Remembering NFL Best: Ranking The Top 10 NFL Defenses Since 1985
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A common philosophy has been that a good offense wins games but defenses wins championships.
That saying is evident by the fact that 65 of the 80 teams to make the Super Bowl since 1970 finished in the top 10 in points allowed.
Out of those 15 teams who didn't make the top ten, only six won the Super Bowl and three of those six occurred in the past four seasons.
A fourth would have been the 28th ranked 2008 Arizona Cardinals defense, if Santonio Holmes doesn't make that outstanding catch in the end zone for the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl.
Prior to the new century, only the 1976 Oakland Raiders and 1983 Los Angeles Raiders accomplished that feat and their defenses were 12th and 13th, respectively.
This slideshow is to remember the top ten defenses since 1985.
Please note that the last slide is our "All-Quarter Century" team.
Hope you enjoy.
NFL Top Defense #10: 1989 Denver Broncos
Steve Atwater was a safety who was know for his hard hitting which helped to define the '89 defense.
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The Broncos defense reached its peaked in 1989 when they finished first in points allowed and third in yards allowed.
The defense was able to match the productivity of the John Elway led-offense. This wasn't the case in 1986 & 1987 when the defense, respectively, finished 15th and 7th in the NFL.
The Broncos finished with a total of 14 interceptions, led by defensive back Tyrone Braxton (six interceptions), defensive back Wymon Henderson (3) and rookie safety Steve Atwater (3).
Drafting first round pick Steve Atwater, prior to the season, was one of the moves that help to achieve this success. Atwater quickly became known for being the hardest hitting free safety in the NFL.
Denver's defensive line was one of the top in the NFL, with newcomer Ron Holmes (career high nine sacks), who came over from Tampa Bay, Pro Bowler Greg Kragen and Alphonso Carreker (5.5)
Linebacker Simon Fletcher led the team with 12 sacks and was joined by Michael Brooks, Karl Mecklenburg (7.5 sacks), and Rick Dennison.
The Broncos sent four defensive players to the Pro Bowl.
NFL Top Defense #9: 1994 Cleveland Browns
Michael Dean is the younger brother of the "Refrigerator" William Perry. He played in six Pro Bowls over his ten season career.
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It's fitting that the former Giants defensive coordinator, who was considered one of the best defense coaches, would have a team on this list that he was the head coach.
It's surprising that the team is not the New England Patriots but the Cleveland Browns.
In 1994, the Browns only allowed 204 points to lead the team to the second round of the playoffs.
The line was Anthony Pleasant (4.5 sacks), Rob Burnett (10.0), Bill Johnson and Michael Dean Perry (4.0).
The linebackers consisted of former Giants, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks. Frank Stams completed the corps.
The secondary was led by Eric Turner (9.0 INT) at free safety, Stevon Moore as strong and cornerbacks Don Griffin and Antonio Langham.
For one year, the Browns defense led the league in points allowed but it turned out to be an aberration.
The Browns fell back to 20th the following year.
NFL Top Defense #8: 1996 Green Bay Packers
Reggie White retired as the sacks leader with 198, which has been surpassed by Bruce Smith.
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Mike Holmgren took over a history-rich franchise that had one winning season (1989) during the 80s and had a 4-12 record in 1991. The defense was also ranked 18th that year and did not make the top 10 since 1984.
Two years later, the Packers defense was ranked in the top 10 and in the top five in 1994.
The major reason for the improvement was the signing of Reggie White in 1993.
Besides White (8.5 sacks), the defensive line included Sean Jones (five sacks) at end and Santana Dotson (5.5 sacks) at tackle.
This line only allowed four teams (Lions, Seahawks, Chiefs, & Cowboys) to rush for over 100 yards, including the playoffs.
Only one team (Vikings) passed for over 250 yards against the pass defense.
Packers intercepted 26 passes, led by Eugene Robinson (six interceptions), LeRoy Butler (5), and Doug Evans (5). Three interceptions were returned for touchdowns.
With this tough defense and with an explosive offensive, it was no surprise that ESPN ranked the '96 Packers as the sixth greatest Super Bowl team in history.
NFL Top Defense #7: 1991 New Orleans Saints
You were able to bend the defensive but you couldn't break them. The Saints were excellent in turnovers back in '91.
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Saints won their first division title, in 1991, with an average offense (8th rank) but the best defense in the NFL.
The 3-4 defense was led by their speedy and productive linebackers, who may have been one of the best of all-time.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year Pat Swilling (17 sacks) and Hall-of-Famer Ricky Jackson (11.5) were the tandem on the outside, with Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson in the inside. Only Jackson didn't representative the team in the Pro-Bowl in '91.
The Saints led the league in take-aways, which included 29 interceptions, led by Gene Atkins and Vince Buck with five interceptions each.
Vencie Glenn and Brett Maxie rounded out the secondary.
NFL Top Defense #6: 2005 Chicago Bears
Brian Urlacher's play at middle linebacker bring back memories when Mike Singletary directed the great Bears teams in the 80s.
