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Ranking the Greatest Modern-Era Defenses of Each NFL Franchise

Jeffrey SchmidtCorrespondent IIIJanuary 6, 2012

Ranking the Greatest Modern-Era Defenses of Each NFL Franchise

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    The NFL and its fans have been lucky enough to witness some spectacular defensive action over the years, and this upcoming list is available to arrange the best from each franchise. 

    This list involves teams from the modern era—by my definition, since Super Bowl I.

    A team's spot on this list will be determined on where they stack up against other defenses, meaning that points per game, total yards and fear factor are all part of the equation.

    Here are the league's best defenses and the players that defined them.

32. 1972 Cincinnatti Bengals

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    Defensive Stars: Lemar Parrish (DB), Tommy Casanova (FS), Mike Reid (DT), Ken Riley (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: None

    Stats: Allowed 229 points (16.4 per game), fifth

    The Bengals were ranked third in total defense during the 1972 season.

31. 1994 Arizona Cardinals

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    Defensive Stars: Aeneas Williams (DB), Seth Joyner (LB), Eric Swann (DT), Michael Bankston (DT), James Williams (DB).

    Number of Shutouts: None

    Stats: Allowed 267 points (16.7 per game), fourth

    The Cardinals finished the season ranked third in the NFL in total defense, but an anemic offense—one which saw three quarterbacks start at least one game—held the team back.

30. 2011 Houston Texans

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    Defensive Stars: Johnathan Joseph (DB), Connor Barwin (LB), J.J. Watt (DE), Brooks Reed (OLB), Brian Cushing (LB)

    Number of Shutouts: One

    Stats: Allowed 278 points (17.4 per game), fourth

    This 2011 Texans team was the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs, and the defense was a big catalyst. 

    A number of rookies and free agent Johnathan Joseph stepped up big time for this team, even when their top playmaker, Mario Williams, went down with an injury.

29. 1979 San Diego Chargers

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    Defensive Stars: Woodrow Lowe (LB), Ray Preston (LB), Gary Johnson (DT), Fred Dean (DE), Mike Williams (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: One

    Stats: Allowed 246 points (15.4 per game), second

    This Chargers team had a differential of 165 points (10.3/game), which was first in the NFL.

    This was also one of the most underrated front sevens in NFL history.

28. 1984 Seattle Seahawks

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    Defensive Stars: Dave Brown (CB), Kenny Easley (SS), Joe Nash (DT), Jeff Bryant (DE), Jacob Green (DE)

    Number of Shutouts: Three 

    Stats: Allowed 282 points (17.6 per game), fifth.

    The Seahawks had one of the best defensive lines in football during the 1984 season. Joe Nash, Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green accounted for 34.5 sacks.

27. 1970 Detroit Lions

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    Defensive Stars: Dick LeBeau (DB), Lem Barney (DB), Mike Weger (SS), Mike Lucci (MLB)

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 202 points (14.4 per game), second

    The Lions were the No. 1-ranked defense in 1970 when it came to stopping the run and forcing turnovers. 

    Detroit held four of its opponents under 50 yards rushing.

26. 1996 Carolina Panthers

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    Defensive Stars: Eric Davis (DB), Kevin Greene (LB), Lamar Lathon (LB), Sam Mills (LB), Pat Terrell (FS)

    Number of Shutouts: One

    Stats: Allowed 218 points (13.6 per game), second

    The Panthers made it to the NFC Championship game in only their second year of existence, and they were led on defense by their three Pro Bowl linebackers. 

25. 1994 Cleveland Browns

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    Defensive Stars: Pepper Johnson (MLB), Eric Turner (FS), Rob Burnett (DE), Michael Perry (DT), Anthony Pleasant (DE) 

    Number of Shutouts: One 

    Stats: Allowed 204 points (12.8 per game), first

    The most points that this team surrendered in the regular season came in a 26-14 loss at Denver at the midway point.

    They permitted a combined total of just 29 points in a four-game stretch early in the year.

