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The NFL’s Top 10 Defenses of the Super Bowl Era

It’s easy to remember the last thing you experienced. For most football fans, that was the Denver Broncos’ defense stifling Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. In fact, President Obama called the Denver defense the best he’s seen since the 1985 Bears. But let’s look at the big picture now that it’s been over 6 months since the Super Bowl. Denver had a great defense, but they were ranked eigth on this list, which is a combination of statistical and postseason performance, strength of opposing offenses, era of play and star power on the defense – since that is what usually shows up in big games. So who finished below the Broncos and what seven defenses were better?

1. 1985 Chicago Bears (15-1-0, 18-1-0 won Super Bowl)

The monsters of the midway created fear in opposing offenses more than any defense ever assembled. They yielded a league-leading 12.4 points per game and led the NFL in yards allowed, turnovers forced (54) and interceptions (34) among other categories.

The engineer of the defense was Buddy Ryan, who implemented the 46 Bear. In total, they registered 64 sacks with 16 more in the postseason, giving them 80 in 19 games. Hall of Famer Richard Dent logged 17 sacks (23 including the playoffs) and was assisted by two other Hall of Famers in defensive lineman Dan Hampton and middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the 1985 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The team also featured players like Dave Duerson (five interceptions), Otis Wilson (10.5 sacks), Wilber Marshall (six sacks, four interceptions), Gary Fencik (five interceptions) and Steve McMichael (eight sacks).

The thing that really separated this defense was its postseason play. The lineup consisted of the New York Giants (sixth in the NFL in points), Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson’s L.A. Rams and the New England Patriots’ 10th ranked offense. Chicago gave up 10 points in three games. They shutout the Giants and Rams while the third game was a 10-point “outburst” from the Patriots. In 19 games, the defense gave up 10.9 points per game.

Now, it is time to address the elephant in the room; the Bears’ lone bugaboo to the Miami Dolphins. Dan Marino tore apart the Bears to the tune of 38 points. Some people question if this means that the vaunted defense would be a fraud today. However, it was more of a misnomer. There wasn’t a repeat performance and they played eight games against top half offenses in the NFL – 10 including the playoffs. Games against Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, who were fifth in passing yards, the Dallas Cowboys, third in passing yards, and the New York Jets, ninth in passing yards, proved this defense could shut down passing offenses, as they allowed 16 points (5.3 per game) in those matchups. The Bears still finished third in the NFL in passing yards allowed while ranking first in team interceptions.

Another misconception about this defense was that it was a one-hit wonder. The year prior, in 1984, the Bears broke the NFL record for most sacks in a regular season with 72. In 1986, the Bears went 14-2 and gave up less points per game than the 1985 regular season. And then, in 1987, the team had 70 sacks, good for third most in one year.

2. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4-0, 11-5-0 lost in AFC Championship to Oakland)

Other defenses on this list were great, some for even a span of a few years. The thing that was amazing about the Steelers in the ‘70s was they were great for the better part of the decade.

Of all the Steelers defenses, the 1976 version was the best. Yet, unlike four other Steelers teams in the ‘70s, they did not win a Super Bowl. It’s a shame, for if they did, they’d probably be ranked number one on this list. You could also argue the ‘75 defense (see below) was better for finishing the journey, but the body of work was better in 1976.

That body of work included allowing just 9.9 points and 237.4 yards per game. Half of the Steelers opponents were top half offenses too, and six teams on the schedule were top 10 yardage offenses in the NFL. Simply put, they weren’t playing slouches.

They were also loaded with individual talent. Eight of the teams’ 11 starters earned a Pro Bowl bid in 1976, including all four starting defensive backs. Four of the eight would go on to make the Hall of Fame, led by arguably the game’s best defensive player ever in Joe Greene. Two of the others with busts in Canton were linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. On the next level, Mel Blount would go on to be enshrined. Additionally, L.C. Greenwood – a six time Hall of Fame finalist – combined with Dwight White, Andy Russell, J.T. Russell, Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards for 20 total pro bowl spots. That’s a total of 52 Pro Bowl selections in the careers of these players when totaled up, which would be similar to all 11 players making the Pro Bowl in four consecutive years, and there would still be some left over.

The most amazing stat for this defense was what it did over the final nine games of the regular season. The Steel Curtain surrendered just 28 points. That’s an astounding 3.1 points per game allowed that included five shutouts, the most by a team in a season in the Super Bowl era. However, because they started 1-4 and dug themselves into a hole, they had to go on the road in the playoffs, where they lost in their second game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders, who only lost one game all year.

