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Rank ‘Em: The Ten Best NFL Defenses of All Time

In this edition of “Rank ‘Em” we look at the 10 best defenses in NFL history. Let’s see where the Ray Lewis led Ravens defense compares to Nitschke’s Packers. Let’s see who was better, the Steel Curtain or the vaunted ’85 Bears. Did the Doomsday Defense make the list? Did the No-Name Defense? Were the Fearsome Foursome enough to put the ’75 Rams defense on the list?

2000 Baltimore Ravens

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How good was this defense? It was so good that it led the Ravens to a world championship despite Trent Dilfer being the quarterback. That’s pretty impressive. What else is impressive? This defense’s stats.

Offenses have undoubtedly gotten better over the past 25 years, but in the past quarter-century, only one defense has held opponents to fewer than 11 points per game. That team? Ray Lewis’ Ravens. In 2000, Baltimore set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest yards rushing allowed (970) in a 16-game schedule. In addition to Lewis, who eventually was named Super Bowl MVP, Baltimore’s defense boasted safety Rod Woodson, who was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.

During the regular season, the Ravens shut out four opponents, then got better in the playoffs, allowing a total of only 23 points in four games, including their 34-7 victory over the Giants in the Super Bowl.

And much the way that the ’85 Bears is the best pass rushing defense ever, this is arguably the best run defense ever. The Ravens held opponents to 2.69 yards per rush, the best since the 1951 Giants. They gave up only 970 rushing yards and never allowed a 100-yard rusher despite facing the likes of Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Tiki Barber, Fred Taylor, and Corey Dillon.

The Ravens also had the advantage of a stacked coaching staff with four head coaches on the defensive side of the ball in Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Jack Del Rio (Raiders), Mike Smith (Falcons), and Rex Ryan (Bills). This led to not only a physically dominant defense, but a smart one too.

As many of the great defenses have done, the 2000 Ravens peaked at the right time. In the postseason they allowed an average of four offensive points per game, and they held the Giants without an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl. They allowed only 165 points all year, the fewest by any team in a 16-game season, and the defense had little help from that Dilfer led offense that ranked 16th in the league, showing not just how great this defense was, but how great it needed to be.

1985 Chicago Bears

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A lot of people believe that this defense is the greatest of all-time, and the reason that the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffled their way to a world championship.

One of the reasons that people believe the ’85 Bears defense was the best ever is because this may have been the best blitzing team of all time. The front seven was loaded with talent, including Hall of Famers Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, and Mike Singletary. Also in the mix were Steve McMichael, who ranks third all-time in sacks among defensive tackles, and outside linebacker Wilber Marshall, who some think was the most talented player on the unit. The defense was so good that it featured nine players who at some point would play in a Pro Bowl.

This talented front-7 was so talented that never in the history of football has a defense intimidated quarterbacks any better. The 1985 Bears forced seven quarterback substitutions over the course of the season. And they held seven opponents to under 10 points.

What’s more, the Bears changed the way defense was played with a new cutting-edge scheme: Buddy Ryan’s 46. His 46 defense eventually was called the “Bear Defense” and teams were unsure of how to attack it. That is why they never succeeded. Well that and the incredible athleticism.

As the season went on, the Monsters of the Midway kept getting better. They shut out their first two playoff opponents (Giants 21-0 & Rams 24-0); then, in a lopsided Super Bowl victory (Patriots 46-10), they had 7 sacks, held the Patriots to 7 rushing yards and scored 9 points.

And although the the ’85 Bears never won another Super Bowl, their defense actually was superior over a period of time. In 1984, they set the record for most sacks in a season with 72. In 1986, the Bears allowed 11 fewer points than they did in 1985, and were statistically much better than the defense of the Super Bowl champion Giants. In 1987, the Bears sacked quarterbacks 70 times.

1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Steelers defenses of the 1970s are legendary, defenses we have all heard about. But the 1976 unit was the best and here’s why: 28. That’s how many points the Steel Curtain surrendered in the last nine games of the season. That’s it….in nine games.

And it’s not like the ’76 Steelers prayed on weak opponents either. Their opponents had a .528 winning percentage that season, making their accomplishments that much more impressive. What else is impressive is the sheer amount of talent on that side of the ball. They had some players that you may have heard of: Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount, all of whom are enshrined in Canton. And eight Steelers defensive players made the 1976 Pro Bowl team: cornerback J.T. Thomas, defensive end L.C. Greenwood, Greene, Ham, Lambert, defensive back Glen Edwards, safety Mike Wagner, and Blount.

Even Hall of Fame head coaching legend John Madden, who’s Raiders beat the Steelers in the conference championship game that season said, “Those old Steelers defenses were the greatest.”

Holmes was not even one of eight Steelers defenders chosen for the Pro Bowl that year. Four of his teammates from this defense — Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert — are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many think L.C. Greenwood should join them. Lambert was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 1976.

