To say that defensive lines anchored some of the most dominant defenses in the history of the NFL would be an understatement. They are the first line of "defense" against running backs in the ground games and quarterbacks in the passing game.
If you are unable to put pressure on the quarterback, your secondary isn't going to be too successful. If you are unable to stop the run, your defense is going to struggle a great deal. This has been repeated over and over again throughout the modern history of the NFL.
This season saw two teams, the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, make it to the NFC Championship game based in large part on the play of their defensive line. Those units consisted of "mutters" and "dynamos." Individuals that either fought tooth and nail along the interior of the line or made larger headlines on the outside getting after the quarterback.
This morning I am going to focus on the 25 best defensive lines in the history of the NFL. You will see many units on this list that helped their teams get the Lombardi, while you will also see units that have been caught under the dust jacket of mediocrity because their teams just weren't that good.
Either way, this should be interesting.
The Players: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock.
The Statistics: 38 forced turnovers, 45 sacks and 26 fumble recoveries.
This is one of the few units on this list that is still together, at least for now. The 2003 Indianapolis Colts defense wasn't too great; they gave up over 20 points per game.
That said, I am not ranking overall defenses. Rather, I am ranking line play on those defenses, and this Colts had one of the better ones in recent history that season.
It wasn't that Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis combined for 14.5 sacks, that really isn't a big deal. It was that for the first time in the Peyton Manning era, the Colts' defense showed that they could be a reason why Indianapolis actually did something in the postseason.
Three years late,r they would win the Super Bowl.
The Players: Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary.
The Statistics: 10.5 points per game, 55.9 rush yards per game, 35 sacks and 61 forced turnovers.
When teams run a 3-4 defensive scheme, it is the line that usually gets overshadowed by the linebackers. This was the case with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa dominated opposing offensive lines, which enabled the Ravens' linebackers to get free shots at the quarterback in the backfield.
It is a blueprint that some of the most successful 3-4 defenses run today. Get those key cogs along the defensive line and help out the back seven in the meantime.
The sacks weren't there for this version of the Baltimore Ravens. However, they forced a whopping 61 turnovers in large part due to the play of their defensive line.
Just imagine going up against the meat of the Ravens' defensive line that season. It consisted of Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, who combined to weigh over 630 pounds—over a quarter of a ton.
In the end, Baltimore won the Super Bowl, giving up a total of 23 points in four postseason games.
The Players: Bob Kilcullen, Ed O'Bradovich, Stan Jones, Earl Leggett and Doug Atkins.
The Statistics: 10.3 points per game and 60 forced turnovers.
This Chicago Bears team performed at an extremely high level before most of us were even thought about. Time in and of itself doesn't change the history that has occurred prior to our existence. Therefore, you will see a lot of different units from decades ago on this list.
The 1963 Chicago Bears, under George Halas, only lost one regular-season game. Their defense dominated the NFL in every possible way, and this defense was anchored by one of the best lines in the history of the league.
It was in the NFC Championship game that his unit stepped up the most. They forced six New York Giants turnovers en route to a 14-10 win. Y.A. Tittle, who was on his back the entire game, threw five interceptions, ene of which led to the first of two Chicago Bears touchdowns, the difference in the game.
Doug Atkins led this unit and was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
The Players: Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons and Mike Pitts.
The Statistics: 57 sacks and 48 forced turnovers.
This was one heck of a unit. It is just so sad to see that two important cogs along the defensive line of the 1987 Philadelphia Eagles are no longer with us.
The Eagles didn't make the playoffs this season. In fact, they didn't even finish .500. Their lack of success in 1987 had absolutely nothing to do with the defensive line.
Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and Jerome Brown combined for a whopping 18 Pro Bowl selections. This season saw White break the NFL single-season sack record with 21. Their defense forced an average of three turnovers a game as well.
The Players: Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield, Rickey Jackson, Dennis Brown, Richard Dent (two games) and Charles Mann.
The Statistics: 38 sacks, 45 forced turnovers and 22 fumble recoveries.
A lot of people talk about the San Francisco 49ers' offense during their final Super Bowl season. However, it was the defense that stepped up a great deal to help them get that championship.
Their 1994 defensive line was a mesh of veterans and young, up-and-coming players. For example, Charles Mann and Richard Dent, two Hall of Fame players, didn't make a huge impact. Rather, it was the likes of Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young who stepped up their game.
This defense forced 10 turnovers in three postseason games thanks in large part to the defensive line. Quarterbacks didn't have much time to get rid of the ball, which led to some major mistakes on the back end.
