Analysis

Put It on the Line: 49ers Lead 2023 NFL Postseason Defensive Line Rankings

To rank the playoff team’s defensive line play, I watched game film with an emphasis on recent games against quality opponents (other playoff teams). Minor adjustments were then made based on SIS data. All rankings assume players who are questionable will play.

>> Forde’s Offensive Line Rankings

1. San Francisco 49ers

Interior: Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Kevin Givens
Edges: Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam, Kerry Hyder, Charles Omenihu, Drake Jackson

The obvious headliner of this unit is Bosa and for good reason since he’s an absolute game-breaker. This isn’t a situation where it’s a one-man crew, though, as the entire unit is great at reestablishing the line of scrimmage in the opponent’s backfield and maintaining their pass rush lanes so that QBs don’t have anywhere to escape.

In particular, Armstead jumped off the screen as an X-factor, doing the little things that help this unit have success, though they might not show up on a stat sheet. By land or by air, this unit gives no quarter to its opponents.

2. Dallas Cowboys

Interior: Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, Carlos Watkins, Quinton Bohanna
Edges: Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Sam Williams

The Cowboys have a strong group that holds the point of attack and fills its gaps against the run, but where it can be devastating is against the pass. Everybody has seen the season Parsons is having, but when they can force the opponent into situations where everybody knows they are passing, they’ve got a sub package that can pressure the QB as well as anybody in the league.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Interior: Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Jordan Davis, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph
Edges: Brandon Graham, Robert Quinn, Josh Sweat, Haason Reddick

The Eagles have several pass rushers capable of making the quarterback uncomfortable, with Reddick leading the charge. Their depth is what differentiates them, It allows them to keep their linemen fresh without much drop-off in production. A minor concern is the defensive interior can run hot and cold at times, particularly against the run game.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

Interior: Roy Robertson-Harris, Folorunso Fatukasi, DaVon Hamilton, Corey Peters, Adam Gotsis
Edges: Josh Allen, Travon Walker, K’Lavon Chaisson, De’Shaan Dixon, Arden Key

As a unit, the Jaguars’ defensive line plays fast, physically and with an unmistakable swagger. They’re not always the soundest unit, which is what lands them outside of the top three, but the speed they play with can cover up any mistakes they make. You would like to see more consistency, but the ability they have to get into the backfield and be disruptive makes it tough on opposing offenses in a way not many teams can do.

5. Buffalo Bills

Interior: Ed Oliver, DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, Jordan Phillips
Edges: Greg Rousseau, Shaq Lawson, Boogie Basham, A.J. Epenesa

This team was dealt a pretty significant blow when Von Miller was lost for the season, but it still has a strong unit despite lacking a standout player. The Bills are physical up front and tough to move off the point of attack. They also employ the player I was most surprised by when turning on the film for this article: DaQuan Jones.

Jones plays the position with a violence you can’t miss and is a shining example of the brand of football that Buffalo wants to play. This also happens to be the brand of football we commonly see in teams who make deep runs in January and February.

6. New York Giants

Interior: Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Jihad Ward, Justin Ellis, Henry Mondeaux, Ryder Anderson
Edges: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Oshane Ximines, Tomon Fox

I love the Giants’ defensive interior group and wanted to rank them higher because of it. Lawrence and Williams have play styles that complement each other very well, and Ward shows up favorably on film when he kicks inside. The edges, on the other hand, have left something to be desired, though Ojulari’s return at the beginning of December provided a spark. This is a physical group with the ability to help the team get hot like the Giants’ defensive lines of the past. 

7.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Interior: Vita Vea, Akiem Hicks, William Gholston, Logan Hall
Edges: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Anthony Nelson, Carl Nassib

One of the games I watched in the sample was the game Vea sat out, and it can’t be stressed enough how much he means to this unit. That said, this group is tough up the middle but is missing a major pass-rushing threat off the edge. One thing that pops up is how successful the linebackers are in this system, and while I’m not including their success in this ranking, they can do that because the front frees them up, which was factored into this ranking.

