Rankings

Week 18 NFL Defensive Efficiency Rankings

It’s the last week of the regular season, and just three playoff spots are up for grabs. 11 teams are in, 13 are out, and the remaining eight are in varying stages of purgatory. Four of the top 10 defenses in EPA/play have been eliminated, five have secured a playoff berth, and one is still fighting (New England). 

This is just further proof that defense no longer wins championships in the NFL. The days of winning the Super Bowl with an elite defense and a quarterback like Trent Dilfer or Russell Wilson are over. That’s not to say that defense doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. A bad or even mediocre defense could very well cost you a championship opportunity. So with that in mind, let’s look at the defensive efficiency rankings one last time as we head into the postseason.

Defensive Efficiency Rankings Explained

This season, we’ve taken a weekly temperature on the efficiency of each offense and defense. This article will once again check in on how each NFL offense ranks in EPA/Play. If you’re unfamiliar with EPA, it stands for Expected Points Added and is simply a way to measure whether or not a play brought a team closer to scoring.

For example, it’s easy to understand that a gain of five yards on fourth-and-4 is good, whereas a gain of five yards on fourth-and-6 is bad, and EPA can contextualize that in a way that net yards cannot. 

To put into context the worth of a big turnover, another example would be a quarterback throwing a pick-six on first-and-goal from the opponent’s 1-yard line. Conventional wisdom would say that was a 14-point swing – because we expected the offense to score a touchdown in that situation – and EPA would reflect roughly that.

1. New England Patriots

EPA/Play = -0.14

Last Week = 2

2. San Francisco 49ers

EPA/Play = -0.13

Last Week = 1

T-3. Dallas Cowboys

EPA/Play = -0.11

Last Week = T-4

T-3. New York Jets

EPA/Play = -0.11

Last Week = 3

T-5. Buffalo Bills

EPA/Play = -0.10

Last Week = T-4

T-5. Philadelphia Eagles

EPA/Play = -0.10

Last Week = 7

7. Denver Broncos

EPA/Play = -0.09

Last Week = T-4

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

EPA/Play = -0.08

Last Week = T-8

T-9. Indianapolis Colts

EPA/Play = -0.07

Last Week = T-8

T-9. Washington Commanders

EPA/Play = -0.07

Last Week = T-8

T-11. Cincinnati Bengals

EPA/Play = -0.06

Last Week = 11

The Bengals’ defense is really clicking under fourth-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Their pass defense ranks second in positive play rate (40.1%), and about a third of the negative plays they create result in busts (EPA < -1) for the offense. A big part of that has been their defensive line; only the Panthers and Commanders have gotten more Total Points out of their top-performing defensive tackles and edges.

T-11. Jacksonville Jaguars

EPA/Play = -0.06

Last Week = T-17

T-11. New Orleans Saints

EPA/Play = -0.06

Last Week = T-12

T-14. Cleveland Browns

EPA/Play = -0.05

Last Week = T-14

T-14. Kansas City Chiefs

EPA/Play = -0.05

Last Week = T-14

This is the best defense that presumptive MVP Patrick Mahomes has ever played with. When he won MVP in 2018, the Chiefs’ defense was conceding 0.04 EPA/play. They have two defenders who rank in the top 10 at their respective positions in Total Points: Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (second) and edge Carlos Dunlap (eighth), and defensive tackle Chris Jones ranks just outside the top ten (11th).

T-14. Pittsburgh Steelers

EPA/Play = -0.05

Last Week = T-14

T-17. Baltimore Ravens

EPA/Play = -0.04

Last Week = T-12

T-17. Green Bay Packers

EPA/Play = -0.04

Last Week = T-17

T-19. Los Angeles Chargers

EPA/Play = -0.03

Last Week = T-21

This Chargers unit is a caricature of modern defense. They rank fifth in coverage Total Points and 26th in run defense Total Points on a per-play basis. They’re well stocked on defensive backs and edge rushers – especially since Joey Bosa is set to return from an injury that’s kept him sidelined most of the year – but the defensive interior is lacking. Among linebackers, Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray rank 29th and 43rd in Total Points, respectively, and Sebastian Joseph-Day is their highest-ranked interior lineman at 37th. 

It’s very clear what the strengths and weaknesses of this team are, and that might be okay. The Ravens are obviously a dangerous running team when Lamar Jackson is healthy, but the most dangerous AFC opponents are rather lackluster at running the ball. Kansas City, Buffalo, and Cincinnati all have quarterbacks capable of scrambling, but rank 15th, 23rd, and 24th in EPA/attempt when you remove quarterback runs.

T-19. Miami Dolphins

EPA/Play = -0.03

Last Week = T-21

T-19. Seattle Seahawks

EPA/Play = -0.03

Last Week = T-25

T-19. Tennessee Titans

EPA/Play = -0.03

Last Week = T-17

T-23. Carolina Panthers

EPA/Play = -0.02

Last Week = T-17

T-23. Houston Texans

EPA/Play = -0.02

Last Week = T-21

T-25. Arizona Cardinals

EPA/Play = -0.01

Last Week = T-25

T-25. Minnesota Vikings

EPA/Play = -0.01

Last Week = T-25

T-25. New York Giants

EPA/Play = -0.01

Last Week = 28

28. Los Angeles Rams

EPA/Play = 0.00

Last Week = T-21

Aaron Donald’s play was the least of the Rams’ concerns this season. Despite the injury, the future Hall of Famer ranks ninth among defensive tackles in Total Points heading into Week 18. And since coach Sean McVay deemed him unlikely to return this year, this will be the first season in which Donald will not rank first at his position in Total Points since the metric was introduced (2016). His lowest single-season sack total has contributed to a perception that he had a down year, even before the injury, but he still ranked first through Week 12 – the last week he played.

T-29. Chicago Bears

EPA/Play = 0.03

Last Week = T-29

T-29. Las Vegas Raiders

EPA/Play = 0.03

Last Week = T-29

31. Atlanta Falcons

EPA/Play = 0.05

Last Week = 31

32. Detroit Lions

EPA/Play = 0.06

Last Week = 32

Bryce Rossler contributed to this report.

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