San Francisco's defensive line got to Troy Aikman five times, hitting him another seven times in the NFC Championship game. The fact that three Hall of Fame players were on this defensive line makes it one of the best ever.
The Players: Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Kimo von Oellhoffen.
The Statistics: 16.1 points per game, 40 forced turnovers and 47 sacks.
Anchored by Aaron Smith, who I consider one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the history of the NFL, this Pittsburgh Steelers' unit was nothing short of elite. It might not show up in statistics, but they dominated opposing offensive lines.
Joey Porter and Clark Haggans combined for nearly 20 sacks due to the fact that Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel were taking up double-teams on the outside, a trademark of a good 3-4 defense.
It was in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning that this unit stepped up the most. The Steelers tallied five sacks and held Indianapolis to just over 300 yards total offense, including 58 on the ground.
Pittsburgh defeated the Seattle Seahawks three weeks later to grab the Super Bowl championship.
The Players: Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, Reggie Kinlew and Greg Townsend.
The Statistics: 46 forced turnovers, 57 sacks and 37 fumble recoveries.
The tragic ending to this story has been more publicized than the performance of the Alzado/Long duo for the Raiders franchise. By now, most of us know the circumstances surrounding Lyle Alzado's death.
But if you didn't.
He was one of the first NFL football players to admit to the use of steroids. The former Raider admitted to Sports Illustrated that he actually started taking the drug in the late 1960s. Alzado died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 42.
With that being said, the 1983 Los Angeles Raiders were truly a dominant defensive team. They acquired nearly 60 sacks, throwing quarterbacks down as much as Charlie Sheen does vodka tonics.
One of the greatest performances from this unit actually took place during an offensive debacle against the Seattle Seahawks in October. The Raiders' offense turned the ball over eight times, leaving the Seahawks with tremendous field position on numerous possessions. Despite yielding 38 points in the defeat, the Raiders' defense showed what they were going to be made of the rest of the season.
They forced Jim Zorn into one of the worst passing lines in the modern history of the NFL. He completed just 4-of-16 passes for just 13 yards. The Raiders' defensive line was in Zorn's face all game long.
The Raiders went on to dominate the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, 38-9. Their defense held Washington to less than 300 yards, forcing two Joe Theismann interceptions and sacking the quarterback a total of six times.
The Players: Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Gene Lipscomb and Don Joyce.
The Statistics: 16.9 points per game, 56 forced turnovers and 21 fumble recoveries.
Twenty Pro Bowl and 14 First Team All-Pro selections between these four; they were truly a dominating unit in the pre-modern NFL.
Behind toughness, brute strength and amazing athletic ability, these four led a Baltimore Colts defense that forced an average of 4.3 turnovers per game.
In the NFL Championship against the New York Giants, the Colts' defense forced four turnovers and sacked Johnny Unitas another four times en route to a league championship.
The Players: Chris Doleman, John Randle, Al Noga and Henry Thomas.
The Statistics: 15.6 points per game, 43 forced turnovers and 51 sacks.
Chris Doleman and John Randle. Two Hall of Fame defensive linemen, one in the prime of his career and the other about to enter his prime. It couldn't have gotten any better for the Minnesota Vikings at this point.
Despite not being able to pass the hurdle of defeating the likes of the Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants to enter elite status, this team was stacked.
There were none better along the defensive line. The 1992 Minnesota Vikings totaled 52 sacks, 41 from the defensive line. Both Chris Doleman and Henry Thomas made All-Pro Teams, while Randle wasn't too far off.
Team success was another story. Minnesota ultimately fell short of their goal, losing to the Washington Redskins in the Wild Card Round.
The Players: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Aldon Smith.
The Statistics: 14.3 points per game, 75.4 rush yards per game, 43 forced turnovers and 42 sacks.
Some people would probably disagree with this assessment, but it is really hard to disagree with if you look at the statistics.
The 2011 San Francisco 49ers defense broke some of the longest-standing records in the history of the NFL.
They became the first team since the 1929 Providence Steam Roller to not allow a rushing touchdown in the first 11 games of a season. This streak came to an end on Christmas Eve against the Seattle Seahawks. Marshawn Lynch's 100-yard game also broke a streak of 34 consecutive games without allowing a rushing touchdown.
Many people talk about their two All-Pro linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, as prime reasons why this front seven was so good. However, their success can be directly correlated to the play of the defensive line, specifically Justin Smith.
In reality, I have never seen a defensive end dominate a game the way Justin Smith did against the New Orleans Saints. He went against double and sometimes triple-teams, still getting to Drew Brees. This unit, however, unheralded it might be, has to stand among the top in the history of the league.
