The NFL’s Best Defenses Ever
April 1, 2010 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
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.