The Top 10 NFL Defenses of All Time

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2018

The Top 10 NFL Defenses of All Time

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    High-scoring offenses attract the most attention in today's NFL. Elite defense, however, is a significant part of the league's history.

    That's why we're delving into the past to highlight the greatest units since 1967the first year of the Super Bowl. (AFL teams from that point until the 1970 merger were also considered.)

    Among the 10 featured defenses, eight units helped their team reach the postseason. Additionally, seven of them keyed a run to the Super Bowl, and six celebrated a victory on football's biggest stage.

    After all, defense wins championships.


    Note: When available, notable stats accompany the teams. Tackles and sacks have not been officially tracked throughout NFL history. All stats via

Honorable Mentions

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Miami Dolphins, 1973

    One year after Miami put together an undefeated season, the "No-Name Defense" helped the Dolphins merely win 12 games and repeat as Super Bowl champions. Led by Hall of Famers in Nick Buoniconti and Bill Stanfill, the group allowed only 3.7 yards per snap and 10.7 points per game. 

    Notable stats: Dick Anderson (eight interceptions, two touchdowns), Nick Buoniconti (three fumble recoveries, one touchdown)


    Pittsburgh Steelers, 2008

    En route to a memorable Super Bowl triumph over the Arizona Cardinals, the 2008 Steelers squad limited opponents to a league-low 3.9 yards per play. Plus, they allowed an average of just 13.9 points during what was one of the highest-scoring seasons in league history.

    Notable stats: James Farrior (133 tackles), James Harrison (101 tackles, 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles), Troy Polamalu (seven interceptions), LaMarr Woodley (11.5 sacks)


    Seattle Seahawks, 2013

    Peyton Manning smashed league records in 2013, yet the "Legion of Boom" throttled him 43-8 in the Super Bowl. That was a familiar sight during a campaign in which Seattle intercepted an NFL-high 28 passes. Impressively, the run defense surrendered only four touchdowns on the ground all season.

    Notable stats: Bobby Wagner (154 tackles), Kam Chancellor (134 tackles), Earl Thomas (105 tackles, five interceptions), Richard Sherman (eight interceptions), Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks)

10. Buffalo Bills, 2004

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    PAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

    Buffalo has the rare, disappointing distinction of boasting a legendary defense on a team that missed the playoffs.

    The Bills ended the 2004 campaign at 9-7, one game behind both the New York Jets and Denver Broncos for a wild-card spot. Still, the tenacious group allowed a league-low 4.3 yards per play and picked off 24 passesthe second-most in the NFL.

    Interestingly, only Aaron Schobel posted more than five sacks. Given that a total of 10 players recorded at least two, Buffalo truly relied on its collective strength to excel around top defenders London Fletcher, Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements.

    Notable stats: London Fletcher (142 tackles), Takeo Spikes (96 tackles, five interceptions), Nate Clements (six interceptions), Aaron Schobel (eight sacks)

9. Denver Broncos, 2015

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The 2015 Denver Broncos took a broken down, duck-throwing Peyton Manning and carried him to another Super Bowl.

    All season long, headlines proclaimed it as fact. Nevertheless, the Von Miller-led unit overwhelmed opponents on a weekly basis. Denver ceded league-low marks of 3.3 yards per rushing attempt and 4.4 yards per snap during the regular season.

    Then, in the playoffs, offenses guided by Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton combined for only 44 points while taking 14 sacks and committing seven turnovers. Denver defeated Newton and the Panthers 24-10 to win Super Bowl L.

    Notable stats: Von Miller (11 sacks), DeMarcus Ware (7.5 sacks), Danny Trevathan (109 tackles), Brandon Marshall (101 tackles), Aqib Talib (13 pass defenses)

8. Kansas City Chiefs, 1969

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    William Straeter/Associated Press

    Although the Oakland Raiders actually bettered Kansas City in the standings, the Chiefs shut down the remainder of the AFLand exacted their revenge during the playoffs.

    Kansas City's 4.0 yards per snap and 12.6 points allowed per game paced the league. During the AFL championship, the Chiefs outlasted their division rival with a 17-7 triumph.

    To cap off the brilliant season, Kansas City forced five turnovers in a matchup between two historic defenses with the Minnesota Vikings. The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV 23-7.

    Emmitt Thomas grabbed nine interceptions, and Johnny Robinson snatched eight. Kansas City led the AFL with 32 picks. Bobby Bell, Willie Mitchell and Aaron Brown each pounced on three fumbles, too.

7. New York Giants, 1986

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Not only did the 1986 New York Giants wreak havoc on offensive players, they mangled coaching styles and confounded quarterbacks along the way.

    "Maybe someone can develop a suit of armor, one you can throw in," then-Dallas Cowboys signal-caller Danny White said, per the Los Angeles Times. "Other than that, I have no answers."

    New York amassed 59 sacks, knocking out several quarterbacks yet never building a reputation as a dirty team.

    The Giants intercepted 24 passes and gave up only 14.8 points per game. They held three postseason opponents to 23 total points, winning Super Bowl XXI 39-20 over the Broncos.