Given the Steelers’ talent, opponents had no answers for the “Stunt 4-3” defense devised by assistants George Perles and Bud Carson. The concentration of great players on that team was overwhelming. Many people think that defenses that talented are impossible to come by now. “That’s not going to happen anymore because in this salary-cap era you couldn’t have Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Mike Wagner, Mel Blount, Glen Edwards and all that front four,” said Tony Dungy, who played for the Steelers as a defensive back. “You just couldn’t pay them all. That kind of defense isn’t going to happen.”

Now some might argue that the 1974 Steelers were better than the 1976 Steelers because the ’76 team failed to win a Super Bowl and the ’74 defense was best in the league in yards allowed, takeaways, sacks and opponent passer rating. The ’76 team might have been worse in all four categories, but better in the category that counts most, points allowed. The ‘76 Steelers gave up 51 fewer points than the ’74 team, and allowed only 28 points over their last nine games. The 76 Steelers shut out five teams, an NFL record.

And it wasn’t just those two years that the Steelers dominated offenses. This defense excelled over a long period of time. Between 1972 and 1979, the Steel Curtain never fell out of the top 10 in total defense, and ranked in the top three six times. Pretty impressive.

2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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You kind of feel bad for Tony Dungy here. Dungy built this defense and watched it get progressively better until it peaked as one of the greatest of all-time, the year after the Bucs fired him. Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks already are Hall of Famers. John Lynch has been a finalist for a couple of seasons now. Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber are sure to at least be in the Hall of Fame discussion at some point soon. Oh, and Dungy was a finalist this year as well.

This defense should not be overlooked in discussions of the great ones. Including the postseason, they held 11 opponents to 10 points or fewer. Opponents averaged 12.2 points per game against them in a season when the league average was 21.7. They also held opposing passers to a 48.4 rating, more than 20 pints better than the next best defense which held opposing passers to a rating of 68.7.

And while the Bucs defense was consistently great throughout the year, it was at its best in the Super Bowl. Against the Raiders, who held the No. 1 offensive in the NFL, the Bucs had five interceptions and three defensive scores.

1969 Minnesota Vikings

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The legendary Purple People Eaters led the league in defense three times, but their 1969 defense was their finest, as they allowed only 9.5 points per game, the second-lowest average of the Super Bowl era. They also held opponents to the fewest rushing yards ever in a 14-game season. And it wasn’t just their run defense either. Quarterbacks had a 42.1 passer rating against this defense, the best in the NFL that season.

All four defensive line starters, Gary Larsen, Carl Eller, Alan Page, and Jim Marshall went to the Pro Bowl in 1969, and Eller, Page, and Marshall all reside permanently in Canton, Ohio. That makes them one of the, if not THE greatest defensive lines of all-time, and an anchor for one of the greatest defenses ever.

2013 Seattle Seahawks

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You might remember this defense for the show they put on in one of the most brutal Super Bowl beatdowns we have ever seen. The Seahawks absolutely crushed the Broncos offense that scored the most points in regular-season history. But that was just the finishing touch for this group. They allowed 14.4 points per game in a season when the league average was 23.4. They limited opponents to 5.82 yards per pass attempt in a year when the worst team, the Bucs, averaged 6.19 yards per pass. They were best in the league in points allowed, yards allowed, takeaways, and opponent passer rating. Basically every major stat that mattered.

Regardless of where their overall defense ranks, the Seahawks might be able to lay claim to the title of best secondary ever. Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who serves as the color analyst for Seahawks games on the radio, said he hasn’t seen a better group of defensive backs in his 30-years with the NFL. And while some may prefer the 1994 49ers, or the 1984 49ers, and some will like the1984 Raiders. But with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor all being voted All-Pro, the 2013 Seahawks secondary was as effective as any.

The Seahawks secondary plays differently than many of the other great secondaries and most other current ones. These DBs use physicality to try to disrupt the route of receivers. Easily the most aggressive and physical defensive backfield in recent years, the Legion of Boom has been extremely successful.

And while the Seahawks may be on the borderline of legal coverage, they are aware of what they are doing. “They know they will be penalized some because of how they play, but the number of penalties they get are worth it when you compare them to the number of plays they make,” Moon said. “They push the rules to the limit to their benefit.”

Moon, a former All-Pro quarterback rates the Seahawks overall defense with the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens as the best he ever has seen. “With all three, their physicality and intensity stand out,” Moon said. “They never let up the whole game. A lot of that had to do with special players like Ray Lewis with the Ravens, Mike Singletary with the Bears and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor with the Seahawks.”

And one of the great things about this all-time great defense is that it is sort of a Cinderella Story. General manager John Schneider and his staff have excelled at finding players who fit the parameters of Carroll’s defense, and Carroll and his staff has excelled at developing players and defining roles that get the most out of individuals. Former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith was a seventh-round pick. Sherman and Chancellor were fifth-round picks. No one could have assumed that these players would have excelled to this level, and yet they did.

Maybe that is why this group didn’t get much love. Compared to the other defenses in their class, the Seahawks defense was not star-studded. They had only three players voted to the Pro Bowl. Seven of this list’s nine other top-10 teams had more.

