Ranking the Best NFL Defenses Since 2000
Piecing together an elite NFL defense is incredibly difficult. Talent is most important, but a truly dominant unit needs a collection of leadership, depth and intangibles too.
During the last two decades, two teams in particular boasted a legendary defense. When this discussion comes up among NFL fans, the conversation quickly finds its way to both the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
However, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and 2015 Denver Broncos typically aren't far behind. Plus, a mid-2000s unit deserves more attention than it usually receives.
While this ranking is subjective, the choices are focused on a defense's performance during the regular season.
All stats are from Pro Football Reference.
8. Chicago Bears (2005)
Just imagine if this offense wasn't a disaster.
In the 2005 season, the Chicago Bears ceded 4.4 yards per play and 12.6 points per game. Highlighted by a secondary that ceded 10 touchdowns and picked off 24 passes, the unit created 34 turnovers and piled up an NFL-best 98 tackles for loss.
Star linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs both topped 100 tackles, while Charles Tillman added 96 stops with five interceptions and four forced fumbles. Adewale Ogunleye paced the defensive line with 10 sacks, and Nathan Vasher grabbed eight picks. Overall, five players made the Pro Bowl team.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the Kyle Orton-led offense ranked 26th in scoring (16.3 per game). After an 11-5 regular season, the Bears lost to the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Round.
7. Baltimore Ravens (2006)
The 2006 Baltimore defense is a best-case example of how consistent disruption can be overwhelming.
Led by Trevor Pryce at 13, four players notched 9.5-plus sacks. While the pass rush totaled 60 sacks on the season, the Ravens also led the league with 115 quarterback hits and 93 tackles for loss.
Plus, Baltimore tallied 40 takeaways. Chris McAlister, Ed Reed and Dawan Landry each intercepted five-plus passes for a defense that surrendered just 12.6 points per game. Ray Lewis and Bart Scott both picked off two passes in their 100-tackle seasons.
But, like the 2005 Bears, the postseason memories are disappointing. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts knocked out the Ravens in the Divisional Round.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (2008)
We honestly feel terrible that the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns played both the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers twice in 2008. That had to be absolutely miserable.
Pittsburgh's defense was slightly more suffocating.
Star safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison highlighted the unit, which allowed a league-low 3.9 yards per snap and 13.9 points per game. Additionally, the Steelers held opponents to the lowest third-down conversion rate (31.4) in the NFL and finished second in sacks (51).
To close the season, Harrison's pick-six in Super Bowl XLIII was a key moment in the Steelers edging the Arizona Cardinals.
5. Seattle Seahawks (2013)
NFL fans will always remember this defense solely on its nickname: the Legion of Boom.
In the secondary, the Seattle Seahawks boasted All-Pro corner Richard Sherman, All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and hard-hitting Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor. Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond rounded out this tenacious group of defensive backs.
Seattle grabbed 28 interceptions while allowing only 16 scores through the air. For the season, the Seahawks surrendered a league-best 4.4 yards per play—which included an NFL-low 5.8 per pass attempt—and 14.4 points per game.
During the NFC Championship Game, Sherman's pass breakup led to his iconic postgame interview. And the defense held a record-setting Denver Broncos offense to just eight points in Super Bowl XLVIII.
4. Buffalo Bills (2004)
History has somewhat forgotten the 2004 Buffalo Bills for a basic reason: They missed the postseason.
Buffalo, though, paced the NFL in yards allowed per play (4.3) and takeaways (39). This defense gave the Bills every chance to make the playoffs, but an offense that topped 20 points just twice in the first nine games ruined the year.
Nate Clements and Takeo Spikes both intercepted five-plus passes, and Pro Bowl corner Terrence McGee had three. Top pass-rusher Aaron Schobel (8.0 sacks), star linebacker London Fletcher (144 tackles) and Clements combined to force 11 fumbles, giving the Bills a game-changing star on every level of the defense.
In Week 14, the Browns mustered 26 total yards against Buffalo. Twenty-six, total. This was an incredible defense.
3. Denver Broncos (2015)
The accompanying picture shows Von Miller forcing a fumble on then-Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50. It's both the single-most important moment of the Broncos' year and shows the challenge of playing this disruptive defense.
Miller totaled 11 sacks, and four more players recorded at least 5.5. Denver piled up NFL-high marks of 52 sacks and 123 hits, simply making life miserable for quarterbacks all season.
While leading the NFL at 3.3 yards allowed per rush, the Broncos shared the passing crown with Carolina (6.2). And they leaned on the defense to give Peyton Manning—who, quite frankly, was not good in 2015—to a career-capping Super Bowl win.
Denver beat the Steelers 23-16, the New England Patriots 20-18 and the Panthers 24-10 in the postseason.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002)
The manner in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers smothered the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII is only fitting.
Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon threw for 4,689 yards in the regular season, which tied for the seventh-highest mark in NFL history. But led by Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, the Buccaneers intercepted him five times—returning a record three for touchdowns—and notched five sacks.
Tampa had dominated in that fashion all year, giving up only 10 passing scores with 31 interceptions. All-Pro defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Warren Sapp combined for 23 sacks, too.
Overall, the Bucs ranked first in the NFL with 5.5 yards allowed per pass attempt and 12.3 points allowed per game.
1. Baltimore Ravens (2000)
Oddly enough, the Ravens didn't even win their division in 2000. Can't exactly blame the defense for that.
In a 12-4 year, Baltimore lost games in which the defense gave up 10, 14 and nine points. For the season, the Ravens surrendered a league-low 10.3 per contest. They also ranked first in yards allowed per rush attempt (2.7) and takeaways (49).
As if that's not enough, Baltimore narrowly trailed in pass defense. Three NFL teams gave up 5.9 yards per attempt, and the Ravens ended the regular season at 6.0.
The most impressive part, by far, is what happened in the playoffs. Baltimore ceded 23 points in four postseason games. Both the Ravens' special teams and defense scored two touchdowns of their own, meaning they outscored their opponents in the playoffs even before factoring in the offense.
Only the Titans registered more than 200 offensive yards on Baltimore's path to a defense-driven Super Bowl celebration.