The Best NFL Defensive Unit Nicknames
All great NFL defenses strike fear into the hearts of their offensive counterparts.
Tag them with a great nickname and they become a legendary unit. They are remembered through the decades and recalled with fondness at their clever title, memorable players, and menacing presence.
This is a tribute to those aptly named units and the legacy their names provide to this day.
In the 1970s, a popular soda drink known as Orange Crush was consumed across the county. On the football field, the defense of the Denver Broncos consumed quarterbacks and provided hope to a city long in the ranks of losing.
The Broncos of the 70s sported Popsicle orange uniforms. The bright orange of their jerseys easily led to the nickname "Orange Crush" when the Broncos 3-4 defense began to run rough shot over the AFC.
Lead by linebackers Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Lyle Alzado, and Bob Swenson, the Orange Crush wreaked havoc across the AFC from 1976-1979. Before the Orange Crush's arrival, Denver had only seen two winning teams in 16 seasons and had never played in a playoff game.
The Orange Crush's high point was the 1977 season.
With the the second ranked defense in the NFL, the Broncos reached their first Super Bowl. Head coach Red Miller preached a run-stopping, line-stacking attack that led the league in rush defense.
The Broncos lost Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys and would lose three more title games before John Elway would finally help them claim a world title. But the brightly colored Orange Crush is still fondly remembered in the mountain state.
The Killer B's
A confluence of the letter B gave rise to a topical nickname for the 1982 Miami Dolphin defense
In the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season, the Dolphins, led by the "Killer B's" defense (Bob Baumhower, Bill Barnett, Lyle Blackwood, Kim Bokamper, Glenn Blackwood, Charles Bowser, Doug Betters, and Bob Brudzinski—six of the team's eleven starters), held five of their nine opponents to 14 or fewer points en route to Miami's fourth Super Bowl appearance.
In Super Bowl XVII, the Killer B's were unable to contain John Riggins and the Washington Redskins' powerful running game. After building a 17-10 halftime lead the Killer B's welted late in the game and the Dolphins lost 27-17.
Half way through the next season, head coach Don Shula would insert Dan Marino into the starting quarterback role and for the next two decades the Dolphins would become one of the most highly powered offenses in NFL history. The Killer B's, cliched as they were, were quickly forgotten.
The Monsters of the Midway
Originally coined by the University of Chicago in 1939, the term "Monsters of the Midway" was appropriated by the NFL's Chicago Bears during the 1940s when George Halas and his monsters won four NFL titles.
However, most football fans know the term as referring to the phenomenal Bear defenses of the 1980s - specifically the 1985 Bears.
The 1985 Bears defense ranked first in yards allowed and fewest points allowed. After shutting out their first two playoff opponents, the Bears famously embarrassed the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.
The win capped an 18-1 season that remains the tale of legends.
The Bears defense was led by head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Ryan revolutionized NFL defenses with a new attacking scheme he dubbed the "46." Ryan brought relentless pressure on opposing QBs, often rushing five to eight defenders on every play.
Ryan benefited from the presence of standout defense players such as Wilbur Marshall, William 'The Fridge" Perry, Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton, Leslie Frazier, Otis Wilson, team captain Mike Singletary, and Super Bowl MVP Richard Dent.
From 1984 to 1986, the Bears had the number one ranked defense in football. They slipped slightly in 1987 and 1988, finishing second both years.
The Steel Curtain
When it comes to defenses, The Steel Curtain is the most successful on this list.
Winners of four Super Bowls in six seasons, the Steel Curtain was led by "Mean" Joe Greene (of who it was famously said, "hated losing more than he loved winning"), Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell, Mike Wagner, Ernie Holmes, Jack Lambart and Dwight White. Five members of the Steel Curtain defense eventually made their way to Canton.
From 1972 to 1979, the Steel Curtain never finished below seventh in total defense. They twice led the league in defense, including 1976 when they managed five shutouts and allowed 28 points over the season's final nine games.
The "Steel Curtain" nickname came from PIttsburgh radio station WTAE, which held a contest in 1971 to name the defense. Gregory Kronz, a ninth grader from the Steel City, came up with the iconic nickname.
The Fearsome Foursome
There have been many defensive lines known as The Fearsome Foursome. The Los Angeles Rams had the first and the best.
Merlin Olson and Deacon Jones led the Los Angeles Rams defense line in the 1960s and early 1970s. Accompanied by Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier the Rams defense line became known as the Fearsome Foursome.
The Rams defensive line is credited with being one of the first to use stunts and shifts to confuse opposing offenses.