The Players: Richard Seymour, Ted Washington, Willie McGinest and Bobby Hamilton.
The Statistics: 14.9 points per game, 49 forced turnovers, 83.4 rush yards per game and 41 sacks.
Much like the 1994 San Francisco 49ers earlier in this article, Tom Brady and Co. will probably get more play for the success of the 2003 New England Patriots. That said, their defensive line was nearly as dominant a line as I have ever seen.
Offensive blocking schemes were really funny to watch during this season. They had absolutely no idea to focus on. If they left Richard Seymour in one-on-one coverage, then Willie McGinest would get to the quarterback and so on.
In reality, it became nearly impossible for teams to block the 2003 New England Patriots unless they went to max protection, which limited the downfield success of the offenses.
Not only were the 2003 New England Patriots good at getting to the quarterback, they were extremely solid against the run. This is a unit that only gave up 100 yards rushing in five of the 19 games they played, including none in the postseason.
In the end, New England took out the Carolina Panthers to win the Super Bowl, getting to Jake Delhomme four times.
The Players: Charles Haley, Russell Maryland, Tony Tolbert, Jim Jeffcoat and Leon Lett.
The Statistics: 14.3 points per game, 34 sacks, 36 forced turnovers and 23 fumble recoveries.
Man, this was one fearsome unit with a tremendous amount of personality and character. I wonder what it must have been like to be a teammate of Charles Haley and Leon Lett in Dallas during the 1990s. Pretty sure that Aikman and Co. have some interesting stories.
The Cowboys finished the 1993 regular season second in the NFL in points against, while forcing the most three-and-outs of any team in the league. You have got to realize that they did this with a rookie and second-year player starting at corner as well as an overrated Larry Brown in the nickel.
For all intents and purposes, it was the defensive line that did a large majority of the work for the best defense in the league.
It was the defense that really did the work for the 1993 Super Bowl champions in the postseason. They gave up just over 70 yards rushing per game, forcing eight turnovers in three games.
The Players: Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty.
The Statistics: 48 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and 37 forced turnovers.
Yes, the 2011 New York Giants are this high on the list. Of course, the script has yet to be fully written in regards to this unit, but they have to be considered on of the best of all time.
You are looking at a unit that consists of three All-Pro type of players in Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul. This is also where careers have met pathways. The up-and-coming Pierre Paul working alongside the likes of Tuck and Umenyiora. It could be stated that his progression as a player is largely due to their experience on the football field.
Their 48 sacks ranked third in the NFL behind the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. More than that, they came up huge on the biggest stages against the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.
New York's defensive line will be a primary reason why they win the Super Bowl in less than two weeks. They will have the ability to continually harass Tom Brady, throwing off the Patriots' timing routes. It is nearly impossible to block Pierre-Paul one-on-one, which means the Patriots will have to either go to max protection or leave Tuck and Umenyiora against one-on-one blocking.
Either way, the Patriots' offensive line is in for a huge test in the big game.
The Players: Len Ford, Bill Willis, Don Colo and Doug Atkins.
The Statistics: 13.5 points per game, 45 forced turnovers and 23 fumble recoveries.
Now we are going way back in time to look at a defensive line that has all but been forgotten through the years. By modern comparison, the fact that the Detroit Lions' defense of 1953 forced five or more turnovers in well over half of their regular-season games is simply amazing.
More than that, they dominated the trenches against some of the best offensive lines to ever play. They gave up less than 100 total rushing yards in five of the their 13 games, which is simply stunning for that era in the NFL.
It was the 1953 NFL Championship game against the Cleveland Browns that put this unit in the record books to stay. Don Colo and Len Ford both got to Otto Graham for a sack, as they forced the future Hall of Fame quarterback into a 2-for-15 passing day with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Players: Willie Davis, Dave Hanner and Henry Jordan.
The Statistics: 10.6 points per game and 53 forced turnovers.
No matter what era, a team that surrenders just over 10 points per game has to be pretty dominating. The 1962 Green Bay Packers were no different. This is a unit that gave up less than 60 rushing yards in five different games, forced five or more turnovers six times and yielded seven points or less seven different times.
Talk about domination.
Willie Davis might be the best known of this "three-headed monster," but Dave Hanner and Henry Jordan weren't slouches, either. Six different members, including three along the defensive line, made the Pro Bowl from the Packers' defense in 1963.
The NFL Championship game against the New York Giants was a prime example of this dominance. They held Y.A. Tittle to 18-of-41 passing without a touchdown. Green Bay won the game 16-7 behind a three-turnover performance by their defense.
