defense. The Patriots held opponents to 17.8 points per game during the regular season in 2021, No. 2 in the NFL. New England will have to replace the team’s top cornerback in Jackson. And losing Josh McDaniels (now the head coach of the Los Vegas Raiders) hurts continuity on offense, but the expectation is Belichick will figure out a way to have his defense playing at a high level when games matter most at the end of the season.
The Saints have two, frontline players leading their defense in cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Cam Jordan. Linebacker Demario Davis is one of most respected defensive leaders in the game.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen moves over to take over as head coach, so there should be some continuity in scheme with Kris Richard and Ryan Nielsen taking over as the team’s co-defensive coordinators. The Saints also added a playmaker in the secondary in New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu. New Orleans held opponents to a league-low 3.73 rushing yards per play last season.
Departed head coach and NFL defensive guru Vic Fangio had this group playing at a high level last season, the Broncos just couldn’t score consistently on offense. That should change with the addition of Russell Wilson this offseason.
Cornerback Pat Surtain II, edge rusher Bradley Chubb and safety Justin Simmons lead Denver’s talented defense that also added Randy Gregory in free agency. The Broncos allowed just 18.9 points per game in 2021, No. 3 in the NFL.
San Francisco still has one of the best defensive fronts in the league, led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. And they added USC product Drake Jackson to the mix through the draft. Fred Warner remains one of the best inside linebackers in the game. An unheralded secondary led by corners Charvarius Ward, and Emmanuel Moseley and veteran safety Jimmie Ward put in workmanlike efforts on game days.
Todd Bowles is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and now he gets a second opportunity as a head coach with Bruce Arians retiring. Cat-quick linebacker Devin White, edge rusher Shaq Barrett, slot defender Antoine Winfield Jr. and veteran Lavonte David provide leadership, continuity and playmaking ability.
Tampa Bay held opponents to 92.5 rushing yards a contest last season, No. 3 in the league.
The Bills need cornerback Tre’Davious White to get back to playing at a Pro Bowl level after suffering a season-ending ACL injury last season. And they must overcome the defense’s inability to get off the field in heartbreaking, overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason. That’s where Von Miller’s unique ability to help close out games defensively should come into play. Miller has 25.5 sacks in the fourth quarter and overtime since 2016. The only player that has more is Donald (32).
McVay continues to lean into his philosophy of adding big-name personalities to his team. With the addition of Pro Bowl linebacker Bobby Wagner in free agency, the Rams have potential, future Hall of Famers at all three levels of their defense in cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Wagner as the defensive play-caller and Donald up front.
Los Angeles held opponents to 18.8 points a game during the playoffs and finished with a league-high 12 sacks in the postseason. The Rams must figure out how to replace Miller’s production. Justin Hollins is in line to replace Miller in the starting lineup, but expect defensive coordinator Raheem Morris to use more stunts and blitzes to help manufacture more pass rush.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.