Troy Polamalu and The Top 25 Defensive Players In Super Bowl History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IFebruary 1, 2011

Troy Polamalu and The Top 25 Defensive Players In Super Bowl History

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 15:  Safety Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on January 15, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Troy Polamalu was named the Associated Press' Defensive Player of the Year yesterday. 

    On Sunday, the Steelers safety will become just the fourth man to play in the Super Bowl the same season he won the AP's annual defensive MVP award, joining Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and his teammate James Harrison.

    That has us thinking: Where does Polamalu rank among all the great defenders to play in the Super Bowl?

    It's an interesting concept, because as great as Ed Reed, Jason Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Lee Roy Selmon and Dick Butkus are/were, they never played on Super Sunday.

    We've ranked the top defenders ever to play in a Super Bowl, taking into account their entire careers with one small hitch: The number of Super Bowl appearances helps players climb up the list.

No. 25: Howie Long, DE

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    1987:  Defensive lineman Howie Long #75 of the Los Angeles Raiders talks with teammate Lyle Alzado during a game against the Denver Broncos in 1984.  (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)
    Tony Duffy/Getty Images

    Years: 1981-93

    Super Bowls: XVIII

    Key Stats: 84 sacks

    He may be better known today as the calmest member of Fox Sports' wacky NFL pregame panel, but throughout the 1980s, Long was the AFC's premier defensive lineman.

    Although he was only a third-year player out of a less-than-powerhouse football school (Villanova), Long was the key player for the world champion Raiders defense that turned out one of the greatest Super Bowl efforts of all-time.

    With Long on the edge causing all kinds of problems for the Redskins' George Starke, LA suffocated the NFL's best offense in a 38-9 Super Bowl thrashing.

No. 24: Rod Woodson, S/CB

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    KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 23:  Rod Woodson #26 of the Oakland Raiders looks on before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 23, 2003 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 27-24.  (Photo by Jamie Squ
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Years: 1987-2003

    Super Bowls: XXX, XXXV, XXXVII

    Key Stats: 13 defensive touchdowns, 71 interceptions

    Although he will always be remembered as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Woodson won his only Super Bowl ring as a member of the Steelers' hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens.

    Still, the two Super Bowls that he lost were historic. He recovered from a torn ACL in Week 1 to play in Super Bowl XXX against Dallas. Seven years later, the 37-year-old became the oldest defensive back to start the Super Bowl when his Raiders lost to Tampa Bay in 2003.

    In terms of complete defensive backs who could cover, tackle and convert turnovers into scores, Woodson was the best of his era.

No. 23: Ty Law, CB

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    HOUSTON - JANUARY 27:  Cornerback Ty Law #24 of the New England Patriots answers questions on media day January 26, 2003 before Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Years: 1995-2009

    Super Bowls: XXXI, XXXVI, XXXVIII

    Key Stats: seven defensive touchdowns, 53 interceptions

    There were several great players who filled out Bill Belichick's Patriots defenses: Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, etc. 

    But considering that those defenses depended on excellent man coverage, Law was the most vital.

    Without him the Pats don't defeat Kurt Warner's Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and they don't get to Super Bowl XXXVIII by defeating Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.

No. 22: Derrick Brooks, LB

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    SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 26:  Linebacker Derrick Brooks #55 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picks up a fumble by Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon and runs it in for a fourth quarter touchdown during Super Bowl XXXVII at Qualcomm Stadium on January 26, 2003
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Years: 1995-2008

    Super Bowls: XXXVII

    Key Stats: 25 interceptions, 13.5 sacks, 24 forced fumbles

    The 11-time Pro Bowler wasn't quite as flashy as his teammate Warren Sapp, but he was more critical to the Tampa 2 and the reason why the Bucs were such a great defense for so long.

    Although turnovers seemed to come pretty easily in Super Bowl XXXVII against Rich Gannon and the Raiders, Brooks' pick-six in the fourth quarter quelled Oakland's comeback bid.

    A fitting denouement for that season's AP Defensive Player of the Year.

