The NFL’s Best Defenses Ever

A little more than two years ago, I wrote a column ranking the greatest offenses in the history of professional football. For no particular reason other than that I miss football, this seemed like a good time to tackle the best defenses.

To narrow my search for the finest defenses in pro football history, I researched almost 100 great single-season defenses, then devised a formula to help me sort out the best of the bunch. I didn't use the formula in my final decisions, and it is too complicated to explain in detail here, but suffice to say that for all the defenses I examined, I know how many points they allowed that season, how many rushing yards they gave up, how many passing yards they allowed, their total yards allowed, the team's average yards per carry allowed, the opponents' collective passer rating, how many turnovers the team generated, its record that season, whether or not it won a championship, and where each of those statistics ranked in the league. Take this example, one of the teams that didn't make my final list, the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers:

223 points allowed (13.9 per game, best in the NFL), 3,795 yards allowed (237.2 per game, best), 1,284 rushing yards (80.3 per game, 2nd), 3.3 yards per carry (1st), 2,511 passing yards (156.9 per game, 1st), 63.4 opponents' passer rating (2nd), 29 turnovers (9th), 12-4, Super Bowl champions.

I could do that about 90 more times, but I'll spare you. A lot of research went into this project, and trimming this list to just 10 defenses was extremely difficult. If your favorite team didn't make the list, rest assured that I didn't "forget" them — there are an awful lot of great defenses that you won't read about in this column. Most notably, I restricted the list to the modern era, so there are no teams before 1946. The 1929 Packers allowed 22 points all season (1.7 per game). The '44 Giants gave up 3 passing TDs while intercepting 34 passes. I'm sure those were great teams, but they're just not comparable to anything from today's game.

In fact, there are no teams from before 1960. I did consider great teams from '40s and '50s — the 1950 and '54 Browns, the '51 and '59 Giants — and the 1949 Eagles were the last team I cut from the list (11th!), but ultimately I feel that the greatest defenses in history are all from the last 50 years. I also don't have any teams from the AAFC or the AFL, but there is a clear best from each league. The 1946 Cleveland Browns outscored opponents by nearly 300 points, allowing just 9.8 points per game and holding the opposition to a collective 3.0 yards per carry and 24.6 passer rating (8 TD, 41 INT). The 1969 Kansas City Chiefs led the AFL in every single category I tracked, won Super Bowl IV, and had three Hall of Famers starting on defense, plus at least one more who should also be in. Great defenses both, probably top-20, but they missed the cut here.

Here are the 10 best defenses in league history.

10. New Orleans Saints, 1991

245.8 yards per game (2nd in NFL), 13.2 points per game (1st in NFL)

This team is famous, still, for its linebacking corps of Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills, and Pat Swilling. In 1991, all except Jackson made the Pro Bowl, and he didn't exactly have a down year, with 11.5 sacks and 4 fumble recoveries. Swilling, who led the NFL with 17 sacks, was named Defensive Player of the Year.

The Saints were very solid against both the run (2nd in rush defense, 3.6 yds/att allowed) and the pass (2nd in pass defense, 1st in interceptions). This was the first team in franchise history to win a division title, going 11-5 and holding half of its opponents to 7 points or less.

9. Green Bay Packers, 1996

259.8 yards per game (1st in NFL), 13.1 points per game (1st in NFL)

As the league has gotten larger — it expanded to 30 teams in 1995 — it has gotten harder and harder to really dominate. Do you know how many teams in the 1990s led the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed? Just this one. Unless you're a Packer Backer, you probably don't remember the linebackers on this team, but it was special on the defensive line and in the secondary, which would explain why it led the NFL in pass defense (171.3 ypg) and opponents' passer rating (55.4), with more than twice as many interceptions as passing TDs.