Deacon Jones was the intimidating face of the Foursome; he coined the term "sack," was an eight time pro bowler, and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. The sack statistic was not kept at this time, but most football historians believe that had it been, Deacon Jones would be the all-time leader in the category he created.
The No-Name Defense
The No-Name defense of the Miami Dolphins had only one future Hall of Fame inductee, but it didn't matter. The Dolphins wore their seemingly insulting nickname as a badge of honor for their team concept of defense.
If excellence in defensive football is measured by preventing your opponent from scoring as many points as your team in a given game, then the 1972 Dolphins defense was the best ever. With the perfect season of 17-0, the Dolphin defense never failed in this task.
The nickname was bestowed by Dallas Coach Tom Landry who referred to the defense as, "a bunch of no-names I don't really know anything about."
The No-Names crowning achievement occurred in Super Bowl XII against the Washington Redskins. The Dolphin defense was the first to not allow their opposing offense to score in a Super Bowl. The game would have been a fitting 17-0 shutout if not for kicker Garo Yepremian's blocked field goal kick and subsequent botched passing attempts.
Side note for humor: If you ever want to fool a novice football fan, ask them what #13 won a Super Bowl MVP for the Miami Dolphins. They will probably know Dan Marino was a number #13 for the Dolphins and be forced to guess such, even if they think Marino never won a Super Bowl. The correct answer is actually Jake Scott, the Dolphins safety who won the honor in Super Bowl VII.
The New York Sack Exchange
Since Joe Namath in Super Bowl III, New York Jets' fans haven't had much to cheer about. That changed for awhile in the early 80s with the arrival of the New York Sack Exchange.
Mark Gasineau, Marty Lyons, Joe Klecko and Adbul Salaam constituted the Sack Exchange. All were members of the the New York Jets defensive line.
In 1981 the foursome lead the NFL in sacks. A year later they nearly returned the Jets to the Super Bowl, but came up short in the AFC Championship game.
Regarding their nickname, it is difficult to determine if it came from art imitating life ,or life imitating art.
What we do know is that in November of 1981, Gastineau, Lyons, Klecko, and Salaam were invited to ring the ceremonial opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Whether the name came from that or was in the minds of others before, we shall never know.
New York Jets fans certainly still remember the worth of the New York Sack Exchange.
The Dome Patrol
Rated by NFL Network as the No. 1 linebacker corps of all time, the New Orleans Saints "Dome Patrol" featured the only linebacker unit to have all four members elected to the same Pro Bowl.
The nickname came from the Saints home field, the Louisiana Super Dome.
The aforementioned linebackers were Ricky Jackson (a future Hall of Fame inductee), Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills, and Pat Swilling.
The four linebackers combined to appear in 19 Pro Bowls.
The Dome Patrol and head coach Jim Mora, helped the Saints achieve four consecutive playoff appearances, including their first ever in 1987. In 1991 and 1992, the Dome Patrol led the league in fewest points allowed.
The Dome Patrol never won a playoff game, but they certainly gave New Orleans a measure of respect when it came to football. Previously a doormat, the Saints became relevant and continued to grow in stature leading up to last season's Super Bowl championship.
There's not much I could say about the least known defense (and their very southern nickname) on this list that has not already been said by my colleague here at Bleacher Report, Patrick Bohn.
Patrick lays out a great case of why the forgotten defense of the 1977 Falcons might be the best ever. Please read his brilliant analysis.
Entering the 1977 season, the Falcons had had only two winning seasons in their 11 year history. Leeman Bennett, a former assistant under Chuck Knox, was the team's new head coach in '77. For his defensive coordinator Bennett hired Jerry Glanville. Glanville installed a swarming, attacking, blitzing defense which came after the quarterback on every single play. Glanville actually had a play named "Sticky Sam" which called for a nine man blitz.
The Gritz Blitz nickname (or Grits Blitz as some recall it) came into effect sometime around the Falcons ninth game that season. At that point they only allowed 62 points all season. Football people finally started to notice that something amazing was happening in Atlanta, at least on the defensive side of ball
The '77 Falcons offense was horridly bad. It prevented them from making the playoffs despite the Gritz Blitz setting the record for the fewest points allowed (129) in a 14 game season.
The defense lead the league in fewest first downs allowed, fewest passing yards, fewest rushing TD allowed, most turnovers forced, best turnover ratio, and legend has it, the most blitzes ever called in an NFL season.
The Big Blue Wrecking Crew
Before he was the mastermind of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, along with head coach Bill Parcells, orchestrated a cunning New York Giants defense to two Super Bowl victories.
Belichick's 3-4 scheme was anchored by George Martin, Jim Burt, and Leonard Marshall on the defensive line. The linebacker corp featured the dominant Lawrence Taylor (NFL MVP in 1986), Carl Banks, Harry Carson, and Gary Reasons.