    Notable stats: Lawrence Taylor (20.5 sacks), Leonard Marshall (12 sacks), Carl Banks (113 tackles, 6.5 sacks), Terry Kinard (four interceptions), Perry Williams (four interceptions)

6. Minnesota Vikings, 1969

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    Clifton Boutelle/Getty Images

    Yes, the Chiefs defeated the Vikings in the Super Bowl. We're not going to fault the "Purple People Eaters" for the offense's five turnovers, though. The full-season sample favors Minnesota.

    Every member of that vaunted defensive lineAlan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Gary Larsenearned a Pro Bowl berth. Bobby Bryant led the Vikings with eight interceptions, while Earsell Mackbee, Paul Krause and Lonnie Warwick had five and four, respectively.

    No NFL team surrendered fewer yards per snap (3.4) than Minnesota, which collected 30 interceptions and ceded only eight passing scores.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2002

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Throwing on the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was borderline impossible.

    Led by lockdown corner Ronde Barber, Tampa allowed 427 fewer yards than the NFL's No. 2 pass defense. The team intercepted 31 passes10 players snagged at least onewhile ceding 10 passing touchdowns during the regular season.

    That excellence showed during the playoffs as the Bucs outscored their opponents 106-37. They notched 11 sacks and nine interceptions in the postseason en route to a Super Bowl XXXVII triumph over the Raiders.

    Notable stats: Derrick Brooks (117 tackles, five interceptions), Shelton Quarles (113 tackles), Simeon Rice (15.5 sacks), Warren Sapp (7.5 sacks), Brian Kelly (eight interceptions)

4. Baltimore Ravens, 2000

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    Allen Kee/Getty Images

    Baltimore nearly held its opponents below 10 points per game during the regular season. Pretty good start to this section, huh?

    Led by Ray Lewis, the Ravens surrendered just 165 points in 16 contests. They were practically impossible to run against, limiting opponents to 2.7 yards per carry. Plus, the defense picked off 23 passes while giving up only 11 touchdowns through the air.

    And that's simply the appetizer.

    In four playoff games, Baltimore allowed a total of 23 pointsand seven were the product of a kick-return touchdown. In other words, the defense actually gave up 16 while collecting 12 takeaways.


    Notable stats: Ray Lewis (137 tackles), Rob Burnett (10.5 sacks), Peter Boulware (seven sacks), Duane Starks (six interceptions), Chris McAlister (four interceptions)

3. Philadelphia Eagles, 1991

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    Donna Carson/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles couldn't quite overcome Randall Cunningham's ACL injury in the season opener, but the defense provided a great chance.

    Reggie White and Co. stood atop the NFL with 55 sacks, also allowing a league-low 3.0 yards per rush attempt. Opponents scored four touchdowns on the ground all season and threw 26 interceptionsthe third-most in the NFL.

    In addition to White's 15 sacks, sixcount 'em, six!defenders were credited with at least 100 tackles.

    Truly, it was a remarkable year for a defense that received very little help while on the sideline. Philadelphia finished 10-6 despite having the fourth-least productive offense in the league.

    Notable stats: Andre Waters (156 tackles), Reggie White (100 tackles, 15 sacks), Clyde Simmons (115 tackles, 13 sacks), Byron Evans (111 tackles) Seth Joyner (110 tackles, four fumble recoveries), Mike Pitts (100 tackles), Jerome Brown (nine sacks)

2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 1976

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    Unidentified AP photographer/Associated Press

    Four Pittsburgh teams won Super Bowls over a six-year span from 1974-79, and the 1976 squad wasn't one. Why does this particular unit get the nod?

    After giving up 120 points during a 1-4 start to the season, the Steelers proceeded to surrender 28 throughout the next nine. That 9-0 stretch included five shutouts and two contests with three points allowed.

    "I'm not sure it was the best Pittsburgh team but it was by far the best Pittsburgh defense," linebacker Jack Ham said on the Talk of Fame podcast in March, per Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot.

    Who are we to disagree?

    Notable stats: Mel Blount (six interceptions), Glen Edwards (six interceptions), Jack Lambert (eight fumble recoveries), TEAM (41 sacks)

1. Chicago Bears, 1985

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Let's be serious: You probably knew where this was headed. If No. 1 wasn't the Steel Curtain, it would be the Monsters of the Midway.

    Under the leadership of feared middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the unit is remembered for the aggressive 46 defense pioneered by Buddy Ryan. The havoc resulted in 64 sacks and pressured opponents into a league-high 34 interceptions.

    "Without [Ryan] we don't have much," Singletary said at the time, per Sports Illustrated. "I feel honored to have been coached by him."

    Chicago allowed an NFL-low 12.4 points per game and surrendered just 10 total points during three playoff wins, including a 46-10 beatdown of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

    Notable stats: Richard Dent (17 sacks), Otis Wilson (10.5 sacks), Steve McMichael (eight sacks), Leslie Frazier (six interceptions), Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik (five interceptions)


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