Ranking the Top 10 Defenses in NFL History
More so than ever, the NFL is offensively driven. The rules are slanted toward that side of the ball. Teams trot out four-wide sets, spread the field and throw around the rock like it's a video game.
But as we saw just last year when the New England Patriots held the high-flying Los Angeles Rams to just three points in a Super Bowl LIII win, defense is still important in 2019.
Of course, for some teams throughout NFL history, defense was more than just important. It was everything. For the past half-century-plus, there have been squads that rode dominant defenses all the way to a championship.
And the units listed here are the best of the best the league has ever seen.
That's not to say that every defense below won a Super Bowl. At least one in the top 10 missed the playoffs altogether.
But whether it was because of team success, statistical success, individual greatness, scheme innovation or a combination of those factors, each of these defenses was more than just good. Or even stellar.
Each was an all-time great.
During nearly 100 years of NFL football, there have been hundreds of great defensive teams and thousands of star defenders. Whittling that massive list down to 10 teams is next to impossible, and there are many squads that narrowly missed the cut.
Here's a look at a handful that stood out.
1977 Atlanta Falcons
You can be forgiven if the '77 Falcons don't jump out as having had an all-time defense—those Falcons went 7-7 and continued a playoff drought that lasted from the team's inception in 1966 until 1978. But while the 1977 Falcons may not have been an especially good team, the defense was another story. Over 14 games, the unit allowed just 129 points—still a record for the fewest points per game surrendered in a season in the Super Bowl era (not counting the 1982 strike-shortened campaign).
1975 Los Angeles Rams
The 1975 Rams were a post-Fearsome Foursome team that couldn't maintain their regular-season success into the playoffs. But led by Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood (not to mention the star of a lousy '80s TV show in Fred Dryer) the Rams won 12 of 14 games, including the last six of the regular season—a stretch over which they gave up just 32 points. L.A.'s 9.6 points per game allowed in 1975 remains the third-best mark in league history.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
It wasn't the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, but Dick LeBeau's best Blitzburgh defense helped lead the Steelers to a victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The Steelers led the NFL in yards allowed (237.2) and points allowed (13.9) in 2008, and their 51 sacks trailed only the Dallas Cowboys' 59. LeBeau's zone-blitz concepts, which feature pass-rushers coming from odd angles while others drop into coverage, are still being used by some NFL teams over a decade later.
1962 Green Bay Packers
Yep, that's right. Believe it or not, football was actually played before the first Super Bowl. The 1962 Packers allowed 10.6 points per game on the way to a 13-1 record and an NFL championship, and they held half their opponents to seven or fewer points. This Packers team featured five eventual Hall of Famers—defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, and safety Willie Wood.
1969 Kansas City Chiefs
Technically speaking, the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs aren't an NFL team at all—they were the final champions of the AFL before they went on to defeat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. But that Super Bowl win earns them at least an honorable mention—well, that win and a defense that boasted three Hall of Famers in Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier. The Chiefs allowed just 12.6 points per game in 1969 and followed that up with a three-game march to a title in which they surrendered just 20 total.
10. 2015 Denver Broncos
Yards Allowed: 283.1 (1st)
Points Allowed: 18.5 (4th)
In the 21st-century National Football League, defensive success hinges on two things.
You'd better be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks. And regardless of how good you are at that, you'd better be able to cover well.
Teams kind of throw a lot now.
The 2015 Broncos excelled at both. Led by future Hall of Fame edge-rusher Von Miller's 11 sacks, Denver's 52 topped the league. And even when opposing quarterbacks did have time to throw, Pro Bowl corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. prowled a No Fly Zone pass defense that was the only unit to allow fewer than 200 yards per game that season.
However, the 2015 Broncos aren't included here just because they were good. Were it not for that defense, the team wouldn't have come close to Super Bowl 50—much less won it.
With quarterback Peyton Manning a shell of his former self, the high-flying Denver offense of 2013 was gonesville—replaced by a team that ranked 16th in total offense and 19th in scoring.
In 2015, the Broncos played in 14 games (counting the postseason) that were decided by seven points or fewer.
Thanks in no small part to a defense that kept Manning and the offense close, the Broncos were 11-3 in those games.
9. 1973 Miami Dolphins
Yards Allowed: 234.4 (3rd)
Points Allowed: 10.7 (1st)
You're probably wondering why it's not the 1972 Dolphins who earned the nod as the representative of the "No Name" defenses that won back-to-back Super Bowls. After all, that unit led the league in both total defense and scoring defense en route to the only perfect season ever.
But the 1973 Dolphins were better.
That team allowed just 150 points over 14 games—the 12th-fewest points per game surrendered in league history. Miami held 11 of its 14 opponents to under 15 points that season, Bill Stanfill set a franchise record with 18.5 sacks that still stands and safety Dick Anderson was named AP Defensive Player of the Year.
The defense that supposedly lacked star power actually had quite a lot of it.
