There's been a debate for years: who has the best defense of all-time? Or at least during the Super Bowl era. The interesting thing about this debate is that there are two or three different defenses who could be considered "the greatest of all-time."
So we're here to settle the score once and for all. Here are the top 5, in addition to honorable mentions:
5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 12-4, Super Bowl XXXVII champions
Scoring-wise, head coach Jon Gruden's '02 Bucs may be one of the most prolific defenses ever. Meaning, if we were ranking scoring defenses, they'd be No. 1 on this list. Capped with five Pro Bowl defenders, with a possibility of three ending up in the Hall of Fame (Warren Sapp will be enshrined in August), this was surely a dominating unit.
Including a 3-0 postseason run, the Bucs scored nine defensive touchdowns. All Pro outside linebacker Derrick Brooks was responsible for five of them. In 16 games, Monte Kiffin's squad surrendered 196 points (12.2/game), recorded two shutouts and allowed 20+ points just five times. The defense and special teams was so strong in comparison to the offense, led by quarterback Brad Johnson, that two of the team's wins were thanks to Martin Gramatica field goals and no offensive touchdowns were scored.
In the postseason, Tampa Bay allowed San Francisco and Philadelphia to put up a combined 16 points while limiting them to no more than 80 yards on the ground and forcing eight turnovers. Cornerback Ronde Barber sealed a victory late in the NFC championship game by returning a Donovan McNabb pass 92 yards for a score in a 27-10 win. The Super Bowl was, aside from the 1985 Bears, one of the most dominating defensive performances in Super Bowl history.
Against the pass-heavy Oakland Raider offense with Rich Gannon, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, Tampa Bay forced five turnovers. Three of those Gannon interceptions were returned for touchdowns (Brooks, two by Dwight Smith). The Bucs came away with an easy 48-21 victory, with 12 of those 21 Raider points coming in the fourth quarter and the game already decided.
4. 1990 New York Giants: 13-3, Super Bowl XXV champions
The '90 season was definitely a memorable one for the New York Giants, specifically on defense. The best Giants defense ever assembled, in fact. Led by three Pro Bowl defenders, two of which came from the linebacking core, head coach Bill Parcells road the defense all the way to a Super Bowl championship victory over the Buffalo Bills, 20-19.
Lawrence Taylor, the best and most-feared linebacker of all-time, led the Giants 10.5 sacks, which was his seventh consecutive double-digit sack season. But LT had plenty of help inside New York's 3-4 defensive scheme, as fellow linebackers Pepper Johnson (115 tackles, 3.5 sacks; Pro Bowl appearance and All Pro selection) and Carl Banks (50 tackles, 1.0 sack in eight starts) welded together the middle of the field. Opposite of Taylor, LILB Steve DeOssie put up the best season of his 12-year career, recording 53 tackles over 13 starts.
During a 13-3 regular season run, the defense had 12 games with multiple forced turnovers against a very tough schedule. In fact, the Giants' only three losses came against playoff-bound teams (Eagles, Niners, Bills) and they started the season with a 10-0 record. Combine this with a 31-3 Divisional round victory over Chicago, a 15-13 NFC championship win over Joe Montana's Niners and a 20-19 Super Bowl win, and you've got yourself a perfect end to a superb defensive season. The run defense even limited Chicago and San Francisco to under 40 rushing yards in the first two postseason games.
3. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: 10-4, AFC champions
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s had multiple top 5-worthy defenses, led by Hall of Famers Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount. Though the Steelers fell to the Raiders in the AFC Championship in '76, this may have been, by far, the team's best defense of the decade. With eight of its 11 starters being named to the Pro Bowl (Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Lambert, Ham, Blount, J.T. Thomas, Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards), the Steel Curtain allowed just 9.9 points per game.
Ranked first in points allowed, total yards allowed, first downs allowed, rushing yards and rushing TDs with 46 turnovers, Pittsburgh dominated opposing offenses. Surrendering 30+ points just twice, the Steelers overcame a 1-4 start to finish with 10 wins and a postseason appearance. During the late-season playoff run, the defense allowed just 22 points over the final eight games of the regular season, which included five shutouts.
In a Divisional round 40-14 victory over the Baltimore Colts, the '76 team forced two more turnovers and allowed just 170 total yards. Though the glory run stopped there, as rival Oakland defeated Pittsburgh 24-14 the following week. Nevertheless, 1976 was one of the best defensive runs the Steelers' Steel Curtain had, even without getting a championship that season.
2. 2000 Baltimore Ravens: 12-4, Super Bowl XXXV champions
The Ravens of 2000 could be argued as the best, but I think a close second will have to do. With a porous offensive attack and a quarterback swap midway through the regular season, there's no hesitation when we say the defense is the only reason the Ravens even managed to make the postseason. In 16 games, Baltimore surrendered just 165 points (10.3/game) to opposing offenses and managed 12 wins despite the offense going 21 straight quarters without a touchdown. Miraculous.
