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The NFL's 10 Greatest Defensive Teams of All Time

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The NFL's 10 Greatest Defensive Teams of All Time
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Clichés become clichés because they hold universal truths told in simple and easy-to-understand statements.

The most truthful—and also most overused—cliché in sports is "defense wins championships." This is especially meaningful in the NFL.

On rare occasions, an offensive team will be so good (like the 1999 St. Louis Rams) that a strong defense isn't needed—but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

In the majority of NFL history, a dominant defense can equal a championship, while a weak one means looking ahead to the draft.

There have been great defenses in NFL history, but who is the best of the best?

Ask any fan, player, sportswriter, or coach, and you'll get radical differences in opinion. That's what makes writing and discussing sports so fun. It creates lively conversation.

Now, it's my turn to create some of that conversation with my own top 10 list.

In making this list, I didn't base my selections on just one outstanding season, so those expecting to see the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles will be very disappointed.

To make my list, there were two criteria involved: The defense had to be consistently good for at least three years, and it had to be in the Super Bowl era.

Without further adieu, here is my version of the Top 10 Greatest NFL Defensive Teams of All Time.

 

10. Kansas City Chiefs 1960s

Hank Stram's "Triple Stack" defense was a force in the AFL during the 1960s and early 1970s, capturing a Super Bowl crown in 1969.

Four players on the Chiefs defense have busts in Canton: DT Buck Buchanon, linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, and CB Emmitt Thomas. In addition, DT Curly Culp, CB Jim Marsalis, and S Johnny Robinson were All-Pros.

In 1969, Kansas City held five opponents to fewer than 10 points and gave up an average of less than two touchdowns a game. The Chiefs surrendered only 20 points during the playoffs on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

 

9. The Orange Crush Defense—Denver Broncos

Led by OLB Tom Jackson, ILB Randy Gradishar, and DE Lyle Alzado, the Orange Crush defense was a force from 1977-81. In 1977, the defense gave up only 148 points (10.6 ppg) to lead Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance, a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Broncos went 50-28 with three division titles during the Orange Crush heyday.

 

8. The Big Blue Wrecking Crew—New York Giants

From 1985-90, the New York Giants, affectionately known as the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew," were one of the most feared defenses in the National Football League. The strength of the unit was at linebacker, where two Hall of Famers roamed: OLB Lawrence Taylor and MLB Harry Carson.

Carson was the brains of the defense—the run stuffer and the captain who kept everyone in line.

Taylor was the wild animal, let out of his cage every Sunday to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Taylor, Carson, OLB Carl Banks, and ILB Gary Reasons formed the best linebacker corps of the 1980s.

Adding All-Pro DE Leonard Marshall to the mix only made them more ferocious.

The Giants won two Super Bowls (1986, 1990) and four division crowns during that time.

 

7. The No-Name Defense—Miami Dolphins

From 1970-75, the Miami Dolphins ruled the AFC East—and for three years (1971-73), most of the NFL. The Dolphins were an incredible 67-16-1 over those six seasons, with three Super Bowl Appearances, two Lombardi Trophies (1972-73), and the only unbeaten season (1972) in NFL history.

The defense produced only one Hall of Famer (LB Nick Buoniconti) but had solid All-Pros in SS Dick Anderson, FS Jake Scott, DT Manny Fernandez, and DE Bill Stanfill. From 1971-73, the No-Name Defense surrendered just 11.8 points per game.

 

6. Monsters of the Midway II—Chicago Bears

From 1984-88, there was no better defense in the NFL than Buddy Ryan and his blitz-happy "46" defense. Da Bears were fast, physical, and loved to crush the quarterback.

Ryan's boys led Chicago to six division titles in seven years, culminating in a Super Bowl championship in 1985.

The '85 Bears are arguably the best defense ever put on the field for a single season. The stats are overwhelming: a 15-1 regular season mark, a 12.5 point scoring average, holding seven opponents under 10 points, and racking up 64 sacks.

The defense featured two players in the Hall of Fame: MLB Mike Singletary and DE Dan Hampton. DE Richard Dent, DT Steve McMichael, OLB Otis Wilson, OLB Wilber Marshall, and S Dave Duerson were All-Pros.

