Even as the NFL has shifted to an offensive league over the last decade with quarterbacks producing better than ever and efficiency rates at a historic rate, an impactful defense is still necessary to win a Super Bowl. Just last year, the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals pushed past other conference powerhouses because their defenses rose to the occasion. Each had the right blend of playmakers and schemes to help overcome powerful offenses led by Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.
Heading into 2022, it's clear there are several defenses lagging behind the golden standard. We're going to rank the five worst ones.
We'll consider how well each defense performed last year as far as points allowed per game, pass and rush defense, turnovers forced, third downs allowed and red-zone performance. Personnel moves and the expected growth from young players also factor into these projections.
Teams at the bottom of our worst five struggle in every key facet. It's more important for a defense to limit points per game and to force more turnovers than to stop opposing run games. Allowing more yards per game is acceptable if offenses aren't able to convert in the red zone.
Let's jump in and explain why these five defenses are in for a rough 2022 season.
5. Carolina Panthers
After a 3-0 start to the 2021 season, the Carolina Panthers were figured out on both sides of the ball. Playing against the New York Jets and Houston Texans in Weeks 1 and 3 masked key flaws in the red zone. Carolina finished 30th in red-zone scoring percentage, 26th in takeaways and 21st in points allowed.
The astonishing part of Carolina's defense is it was second in total yards allowed. Having an inept offense that had the most interceptions in the NFL certainly hurt their defense, but the Panthers allowed a touchdown on 67 percent of red-zone opportunities. Only Detroit and Las Vegas were worse.
The Panthers have some good young talent in Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, Jeremy Chinn and Jaycee Horn. They'll need Donte Jackson, Derrick Brown, CJ Henderson and Yetur Gross-Matos to hit the next level to avoid being below average or worse again. Each has not quite shown the ability to be a difference-maker with turnovers or sacks yet.
Carolina is still slated to start Sam Darnold, so the defense will have to overcome poor quarterback play pitting it in disadvantageous situations.
The loss of Haason Reddick, who had 11 sacks last year, will be tough to overcome. It's also not a great sign that defensive coordinator Phil Snow couldn't maximize two-time All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore after the Panthers acquired him in October.
Carolina has more defensive upside than any other team on this list, but its offense will exacerbate the defense's issues.
4. Detroit Lions
For as much optimism that surrounds the Detroit Lions entering 2022 after seeing a first-year coaching staff milk as much as they could out of a rebuilding roster, the reality of where this team is will be seen on the field this season. The Lions are incredibly young outside of starting defensive tackle Michael Brockers (31 years old). They were also statistically a bottom-two defense in 2021, so it's hard to see a big leap coming already.
The Lions ranked 31st in points allowed, 32nd in net passing yards allowed, 28th in rush yards allowed, 29th in third-down conversions allowed and 30th in sacks. At best, the addition of Aidan Hutchinson and return of 2020 No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah from injury can help the unit jump from bad to below-average. The Lions have an array of interesting pass-rushers and secondary members, but there are also clear weaknesses for the young defense.
There's no proven cornerback on the roster outside of Amani Oruwariye. Safeties Tracy Walker III and DeShon Elliott are effective tacklers but combined for two interceptions last year. There may not be a worse linebacker unit in the NFL.
It's fair to expect more sacks after Detroit added Hutchinson and 2022 second-rounder Josh Paschal and re-signed Charles Harris. A wild card is whether Romeo Okwara can get back to being a 10-sack producer after tearing his Achilles in 2021.
Barring Hutchinson becoming an All-Pro as a rookie and Oruwariye becoming the next Xavien Howard, the Lions don't have many ways to be much better than a bottom-five defense. That doesn't mean there won't be little successes along the way, but their bar for wins is different while still rebuilding.
3. Chicago Bears
New Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus will have his work cut out for him as he looks to revamp a defense that lost stalwarts along the front seven. Eberflus runs a fast, more modern defense that features more defensive backs than what Chicago used in its base 3-4 defense over the last few years. But expecting him to compensate for losing Khalil Mack, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols and Akiem Hicks would be unfair.
The Bears have just two impact defenders in their entire front seven, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn. Quinn is coming off a monstrous season but has already held out of mandatory minicamps amid trade rumors. This is the worst front seven in the NFL.
The secondary is more promising but still young. Cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon and Tavon Young are boom-or-bust for their own individual reasons. Johnson is a raw athlete who plays hot and cold. Gordon is a rookie, and Young played a combined 17 games from 2017 to 2020 due to major injuries.
The Bears ranked 22nd in points allowed, 26th in turnovers forced and touchdown passes allowed, 29th in interceptions forced and 23rd in rushing yards allowed. They were below-average despite finishing fourth in sacks and 11th in third-down defense. Expect all of those numbers to get worse before getting better due to their lack of talent.
2. Houston Texans
Veteran edge-rusher Jonathan Greenard and slot cornerback Tavierre Thomas proved to be effective potential long-term starters last year. 2022 draft picks Derek Stingley, Jalen Pitre and Christian Harris are also expected to take on significant roles as rookies and offer varying levels of upside. But it's unfair to expect them to have a major impact on improvement so early in their careers.
The Texans ranked 27th in points allowed and sacks, and 31st in yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed in 2021. They finished 26th in third-down defense. Only two teams had fewer interceptions.
It's clear general manager Nick Caserio is trying to address depth issues considering he added Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes and Rasheem Green to the front seven. He signed Steven Nelson, Fabian Moreau, Kendall Sheffield and M.J. Stewart in the secondary. Some of these deals make sense to unearth some upside, but there's not a single proven playmaker on the unit.
The Texans will again be bad against the run considering the lack of turnover at defensive tackle and linebacker. It will once again be bad news when they face Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor a combined four times.
The influx of edge-rushers and secondary members may help their woeful passing defense slightly, but it's more likely that the older veterans will fall out of the rotation as the team loses. The secondary is more promising since Nelson and Moreau have a better recent track record of success, but the heavy lifting will be on Stingley to be a star right away.
It'll be a rough 2022 season again for the Texans, but they are slowly trending in the right direction.
1. Atlanta Falcons
There is no question about which team has the worst defense entering 2022. The Atlanta Falcons were almost irredeemably bad last year and they lacked the financial flexibility to make major changes this past offseason. The offense will be worse without Matt Ryan, and that will have a trickle-down effect on the defense as well.
Not much went right in 2021. The Falcons had just 18 sacks, dead last in the NFL, and they had the third-worst third-down stop rate. They also ranked 29th in time spent on the field and points against.
Front-seven additions Arnold Ebiketie and Rashaan Evans may be able to provide some level of impact. Ebiketie fell to the second round of the draft despite being an impressive athlete with a variety of pass-rushing moves, and he will step into a big role as a rookie. Evans was a downhill hammer in the running game for Tennessee but offered little impact throughout his four seasons.
The secondary is more interesting for Atlanta. Pairing young star corner A.J. Terrell with veteran Casey Hayward will help the defense dictate where the ball is thrown more often. Slot corner Isaiah Oliver is underrated, and safety Richie Grant has the opportunity to break out in his sophomore season.
Overall, though, there's not enough in the trenches for Atlanta to field even a mediocre defense. The only notable lineman is Grady Jarrett, but he can't do it all himself. 2022 is all about developing the youngsters as Atlanta continues to rebuild.