The star of the show was Hall of Fame DE Reggie White, but the best player this season was probably strong safety LeRoy Butler, who intercepted 5 passes, came up with 6.5 sacks on a devastating safety blitz, and finished second on the team in tackles, earning first-team all-pro honors. White was joined on the defensive line by Santana Dotson (who posted 5.5 sacks from his DT position), Gilbert Brown (who was listed at 333 lbs., but probably weighed at least 50 more than that), and Sean Jones (who had over 100 career sacks). Complementing Butler in the defensive backfield was Eugene Robinson, who led the team with 6 interceptions. The team went 13-3 and won Super Bowl XXXI.

8. Green Bay Packers, 1962

234.1 yards per game (2nd in NFL), 10.6 points per game (1st in NFL)

From 1961-67, the Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships. Those teams had exceptional offense, but the defense was even better, ranking in the top four in points allowed every season in the decade. The 1962 Packers allowed seven points or less in more than half their games.

The defensive unit's five first-team all-pros didn't even include Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke and Willie Wood, both of whom were named to the second team. This despite that Nitschke came up with 8 turnovers (4 INT, 4 FR) and Wood led the NFL with 9 interceptions. You know you've got a pretty good defense when a Hall of Famer, in his prime, is the only member of your linebacking corps not to be selected first-team all-pro. This team went 13-1 and won the NFL championship.

7. Baltimore Ravens, 2006

264.1 yards per game (1st in NFL), 12.6 points per game (1st in NFL)

They started the season with a shutout of the defending NFC South champions and went on to a franchise-best 13-3 record. Six defensive players made the Pro Bowl, and it wouldn't have been crazy for all 11 to go. Consider this honor roll: Trevor Pryce (13 sacks), Kelly Gregg (3.5 sacks, 3 FR), Haloti Ngata (60-yard INT return), Samari Rolle (3 INT), Dawan Landry (5 INT, 3 sacks). Those are the guys who didn't make the trip to Hawaii. Now add Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Chris McAlister, Adalius Thomas, and Bart Scott. That is one seriously loaded defense. For across-the-board, weakest-link talent, I don't think there's been a defense like it since the Steel Curtain. Maybe never.

These Ravens ranked 2nd in yards per carry against (3.3) and led the league in opponents' passer rating (63.4). They didn't allow any of their last eight opponents to score 20 points. Even in their playoff loss, they held the eventual Super Bowl champions to five field goals and no touchdowns.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2002

252.8 yards per game (1st in NFL), 12.3 points per game (1st in NFL)

Most championship teams have balance. This one had defense. The 2002 Bucs ranked 24th in yards and 18th in scoring, but weak competition and a historic defense combined to help them win Super Bowl XXXVII. This unit was particularly distinguished by its exceptional pass defense, allowing only a 48.4 passer rating, with 10 TD passes and 31 interceptions. Elite CB Ronde Barber had the fewest picks among the defensive backfield, trailing Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson (3), Pro Bowler John Lynch (3), and league leader Brian Kelly (8). So would you believe the secondary may have been the weakest part of this defense?

The defensive line featured Pro Bowlers Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, who tallied a career-high 15.5 sacks, plus Booger McFarland in his prime. In the linebacking corps, Shelton Quarles made the Pro Bowl, but the star was clearly Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Brooks. He led the team in tackles, and set single-season linebacker records for interception return yards (218) and touchdowns (4).

5. Minnesota Vikings, 1969

194.3 yards per game (1st in NFL), 9.5 points per game (1st in NFL)

It wasn't easy deciding which year should represent the great Viking defenses of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I decided on this one for the simple reason that it allowed fewer points and fewer yards than any other team in franchise history, but don't sleep on the 1970-71 teams: those were superb, historic defenses. The unit earned a pair of unusual nicknames, the Purple Gang (after a 1920s Detroit mob) and the Purple People Eaters (after the Sheb Wooley song).