As ESPN.com noted, in the lead-up to Super Bowl VIII, Minnesota quarterback Fran Tarkenton told reporters he thought he had Miami's defense figured out.
"I think you've got to prepare for the 53 defense; you've got to make it so the Dolphins don't know what to expect," Tarkenton said. "I'm sure we'll prepare a little bit different."
Whatever Tarkenton and the Vikings did, it didn't work. The Dolphins thumped Minnesota 24-7—and that lone touchdown didn't come until the final quarter.
8. 2013 Seattle Seahawks
Yards Allowed: 273.6 (1st)
Points Allowed: 14.4 (1st)
If you've read my breakdown of the top-10 offensive teams in NFL history, then you know I named the buzz saw that was the 2013 Denver Broncos as the best single-season unit ever.
It's only fitting that the defense that embarrassed that Denver team 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII should be included here.
The Seahawks held Manning and the Broncos to 151.3 yards and 29.9 points lower than their season averages in the game. Seattle also forced four Denver turnovers and notched the game's only sack.
It was a vivid reminder that the old saying "defense wins championships" still holds water.
It also shouldn't have been as surprising as it was. After all, the Legion of Boom had been putting the clamps on opponents all season.
In addition to leading the league in total defense and scoring defense in 2013, the Seahawks were also first in the league in takeaways and eighth in sacks.
It was a loaded unit. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on the defensive line. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith at linebacker. And a star-studded secondary featuring Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety and Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner at cornerback.
There's never been a defensive backfield with more talent.
7. 1986 New York GIants
Yards Allowed: 297.3 (2nd)
Points Allowed: 14.8 (2nd)
The New York Giants didn't have the NFL's best defense in terms of either yards or points allowed in 1986. That honor went to the defending champion Bears, who in some respects had a unit even stingier than the '85 team that pounded the NFL into a pulp had.
Odds are pretty good we'll hear from them a little later in this piece.
But the Giants wound up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of Super Bowl XXI—compliments of a defense led by the man many consider the greatest defensive player who ever was.
In 1986, outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor was an unstoppable force—tackles weren't a recorded statistic in those days, but LT no doubt had plenty. Sacks were a recorded stat, and we know he had a ton of those—20.5.
In just his second year as coordinator, Bill Belichick had created a scheme that was unlike any the league had seen. This wasn't 2019, when three-man fronts and pressure off the edge from players standing up are common. Belichick and Taylor completely changed how the outside linebacker position was viewed.
As impressive as New York's 14-2 regular season was, its postseason run was even more so. In the NFC playoffs, the Giants outscored their opponents 66-3—including laying a 49-3 beatdown on Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
Teams were afraid of Taylor—because they knew there was nothing they could do to stop him.
6. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles
Yards Allowed: 221.8 (1st)
Points Allowed: 15.2 (5th)
What might have been.
The 1991 Philadelphia Eagles had a murderers' row of defensive talent. Defensive end Reggie White piled up 15 of the team's league-leading 55 sacks and added a staggering 100 total tackles. Clyde Simmons added 13 sacks and an even more jaw-dropping 115 stops. Six Eagles players hit triple digits in tackles that year.
In addition to leading the league in sacks, the Eagles were nearly impossible to run against. Philly surrendered just three yards per attempt and gave up only four scores on the ground. Not that throwing the ball was a picnic, either—on top of all that pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Eagles were third in the NFL with 26 interceptions.
When the dust settled, the Eagles allowed just 3,549 total yards—the fewest ever given up over a 16-game season. Football Outsiders ranked the 1991 Eagles as the best single-season defense in league history.
Unfortunately, this performance for the ages went for naught. After quarterback Randall Cunningham tore his ACL in the season opener, Philly sputtered to a 3-5 start. While the Eagles scraped out a 10-6 record thanks to a 7-1 second half, the team missed the postseason.
Had the offense given this unit any help, the '91 Eagles would've likely slotted higher on this list.
5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yards Allowed: 252.8 (1st)
Points Allowed: 12.2 (1st)
Some of these units did more than just shut down opponents and win games. They changed the way defense is played in the NFL.
Monte Kiffin's "Tampa 2" Buccaneers had just such a unit, which used zone concepts in the passing game that gave opponents fits. And Tampa's 2002 championship squad is the crown jewel of those defenses.
The '02 Buccaneers were choked with talent at every level of the D. Led by Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp and end Simeon Rice (who paced the team with 15.5 sacks), the Buccaneers piled up 43 sacks in 2002—good for sixth overall. Linebacker Derrick Brooks (who also has a bust in Canton) spearheaded a run defense that limited opponents to the fifth-fewest yards on the ground.
But it was the pass defense that really stood out.
Led by Ronde Barber at corner and John Lynch at safety, the Bucs weren't just the hardest team in the league to throw on in 2002—they were the No. 1 pass defense by a margin of 26.7 yards per game. The Buccaneers allowed just 10 passing scores in the regular season and topped the league in interceptions with 31.
The Buccaneers didn't let up once the postseason started, either. Over a three-game span that culminated with a blowout win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa won by an average of 23 points per contest.
