The Seattle Seahawks defense currently leads the NFL in points, passing yards and total yards allowed. The numbers are impressive, but how does this Seattle defense stack up against the all-time greats from NFL history?
Rather than examining rosters and engaging in some nostalgia-clouded debate, the best way to answer that question is to look at the numbers. Thanks to the awesome search tools at Pro Football Reference, doing so is fairly easy.
In an effort to only look at seasons where the rules were remotely similar to what they are now, only seasons since the AFL-NLF merger in 1970 were considered. All historical data comes from Pro-Football-Reference, while current season stats were taken from ESPN.com.
The Seahawks have given up just 27 points this season, good for an average of only nine per game. That point total has Seattle's defense tied for the 37th best since 1970 after three games in the season.
Oddly, points allowed through three games hasn't been a great indicator of success over the rest of the season. Many of the 36 teams above Seattle on that list ended up giving up a large number of points over the course of the rest of the season.
For example, the lowest points ever given up through three games actually belong to another Seahawks team. The 2004 Seahawks gave up just 13 points in their first three games. Despite the fast start, that 2004 team ended up ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category.
The last team to give up fewer points than 27 over their first three games was the 2009 Denver Broncos, who surrendered just 16 points. That team got off to a great start, winning its first six games. They then completely fell apart, especially on defense, and ended the season just 8-8.
Pro Football Reference
Through the air, the Seahawks have given up just 440 passing yards. That is only 147 yards per game. Unfortunately for Seattle, that total is unimpressive from a historical standpoint.
Since the merger, there have actually been 202 teams that have given up fewer yards through the air in their first three games of a season. That's an average of 4.7 teams per year who have been better than Seattle's current squad.
Of course, much of that has to do with the evolution of the game since 1970. The game has shifted from being a running league to being a passing league, and recent rules changes have only accelerated that change.
Only 17 of the 202 teams that have given up fewer that 440 passing yards through three games have come since the year 2000.
The last time a team bested Seattle's current total came last year, and it happened twice. The 2012 Green Bay Packers gave up just 376 yards through the air, and the 2012 Dallas Cowboys gave up just 411 passing yards in their first three games.
The best team ever in terms of opposing passing yards through the first three weeks was the 1978 Detroit Lions. After three games, they had held their opponents to just 141 yards through the air, which is an amazing 47 yards per game.
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The Seahawks defense has surrendered a league best 725 yards so far in 2013. While that is an impressive total, it is good for just being the 115th best total since 1970.
As with passing yards, the ranking for total yards allowed are dominated by teams in the 1970s and 1980s. Just 11 of the 115 with a lower total than the current Seahawks team have come from the last 10 seasons, and none in the last four years.
The last team to give up fewer than 725 yards in its first three games was, again, the 2009 Denver Broncos. That Denver team gave up just 644 yards in that stretch, good for 44th on the list.
The best team in terms of yards allowed through three games was the 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They allowed just 430 yards in their first three games, and their defense powered them all the way to a spot in the NFC Championship game.
Pro Football Reference
Ultimately, there is little to be learned from this exercise at this point in the season. Not only has the recent rules changes made these types of comparisons difficult, but there's also the problem that it's only been three games.
Seattle's defense has clearly been the best in the NFL so far this season, but these numbers won't mean anything if they cannot maintain a high level of performance throughout the season.
On the other hand, if the Seahawks continue to dominate, I doubt this will be the last look at how this team stacks up against some of the all time greats from NFL history.