No. 21: Charles Haley, DE

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    30 Jan 1994:  Defensive lineman Charles Haley of the Dallas Cowboys works against the Buffalo Bills during Super Bowl XXVIII at the the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Cowboys won the game, 52-17. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Years: 1986-99

    Super Bowls: XXIII, XXIV, XXVII, XXVIII, XXX 

    Key Stats: 100.5 sacks

    Other defensive ends/outside linebackers posted more sacks and Pro Bowl nominations, but no one else has a better Super Bowl record than Haley: five starts, five rings.

    Not only did he post 4.5 sacks in those five Super Bowls, but not one of his teams surrendered more than 17 points in any one of those wins either. Coincidence? Perhaps. But his achievements should someday land him in Canton.

No. 20: Buck Buchanan, DT

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    Years: 1963-75

    Super Bowls: I, IV 

    Key Stats: eight Pro Bowl/AFL All-Star selections

    The leader of those great AFL teams was quarterback Len Dawson, but the reason why Kansas City played in two of the first four Super Bowls was its defense.

    Although he played beside three Hall of Famers (Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas), Buchanan was the cornerstone of that defense.

    In his day no one had ever seen a man of his size (6'7", 280 pounds) move so effortlessly to shed blockers, and it paid off with a crushing 23-7 defeat of the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

No. 19: James Harrison, LB

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    TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers scores a touchdown after running back an interception for 100 yards in the second quarter against Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1,
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Years: 2004-present

    Super Bowls: XL, XLIII

    Key Stats: 49 sacks, 25 forced fumbles

    How could we put together a list of greatest defensive players in Super Bowl history and not include the man who made the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history?

    Harrison's 100-yard interception-turned-touchdown was a game changer, and the Steelers don't win Super Bowl XLIII without it. But that was only one outstanding play amongst dozens during a fairly short career.

    For the past four years Harrison has been the top pass rusher in the AFC and is very effective when he does drop into coverage (as Kurt Warner knows).

No. 18: Deion Sanders, CB

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    MIAMI - JANUARY 29:  Deion Sanders #21 of the San Francisco 49ers goes up to make a catch against Stanley Richard #24 of the San Diego Chargers during Super Bowl XXIX at Joe Robbie Stadium on January 29, 1995 in Miami, Florida. The 49ers won 49-26. (Photo
    George Rose/Getty Images

    Years: 1989-2005

    Super Bowls: XXIX, XXX

    Key Stats: 53 interceptions, 10 defensive touchdowns

    No one would call Prime Time a great "all-around corner": He avoided tackling like the plague.

    But as a cover corner he had no equal. In the 1990s, when the number of completions per game seemed to explode (remember Herman Moore catching 123 passes in 1995?), Sanders' abilities were at a premium.

    He seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers and was the reason why Larry Brown was so effective for the Cowboys a year later.

No. 17: Randy White, DT

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    Years: 1975-88

    Super Bowls: XII, XIII

    Key Stats: nine first-team All-Pro selections

    White, along with fellow Super Bowl XII MVP Harvey Martin, was absolutely dominant as the Cowboys crushed the Broncos to claim their second world title.

    He was just as dominant over the next decade as well, racking up boatloads of sacks and ultimately a place in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

No. 16: Darrell Green, CB

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    29 Nov 1992: Defensive back Darrell Green of the Washington Redskins during the Redskins 41-3 win over the Phoenix Cardinals at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Years: 1983-2002

    Super Bowls: XXII, XXVI

    Key Stats: 54 interceptions, eight defensive touchdowns

    Annually declared the NFL's fastest man, Green was the premier cornerback of the 1980s. 

    The Redskins offense scored a lot of points in their two Super Bowl wins, but without Green's contributions shutting down John Elway's Broncos and Jim Kelly's Bills, those two blowouts would have been a lot closer.

No. 15: Jack Lambert, LB

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    Years: 1974-1984

    Super Bowls: IX, X, XIII, XIV

    Key Stats: nine Pro Bowls, 28 interceptions

    Ranking the members of the Steel Curtain is always dicey: Each one was great at his particular spot. But because Lambert had Mean Joe Greene right in front of him, we'll have to drop him down behind a few of his teammates.

    Still, Lambert was the driving force and "the enforcer" of that unit, and despite playing in only half of the decade, he was named a member of the All-1980s team, in addition to the All-1970s team.