The Players: Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Roger Brown and Lamar Lundy.
The Statistics: 14.0 points per game, 85.4 rush yards per game and 50 forced turnovers.
The four players I have listed on this slide combined for 29 Pro Bowl appearances. Yes, 29. There is no reason to back my selection of the Los Angeles Rams 1967 defensive line on this list.
Their defense yielded just two touchdowns per game, gave up 100 yards rushing only three times during the season and forced multiple turnovers in each outing.
During a three-game stretch from November to December, the Rams yielded a total of 13 points while forcing 11 turnovers. The reason this unit doesn't get as much credit for being one of the best ever is because of their lack of success in the playoffs.
The Rams were blown out by Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoffs, with Roger Brown acquiring the sole Los Angeles sack of the game.
The Players: Arnie Weinmeister, Al DeRogatis, Jim Duncan, Ray Krouse and Ray Poole.
The Statistics: 12.5 points per game and 55 forced turnovers.
Yes, you read that right, 55 forced turnovers. This number was magnified a great deal by their nine-turnover performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the opening weekend of the 1950 season. Still, the Giants forced an average of 4.2 turnovers per game during this season.
What made this defensive line, anchored by Arnie Weinmeister, so great was the fact that it transcended that era of professional football. They were the first to fully utilize the "stunt" pass rush move, revolutionizing the way defense way played.
Overall, the Giants never yielded more than 21 points in a game that season, giving up single digits a total of six different times. In fact, they held opposing offenses to less than 100 yards rushing five different times. An amazing statistic considering the era this defensive line played.
Despite losing to the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs, the Giants' defense came up really big during that game. They held Otto Graham's offense to a total of two field goals.
The Players: Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Anthony McFarland.
The Statistics: 12.2 points per game, 83.1 rush yards per game, 43 sacks, 51 forced turnovers and 20 fumble recoveries.
Man, I loved watching this Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line play. They might have been one of the best all-around units to ever step on the football field.
The simple fact that the 2002 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl with Brad Johnson at quarterback should say enough about this unit. However, I plan to get into detail as to why we find them in the top 10.
They gave up 10 points or less 10 times during the 2002 season, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 48.0 quarterback rating, the lowest since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. This was in large part due to the play of Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Anthony McFarland. Those three combined for 25 sacks and led the league's top rush defense.
Still, many people didn't give the Buccaneers a chance against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs that season because of their lack of offense. They quieted the skeptics really quick, defeating the 49ers 31-6.
A few weeks later, the Buccaneers, led by former Raiders coach Jon Gruden, defeated Oakland 48-21 in the Super Bowl. The Raiders were held to 11 first downs, they turned the ball over five times and Rich Gannon was sacked five times.
The Players: Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko.
The Statistics: 17.9 points per game, 66 sacks (unofficial) and 40 forced turnovers.
"The New York Sack Exchange," as they were called, dominated the American Football conference in the year of my birth, 1981. New York led the NFL with 66 sacks, with Gastineau and Klecko bother obtaining over 20.
The Jets' 38 fumbles on offense during the 1981 regular season led to the downfall of this team. Despite making the playoffs, the Jets couldn't get out of the first round against the Buffalo Bills due to their offense turning it over five times.
If the rest of the 1981 New York Jets team was up to snuff, this unit would have gotten a lot more play as one of the best ever.
The Players: Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Randy White, Harvey Martin and Jethro Pugh.
The Statistics: 13.0 points per game, 51 forced turnovers and 28 fumble recoveries.
Jethro Pugh, how great of a name is that? But I digress.
The 1978 Dallas Cowboys defense gave up just 13 points per game as they dominated the NFC East. Randy White and Harvey Martin both made the Pro Bowl, while Ed "Too Tall" Jones did his thing on the outside.
It was in the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams that this unit made a name for itself in the heralded history of the franchise. They forced seven turnovers, sacked Rams quarterbacks a total of seven times and held them to less than three yards per rush.
In short, it was a completely dominating victory. The Super Bowl was a different story. Terry Bradshaw torched them for four touchdowns, as the Steelers captured another Lombardi Trophy, 35-31.
The Players: Curley Culp, Jerry Mays, Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell.
The Statistics: 12.6 points per game, 77.4 rush yards per game and 60 forced turnovers.
Curley Culp is one of the most underrated defensive players in the history of the NFL. He was an absolutely amazing pass-rushing and run-stopping defensive tackle in the mold of a Haloti Ngata today. Culp and Buck Buchanan combined for a whopping 15 Pro Bowl appearances with the Chiefs.
