Top 10 NFL secondaries this season
“It’s a passing league.”
We hear this phrase time and time again from announcers, analysts, and those who cover the NFL. Given that as a premise, how do defenses stop today’s NFL passing attacks, with rules designed in the offense’s favor?
There are a variety of standard and cliché answers: stop the run and set up third-and-long; pressure, disrupt, and/or sack the quarterback; play great coverage and prevent the deep ball to make offenses work the short game. To set themselves up for success, some teams, depending on their defensive philosophy, focus their resource allocation on either cornerbacks or safeties. A good combination of all these is obviously best, but there is one tried and true commonality for great pass defense any coach or GM would be on board with—have a bunch of great secondary players.
Here, we examine the best collective secondary groups based on their graded performance up to this point in the 2015 season. Probably the most interesting stat out of all you are about to read: the collective win-loss record of the 10 teams listed below is 44-20, with only three having a losing record, and four of the five current unbeaten teams represented.
Editor’s notes: For these rankings, PFF considered a team’s top five defensive backs (two cornerbacks, two safeties, and a fifth defensive back). In the case of a true rotation or variability, snap count numbers were used to determine the five players. Average standard NFL rating when thrown into their coverage and interceptions statistics are specific to the five players identified.
1. Arizona Cardinals
Cornerbacks: Tyrann Mathieu (93.4), Patrick Peterson (86.2), Jerraud Powers (56.0)
Safeties: Tony Jefferson (82.9), Rashad Johnson (77.3)
The brilliance and playmaking of the two LSU products in Mathieu, who is currently PFF’s No. 2 cornerback, and Peterson (No. 2 in coverage snaps per reception allowed at 20.3, and No. 5 in NFL QB rating allowed, at 50.9) anchor our top group. In addition, the continued improvement of Tony Jefferson, who sealed the victory against the Ravens on Monday night with an interception in the last minute, and the versatility of safety-turned-linebacker Deone Bucannon, give Arizona four very young defensive cornerstones. PFF’s John Breitenbach provided even more details on the Cardinals yesterday.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 79.8
Standout stat(s): Mathieu is the top CB in both run stop percentage and pass rushing productivity (seven total QB pressures).
2. Denver Broncos
Cornerbacks: Chris Harris Jr. (89.7), Aqib Talib (80.7), Bradley Roby (78.7)
Safeties: Darian Stewart (83.3), T.J. Ward (73.4)
Earlier this season, we detailed the historic early-season pace of the Denver defense, with much of that discussion centered on the pressure being generated up front. A different way of examining that peril is the excellent coverage by the secondary allowing the pass rushers time to get to the QB. The Broncos have both—great individual rushers and lockdown coverage on the back end. Chris Harris Jr. is currently our fourth-ranked cornerback, Aqib Talib is sixth in NFL QB rating allowed (52.9), and T.J. Ward is the No. 1 safety in run stop percentage when within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. In addition, Darian Stewart has been a welcome addition as a free agent, and built off his end to 2014 with the Ravens, and 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby has taken a leap forward this season, as well.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 67.9
Standout stat(s): Denver’s three cornerbacks are all in the top 15 in NFL QB rating allowed in their coverage—no other team has two players who can say the same.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Cornerbacks: Nolan Carroll (70.7), Byron Maxwell (49.0)
Safeties: Malcolm Jenkins (96.8), Walter Thurmond (88.1), Chris Maragos (76.2)
As mentioned above, some teams are stronger in one position group compared to another, based more often than not on their defensive philosophy. While the resource allocation strategy could be debated, especially given the big free agent contract given to Maxwell, it is clear where the Eagles’ strength lies. Based on our PFF Season Grades, the Eagles have the best safety tandem in the NFL, with Jenkins at No. 2 and Thurmond at No. 7. Maragos comes in at safety, and Jenkins goes to the slot in the nickel, where Jenkins has only allowed an NFL QB rating of 79.1 in coverage. Maxwell has begun to rebound after getting torched in the first two games of the season, with positive grades in two of the last three games.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 83.8
Standout stat(s): Maragos has yet to be targeted while in primary coverage this season (154 pass coverage snaps).
4. St. Louis Rams
Cornerbacks: Janoris Jenkins (85.9), Trumaine Johnson (82.8), Lamarcus Joyner (74.9)
Safeties: T.J. McDonald (80.5), Rodney McLeod (76.8)
The youth movement that began for the Rams with the Robert Griffin III trade is now producing in a big way. All five of the above players are only in their fourth season or less, with an average age of 25—and they’re progressively getting better. Janoris Jenkins, the veteran among the group, is PFF’s eighth-ranked cornerback, McDonald is No. 2 among safeties in overall run stop percentage, and Rodney McLeod has only allowed four receptions for 14 yards when he is in primary coverage, good for the fourth fewest yards allowed among safeties. In addition, 2014 second-round pick Joyner has five total QB pressures, including two sacks, from his slot cornerback position.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 99.6
Standout stat(s): Slot CB Lamarcus Joyner would be tied for the team lead in sacks (two) for the Atlanta Falcons.
5. New England Patriots
Cornerbacks: Malcolm Butler (72.3), Logan Ryan (52.6)
Safeties: Devin McCourty (87.8), Patrick Chung (85.0), Duron Harmon (76.9)
New England is another team where their best defensive backs are safeties, as they currently have the eighth (McCourty) and ninth (Chung) ranked safeties roaming their defensive backfield. After getting worked by Antonio Brown in the season opener, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has played quite well since. He is ninth among cornerbacks in run stop percentage, and prior to the Jets game this past weekend, had four straight positively graded games.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 73.4
Standout stat(s): Duron Harmon has only been targeted twice in the passing game in 171 snaps.