In 1986, the Giants, led by these defensive stars, went 14-2. The team accrued 59 sacks, 24 interceptions, and allowed only 14.5 points per game. They followed up their regular season by allowing only three points in the NFC playoffs. The Giants cruised to Super Bowl XXI.
Against John Elway and the Denver Broncos, the Giants won easily, 39-20. In the final minute of the game Carl Banks dumped a tub of yellow Gatorade over the head of Parcells. It was the beginning of a fad which lasts to this day. If nothing, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew should be remembered for this innovation.
The Giants continued to play strong defensive ball throughout the late 1980s, and in 1990 the Giants defense again led them to the promised land. The addition of outside linebacker Pepper Johnson helped the Giants D allow a league low 13 points a game and permit more than 20 points on only three occasions.
The Giants, despite the loss of starting quarterback Phil Simms, raced to a 10-0 start and finished 13-3.
In the NFC title game the Giants went on the road to face the defending back-to-back Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. The offensively minded 49ers and Joe Montana were held in check as the Giants eked out in a defensive struggle, 15-13.
In Super Bowl XV the Giants would come against the offensive juggernaut of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills, having led the NFL in points, were favored by seven points in the game. Few gave the Giants much of a chance against the Bills no-huddle, quick strike offense.
Defensive coordinator Belichick limited the Bills high-flying attack by dropping seven and eight men in coverage. Belichick and Parcells instructed their defense to attack and intimidate Buffalo receivers with relentless physical punishment on every play. The intimidation and fantastic ball control on offense worked.
The Giants triumphed 20-19 in what many consider the greatest Super Bowl ever played. Belichick's defensive game plan can be viewed in the Hall of Fame (along with his nearly identical one from Super Bowl XXXVI).
Parcells retired that offseason and Bill Belichick left to coach the Cleveland Browns.
The Doomsday Defense
The great Doomsday Defense of the Dallas Cowboys likely possess the most menacing name on this list.
Legend has it the nickname was coined by Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt when he said, "No one can score on that defense until doomsday comes."
True or not, the name "Doomsday" evokes a sense of fear and dread in most. Amplify that by a tenacious defense, coached by Tom Landry, and teams around the NFL quivered in their wake.
Unlike many other defenses on this list, the Doomsday Defense featured many different players over a 20 year span, from approximately 1965-1983. During that time the Cowboys won two Super Bowls, played in three others, played into two NFL Championship games, and were consistently one of the top defensive teams in the NFL.
During the 1960s the team was lead by Bob Lily and defensive back Herb Adderly, both of whom were named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade team. Chuck Howley and Lee Roy Jordan were staples at linebacker for the Doomsday during their early heyday.
As time evolved the Cowboys continued their defensive excellence and the Doomsday name continued to stick with them.
Harvey Martin dominated offensive linemen and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade team. Randy White was his defensive line mate and a future Hall of Fame mate. Ed "Too Tall" Jones gave the Cowboys a menacing front four. Bob Lilly continued to dominate for the Cowboys, eventually earning the title "Mr. Cowboy," making the All-Decade team for the 70s and eventually the Hall of Fame.
Doomsday linebacker Chuck Howley holds the unique distinction of being the only Super Bowl losing player to be named its MVP. It happened in Super Bowl V against the Baltimore Colts in which Howley intercepted two passes and forced a fumble (tackles were not yet recorded, but observers estimated Howley had 15 or more).
Doomsday indeed, if a losing player actually won MVP in a title game.
The Purple People Eaters
Coached by the stoic Bud Grant, the defenses of the Minnesota Vikings dominated football in the late 1960s and 1970s.
They were known as the Purple People Eaters because of the Vikings trademark purple uniforms and team's dominating front line.
They were led by Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller, defensive end Jim Marshall, and defensive tackle Gary Larson. The Purple People Eaters coined the phrase, "Meet at the Quarterback," and many a QB feared their hunger.
Led by their defense and quarterback Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings played in four of the first 11 Super Bowls. The front line of the Vikings racked up 19 Pro Bowl appearances from 1968-1976. In 1969 all four members started for the NFL in the Pro Bowl, but the Purple People Eaters were more than their front four.
From 1969-1976 the Purple People Eaters finished in the top three for total defense seven times and were first in the league three times. In three of those years they also allowed the fewest points in the league.
Sadly, they never won a Super Bowl, losing in each of their four appearances. Today the name Purple People Eaters stirs a fond memory in the hearts and minds of many NFL fans. It is the unique blend of humor, originality, and bravado found only in the NFL.