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Since the early 90s, the Bears defense has not clicked too often. But in 2005, the defense was running on all cylinders and was the reason why the Bears surprisingly won the NFC North with 11 wins.
The Bears held eight teams to single digit scoring and only had four teams score more than 20 points.
The Bears front four was the strength of the team, led by ends Adewale Ogunleye (10 sacks) and Alex Brown (six sacks). At tackle the Bears had Pro Bowler Tommie Harris to plug the hole.
Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Hunter Hillenmeyer were the linebackers. Urlacher and Briggs both were selected to the Pro-Bowl as starters.
The secondary had their stars as well.
Nathan Vasher and Mike Brown were also selected to appear in Hawaii.
Rounding out the secondary were Charles Tillman and Chris Harris.
NFL Top Defense #5: 1990 New York Giants
Defensive captains Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks carry Bill Parcells after winning one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history.
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If you need proof why the '90 Giant defense is on the list and not the 1986 team, just remember what they accomplish against two of the most explosive offenses ever.
On a classic Monday Night game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Giants held Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig to a total of 240 yards in a 10-3 lost. They matched that total in the NFC Championship Game in a 15-13 win to reach the Super Bowl.
In the Super Bowl, the hurry-up offense of the Buffalo Bills was held to 19 points. This was a team who scored 51 points in the AFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Like the '91 Saints, the Giants linebackers were the team strength and the reason they ran a 3-4 defensive scheme.
The linebackers were led by future Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor (10.5 sacks) and veteran Carl Banks on the outside. Pro-Bowl starter Pepper Johnson and Steve DeOssie manned the middle.
The line included Leonard Marshall and Eric Dorsey the ends, with Pro-Bowl invitee Erik Howard at nose tackle.
NFL Top Defense #4: 2006 Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are two former first round pick who are the best linebacker tandem in football.
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Except for the first three years (1996-98) of existence, the Ravens' philosophy has been to run the ball and let the defense stop the other team.
In 2006, the Ravens was coming off two back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs.
But due to the return of the defense to the top of the NFL, and health, the Ravens finished the season with their best record ever (13-3).
Since being drafted in the first round in 1996, the leader and the "face" of this franchise has been Ray Lewis. Lewis (five sacks) was one of six players selected to the Pro-Bowl from this defense.
Also making the team were, Pro-Bowl starters Adalius Thomas (11 sacks) and Ed Reed (five interceptions), linebacker Bart Scott (9.5 sacks), defensive end Terrell Suggs (9.5 sacks) and cornerback Chris McAllister (six INT).
Other notable stars on this team was, newcomer Trevor Pryce who led the team in sacks with 13. Pryce helped to provide the pass rush from the tackle position.
The Ravens compiled two shutouts and 60 sacks in 2006.
NFL Top Defense #3: 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Big and small - Warren Sapp and Rhonde Barber having fun on any given Sunday in 2002
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It's fitting that the top three defenses were on Super Bowl champions. Just goes along with the phrase regarding defense and running the ball win championships.
That's exactly how these next three teams accomplished their goals.
Jim Gruden may have been the head coach but the success of the defense belongs to Tony Dungy.
Dungy took this perennial loser over in 1996 and made them into perennial winners.
Prior to Dungy's arrival, the Bucs defense did not finish in the top 10 since 1981. By introducing the "Tampa 2" scheme, the Bucs finished in the top 10 from 1996 to 2005.
For the "Tampa 2" strategy to be effective, team speed and aggressiveness are required. Players practice to always run to the ball and gang tackle. The players may be below average in size because team speed is needed, as well as, hard hitting secondaries to cause turnovers.
In 2002, the secondary to cause the turnovers were cornerbacks Rhonde Barber and Brian Kelly, as well as, safeties John Lynch and Dexter Johnson. Pro Bowler Lynch was perfect for this system, since it fit his aggressive style of play.
The front seven was led by tackles Warren Sapp (7.5 sacks) and Anthony McFarland. These two big men made it difficult for teams to run up the middle.
Playing on the ends were Simeon Rice (15.5 sacks) and Greg Spires (3.5 sacks).
The two of the three starting linebackers were selected to the Pro-Bowl game. Derrick Brooks (five INT & three TDs) was selected as a starter and was accompanied by Shelton Quarles.
The Buccaneers tough defense only allowed 196 points and had two shutouts. It also only allowed six teams to rush for over 100 yards (including playoffs).
NFL Top Defense #2: 2000 Baltimore Ravens
No quarterback in 2000 was safe from the onslaught called the 2000 Baltimore Ravens pass rush
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As the seasons moved on, comparisons with the great Bears, Steelers, Cowboys and Vikings defenses of the past were discussed by various football personalities.
Just how great was the Ravens defense going to be?
In 1999, the Ravens defense ranked sixth and they finished with an 8-8 record. It was their fourth consecutive year of improvement and optimism was there for them to take the next step forward in 2000.
I don't think in their wildest dreams they would thought they would break the record for fewest points allowed (165 points) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a season.
