The 10 Greatest Seasons by a Defensive Player in NFL History

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The 10 Greatest Seasons by a Defensive Player in NFL History

It doesn't receive the same glory, but a great defensive season is just as valuable as a great offensive season. 

After all, defenses win championships.

Below I composed a list of the 10 greatest individual seasons by a defensive player in NFL history (with one honorable mention).

It is a list so profound that it doesn't even include such seasons as Ray Lewis in 2000, when he earned Defensive Player of the Year honors and anchored a Super Bowl championship, during which the defense allowed just 165 points.

Chris Doleman's 21-sack season for the Minnesota Vikings in 1989? Not good enough.

But it does include four Defensive Player of the Year seasons and an NFL Most Valuable Player award. Seven of the players have been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and two others are future Hall of Famers. 

 

Honorable Mention: Deion Sanders, 1994

After five electrifying seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Deion Sanders joined the San Francisco 49ers looking for his first Super Bowl title.

Sanders played in 14 games and intercepted six passes. He scored three touchdowns, including a 93-yarder against his former team, and totaled 303 return yards, the second highest total in NFL history.

He led the 49ers through one of the greatest postseason runs in history and intercepted a pass in the 49ers' 49-26 blowout win in the Super Bowl.

Sanders earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and became one of the most coveted free agents in NFL history the next year.

 

10. Lawrence Taylor, 1981

Taylor was drafted with the second overall pick in the 1981 NFL draft and had already established a reputation as one of the most feared defenders in the league before his first game. 

Nicknamed "Superman" by his teammates, Taylor played all 16 games and helped the Giants' defense improve from 27th to third in the NFL in just one year.

Taylor recorded 9.5 sacks and earned both the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.

In the postseason, Taylor's presence was so monumental that 49ers' head coach Bill Walsh used a special tactic for blocking him, although Taylor still recorded a sack and three tackles.

 

9. Ken Houston, 1971

In 1971 Ken Houston became the first and only defensive player in NFL history to score five touchdowns in a single season.

He intercepted nine passes, returning them for 220 yards and four touchdowns. 

He forced and recovered two fumbles and returned one for a touchdown. 

Houston's nine-interception touchdowns after his first five seasons was an NFL record at the time.  He has been surpassed by just two players since.

 

8. Mark Gastineau, 1984

The most feared member of the New York Sack Exchange, Gastineau racked up an NFL record 22 sacks during the 1984 season.

He achieved four sacks in the season opener and topped two sacks on five other occasions.

He also scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery and contributed 69 tackles.

Gastineau earned AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors and was selected as the Most Valuable Player of the Pro Bowl, with a record four sacks.

 

7. Derrick Brooks, 2002

Brooks was the best player on one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, as the Bucs allowed just 196 points and coasted to a Super Bowl title.

Brooks intercepted five passes and returned three for touchdowns in the regular season. He scored a fourth defensive touchdown on a fumble return and tallied 88 tackles.

In the Super Bowl, he scored on a 44-yard interception touchdown late in the fourth quarter to seal the first Super Bowl title in Tampa Bay Buccaneers' history.

 

6. Michael Strahan, 2001

Strahan broke the most cherished defensive record in the NFL: the single season record for sacks.

He racked up 22.5 sacks, breaking Mark Gastineau's old record of 22. 

He also forced six fumbles, scored on a fumble return touchdown, and added 62 tackles. 

Strahan was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the first Giants player to receive the award since Lawrence Taylor.

 

5. Reggie White, 1987

Reggie White's 1987 season has a big question mark next to it.

How many sacks would White have recorded if the season had been 16 games?

In just 12 games, White tallied 21 sacks, a total that still ranks as the third best total in NFL history. His 1.75 sacks per game shattered the NFL record and projects to 28 sacks over a 16 game season.

He was so dominant that he registered at least two sacks in an incredible nine of his 12 games. 

White also forced four fumble recoveries, scored on a 70-yard fumble return, and racked up 75 tackles. 

 

4. Deacon Jones, 1967

Rams' defensive end Deacon Jones coined the term "sack," although the statistic didn't become official until 1982.

He recorded 26 unofficial sacks in 14 games in 1967. His 1.83 sacks per game would be an NFL record.

The most valuable member of the "Fearsome Foursome," Jones anchored a Rams defense which allowed just 198 points, the best in the NFL. 

 

3. Night Train Lane, 1952

In 1952, 24-year-old Dick Lane showed up at the Rams' training camp looking for a job because he disliked his current job at an aircraft factory. He tried out for end but was switched to defensive back.

He earned the nickname "Night Train" but was still a little-known rookie, so offenses didn't hesitate to throw his way. 

Lane made them pay. 

He intercepted 14 passes in just 12 games, a record which still stands almost 60 years later. He racked up 298 interception-return yards and two touchdowns. 

He also introduced the NFL to the "Night Train Lane Neck Tackle," which was a legal technique in the 1950s. 

 

2. Alan Page, 1970

In 1971, Alan Page became the first of two defensive players to earn the NFL Most Valuable Player award.

But his 1970 season was even better.

He earned an NFL record 26 AV, a statistic created by Pro Football Reference to attach an "approximate value" to each player's season.

He led the NFL with seven fumble recoveries, which he returned for 77 yards, including a touchdown. He added his first NFL interception and anchored a defense which allowed just 143 points and ranked first in the NFL in almost every defensive category.

 

1. Lawrence Taylor, 1986

Taylor turned in the greatest season by a defensive player in NFL history in 1986.

He became just the second player in NFL history to snag both the Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Valuable Player awards. In fact, he earned the MVP award unanimously, an unprecedented feat. 

Taylor registered 20.5 sacks, the best single-season total ever by a linebacker. 

The Giants allowed just 236 points in the regular season and breezed through the playoffs, winning 49-3, 17-0, and 39-20. Their Super Bowl title was the first in franchise history and capped off LT's improbable season.

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