6. Minnesota Vikings
Cornerbacks: Captain Munnerlyn (85.6), Terrance Newman (78.1), Xavier Rhodes (34.1)
Safeties: Harrison Smith (97.5), Andrew Sendejo (46.5)
The Vikings are led by PFF’s top-graded safety, Harrison Smith. Smith has missed only one tackle this season (the unit as a whole only missed 10 tackles), while also only allowing two receptions for 16 yards in primary coverage for an NFL QB rating of 0.0 (yes, you read that correctly). Working out of the slot, Munnerlyn is currently the No. 12 cornerback, and has yet to allow a touchdown in his coverage. After an up and down 2014 with Cincinnati, 37-year-old Terrance Newman is turning back the clock and producing as well, only allowing an NFL QB rating of 72.9. Like Jim Harbaugh, we won’t play the “what if” game with Xavier Rhodes, who has struggled in his third season after taking a big step forward last year.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 71.6
Standout stat(s): This group has allowed only four touchdowns in their primary coverage—all by Xavier Rhodes.
7. Green Bay Packers
Cornerbacks: Casey Hayward (82.2), Sam Shields (81.1), Damarious Randall (79.5)
Safeties: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (74.4), Micah Hyde (65.0)
Draft and develop. The Packers live and breathe this philosophy, with this secondary group all drafted (or signed as an undrafted free agent, as in Shields) by GM Ted Thompson. Not spectacular, but consistent, the group is led by the veteran Shields, the 11th best cornerback in terms of NFL QB rating allowed at 60.4, and fourth-year slot corner Casey Hayward, the current No. 2 CB in run stop percentage. 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall has been competent as a rookie, allowing an NFL QB rating of 79.5 in his coverage, and has only missed one tackle thus far. Clinton-Dix is the constant, as he has yet to come off the field this season, playing all 428 defensive snaps.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 85.8
Standout stat(s): Damarious Randall is the No. 2 rookie CB behind Buffalo’s Ronald Darby.
8. Carolina Panthers
Cornerbacks: Josh Norman (95.4), Charles Tillman (62.7), Bené Benwikere (46.9)
Safeties: Kurt Coleman (77.4), Roman Harper (53.6)
The singular brilliance of Norman puts Carolina at No. 8 on this list; he is currently PFF’s top-ranked cornerback. Sam Monson broke down his dominate play last week, including this great nugget: If a QB throws the ball into the ground every play, their rating is 39.6, but when targeting Norman, that rating is currently 23.4.
His NFL-leading four interceptions are as many as three of the units highlighted in this piece have total, and as many or more than 12 teams thus far. Interestingly, opponents have yet to truly avoid Norman, as he is only 20th in coverage snaps per target, well below other top corners such as Desmond Trufant and Patrick Peterson. The Panthers have received average to below-average play from the remainder of the group, further highlighting Norman’s importance.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 78.9
Standout stat(s): Josh Norman has returned two interceptions for touchdowns—more than 26 teams.
9. Buffalo Bills
Cornerbacks: Ronald Darby (90.6), Stephon Gilmore (83.2), Nickell Robey (48.8)
Safeties: Corey Graham (69.5), Bacarri Rambo (53.3)
Rex Ryan and shutdown cornerbacks—we know blitzing is about the only thing he likes more. And with the 50th overall pick in the 2015 draft, he looks to have found his, and possibly the steal of the draft, in Florida State product Ronald Darby. Darby is currently our third-ranked CB. His NFL QB rating allowed of 48.6 is fourth behind only Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis, and the Chargers’ Patrick Robinson. It’s not like teams are shying away from Darby, either, as he is the third-most targeted CB with, 58 targets. His hitting and “toughness in the run game” were also questioned in the pre-draft process. However, to this point in the season, he is 10th in run stop percentage, and only has one missed tackle in run defense. His teammate on the other side of the field, Stephon Gilmore, is also playing well, currently our 14th-ranked CB. Duke Williams (-0.2 grade) has played safety the past two games for Rex Ryan’s defense, but given the snap count numbers, Bacarri Rambo was included in this analysis. Both Rambo and slot CB Nickell Robey have struggled thus far, allowing a passer rating of 118.4 and 89.4, respectively, in primary coverage.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 90.3
Standout stat(s): Darby is also third in the NFL in passes defensed, behind only the Saints’ Delvin Breaux and another rookie, the Chiefs’ Marcus Peters.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
Cornerbacks: Marcus Peters (74.3), Sean Smith (65.1)
Safeties: Eric Berry (90.1), Husain Abdullah (75.5), Ron Parker (70.8)
The Eric Berry story is a remarkable one. What he has been able to do this season after beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma is amazing, currently our fourth-ranked safety, grading solidly in both the run and pass game. 2015 first-round pick Marcus Peters has been up and down in his rookie campaign; he does, though, lead all CBs with 11 passes defensed, in addition to his three interceptions. Despite being PFF’s 73rd-graded safety in terms of grade in 2014, Kansas City re-signed Ron Parker, and he has performed very similarly to last year. After missing the first three games due to suspension, Sean Smith has yet to play to his 2014 levels.
Average standard NFL QB rating allowed: 99.5
Standout stat(s): Marcus Peters has been targeted more than any cornerback in the NFL, with 66 targets.