This team was built around the defensive line, and in 1969, all four members were chosen to the Pro Bowl. Three defenders from this team went on to the Hall of Fame: defensive linemen Alan Page and Carl Eller, plus safety Paul Krause, who holds the all-time record for career interceptions. This team was the hardest in the league to run against (3.2 yards per carry) and to pass against (42.1 passer rating). From a purely statistical standpoint, this may appear to be the most impressive team on the list — it leads all 10 in both yards allowed and points allowed — but the late 1960s were dominated by defenses, and great as this team was, it didn't stand out the way the teams at the top of the list did. It remains a historic defense. The '69 Vikings went 12-2 and lost Super Bowl IV to the aforementioned Chiefs.

4. Baltimore Ravens, 2000

247.9 yards per game (2nd in NFL), 10.3 points per game (1st in NFL)

This franchise has produced great defenses throughout the last decade, but none better than the one that carried them to victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Their 10.3 ppg allowed is the lowest since the 1978 rule changes that opened up the passing game, and their sterling run defense yielded only 2.7 yards per rush attempt, one of the lowest marks in modern history. The 2000 Ravens forced four shutouts and held all four postseason opponents to 10 points or less, giving up only 5.75 ppg. In the Super Bowl, they allowed no offensive points, with the Giants' only touchdown coming on a kickoff return. Linebacker Ray Lewis was named Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP.

This was clearly Ray's team (and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis'), but it began up front, with 700 pounds of defensive tackle, in the form of Tony Siragusa and Pro Bowler Sam Adams. DE Rob Burnett notched double-digit sacks and led the NFL with 5 fumble recoveries. Peter Boulware was a devastating pass rusher, and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, starting at free safety, tallied 7 takeaways. If there's an argument against this team, it's the Tennessee Titans, who allowed fewer yards than Baltimore and edged the Ravens for the AFC Central crown.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1976

237.4 yards per game (1st in NFL), 9.9 points per game (1st in NFL)

The Steel Curtain is probably the most famous defensive unit in the history of professional football, and this was its peak. If longevity were part of the equation, it might be at the top of the list, but we're evaluating the '76 Steelers, not the Steel Curtain. This team is widely regarded as one of the best not to win a Super Bowl, sometimes even as the best team in Pittsburgh history. We can argue about that, but I doubt many would argue against this team as a truly exceptional defensive group. It boasted 8 Pro Bowlers, including future Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, and 1976 DPOY Jack Lambert. The entire secondary was chosen to the Pro Bowl.

After a slow start, this defense went on probably the greatest run in history, posting five shutouts in the last eight games, and allowing an average of just 2.8 points during that stretch. The run defense was particularly dominant. Over the whole season, the Steelers allowed just 3.2 yards per carry, and led the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed, lowest yards/attempt, and fewest rushing TDs allowed (5). They didn't allow a run of 25 yards or more all season, in 452 attempts. Pittsburgh also led the league in fewest defensive penalty yards.

2. Chicago Bears, 1963

226.9 yards per game (1st in NFL), 10.3 points per game (1st in NFL)

No one seems to remember the 1963 Bears. They led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, yards per carry allowed, passing yards allowed, interceptions, opponent's passer rating, and turnovers. They won the NFL Championship Game, intercepting Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle 5 times in a 14-10 victory. The defense featured four Hall of Famers and five Pro Bowlers. All of the starting defensive backs intercepted at least six passes.

Perhaps just as impressive as this team's across-the-board dominance was its degree of dominance. Not only did the Bears lead the league in scoring defense, they led by a huge margin of 4.4 points per game: Chicago gave up 144 points, and everyone else allowed at least 200. The Bears led the league in total defense by more than 30 yards per game. They forced 54 turnovers, which is one of the highest totals in history, in a 14-game season. They held opponents to a 34.8 passer rating. And Chicago's defense did all this without a great offense that kept opponents off the field. Even the coaches were HOF caliber: George Halas ran the show, and George Allen was defensive coordinator.

