I am a sucker for lists and rankings, despite many of them not being worth much. The more insightful top-whatever lists are ones where not just the ranking is offered, but the reasoning and advocacy behind the ranking. What were the criteria? How much were subjective factors weighed against objective ones? And so on.
I’ve seen more than a few lists ranking the greatest NFL defenses. Most leave much to be desired and their formations have their fair share of holes. So, it got me thinking about developing a more righteous top-10 defenses list. One where the criteria are sound and (somewhat) consistently adhered to.
The ranking applies three key criteria: statistics, qualitative impact, and what contemporary players, coaches, and teams thought about the defense. Added bonuses for longevity/run and the cultural impact of the defense. Only teams from the Super Bowl era, from 1966 on, are considered (apologies to the Halas-era Monsters of the Midway).
So here we go. The best ranking of the ten greatest defenses in NFL history, in ascending order.
Numbers 10 through 8 (in no particular order) – Miami Dolphins No Name Defense (1972), Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom (2013), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002)
You can’t leave off this top-10 list the defense that led the only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era. The 1972 Dolphins defense had a year for the ages despite a lack of star power (Coach Tom Landry came up with the ‘No Name’ moniker). Nick Buoniconti is the best known of the No Namers, earning a bust in Canton. But the most underrated was safety Dick Anderson.
The 2002 Buccaneers’ defense might be the toughest against the pass since 2000. Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch rightly served as the famous triumvirate. But Ronde Barber, Shelton Quarles, and Simeon Rice were the unsung heroes.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom was as hard-hitting and intimidating of a defense the NFL has had to offer post-2000. Watching the Legion of Boom that year made you feel like you were transported to an earlier NFL era, one when defense ruled the roost.
#7 – New York Giants Big Blue Wrecking Crew – 1986-1990
The top defenses of the Super Bowl era must include the one with the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL.
Lawrence Taylor was the catalyst for the G-men in the championship year of 1986, logging over 20 sacks. There was nothing that could stop him, in 1986, 1990, or throughout his stellar career (except, perhaps, for himself).
Not that LT needed any help, but he certainly enjoyed it with Leonard Marshall’s sacks and Carl Banks’ tackles (over 110 in 1986). Who can forget Jim Burt as the prototypical immovable nose tackle in the middle? This defense was so good, people often forget about another Hall of Fame linebacker alongside LT, Harry Carson.
What I love most about the Big Blue Wrecking Crew was they dominated in an era stacked with great offensive talent. In their 1986 playoff run to Super Bowl victory, they beat Joe Montana (the 49ers scored 3 points and Montana was knocked out of the game by Jim Burt), a stacked 12-4 Washington team (who the Giants shut out), and John Elway. Their 1990 Super Bowl run saw the defense vanquish Montana and the 49ers again along with Jim Kelly in the famous ‘wide-right’ Super Bowl.
#6 – Dallas Cowboys Doomsday Defense I and II – 1966-1982
The mid-1960s to the early 1980s spans an eternity, as measured in football time. Yet the Dallas Cowboys over that period fielded exemplary defenses that spanned multiple player generations. And there were two versions of what came to be known as the Doomsday Defense.
Doomsday I was built off the defensive line, with Larry Cole, Jethro Pugh, and the great Bob Lilly up front. Leroy Jordan and Chuck Howley anchored the linebacker corps, and they were backed up by a trio of Hall of Famers in the secondary by the names of Mel Renfro, Herb Adderley, and Cliff Harris.
In the mid-1970s, with age catching up to the Doomsday I players, the Cowboys miraculously retooled on the fly to create a Doomsday II lineup that might have surpassed the first. The duo of Harvey Martin and Randy ‘Manster’ White may be the best pair of defensive linemen in the history of the NFL. Throw in Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones and that front line would scare any offense.
There is an interesting piece of trivia that illustrates how great this defense was over a long period of time. The Doomsday Defenses sport three players who were named Super Bowl MVPs: Chuck Howley, Harvey Martin, and Randy White.
Many people despise the Cowboys—especially fans of opposing NFC East teams. But no matter your team affiliation, you must hand it to Coach Landry and the organization for their ability to consistently field one of the most dominant defenses in the league over that period. The Doomsday Defense is the Cal Ripken of NFL defenses. And it was the foundation of a storied franchise’s Super Bowl exploits.
The only knock on the Doomsday Defense is a 2-3 team record in five Super Bowl appearances during its reign.
#5 – Minnesota Vikings – 1968-1978
Consider a recipe that would terrify opposing offenses. First, build a defensive line consisting of hall of famers Carl Eller and Alan Page along with perennial pro bowlers Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen (the only defensive line in NFL history that sent all four players to the pro bowl the same year). Second, nickname the defensive line the Purple People Eaters. Last, have the defensive unit adopt the motto ‘let’s meet at the quarterback.’
That powerful recipe delivered pain to offenses and four trips to the Super Bowl for the Vikings in the 1970s. Although the Vikings were winless in their four trips to the big game, no one doubted what got them there: defense. And the strength of the defense went deeper than the great line. Paul Krause established his Hall of Fame credentials roaming the secondary through the late 1960s and 1970s.
In 1969, the Vikings defense yielded a meager 3.4 yards per snap. In 1975, the Vikings became the first team to lead the league in total defense, pass defense, and rush defense (that feat was accomplished again by another team coming up in our ranking).