4. 1971 Minnesota Vikings
Yards Allowed: 243.3 (2nd)
Points Allowed: 9.9 (1st)
Were the dominant criteria for inclusion on this list a cool nickname, the Minnesota Vikings defenses of the late '60s and early '70s would be a shoo-in for the top spot.
It just doesn't get any better than the Purple People Eaters.
On some level, it can be argued that the '71 Vikings aren't the best representatives of those PPE teams. While the 1971 Vikings are tied for the fourth-fewest points allowed per game in league history, the '69 Vikings allowed even fewer—just 9.5 per contest.
That '69 team was also one of four Vikings squads from 1969 to 1976 that made it to the Super Bowl. The 1971 Vikes saw their season end at home against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round.
But that '71 team had one unique quality—one so special that in the history of the NFL, only one other team has ever matched it. In 1971, defensive lineman Alan Page had a season so great that he was named the league MVP.
Page was the first defensive MVP ever, and only Lawrence Taylor (1986) has repeated the feat.
Page was hardly the only good player on a defense whose motto was "meet at the quarterback." Carl Eller, like Page, is in Canton. Fellow linemen Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen earned a combined four Pro Bowl nods from 1968 to 1971.
It was quite possibly the best defensive front the league's ever seen.
3. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
Yards Allowed: 247.9 (2nd)
Points Allowed: 10.3 (1st)
It's easy to see why the 2000 Baltimore Ravens had one of the best defenses in league history: They hold records for both points allowed (10.3 per game) and rushing yards allowed (970) over a 16-game schedule.
Ray Lewis probably had something to do with it, as he notched the first of his two Defensive Player of the Year Awards that season. But Lewis wasn't the only Hall of Famer on that unit—veteran safety Rod Woodson prowled the back end.
Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs weren't even in town yet.
Like many of the teams on this list, however, the Ravens weren't just great in the regular season. After posting four shutouts and ranking inside the top five in interceptions over a 12-4 campaign that included a seven-game win streak to close things out, the Ravens went into overdrive in the postseason.
In four playoff games (which culminated in a 34-7 thrashing of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV) the Ravens allowed a total of 23 points and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns didn't come against the Baltimore defense, either—New York's only score in Tampa came on a kickoff return.
The 2000 Ravens might be the most offensively challenged Super Bowl champs in history—a middle-of-the-pack unit in both yards and points scored that year.
But with Lewis and Co. allowing barely 10 points per game and stuffing the run, it didn't matter.
2. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers
Yards Allowed: 237.4 (1st)
Points Allowed: 9.9 (1st)
At first glance, it might seem odd that the '76 Steelers were picked as the best of the Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s. After all, while the Steelers won four Super Bowls in that decade, the 1976 team got smoked 24-7 by the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
The thing is, the Steelers never would have sniffed the playoffs in 1976 had the defense not been so stifling. In a season where injuries ravaged the offense and the team started 1-4, the Steelers rode that defense to a nine-game win streak to close out the regular season.
Over that streak, the Steelers allowed 28 points—total. Pittsburgh shut out five teams over that span and allowed more than six points in a game once.
Four of the players who starred for that Steelers defense are in Canton: defensive lineman Mean Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and cornerback Mel Blount. A staggering eight defensive starters from the '76 team made the Pro Bowl: cornerback J.T. Thomas, defensive end L.C. Greenwood, Greene, Ham, Lambert, defensive back Glen Edwards, safety Mike Wagner and Blount.
If you won't take my word that the '76 Steelers are the best defense in franchise history, maybe you'll take Ham's.
"I'm not sure it was the best Pittsburgh team, but it was by far the best Pittsburgh defense," Ham said on the Talk of Fame podcast last year, per Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot.
1. 1985 Chicago Bears
Yards Allowed: 258.4 (1st)
Points Allowed: 12.4 (1st)
Like it was going to be anyone else.
The 1985 Chicago Bears are considered by many to be the best single-season team in NFL history. The engine that drove that team to a blowout win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX and within a Monday night setback in Miami of a perfect regular season was Buddy Ryan's "46" defense.
To say Chicago's D in 1985 was dominant doesn't begin to cover it. Led by Hall of Famers Mike Singletary and Richard Dent, the Bears led the NFL in yards allowed per game (258.4). And points allowed per game (12.4). And first downs allowed. And takeaways.
The Bears were only third in the NFL that year with 64 sacks, because they were a bunch of lazy slackers.
As good as Ryan's wildly aggressive defense was in the regular season, the Bears took it up another notch in the playoffs. In dispatching the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams to make it to the Superdome and Super Bowl XX, the Bears allowed a grand total of zero points to a pair of playoff teams.
Then the Bears dropped a piano on the Patriots in the Big Easy. In blasting the Pats 46-10 in one of the biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history, the Bears allowed just 123 total yards and piled up seven sacks and six takeaways.
Over the entire 1985 postseason, the Bears allowed a single touchdown—and that was in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl where the score was 44-3 after three frames.