Why does this unit receive so little notoriety? (1) It lacked sustained greatness. The team was awful in '64, and overshadowed by Vince Lombardi's Packers throughout the decade. (2) This was before the Super Bowl and before extensive television coverage. (3) It didn't have star power. Four Hall of Famers on one defense is remarkable — as many as the Steel Curtain — but Doug Atkins, Joe Fortunato, Bill George, and Stan Jones aren't exactly household names. George was the one who could have been a superstar, but his eventual replacement was a guy named Dick Butkus, so George is overshadowed a little bit. It goes against conventional wisdom, but I believe this was as fine a defense as the game has ever seen.

1. Chicago Bears, 1985-86

1985: 258.4 yards per game (1st in NFL), 12.4 points per game (1st in NFL)
1986: 258.1 yards per game (1st in NFL), 11.7 points per game (1st in NFL)

There is a strong case to be made that the '85 Bears were the greatest team of all time, and their offense was merely good. Chicago could have made this list for 1984, setting a single-season record for sacks that still stands, but there's no arguing with the '85 team. More than half of the starting defense was selected to the Pro Bowl. Mike Singletary was Defensive Player of the Year, Richard Dent came up with 17 sacks and 7 forced fumbles, and the team forced a remarkable 54 turnovers. It scored five defensive touchdowns and three safeties. The '86 squad held 10 opponents to 10 points or less.

Apart from the strike-shortened 1982 season, only two teams in the decade of the 1980s yielded under 200 points: the 1985 Bears and the 1986 Bears. The two teams combined to go 29-3. The '85 team is particularly distinguished by its postseason success: shutouts in both playoff games, and a 46-10 blowout of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. New England's starting quarterback was benched without completing a pass, and the Pats had -19 yards at halftime. The Bears forced 6 turnovers, scored a safety, and limited the Pats to 6 rushing yards, the fewest in Super Bowl history. No defense in history has so strongly distinguished itself.

Just to be clear, I'm not a Bears fan. The 1963 team was the best in the league at everything, usually by a wide margin. The 1985-86 Bears stand absolutely alone among the best defenses of the 1980s. No one else from that decade is close to them. The Ravens and Steelers were incredible, and if you want to play with the order of the top four, I really don't have a problem with that, but in examining the best defenses in history, I came to the conclusion that these were the top two. Disagree? There's a comments section below. Please understand, though, that I put a ton of research into this project, and I didn't arrive at this list lightly.

Comments and Conversation

April 2, 2010

Joeman335td:

Let me get this straight…1969 Chiefs lead the AFL in every defensive category, yet don’t make the list, while the 1969 Vikings, who, as I recall, gave up 23 points to the Chiefs offense in LOSING Super Bowl IV are number 5????? WTH??? Something wrong with this picture.

April 4, 2010

Brad Oremland:

The ‘69 Chiefs had Len Dawson at QB. The ‘69 Vikings had Joe Kapp. The Purple Gang actually forced Kansas City to settle for field goals most of the game, but Minnesota’s offense never got going.

Compared to the Vikings, KC allowed more yards, more points, more rushing yards, more yards per carry, more passing yards, and a higher passer rating. The Chiefs went 11-3 and didn’t win their own division. The Vikings went 12-2 and won the NFL Championship Game by 20 points. The Vikings didn’t even go hard in Week 14, dropping a game to the 5-8 Falcons because they already had the top seed sewn up. And of course, Minnesota played an NFL schedule.

The ‘69 Chiefs had one of the greatest defenses of all time. I think that’s obvious. But I believe it’s equally apparent that the Vikings’ defense was even better.

April 12, 2010

Andrew Jones:

That’s one hell of a project and I think you got it right. Although I was surprised to not see the 72-73 Dolphins on the list. How did they stack up statistically?

April 17, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Thanks, Andrew. The No-Name Defense stacks up very well, and I was sorely tempted to sneak the ‘72 team in at #10. I’d probably put them between 15-20.