8.) Kansas City Chiefs

Interior: Chris Jones, Khalen Saunders, Derrick Nnadi, Brandon Williams
Edges: Frank Clark, George Karlaftis, Carlos Dunlap, Mike Danna 

This unit fits the rest of the roster well, as its strength lies in pass rushing, something it gets to do quite a bit of with an offense that puts up as many points as its does. The Chiefs get consistent pressure with a four-man rush in their base group, but they can heat up the quarterback with their sub packages on those obvious passing downs. Jones is the headliner here, and on the rare occasion he doesn’t finish the play himself, he flushes the QB out to his friends waiting to collect on the edge.

9. Los Angeles Chargers

Interior: Sebastian Joseph-Day, Breiden Fehoko, Tyeler Davison, David Moa
Edges: Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Chris Rumph, Derrek Tuszka, Morgan Fox 

Due to injuries, this is one of the toughest rankings in the entire group. The defensive interior has been decimated by injury and it’s shown. This group was gashed on the ground for a league-high 5.4 yards per carry this season. On the edge, Bosa recently returned from injury and rejoined a group of rushers that held down the fort in his absence, headlined by Mack. Getting Bosa back on the field with a group that has been productive without him should make opposing offensive lines nervous, but that said, there is some projection required with this ranking. 

10.) Cincinnati Bengals

Interior: D.J. Reader, BJ Hill, Josh Tupou, Zachary Carter
Edges: Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Cameron Sample, Joseph Ossai

The Bengals hold the point of attack against the run but are a bit over-reliant on Hendrickson when applying pressure to the passer, which is an issue since opposing offenses are finally paying more attention to him after breakout seasons in 2020 and 2021. The rush just isn’t particularly dynamic, which could be a problem in the playoffs. 

11. Baltimore Ravens

Interior: Calais Campbell, Justin Madubuike, Travis Jones, Brent Urban, Broderick Washington, Rayshad Nichols
Edges: Jason Pierre-Paul, Tyus Bowser, Odafe Oweh, Justin Houston, David Ojabo

The Ravens are solid against the run, with quality two-gappers and other players that can set the edge. Collectively, they play with a high motor. They find themselves toward the bottom of this ranking because they seldom generate any pressure without bringing a blitz. Pulling players out of coverage in order to generate pressure leaves the defense exposed to potential big plays too often.

12. Minnesota Vikings

Interior: Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips, Khyiris Tonga, Jonathan Bullard, James Lynch
Edges: Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II 

I like what the Vikings bring to the table on the edge; Hunter can reduce his blocking surface and bend around the corner with some of the best of them. Smith has a great motor and can line up anywhere across the formation. That said, the defensive interior leaves quite a bit to be desired. They don’t play a particularly physical brand of football and commonly lose their gap integrity as a result. Tomlinson does show the ability to be a strong presence on the inside, but he can’t do it alone.

13. Seattle Seahawks

Interior: Shelby Harris, Poona Ford, Al Woods, Quinton Jefferson, L.J. Collier
Edges: Darrell Taylor, Uchenna Nwosu, Bruce Irvin, Boye Mafe

The Seahawks have a decent but not special group on the defensive line. The pressure Jefferson has generated from the defensive interior, especially as of late, has been solid, but the unit still lacks a true game-changer when it comes to rushing the passer. In the run game, they often maintain their gaps but have trouble disengaging from the blocker to finish the play. 

14. Miami Dolphins

Interior: Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, Zach Sieler, John Jenkins
Edges: Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, Melvin Ingram, Andrew Van Ginkel

The Dolphins’ defensive line group isn’t without talent, but that talent needs to turn into production more consistently. You see flashes of Phillips’ speed and bend to get to the passer. You see Wilkins playing with one of the league’s more impressive motors for a defensive interior player. However, too often you see the quarterback able to stand comfortably behind his line and deliver darts downfield. They do anchor well against the run, though.

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