24. 1984 San Francisco 49ers

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    Defensive Stars: Ronnie Lott (DB), Dwight Hicks (FS), Keena Turner (LB), Dwaine Board (DE), Carlton Williamson (SS).

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 227 points (14.2 per game), first. 

    The 49ers forced a turnover in 17 straight games during the 1984 season.

    They also had a scoring differential of 248 points (15.5/game), which was first in the NFL. 

23. 1999 Buffalo Bills

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    Defensive Stars: Bruce Smith (DE), Phil Hansen (DE), Sam Rodgers (LB), Pat Williams (DT), Sam Cowert (LB)

    Number of Shutouts: One 

    Stats: Allowed 229 points (14.3 per game), second

    The Buffalo Bills were ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed during the 1999 season.

    They also gave up a league-low in passing yards per game (167.2). 

22. 2003 New England Patriots

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    Defensive Stars: Ty Law (DB), Rodney Harrison (SS), Willie McGinest (LB), Mike Vrabel (LB), Richard Seymour (DE), Tyrone Poole (DB), Tedy Bruschi (MLB). 

    Number of Shutouts: Three

    Stats: Allowed 238 points (14.9 per game), first

    The Patriots finished the season on a 15-game winning streak, en route to their second Super Bowl championship in three years. 

    The defense had three First Team All-Pro selections.

21. 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Defensive Stars: Kevin Hardy (LB), Tony Brackens (DE), Donovin Darius (SS), Gary Walker (DT), Aaron Beasley (DB), Carnell Lake (FS).   

    Number of Shutouts: None 

    Stats: Allowed 217 points (13.6 per game), first

    The Jaguars allowed just 21 rushing yards and 131 total yards in their Wild Card thrashing of the Miami Dolphins.

    This team had only three losses all season, and they were all at the feet of the Tennessee Titans.

20. 1966 Green Bay Packers

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    Defensive Stars: Willie Wood (S), Willie Davis (DE), Ray Nitschke (DB), Herb Adderley (DB), Lee Roy Caffey (LB), Dave Robinson (LB). 

    Number of Shutouts: One

    Stats: Allowed 163 points (11.6 per game), first

    This Packers team won Super Bowl I. The team also had six First Team All-Pro selections on defense. 

19. 1991 Washington Redskins

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    Defensive Stars: Darrell Green (DB), Wilber Marshall (LB), Charles Mann (DE), Andre Collins (LB), Fred Stokes (DE)

    Number of Shutouts: Three

    Stats: Allowed 224 points (14.0 per game), second 

    The Redskins held the Eagles to just 89 yards of total offense when they squared off during Week 5. 

    Washington would go on to defeat the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl.

18. 1991 New Orleans

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    Defensive Stars: Pat Swilling (LB), Sam Mills (LB), Vaughan Johnson (LB), Rickey Jackson (LB), Vince Buck (DB), Gene Adkins (FS)

    Number of Shutouts: Two 

    Stats: Allowed 211 points (13.2 per game), first

    This defense allowed just four 100-yard rushing games during the 1991 campaign.

    They had three of their four linebackers make the Pro Bowl, and their 48 turnovers gave them the highest total in the league.

17. 2009 New York Jets

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    Defensive Stars: David Harris (LB), Bart Scott (LB), Calvin Pace (LB), Darrelle Revis (DB), Shaun Ellis (DE), Kerry Rhodes (FS)

    Number of Shutouts: Two 

    Stats: Allowed 236 points (14.8 per game), first 

    The defense surrendered less than 75 rushing yards and held opponents to 10 points or fewer in seven games. 

    The team also gave up less than 100 yards passing three times and gave a league-low 2,459 passing yards.

16. 1971 Baltimore Colts

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    Defensive Stars: Charlie Stukes (DB), Rick Volk (FS), Ted Hendricks (LB), Mike Curtis (LB), Jerry Logan (SS)

    Number of Shutouts: Three 

    Stats: Allowed 140 points (10.0 per game), second

    The Colts held eight different opponents under 200 total yards of offense.