The Vikings defense of that era earns praise from two guys who played against it and have busts in Canton, Ohio: Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. Both claimed the Purple People Eaters were the best pass rushers they ever faced. Enough said.
#4 – Baltimore Ravens – 2000
Ray Lewis is a polarizing personality to many, but there is no questioning his dominance, passion, commitment on the field, and what he meant to the Ravens in 2000. It is rare to see an entire team take on the persona of its captain, especially one as intense as Lewis. But the Ravens did just that over the course of Ray Lewis’ career.
His leadership of the defense led to pure statistical dominance in 2000: the defense set the NFL 16-game single-season records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970). But the most impressive statistics are found in the Ravens’ successful Super Bowl run that year: in four playoff games including the big one, the Ravens gave up a measly 23 points, and seven came from a kick return touchdown. That level of defensive domination in the modern era is rare.
One minor point of consideration preventing the 2000 Ravens defense from moving higher in the rankings: their road to Super Bowl champions pitted them against opposing offensives led by mediocre quarterbacks. Through the playoffs the Ravens defense went up against, in order: Gus Frerotte, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon (knocked out of the AFC Championship game)/Bobby Hoying (his replacement), and finally Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl.
But the impressive flipside to consider is that the Ravens defense carried the team to Super Bowl glory with Trent Dilfer at quarterback.
#3 Philadelphia Eagles Gang Green – 1991
Those not familiar with the Eagles defense in the early 1990s may see this and think it a mistake. After all, the Eagles in ’91 went a good-but-not-great 10-6, Randall Cunningham suffered an ACL tear in the first game of the season, the Eagles’ resulting offense was horrible, and the team failed to make the playoffs. But, my goodness, that defense was epic.
The center of gravity was Reverend Reggie White. And he had a lot of help with Jerome Brown, Andre Waters, Seth Joyner, Wes Hopkins, and Clyde Simmons. Joyner earned the Sports Illustrated NFL player-of-the-year award.
The most impressive stat for the 1991 Eagles defense was that six players tallied at least 100 tackles that year. Less than four yards per snap were yielded by the defense, and completion percentage was an unreal 44%. Opposing offenses scored four rushing touchdowns against the Eagles defense, for the entire season!
The 91 Eagles defense led the league in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and total yards allowed. That’s what total, balanced domination on defense looks like on a stat line.
Eagles fans consider the 1991 unit to be Buddy Ryan’s defense despite his firing as head coach the year prior. Rich Kotite, who will never be confused with Bill Belichick, enjoyed the dual benefits of Ryan’s personnel and Bud Carson as defensive coordinator (Carson was the architect of another famed defense coming up in our ranking).
Gang Green scores bonus points for going up against stellar offenses in their division six times that year: Dallas, Washington, and New York. Add the concrete-like turf of old Veterans Stadium and you have the best defense of the 1990s and perhaps the past 35 years.
#2 Chicago Bears 46 Defense – 1985
This unit, which reset the standard for the vaunted Monsters of the Midway, posted the most dominant, impressive, and astounding single-season defense in NFL history. Season average points-per-game of 12.4. Allowed 10 points, cumulative, through three playoff wins.
But what I love about this defense was how innovation combined with attitude to produce the exceptional.
Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense disrupted opposing offenses to the point where they became nonfunctioning. And Ryan developed and slotted players that mirrored the 46’s designed aggression with manic yet focused styles of play. Mike Singletary’s eyes and barely-contained rage are the best examples.
Culturally this Bears team was iconic, not just because of the Super Bowl Shuffle gimmick, but more importantly because of how this defense captured the nation’s attention as must-see.
Only two issues hold the ‘85 Bears from the top slot. First, their dominance manifested in only one Super Bowl appearance. Second, during that dominant 1985 playoff run, they faced Phil Simms on a frigid, frozen, and windy Solider Field and then two guys named Dieter Brock (at home again versus the Rams) and Tony Eason (in the Super Bowl versus the Patriots).
For more on Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense, listen to episode 46 of The Far Middle.
#1 – Pittsburgh Steelers Steel Curtain 1974-1979
Steel Curtain: the iconic name says it all.
Love them or hate them, no team has ever done dominant defense better or for longer than the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. Mean Joe Greene, probably the greatest Steeler ever, was the hall-of-fame anchor. But when you add alongside and behind him four other hall-of-famers in Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell, you set standards that have no comparison before or after.
The best annual version of the Steel Curtain during this run came in 1976, when they allowed only 9.9 points per game in the regular season. That team did not make it to the Super Bowl due to both 1,000-yard rushers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, being sidelined from injury against the Raiders in the AFC Championship.
This was the golden era of the NFL.
When the Steelers squared off against the Raiders, the Steel Curtain was lining up against Stabler, Biletnikoff, Casper, and three offensive line hall-of-famers in Otto, Shell, and Upshaw. Strength against strength. Greatness against greatness.
Which brings up the primary reason why the Steel Curtain of the 1970s tops this list.
This defense won more (four Super Bowls), for longer (1973-1979), and against the stiffest of competition. Ponder the opposition the Steelers had to vanquish to win four Super Bowls in this era: Shula’s Dolphins, Madden’s Raiders, Bum’s Oilers, Grant’s Vikings, and Landry’s Cowboys. That era and those teams could fill Canton on their own.
Nothing beats 1970s pro football, no team was better in the 1970s than the Steelers, and no defense in the Super Bowl era has yet to match the Steel Curtain.