3. 2000 Baltimore Ravens (12-4-0, 16-4-0 won Super Bowl)

The 2000 Ravens allowed just 10.3 points per game in the regular season, a number that equated to the fewest total points allowed during a 16 game season. Additionally, after a four game postseason allowing just 23 total points, the Ravens held a mark of 9.4 points allowed per game between the post and regular season.

The lone rough patch for Ray Lewis’ bunch was a 36 point allowance early in the year, but the team still won. After that, the Ravens gave up 20 or more points just twice (20 and 23) and finished the year with four shutouts.

The heart and soul of this defense was Ray Lewis, one of the best middle linebackers to ever play. They also had a solid secondary with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and three-time Pro Bowl corner Chris McAlister. Players like Rob Burnett, Michael McCrary, Sam Adams and Peter Boulware also combined for 10 career Pro Bowl appearances, and although Tony Siragusa never made one, he was key in plugging up the run game.

Quite honestly though, the most talent might have resided in the coaching staff. Brian Billick headed a staff that included Marvin Lewis as the defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio as the linebackers coach, Rex Ryan as the defensive line coach, and Mike Smith as an assistant.

As you can see, this defense compares favorably to any other defense in NFL history. One could make a case for them over the Bears, but the biggest difference is that Chicago played a tougher offensive schedule. SB Nation did a statistical analysis of the defenses and noted that the ’85 Bears played two top five offenses (in terms of points and yards) and four top ten offenses in terms of points – that number was bumped to five top ten offenses based on yards. Meanwhile, Baltimore played just two top ten offenses, and none of them were top five. In fact, the analysis also showed that the Ravens played five bottom five offenses while the Bears played just two –  and only one if you base it on points.

4.1975 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-2-0, 15-2-0 won Super Bowl)

Pittsburgh is the only team on this list twice. After all, it is hard to argue against a team who won four Super Bowls in the ‘70s behind a stellar defense. This version of the Steel Curtain allowed just 11.6 points per game, which was actually second in the league behind an incredible Los Angeles Rams defense. The difference though was the playoff push, as the Steelers won the Super Bowl by holding the Dallas Cowboys to 17 while the Rams lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs and gave up 37. So if you include the playoff games, Pittsburgh actually ended up with a better points allowed per game mark.

Like the 1976 squad, this one was loaded with individual talent. 8 of 11 starters on defense earned a Pro Bowl bid. Although not all four starters in the secondary made it, Mel Blount and two others still did and were crucial in holding the opposition to just nine passing touchdowns while recording 27 interceptions.

5. 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (11-3-0, 14-3-0 won Super Bowl)

In 1969, the Kansas City Chiefs became the second AFL team to win a Super Bowl, and they did it behind a stifling defense that allowed just 12.6 points and 225.9 yards per game. This defense, like others on the list, stepped up when it mattered most, giving up just 20 total points in three games, dropping their collective points per game allowed to 11.6.

Over the course of the entire season, Kansas City never conceded more than 27 points and only gave up 20 or more three times. They charted two shutouts and held three others to single digits (six if you include the postseason) and two more to just 10 points, meaning 10 of the team’s 17 oppositions (including the playoffs) were stifled to 10 or less points.

This is also one of the most underrated defenses in terms of individual talent, as it featured five Hall of Famers in cornerback Emmitt Thomas, linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, and defensive linemen Curley Culp and Buck Buchanan. Safety Johnny Robinson was also a six-time Hall of Fame Finalist, just missing the cut despite six career First-Team All Pro selections. Other players like Jim Lynch, Jim Marsalis and Jerry Mays added to the defense as well and contributed to the 52 career Pro Bowl appearances and 25 First Team All-Pro selections between the starters for Kansas City.

How would the Chiefs do in today’s NFL? Kansas City ranked first in the AFL in passing yards and touchdowns allowed and led the league with 32 interceptions behind Thomas and Robinson, who combined for 17 of them. In total, Kansas City played the AFL’s top passing offense (one that was ahead of its time) in the Oakland Raiders three times. The Chiefs held them to 44 total points in three games. They also took on the number two passing offense (a shutout against the Houston Oilers), the number three passing offense, the New York Jets, twice (allowing just 22 total points to the Jets in two matchups), and the number four passing offense twice (a total of 12 points for the San Diego Chargers in two meetings). Add that all together and Kansas City’s defense surrendered just 78 points, or 9.8 points per game against the AFL’s top four passing offenses.

6. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4-0, 15-4-0 Won Super Bowl)

Not only did the 2002 Buccaneers stop you, but they scored on you as well. The Bucs finished with nine defensive touchdowns if you include the postseason, which was concluded with three pick sixes in the Super Bowl against 2002 league MVP Rich Gannon. Tampa Bay’s eight pick-sixes on the year was extremely indicative of how good they were against the pass too. Led by corners Ronde Barber (five career Pro Bowl appearances) and Brian Kelly (eight interceptions in 2002), strong safety and 2016 Hall of Fame finalist John Lynch, and free safety and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, the Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL in passing yards allowed, passing touchdowns allowed (10), and team interceptions (31).

The defense also featured Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, who not only was great in coverage (five interceptions in 2002 and 25 in his career) but was a stalwart against the run. Hall of Famer Warren Sapp manned the defensive line and took pressure off of Simeon Rice, who made the All-Pro First Team behind 15.5 sacks and would go on to record 122 of them in his career. In total, the Bucs’ defense amassed 36 career Pro Bowl appearances and 15 First Team All-Pro slots.

In the regular season, the Bucs gave up just 12.2 points and 252 yards per game. In three postseason affairs, Tampa conceded 37 points, which included the Philadelphia Eagles’ fourth ranked offense and the Oakland Raiders’ second ranked offense in the NFL. They were also able to prevent a high scoring game from the opponent, as the team’s season high for most points allowed was just 26, with six of the points coming in overtime. Tampa Bay also snagged two shutouts and held seven regular season opponents to under double figures. 

7. 2013 Seattle Seahawks (13-3-0, 16-3-0 Won Super Bowl)

The Legion of Boom. It’s the backbone of this defense and what made them so special. If you didn’t already know, L.O.B. is referring to the Seahawks tenacious defensive backfield that allowed just 172 passing yards per game in today’s pass-heavy NFL. That unit featured Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner. In 22 seasons from Chancellor, Thomas, Browner and Sherman, they have combined for 13 Pro Bowl selections and six First Team All-Pro nominations.

The secondary also had help from a defensive line that did not have any stars, but had good depth with guys like Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks), Cliff Avril (eight sacks), Clinton McDonald (5.5 sacks), Chris Clemons (4.5 sacks) and a few others. On the next level, Seattle had Bobby Wagner, a two-time Pro Bowler in his four seasons, patrolling the middle. The Seattle front seven and the hard-hitting safeties also produced a stout run defense as the Seahawks led the NFL by giving up just four rushing touchdowns.

By the end of the regular season, the Seahawks led the NFL in points (14.4) and yards (273.6) allowed per game. Then, in three postseason games, the team gave up just 40 points. Amazingly, the teams they played were the New Orleans Saints, who were fourth in the NFL in total yards, the San Francisco 49ers, who were 11th in points per game, and the Denver Broncos, who broke the NFL record for most points in a season with 606 (37.9 points per game). Oh, and the Seahawks held that record-breaking Broncos offense to just eight points.

8. 2015 Denver Broncos (12-4-0, 15-4-0 Won Super Bowl)

This is the defense fresh in everyone’s mind. They dominated the postseason by allowing just 44 points in three combined games against Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton. They did it with the league’s best defensive backfield in 2015, an underrated pair of middle linebackers, a wealth of defensive front talent and two edge rushers likely destined for the Hall of Fame. The great man-to-man coverage combined with the rush provided the Broncos defense 14 sacks in the postseason.

The Broncos offense also ranked 29th in the NFL in turnovers, which made things tougher on the defense. The lack of offensive production for the Broncos side hurt Denver’s field position, yet they still finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game and first in yards allowed.

The reason Denver isn’t higher is because the gap just isn’t close enough for the difference in eras to overcome the seven defenses ahead of them. They were good, but they still gave up 18.5 points per game.

9. 1973 Miami Dolphins (12-2-0, 15-2-0 Won the Super Bowl)

Everyone remembers the 1972 Miami Dolphins for finishing a perfect 17-0. Not a lot of people realize that the Dolphins actually repeated a year later, nor do they know how good this defense was. I bet the “No name defense” is used to it anyway, even though they surrendered just 10.7 points per game. Teams threw just five touchdowns to 21 interceptions against the Dolphins, who were strong in the playoffs too, giving up just 33 points in three games. Overall, Miami allowed over 20 twice, with 26 as the most. They also held seven teams to single digits and had two shutouts.