    They led the league with 28 INTs, while giving up 1,113 rushing yards, which was the fewest in the NFL.  

15. 1978 Dallas Cowboys

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    Defensive Stars: Thomas Henderson (LB), Cliff Harris (FS), Harvey Martin (DE), Randy White (DT), Charlie Waters (SS)

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 208 points (13.0 per game), third

    "The Doomsday" defense of the Dallas Cowboys gave up a league-low 1,721 rushing yards in 1978.

14. 2000 Tennsesse Titans

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    Defensive Stars: Samari Rolle (DB), Jevon Kearse (DE), Blaine Bishop (SS), Kenny Holmes (DE), Randall Godfrey (MLB)

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 191 points (11.9 per game), second

    This team gave up a mere seven points per game over the last six weeks of the season and finished with a 13-3 record overall.

13. 1977 Denver Broncos

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    Defensive Stars: Tom Jackson (LB), Randy Gradishar (LB), Lyle Alzado (DE), Bill Thompson (SS), Louis Wright (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: One 

    Stats: Allowed 148 points (10.6 per game), third

    "The Orange Crush" were led by a suburb set of linebackers that allowed just 1,531 rushing yards, five rushing TDs and 3.3 yards/rush, finishing first in all three categories.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only team that scored more than 14 points on this defense in the regular season.  

12. 1975 Oakland Raiders

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    Defensive Stars: Jack Tatum (FS), George Atkinson (SS), Phil Villapiano (LB), Willie Brown (CB), Phil Vilapiano (LB), Skip Thomas (DB), Charlie Phillips (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 255 points (18.2 per game), seventh

    The Raiders finished with 35 INTs, which was the most in the NFL that season. 

11. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles

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    Defensive Stars: Reggie White (DE), Clyde Simmons (DE), Seth Joyner (LB), Jerome Brown (DT), Eric Allen (DB), Wes Hopkins (FS)

    Number of Shutouts: One

    Stats:  Allowed 244 points (15.2 per game), fifth 

    The Eagles were led by a furious duo at the defensive end position. Reggie White and Clyde Simmons combined for 28 sacks and four forced fumbles. 

10. 1975 Los Angeles Rams

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    Defensive Stars: Merlin Olsen (DT), Jack Reynolds (MLB), Isiah Robertson (LB), Jack Youngblood (DE), Fred Dryer (DE), Bill Simpson (FS)

    Number of Shutouts: One 

    Stats: Allowed 135 points (9.6 per game), first

    The Rams went 12-2, holding opponents to just 9.6 points a game, (the second-lowest average in NFL history).

    The team ended the season with a six-game winning streak, during which they gave up just 32 points. 

9. 1973 Miami Dolphins

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    Defensive Stars: Dick Anderson (FS), Jake Scott (SS), Tim Foley (DB), Nick Buoniconti (MLB), Mike Kolen (DB), Bill Stanfill (DE)

    Number of Shutouts: Two 

    Stats: Allowed 150 points (10.7 per game), first

    The Dolphins' "No Name" Defense held 11 opponents to 14 points or less, setting a record by allowing just 150 points in a 14-game season. 

    What this team lacked in individual star power, it made up for by being a cohesive unit.

8. 1969 Kansas City Chiefs

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    Defensive Stars: Emmitt Thomas (DB), Johnny Robinson (SS), Jim Kearney (FS), Bobby Bell (LB), Willie Lanier (MLB), Jim Lynch (LB), Buck Buchanan (DT)

    Number of Shutouts: Two 

    Stats: Allowed 177 points (12.6 per game), first

    Hank Stram's "Triple Stack" defense, which gave the linebackers lots of room to roam, was outstanding.

    The unit held five opponents to fewer than 10 points and gave up an average of less than two touchdowns a game.

    The Chiefs allowed just 20 points in the playoffs. The defense shut down 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. 