Led by the young Ray Lewis and vets Tony Siragusa and Rod Woodson, there were no weaknesses on this unit. Siragusa and fellow defensive linemen Sam Adams, Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary anchored the front seven that ranked No. 1 against the rush. Four shutouts and eight additional games of holding the opposition to 10 points or less isn't even the most impressive part of this defense. Lewis (25), Jamie Sharper (26) and Peter Boulware (26) made up one of the youngest linebacking cores in the league, and ran sideline-to-sideline to make tackles on every play. As a whole Baltimore's defense dismantled ball carriers and swarmed on every play. It wasn't just a bring-down-the-ball-carrier defense, the 2000 Ravens were more of a stingy, punch-you-in-the-mouth kind of defense.
In the postseason, Baltimore's defensive tear continued. Holding the Denver Broncos to just nine first downs and 177 total yards in a 21-3 Wild Card match-up was just the beginning. The following week Lewis sealed a 24-10 victory over division rival Tennessee with a 50-yard interception returned for a touchdown. In the AFC championship game, 330 pound D-tackle Siragusa knocked Oakland's quarterback Rich Gannon out of the game and the defense then picked off two Bobby Hoying passes to seal a 16-3 win. The Super Bowl was the perfect ending to a phenomenal season, shutting down Kerry Collins' Giants 34-7 and forcing five turnovers. In all, Baltimore outscored opponents 95-23 with 12 forced turnovers in four postseason games.
1. 1985 Chicago Bears: 15-1, Super Bowl XX champions
Speaking of stingy defenses, our all-time best defense during the Super Bowl era is the 1985 Chicago Bears, or the "Monsters of the Midway." Led by six Pro Bowlers, three of which are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Bears went 15-1 during the regular season and surrendered 198 points (12.2/game). Including the postseason, head coach Mike Ditka's Bear defense scored seven times and forced a league-leading 53 turnovers. Five different Bears picked off at least four passes throughout the season (Leslie Frazier, Gary Fencik, Dave Duerson, Mike Richardson and Wilber Marshall) while both Richard Dent (17.0) and Otis Wilson (10.5) finished with double-digit sack totals.
William Perry, the 325 pound defensive tackle, anchored a defensive line that helped limit offenses to just 1,319 rushing yards and 6 TDs, ranking first in attempts, yards and TDs. The lone Chicago loss came against one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the league, the 12-4 Miami Dolphins. Besides the 38 points Chicago allowed against Dan Marino's Phins, the Bears D gave up 20+ points just two other times that season (Week 1 vs. Tampa, Week 3 vs. Minnesota).
In a 3-game playoff run, including the Super Bowl, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's creation of the 46 defense destroyed opponents. They didn't have any trouble putting away the Giants (21-0) in the Divisional round and the Los Angeles Rams (24-0) in the NFC championship. Then Mike Singletary & Co. embarrassed the 11-5 New England Patriots in the Louisiana Superdome. Chicago led 23-3 at the half and then completely took over the second half, allowing just 116 total yards in a 46-10 victory. Craig James and Tony Collins led the way for the Pats run game, which managed just 7 yards on 11 carries. Richard Dent recorded 1.5 of the Bears' 7 total sacks and captured the game's Most Valuable Player award.
Just missed the cut:
1962 Green Bay Packers: 13-3, NFL champions
1st in points, 2nd in total yards
*Allowed just 10.6 points/game and forced 50 turnovers in 14 games under Lombardi.
*5 All Pros/2 Pro Bowlers
*5 Hall of Famers started on defense
1971 Minnesota Vikings: 11-3, lost in Divisional round
"Purple People Eaters"
1st in points, 2nd in total yards, 1st in rushing TDs
*Allowed 139 points (9.9/game)
*Allowed 30+ points just one time (30 in loss to Chargers)
*Held opposing QBs to a 40.4 rating.
*3 Pro Bowlers (Carl Eller, Alan Page, Paul Krause)
1969 Kansas City Chiefs: 11-3, Super Bowl IV champions
1st in points, 1st in total yards
*Ranked 1st in passing yards, TDs, INTs and rushing attempts, yards and TDs
*Never allowed a team to put up 30 points.
*6 Pro Bowlers (Curley Culp, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Jim Marsalis and Johnny Robinson).
1975 Los Angeles Rams: 12-2, lost in NFC championship
"The New Fearsome Foursome"
1st in points, 2nd in total yards, 1st in rushing TDs
*Allowed just 9.9 points per game, a league-best.
*Led by what is now know as the new "Fearsome Foursome" of Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Merlin Olsen and Larry Brooks...the original foursome consisted of Rosey Grier, Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen in 1963.
*Allowed an average of 5.3 points/game during the final six games of the season.
*5 Pro Bowlers
1972 Miami Dolphins: 14-0, Super Bowl VII champions
1st in points, 1st in total yards
*Allowed 171 points (12.2/game)
*Still only team in history to finish regular and postseason with undefeated record.
*Six out of the 11 starters never made a Pro Bowl roster or All Pro team during their pro careers.
*4 Pro Bowlers/2 All Pros
Best nicknames for Defenses:
Purple People Eaters––1960s-70s Vikings
Steel Curtain––1970s Steelers
Doomsday Defense––Cowboys of the 1970s
Monsters of the Midway––Bears of the '40s and '80s
Orange Crush––1970s Broncos
No-Name Defense––1970s Dolphins
Gritz Blitz––1977 Falcons
Fearsome Foursome––Defensive line of the 1960s Rams
Houston Hitmen––1988 Oilers
Any other defenses you think are worth mentioning? Let us know in the comment section below!
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