April 22, 2010

joeman335td:

Minnesota played an NFL schedule? Are you still beating that straw man 40 years later? The Jets or Raiders either one could have beaten the Vikings that day. 3 field goals and 2 touchdowns hardly qualifies as “settling for field goals most of the day”. Minnesota’s numbers actually reflect the offensive superiority of the AFL at the time, not the defensive quality of the NFL. The reason Minnesota’s offense never got going was Kansas City’s defense. I like what you did here, just throwing out another argument.

May 10, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Joe, you’re just looking at the score, not the game itself. Jan Stenerud kicked three field goals to open the game. How is that not “settling for field goals”? The first TD was set up by a fumbled kickoff return. Does 19 yards really count as a “drive”? Even the second TD drive was basically one play, a 46-yard catch-and-run by Otis Taylor.

For most of the game, the Viking D shut down KC’s offense. Minnesota committed four turnovers, and the Chiefs couldn’t turn field position into points. The Vikings’ defense played very well, in a way the scoreboard doesn’t reflect.

As far as AFL-NFL inequity, I would refer you to the research done by Jason Lisk:
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=4409

Even in 1969, there were only three or four really legit teams in the AFL.

July 25, 2010

Dustin:

LET SEE the 1977 Falcons Have the NFL RECORD for LEAST POINTS ALLOWED ALLLLLLLL SEASON and yet THERE not on the Top 10 They did more then the 85 Bears Defense

August 1, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Dustin, I would put the ‘77 Falcons in the top 30, but not the top 20. They didn’t lead the league in yards allowed, they didn’t have a great run defense, and they didn’t make the playoffs. Atlanta’s offense was so bad that opponents didn’t need to score much to beat them, so they didn’t. This was also a low-scoring era; if we just go by ppg, all the best defenses are from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

August 13, 2010

Glenn:

What about the 68 Jets and 86 Giants?

October 11, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Glenn, the ‘68 Jets were not a great defense and wouldn’t be on the list. The best defense in team history probably was last year’s 2009 squad.

The ‘86 Giants would be in the top 100, probably around 60th. Lots of respect to LT’s rushing, but the pass defense was only good, not great. The Bears were clearly better defensively that year. I prefer the Giants’ 1990 Super Bowl team, which allowed fewer yards and points and would probably make my top 25.

October 16, 2010

OldTimer:

No respect, I tell you they get no respect. The Viking defenses of 1969 thru 1971 are 3 of the top 7 of all timein terms of points allowed, the best indicator of how good you are because that’s how games are scored. 2nd in 1969, 7th in 1970 and 5th in 1971. No other team has more than 2 in the top 20 and the famed Bears of 1985 are somewhere around 15th, The greatest run ever by a defense and all because of the greatest line put together ever. No Superbowl win, no love.

October 18, 2010

Brad Oremland:

OldTimer, you should read the entry on Minnesota. This has nothing to do with the Super Bowl. It’s about context. ALL the lowest point totals in modern history are from the late ’60s and early ’70s.

A number of rule changes opening up the passing game and protecting quarterbacks have changed defensive statistics, and it’s obviously not true that all the greatest defenses in history are from the ’70s.

If you really want an extreme example, the 1929 Packers, before the forward pass was legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, allowed just 22 points in 13 games. The 1-9-1 1933 Cardinals allowed just 110 points, fewer than any Viking team in history, but they had a terrible defense.

The numbers are not directly comparable. The Vikings were a fantastic defensive team, but I believe I gave them due credit: “superb, historic defenses”. Fifth all-time is pretty good.

October 30, 2010

Eagles fan:

1991 Eagles - offense had 4 starting QBs and no running game. And in a tough division

November 11, 2010

Tiger:

I know I am a few weeks late, but this article was awesome. I was surprised by some of the entries, but you backed up every selection with solid factual data, not preference and opinion.

Lions fan btw.

God Bless!