7. 1977 Atlanta Falcons

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    Defensive Stars: Claude Humphrey (DE), Ray Brown (SS), Rolland Lawrence (DB), Ralph Ortega (LB) 

    Number of Shutouts: Two  

    Stats: Allowed 129 points (9.2 per game), first

    Known as "The Forgotten Defense." This team had the lowest points-per-game average in the Super Bowl era and held opponents to 10 or fewer points in 10 games.

    The defense gave up just 3.7 yards per rush but failed to make the playoffs because of a lackluster offense.

6. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Defensive Stars: Warren Sapp (DT), Derrick Brooks (LB), John Lynch (SS), Shelton Quarles (MLB), Dexter Jackson (FS), Ronde Barber (DB), Simeon Rice (DE), Brian Kelly (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: Two

    Stats: Allowed 196 points (12.2 per game), first

    In 2002, the Bucs became the second team to ever lead the NFL in total defense, points allowed and interceptions.

    Tampa Bay also scored a defensive touchdown in four straight games and held opponents to 10 or fewer points nine times. 

5. 1990 New York Giants

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    Defensive Stars: Lawrence Taylor (LB), Greg Jackson(DB), Everson Walls(DB), Pepper Johnson(LB), Erik Howard (DT), Reyna Thompson (DB), Myron Guyton (DB). 

    Number of Shutouts: One 

    Stats: Allowed 211 points (13.2 per game), first

    The Giants allowed only 13.2 points a game against a very tough schedule—they played against seven playoff teams during the regular season.

    Former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs said it best about this New York Giants defense:

    "The Giants drove me crazy. They gave me the most fits. They were the opposite of Buddy Ryan's Bears defense. They played that soft two-deep zone that didn't allow any big plays. You had to earn everything you got against the Giants."

4. 1971 Minnesota Vikings

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    Defensive Stars: Paul Krause (FS), Alan Page (DT), Jim Marshall (DE), Carl Eller (DE), Charlie West (DB), Ed Sharockman (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: Three 

    Stats: Allowed 139 points (9.9 per game), first

    The 1971 Minnesota Vikings had a defensive motto of “meet at the quarterback,” and they had  one of the greatest nicknames in NFL history—the Purple People Eaters.

3. 2000 Baltimore Ravens

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    Defensive Stars: Ray Lewis (MLB), Rod Woodsen (FS), Jamie Sharper (LB), Duane Starks (DB), Sam Adams (DT), Tony Siragusa (DT), Peter Boulware (LB), Chris McAlister (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: Four 

    Stats: Allowed 165 points (10.3 per game), first

    In 2000, Baltimore set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest yards rushing allowed (970) in a 16-game schedule. 

    The defense was just as dominating 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.

2. 1985 Chicago Bears

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    Defensive Stars: Mike Singletary (MLB), William "Refrigerator" Perry (DT), Dan Hampton (DT), Otis Wilson (LB), Wilbur Marshall (LB), Richard Dent (DE), Steve McMichael (DT), Dave Duerson (SS)

    Number of Shutouts: Four 

    Stats: Allowed 198 points (12.4 per game), first

    The '85 Bears were guided by Buddy Ryan's blitzing "46" defense.

    The team went 15-1 while holding seven opponents to fewer than 10 points. 

    The Bears shut out the Giants 21-0 in the NFC Divisional playoff and then edged out the Rams 24-0 in the NFC Championship game.

    Then, in the Super Bowl, they held the Pats to a total of seven yards rushing, helping to seal a 46-10 win.

1. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Defensive Stars: J.T. Thomas (DB), L.C. Greenwood (DE), Joe Greene (DT), Jack Ham (LB), Jack Lambert (MLB), Glen Edwards (FS), Mike Wagner (S), Mel Blount (DB)

    Number of Shutouts: Five   

    Stats: Allowed 138 points (9.9 per game), first 

    28: That's how many points the Steel Curtain surrendered in the last nine games of the season.

    This defense was easily the most formidable, toughest-to-play unit in the history of the NFL. 

     


    I recently ranked the greatest modern era offenses of each NFL franchise, and you can check that out here.

    Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchmidt9

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