However, it was the 1969 season that defined this tandem and the entire Chiefs defense.
This was truly a dominant unit. Kansas City held opposing teams to single-digit first downs five time, less than 100 rushing yards in all but three games and surrendered over 300 yards in just two games.
During their playoff run, which led to the franchise's only Super Bowl championship, Kansas City's defense forced 13 turnovers in three games.
The Players: Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen and Fred Dryer.
The Statistics: 9.6 points per game and 47 forced turnovers.
Dick Butkus called them "the most dominating line in NFL history." Wide praise coming from one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, but he wasn't necessarily wrong.
I stated earlier that Curley Culp is one of the most underrated defensive players ever. Well, Jack Youngblood has to be considered right up there with him. He has an unofficial total of 151.5 sacks and made seven Pro Bowls.
He was joined on the Rams' defensive line with Merlin Olsen, another Hall of Fame player.
This unit was just as good as Butkus hyped. In the final six games of the 1975 regular season, Los Angeles surrendered a total of 32 points (5.3 per game). The defensive line was instrumental in this, giving up less than 200 total yards on average.
The reason this unit doesn't find itself any higher on the list is because of their lack of postseason success, much like other Los Angeles Rams teams prior to 1975.
The Players: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White.
The Statistics: 11.6 points per game and 50 forced turnovers.
In reality, I could have put any one of six or seven different Steelers defensive lines on this list, but I decided to go with this one, and for good reason.
Not only did the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers dominate during the postseason, they did it all year long. You are looking at a unit that gave up 20 first downs just once, forced four or more turnovers seven times and held quarterbacks to less than 100 yards another six times.
Pittsburgh's defense was so good in 1975 that they finished sixth in the AFC in scoring offense, but they outscored their opponents by 211 points. For all intents and purposes, they were the reason that the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys will be remembered for Lynn Swann's acrobatic fourth-quarter touchdown, but the defense is the reason Pittsburgh was in position to win the game. They intercepted Roger Staubach three times while holding the Robert Newhouse/Preston Pearson combo to less than 80 yards on 21 rushes.
Who could possibly be higher on this list if the Pittsburgh Steelers are No. 3? Well, that is what slideshows are for. So just hit next!
The Players: Carl Eller, Alan Page, Jim Marshall and Roy Winston.
The Statistics: 9.9 points per game and 45 forced turnovers.
The "Purple People Eaters." This was the name of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive line of the 1970s. Yes, it was a confusing time for not just America but football as well. Despite the nickname that seemed to fit in Yellow Submarine, this unit was absolutely dominating.
Carl Eller and Alan Page were not only Pro Bowl performers during their stints with the Minnesota Vikings, they were Hall of Fame players in every possible way. Jim Marshall, Roy Winston and Gary Larsen were also perfect complements to those two extraordinary players.
Probably the best season that this group had was in 1971. They gave up 10 points or less 10 times, averaged single digits against and completely dominated their opponents in the regular season.
One of the most dominating performances in the modern history of the NFL came against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3. The Vikings held Buffalo to eight passing yards, sacked Dennis Shaw seven times and yielded just seven first downs. O.J. Simpson also tallied only 45 yards in that game.
It was the 1971 season in which the Minnesota Vikings' defense took the next step to "elite status." In the six-year span from 1971-1976, their defense gave up 11.2 points per game. One of the most dominating stretches you will ever see.
The Players: Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael and William Perry.
The Statistics: 12.4 points per game, 75.6 rush yards per game, 64 forced turnovers and 64 sacks.
Henry David Thoreau once said the following about greatness:
There was nothing great about the Chicago Bears' defensive linemen when they came into the league. Richard Dent was an eighth-round pick in 1983 and Steve McMichael was a third-round pick in 1980. What the scouts didn't see in them was a passion to succeed, what scouts call today "all-out motors."
Their dominance during the 1985 season is unmatched in the history of the NFL. They gave up 10 points or less 13 different times en route to a 15-1 regular season.
However, it was in the playoffs that the 1985 Chicago Bears defensive line made their mark. They became the first team in the modern history of the league to compile two consecutive postseason shutouts against the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. In those two games, Chicago allowed a total of 311 yards and compiled 10 sacks.
Pretty much everyone knew that the Super Bowl matchup against the New England Patriots would end in a lopsided manner, and boy, did it. Chicago's defense yielded just 123 total yards and forced six Patriots turnovers. Their defense sacked Steve Grogan a total of seven times and held New England to seven yards on 11 rushes.