The Ravens allowed only three teams (Jaguars, Titans, and Jets) to score 20 or more points.
They held four teams (Steelers, Bengals, Browns, and Cowboys) off the scoreboard and another six teams were held to single digits.
That's pure dominance, which continued in the playoffs. Only the Titans were in double digits in scoring with ten.
The line was immovable with tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. They were flanked by Rob Burnett (10.5 sacks) and Michael McCrary (6.5) at the ends.
The linebackers corps had AP's Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis in the middle with Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware (7.0) on the outside.
The starting cornerbacks totaled 10 interceptions with Duane Starks getting six and Chris McAlister intercepting four.
The strong safety Kim Herring contributed with three interceptions and All-World free safety Rod Woodson added four.
With a great defense and the ability to run the ball the Ravens defeated the New York Giants to win the Super Bowl.
Now for #1....
NFL Top Defense #1: 1985 Chicago Bears
William "Fridge" Perry became a household name due to recognition the 1985 Bears received.
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From 1983 to 1989, the Bears had a top five defense. During that span the Bears were number one in 1985, 1986 and 1989.
It was 1985 that was magical for "Da Bears", as they won the Super Bowl in dominating fashion. The combined score was 91-10.
This team is recognized as one of the best teams ever, along with the undefeated '72 Miami Dolphins team.
The front line included three Pro Bowl players, defensive ends Richard Dent (17.0 sacks) and Dan Hampton (6.5), as well as, Steve McMichael (8.0).
Only rookie William Perry (5.0) wasn't selected, but probably was the most famous down lineman due to his size (325 pounds) and his touchdown in the Super Bowl. Perry appeared in WrestleMania II in a famous battle royal, which included other famous football players. Perry also had the honored of being immortalized as a GI Joe action figure.
The linebackers also had two players selected to the Pro Bowl, who were AP's Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary (3.0) and Otis Wilson (10.5). The third linebacker was Wilbur Marshall who had a Pro Bowl season with six sacks and four interceptions.
The secondary was led by Pro Bowler Dave Duerson at strong safety.
Free safety Gary Fencik (five INT), cornerbacks Leslie Frazier (six INT) and Mike Richardson (four INT) completed the secondary.
The Bears sent a total of six defensemen to Hawaii.
It was indeed a magical year in Chicago.
Now on to the All-Quarter Century Team.
All-Quarter Century Team: The Defense
Lawrence Taylor consisted the rare blend of speed and power. As mentioned in the movie "Blindside", Left Tackles make a lot of money due to his punishing hits on Joe Montana.
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Left Defensive End
First Team: Reggie White - 13 Pro Bowls, 4x First Team, Hall-Of-Fame (HOF)
Second Team: Howie Long - 8 Pro Bowls, 2x First Team, HOF
Honorable Mentions: Michael Strahan & Dan Hampton
Right Defensive End
First Team: Bruce Smith - 11 Pro Bowls, 8x First Team, HOF
Second Team: Chris Doleman - 8 Pro Bowls, 2x First Team,
Honorable Mentions: Jason Taylor & Richard Dent
First Team: Warren Sapp - 7 Pro Bowls, 4x First Team
First Team: Cortez Kennedy - 8 Pro Bowls, 3x First Team
Second Team: Michael Dean Perry - 6 Pro Bowls, 2x First Team
Second Team: Ray Childress - 5 Pro Bowls, 1x First Team
Honorable Mentions: La'roi Glover & Trevor Pryce
First Team: Ricky Jackson - 6 Pro Bowls, HOF
Second Team: Karl Mecklenburg - 6 Pro Bowls, 3x First Team
Honorable Mentions: Julian Peterson, Kevin Greene, & Andre Tippett
First Team: Ray Lewis - 11 Pro Bowls, 7x First Team
Second Team: Mike Singletary - 10 Pro Bowls, 7x First Team, HOF
Honorable Mentions: Brian Urlacher
First Team: Lawrence Taylor - 10 Pro Bowls, 8x First Team, HOF
Second Team: Derrick Brooks - 11 Pro Bowls, 5x First Team
Honorable Mentions: Derrick Thomas, John Offerdahl, Leslie O'Neal & Pat Swilling
First Team: Rod Woodson - 11 Pro Bowls, 6x First Team, HOF
First Team: Deion Sanders - 8 Pro Bowls, 6x First Team
Second Team: Champ Bailey - 9 Pro Bowls, 3x First Team
Second Team: Darrell Green - 7 Pro Bowls, 1x First Team, HOF
Honorable Mentions: Charles Woodson & Eric Allen
First Team: John Lynch - 9 Pro Bowls, 2x First Team
Second Team: Joey Browner - 6 Pro Bowls, 3x First Team
Honorable Mentions: Tim McDonald, Dave Duerson, Kenny Easley & Dennis Smith
First Team: Ronnie Lott - 10 Pro Bowls, 6x First Team, HOF
Second Team: Brian Dawkins - 8 Pro Bowls, 4x First Team
Honorable Mentions: Steve Atwater & Deron Cherry