But even with this level of downright disrespect the 2013 Seahawks defense went out and dominated their competition. As a matter of fact, they seem to almost enjoy the disrespect. They seem to feed off of it. Maybe that is why they are one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.

1969 Kansas City Chiefs

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In the history of the AFL there was never a better defense than this, but it wasn’t even the best defense statistically from the 1969 season, as we already discussed the dominant Purple People Eaters of the ’69 Vikings. It’s a little difficult to compare because the defenses were playing against different offenses. But the Chiefs did defeat the Vikings in the Super Bowl that season, so you might think that counts for something.

What was the reason for the success of the ’69 Chiefs defense? Well, much like the ’85 Bears who created the 46 defense, innovation had something to do with it. The “stack defense” used by head coach Hank Stram put linebackers directly behind linemen and gave offenses fits. But what stands out more than the scheme was the talent. It featured five future Hall of Famers in Buck Buchanan, Curley Culp, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, and Emmitt Thomas. And it’s possible that a sixth, Johnny Robinson, could join them one day.

These star players and the rest of the defense were superb, holding five opponents to fewer than 10 points and giving up an average of less than two touchdowns a game. And that was just the regular season.

Against the defending Super Bowl champion Jets in the AFL divisional playoff game at Shea Stadium, the Chiefs held on for a 13-6 victory, thanks to a remarkable three-play goal line stand that stifled the Jets on the one-yardline. Then, after losing to the Raiders twice during the regular season, the Chiefs allowed only a single touchdown, in the first quarter, to win the AFL title over Oakland 17-7. Then the Chiefs defense muffled the Vikings in the Super Bowl, allowing only two rushing first downs and picking off three passes in the fourth quarter to win 23-7. So as ridiculous as their regular season may have been, here is a statistic that makes their postseason defensive success pop: Total points against the Chiefs in the playoffs: 20.

1966 Green Bay Packers

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The first dynasty of the Super Bowl Era was an extremely productive defensive team, and there was a reason. The talent on that side of the ball was overwhelming, as the first Super Bowl team featured six future Hall of Famers: Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Willie Wood, and Herb Adderley. And these talented players allowed the Packers defense to play free. They didn’t have to blitz a lot. Instead they just beat teams man to man without gimmicks or innovative schemes.

The 1966 Pack group was so good that they held opponents to a 41.5 passer rating when the league average was more than 20 points higher, at 63.7. And although the defense often gets overshadowed because of Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and the famous Packers Sweep, it was the defense that carried the team, and it maintained its greatness for years to come as the Pack became the championship dynasty of the 1960’s.

1973 Miami Dolphins

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The undefeated 1972 Dolphins may get all the attention, but the 1973 Dolphins played better defense, allowing 21 fewer points against a tougher schedule of opponents.

The Dolphins “No Name” Defense may not be held in the same regard as other all-time greats, but they were ultra-successful. The Miami defense held eleven opponents to 14 points or less, setting a record by allowing just 150 points in a 14-game season. Defensive end Bill Stanfill set a Dolphins’ sack record that still stands, with 18.5, and in the playoffs, they allowed only 33 points against Cincinnati, Oakland, and Minnesota. Stanfill, Manny Fernandez, Hall of Fame middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and safeties Jake Scott, and Dick Anderson, who won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, were all named to the 1973 All-Pro team. So the defense obviously had talent.

Before facing the Dolphins in Super Bowl VIII, Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton was uber-confident, saying he’d could lead his Vikings to score on the Miami defense. However, he was wrong. The Vikings lost 24-7, scoring their only TD in the fourth quarter, after being dominated all game by the league’s best defense.

1990 New York Giants

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The Giants allowed only 13.2 points a game against a very tough schedule, a schedule that included seven playoff teams during the regular season. Led by Hall of Fame linebacker and arguably the best defensive player ever, Lawrence Taylor, New York’s defense also came through in the playoffs, holding the Bears to just three points in the divisional playoff game. Then they allowed a Joe Montana led 49ers offense just two field goals and one TD, and set up the game-winning score by forcing a late fumble to win the NFC title 15-13. In Super Bowl XXV, the Giant defense held its own against the high-flying Bills’ no-huddle offense, as New York won 20-19.

Now these Giants were the antithesis of the ’85 Bears defensively. Unlike the Bears defense that created havoc and chaos with big plays and disruptive pass-rushing, the Giants outside of LT were a defense that played a lot of two-deep zone and didn’t allow any big plays, forcing defenses to earn everything they got. It might have been different, but it sure was effective.

 

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*** Now, as for why the 1975 Rams and their fearsome foursome didn’t make the list. It’s really quite simple. Once the team that went 12-2 and allowed just 9.6 ppg entered the playoffs they seemed to leave their defense behind. The defense wasn’t as impressive in the postseason, surrendering 23 points in a first-round victory over the Cardinals before giving up 37 points in a 37-23 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC title game.

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