 

5. The Doomsday Defense I & II—Dallas Cowboys

From 1966 to 1983, Tom Landry had two versions of the "Doomsday Defense," and both were outstanding.

During that time, the Cowboys put together one of the greatest runs of success in sports history—"America's Team" made the playoffs in 17 of 18 seasons, including five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl championships (1971, 1977).

Doomsday I featured two Hall of Fame inductees: DT Bob Lilly, and CB Mel Renfro. Other standouts were DT Jethro Pugh and linebackers Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley.

Doomsday II was led by Hall of Fame DT Randy White, while defensive ends Harvey Martin and Ed Jones and defensive backs Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were perennial All-Pro selections.

 

4. The Fearsome Foursome I & II—Los Angeles Rams

"The Fearsome Foursome" was a name given to the defensive line of version one, but it later encompassed the whole defensive unit of version two.

The original foursome was comprised of Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy at end, with Rosey Grier and Merlin Olsen at defensive tackle. Jones and Olsen are in the Hall of Fame; Roger Brown would replace Grier, and the Rams had major success with George Allen in the late 1960s. Jones and Olsen were voted to the NFL's All-Time team in 1994.

The second foursome was made up of Olsen, defensive ends Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer, and DT Larry Brooks. But there was more to this unit than just the line.

From 1973-80, the Rams won seven consecutive NFC West titles, secured a Super Bowl berth in 1979, and finished in the top 10 in total defense in seven of those eight seasons.

In 1975, the defense surrendered just 9.6 points per game, third-best in NFL history. MLB Isiah Robertson and safeties Dave Elmendorf and Nolan Cromwell were All-Pros.

 

3. Green Bay Packers 1960s

There's no fancy nickname for Vince Lombardi's guys—just a powerful, intimidating defense.

The Packer defense of the 1960s produced five world championships—including the first two Super Bowl titles—and a record five Hall of Famers: DT Henry Jordan, DE Willie Davis, MLB Ray Nitschke, CB Herb Adderley, and S Willie Wood.

The 1962 team gave up just 10.8 points per game and posted three shutouts while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 43.5 rating.

 

2. The Purple People Eaters—Minnesota Vikings

This is the greatest defense not to win the big one.

"The Purple People Eaters" were dominant with a capital D. From 1969-76, the Vikings captured four NFC championships and seven divisional crowns. Minnesota was ranked in the top three in total defense for seven of those eight seasons.

The defense was led by Hall of Famers Alan Page (DT), Carl Eller (DE), and Paul Krause (FS). Other top performers were DT Gary Larsen, DE Jim Marshall, SS Bobby Bryant, and LB Wally Hilgenberg.

"The Purple People Eaters" held their 1971 opponents to only 9.9 points per game, capping what might be the best three-year defensive run in NFL history (in 1970, they gave up 10.2 ppg, and in 1969 9.5, the seventh and second-lowest totals in history; the 1971 team was fourth).

 

1. The Steel Curtain—Pittsburgh Steelers

Is there anybody else you'd put here?

"The Steel Curtain" was the most dominant, awe-inspiring, feared defense in the history of the game. No team could stop it, and many didn't even want to go up against it.

The Steelers defense of the 1970s had arguably the greatest front seven ever assembled on one team.

Joe Greene (DE), L.C. Greenwood (DE), Dwight White (DT), and Ernie Holmes (DT) made up the front four, while Jack Lambert manned the middle linebacker slot, with Jack Ham and Andy Russell patrolling the outside.

A record 10 Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl during the '70s: Greene, Greenwood, White, Lambert, Ham, Russell, Mel Blount (CB), J.T. Thomas (CB), Glen Edwards (FS), and Mike Wagner (SS).

Greene, Blount, Ham, and Lambert are enshrined in Canton, second only to the Packers for most defenders on one team in the Hall.

In 1976, after a 1-4 start, the Steelers' defense surrendered only 28 points in the final nine games. Eight Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl that season. Between 1973-78, opposing quarterbacks had only a 45.0 passer rating.

Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in six seasons and owned the 1970s, thanks to the greatest defense to ever put on a uniform.

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