Five time Pro Bowler and defensive lineman Bill Stanfill led the defensive line. On the next level, Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti steadied the defense at the middle linebacker position. The secondary was solid, as three of the four starters combined for nine career Pro Bowl appearances and four First Team All-Pro selections.

The thing that kept this defense down on the list was a lack of star players that the seven in front of them have. The other knock against this defense was that in 14 regular season games, they only played four top half offenses in terms of points scored.

10. 1969 Minnesota Vikings (12-2-0, 14-3-0 lost in the Super Bowl to Kansas City)

The Purple People Eaters gave up 9.5 points per game in the regular season. That is not even the most impressive stat from this squad, though. Additionally, they led the NFL by allowing just 194.3 yards per game. In a league where passing was a lot less common than today, the Vikings intercepted 30 passes and allowed just eight touchdowns through the air. They recorded two shutouts and held four others to single digits. In fact, 13 of their 14 opponents were held to 14 points or less, with the one outlier scoring 24.

The star of the defensive backfield was Paul Krause, a Hall of Fame safety who recorded 81 career interceptions. The reason Minnesota would still be strong today is because of their defensive line. It featured two Hall of Famers in Carl Eller and Alan Page (one of the best players of all-time). The other two defensive linemen were formidable as well. Gary Larsen and Jim Marshall combined for four Pro Bowl appearances in their career. In total, the defensive line racked up 19 career Pro Bowl appearances and 11 First Team All-Pros.

There are a couple of reasons why this defense is not higher. For one, they struggled – at least according to their standards – a bit in the postseason, allowing a total of 50 points in three games. That raised the team’s points allowed per game to 10.8. They also failed to win the Super Bowl and gave up 23 points in that game, which makes one wonder how they would have fared against more inventive AFL offenses.

Teams that just missed the cut:

The 1962 Green Bay Packers and the 1963 Chicago Bears had phenomenal defenses, however, neither was fortunate to play in the Super Bowl era. The 1966 Green Bay Packers were the first to win a Super Bowl, but were also one of the first left off of the top 10.

The toughest to leave off the list was the 1975 Los Angeles Rams. They went 12-2 and allowed just 9.6 points per game in the regular season. In fact, they had a six-game stretch to close out the year in which they gave up 32 total points. The one thing that kept them off the list was a collapse in the playoffs. The Rams won their first game but gave up 23 points. Then, they lost to Dallas while allowing 37. The Rams didn’t have to deal with passing teams much all year, and Dallas was one of the best in the league (fourth in passing yards), exposing a weakness.

Some repeat teams were kept out as well, partially because they had better defenses in later/past years and partially because other defenses were more stellar. Some of those that didn’t make the cut include the 1968 Kansas City Chiefs, the 1970 and 1971 Minnesota Vikings, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1974 and 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, and the 2014 Seattle Seahawks.

In 1977, the Atlanta Falcons won just seven games, so it may come as a surprise that they gave up single digit points per game. They were so good that they gave up the fewest total points of any team in a 14 game season. The reason this team didn’t make the cut was that it was unbelievably blitz heavy and really took advantage of the era. Not to mention, coaches quickly found its weaknesses and caused the Falcons defense to drop considerably the next season from around nine points per game allowed to 18.

In 1990, the New York Giants had a phenomenal coaching staff with Bill Parcells, Romeo Crennel, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick. They won the Super Bowl and held down a great Buffalo Bills offense in the process. However, this team was devoid of star talent besides Lawrence Taylor, and even Taylor was in the declining part of his career.

The 1991 New Orleans Saints drew consideration, as they allowed 13.2 points per game with a historically great line-backing core. A four-game stretch of losses late in the year where they gave up 27 points per game hurt them though, as did giving up 27 points in a playoff loss.

Another 1991 squad had a great defense: the Philadelphia Eagles, with star defensive linemen in Jerome Brown and Reggie White. However, the team finished fifth in points allowed (although their offense struggled and put them in a bad positions, so did other teams on the list).

Let us not forget about the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, either. Led by James Harrison, Pittsburgh had the league’s top scoring defense and won a Super Bowl.

So, as the newest Super Bowl champion, the Denver Broncos cracked the list, but may not have been as high as some of the players wanted. Maybe time will help the legacy of this defense. After all, historically great athletes and teams seem to age like a fine wine.

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