Every year is a different story, but even though some things change as teams experience turnovers, recent history can help us understand what’s coming in the near future. And in the near future, the Dallas Cowboys have some difficult matchups on the road ahead as we look to the 2021 NFL Season.
Looking primarily at expected points added (EPA), points allowed, yards per play, and first downs allowed, I attempted to determine which were the best defensive teams on the schedule. Sacks, turnovers, and yards per attempt figures were also considered in the making of this list.
1. Washington Football Team
3rd in EPA, 4th in Points Allowed, 2nd in Yards Per Play, 3rd in First Downs Allowed
You may not like to hear this, but the Washington Football Team has the best defense in the NFC East and one of the best defenses in the NFL. A legit top-three defense. They’ve done a fantastic job building that side of the ball at all three levels and have a defense that is going to keep a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense in contention in 2021.
They’ve had one of the best defensive fronts in football, in contention with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the best in the NFL. Their front four of Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat are as athletic and explosive as there is in the league. None of these guys are liabilities on any down and distance and the Cowboys have seen firsthand what they’re capable of.
Washington was 7th in turnovers in 2020 and added William Jackson III to their cornerback group and first-round linebacker Jamin Davis to an underrated linebacker corp.
In 2020, Washington finished sixth in the NFL in sacks and seventh in turnovers. They know how to create splash plays.
Even in wins, the Cowboys have struggled their way through the mire of these NFC East battles the last several seasons and 2021 will be no different. The Cowboys won’t play Washington until late in the season, but those matchups in the final stretch will have huge NFC East implications.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6th in EPA, 8th in Points Allowed, 6th in Yards Per Play, 5th in First Downs Allowed
The defending Super Bowl Champions are one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year and for good reason. They’re bringing back their entire team. The Buccaneers bolster one of the best front sevens in all of football. They are excellent against the run, finishing first in the NFL in 2020 at 3.6 yards per attempt, and have several disruptive players in the pass rush.
Their linebacker group of Devin Smith, Lavonte David, and Shaq Barrett is arguably the best in the NFL. And though on major sites, Jason Pierre-Paul is listed as a weakside linebacker, he’s still one of the best pass rushers in the league. Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea make up one of the most physically imposing interiors in the league.
In addition to their ability to stop the run, Tampa Bay was really good against the pass as well. finishing eighth in the league in net yards per attempt and seventh in interceptions.
3. New Orleans Saints
8th in EPA, 5th in Points Allowed, 5th in Yards Per Play, 6th in First Downs Allowed
When you think of the New Orleans Saints, you don’t often think about their defense first. Over the last 15 years, they’ve been led by Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and a plethora of offensive weapons. However, that narrative is about to switch in the post-Brees era.
In 2020, the Saints were third in the NFL in turnovers, including tied for first with 18 interceptions. They allowed just 5.8 net yards per attempt, finishing fifth in the NFL.
New Orleans may not have the same level of firepower along their defensive front as Washington or Tampa Bay, but they’re still really good and have an elite secondary. Marshon Lattimore and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson make up an outstanding cornerback duo while Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins may be the best safety tandem in the NFL.
And their front four is still really good, led by Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Over the last couple of drafts, they’ve also remade their linebacker group as well. Led by Demario Davis, the Saints have added Zack Baun and Pete Werner in the last two drafts, bringing in playmakers from Ohio State to help grow their defense for the new-era Saints.
4. New York Giants
9th in EPA, 9th in Points Allowed, 9th in Yards Per Play, 20th in First Downs Allowed
It pains me to put a second NFC East team in the top five and I didn’t want to believe my eyes as I was making this list. Yet, here we are. Joe Judge and the New York Giants are building a pretty good defense in New York.
In 2020, the Giants were 13th in the NFL in turnovers forced and ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt allowed. Though they allowed more first downs than anyone on this list, they were still able to stay inside the top ten in points allowed.
With Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, the Giants have a strong defensive front that allows them to win against the run, but also disrupt the passing game. In the 2021 NFL Draft, they added arguably the best pass rusher in the class in Azeez Ojulari to help bring speed and athleticism off the edge.
The linebackers are solid and the secondary continues to improve. In the offseason, they added Adoree Jackson to play cornerback and drafted Aaron Robinson out of UCF. Logan Ryan, Jabril Peppers, and Xavier McKinney make up an interesting safety group as well.
The Giants have an opportunity to take a step forward in the NFC East because their defense will be really strong. Much like the Washington Football Team, their team outlook will depend on the play of their quarterback.
5. New England Patriots
18th in EPA, 7th in Points Allowed, 22nd in Yards Per Play, 13th in First Downs Allowed
For the fifth and final spot, this was a tough choice. The Denver Broncos were an option to slot in here at number five and so were the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Philadelphia Eagles.
However, the thing that tipped the scales in favor of the New England Patriots is the head coach; Bill Belichick. In addition to being arguably the greatest head coach of all time, Belichick has been a fantastic defensive mind over the years and is always finding ways to maximize his talent.
Their defensive back group led by Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson is fantastic. They’re really good up front with Matt Judon and the incoming Christian Barmore. D’Onta Hightower is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. They still have Devin McCourty and Kyle Van Noy as veteran leaders for a defense that kept teams out of the end zone in 2020.
New England was 16th in the NFL in turnovers in 2020, but third in interceptions. 14th in the percent of drives that ended in a score.
Bill Belichick is one of the greatest minds in the history of the NFL and will continue to have his defense playing at a high level. A lot of how this matchup goes will hinge on the Patriots’ offense. If it’s better than what it was in 2020, then this will be a tough matchup for the Dallas Cowboys.