November 29, 2010

Brad Oremland:

Eagles fan, that was a great defense, definitely top-50 and probably better than that. How does 35th or so sound?

In my opinion, though, it’s only the 3rd-best Eagle defense, behind the ‘49 Championship team and the ‘81 group, Vermeil’s last full season.

Tiger, thanks for your comment. I appreciate it and I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. For what it’s worth, all the best Lion defenses were in the ’30s, but the best in the modern era were almost certainly the ‘52 and ‘53 Championship teams. Amazing defensive backfield on those teams.

November 19, 2011

Ken:

“great as it was, the Vikings defense of 1969 didn’t stand out…” are you nuts? here’s a quote from profootballreference.com..”The Vikings had a three year stretch that was never matched. If you add their ranking in each season, you get a total of sixteen. The next best stretches are the ‘84-‘86 Bears (24), the ‘86-‘88 Bears (27), the ‘85-‘87 Bears (27), ‘74-‘76 Rams (30),”
as you can see, the difference between the Vikings at #1 and the Bears at #2 is greater than the difference between second place and actually 7th place that I didn’t post here.

November 29, 2011

Brad Oremland:

Ken, these are 1-year rankings.

Here’s how the Vikings “didn’t stand out” from, say, the ‘63 Bears. Minnesota led the league in scoring defense by 55 points, Chicago by 62. Minnesota led in yardage by 364, Chicago by 423. Minnesota didn’t lead the league in rushing defense, Chicago did. Minnesota didn’t lead the league in turnovers, Chicago did. Minnesota didn’t win a championship, Chicago did.

Honestly, I find it stunning that anyone thinks I’m disrespecting the Purple Gang:

“It wasn’t easy deciding which year should represent the great Viking defenses of the late 1960s and early 1970s … don’t sleep on the 1970-71 teams: those were superb, historic defenses.”

December 11, 2011

Ken:

Well then Brad, if it’s about one year showings, then how are the Steelers of 1976 left out? Are you aware of what they did that year? And competition should factor into it as well. If it’s about just one year, those Steelers are the best I ever saw, and if it’s about continuity, then the Vikings take the cake, followed by the Steelers of the 70’s. The Bears were great, but not the best I ever saw and it was all based on a scheme which can be and was figured out relatively quickly. When its based on personnel and execution like the Vikings and Steelers there’s nothing you can do but wait them out, and back when teams stayed together as in the aforementioned teams, the rest of the league had a long wait.

December 11, 2011

Ken:

and by the way, those rankings I quoted from profootballreference are factored on standings compared to league averages of the time. No one else has stood as far above the rest of the league than those Vikings did.

June 24, 2012

Ricardo:

Bears all the way, no one will ever beat them. Back to back shut outs in the playoffs, 6 rushing yards allowed, the only reason a team will score on the bears would be through the passing game and FG, that’s it. Dominating the Super Bowl. New England had minus yard in the 3rd quarter. I don’t know why people dissagree with these standings, I see they’re right 85 bears just dominated that year no one can argue that, unless you want to look like an idiot.

November 4, 2012

pete:

The 85 Bears is the scariest defense of all time. They were absolute animals knocking out 11 QB’s in 16 games. I heard Joe Theismann say he was actually afraid when he played them…Junkyard dogs!!!

May 29, 2013

joe:

The Steelers of the 70S won 4 Super bowls in 6 years against much better competition than the 85Bbears .Every single member of that DEFENCE (BUT ONE )was a Pro Bowler .The Steeler defence had many more pro bowlers (2 more hall of famers than Chicago )won 3 more super Bowls againt Much tougher teams yet you ranked the Bears higher.

May 29, 2013

JOE:

As per Steeler great Andy Russell.In the 76 Pro Bowl during one series 8 Steelers were on the field at one time .Jack Lambert starting call def Steeler Def plays while the other 3 players looked on asking WHAT DO WE DO Lambert replyied STAY OUT OF THE WAY

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