No. 14: Willie Wood, S

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    Years: 1960-71

    Super Bowls: I, II 

    Key Stats: 48 interceptions

    The Packers teams of the 1960s were defined by their running game, the leadership of Bart Starr and the brains of Vince Lombardi.

    But that defense was as good as any in NFL history, and Wood was a main reason why.

    He capitalized on mistakes of opposing quarterbacks, was just as active in run defense as the front seven and was able to hang with tight ends over the middle of the field.

No. 13: Troy Polamalu, S

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    PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 23:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up on defense against the New York Jets during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 24-19. (Photo b
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Years: 2003-present

    Super Bowls: XL, XLIII

    Key Stats: 27 interceptions, three defensive touchdowns

    This year's AP Defensive Player of the Year could have another decade to add to his résumé. By the time he retires, he very well might be considered the greatest defensive back ever, depending on how many more titles he wins and if he can stay healthy.

    But there isn't a player in today's NFL, perhaps of all time, who is as active in every facet of the game as Polamalu.

    He is a dangerous pass rusher, breaks on the ball better than anyone, is a very sure tackler and has cover skills as good as most corners.

No. 12: Bruce Smith, DE

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    4 Oct 1992: Defensive lineman Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills celebrates during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. The Dolphins won the game, 37-10.
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Years: 1985-2003

    Super Bowls: XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII

    Key Stats: 200 sacks

    The Bills failing to win even one of the four consecutive Super Bowls they appeared in is not a knock on Smith. He was the most dominant defensive player in the NFL during that stretch.

    Although sacks were his specialty, he was just as good at stopping the run.

    But what was most remarkable about Smith was the fact that, especially in that first Bills Super Bowl run (1990), he was constantly double-, even triple-teamed at the line of scrimmage.

No. 11: Mike Singletary, LB

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    CHICAGO - 1988:  Linebacker Mike Singletary #50 of the Chicago Bears reacts in a play against Detroit Lions during a 1988 NFL season game at Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Years: 1981-92

    Super Bowls: XX 

    Key Stats: 10 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances

    Singletary's contributions shouldn't be measured in individual stats. 

    As a team, the Bears led the league in scoring defense in 1985, 1986 and 1988, posting six shutouts along the way.

    Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, William Perry and the rest of that "46 defense" were each outstanding players. But without Singletary leading the way, they wouldn't have been so dominant.

No. 10: Jack Ham, LB

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    Years: 1971-82

    Super Bowls: IX, X, XII, XIV 

    Key Stats: 32 interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries

    As great as Jack Lambert was, the best linebacker of the Steel Curtain was "Dobre Shunka."

    Ham was more complete, and although he didn't have the same reputation as a tough guy, he was just as sure a tackler and far superior in pass coverage.

    No other linebacker in the post-merger era has as many picks.

No. 9: Ray Nitschke, LB

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    Years: 1958-72

    Super Bowls: I, II

    Key Stats: 25 interceptions, 23 fumble recoveries

    Arguably the greatest Packer of all time, Nitschke fit the mold of the prototypical linebacker.

    Although his contemporary Dick Butkus was his equal in almost every way, Nitschke started the first two Super Bowls, while Butkus played in none.

    While ferocity was his trademark—along with his missing front teeth—Nitschke was outstanding in pass defense, picking off 25 passes in just 190 games.

No. 8: Reggie White, DE

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    26 Jan 1997:  Defensive lineman Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers looks on during Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Packers won the game, 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger  /Allspor
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Years: 1985-98, 2000

    Super Bowls: XXXI, XXXII

    Key Stats: 198 sacks

    White was more of a dominant force while he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles: In his first four seasons with the club he AVERAGED 17 sacks a year.

    But his greatest legacy was forged while a member of the Packers. 

    On defense, White was as vital to the rebirth of the Packers as Brett Favre was on offense.

    Despite being 35 years old, he was absolutely dominant in Super Bowl XXXI. Immediately after Desmond Howard's kick return for a score, White recorded a pressure, then a sack and then another sack on the next three offensive plays as the Packers started to close the door on New England to claim their first title in 29 years.

No. 7: Mel Blount, CB

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    Years: 1974-1987

    Super Bowls: IX, X, XIII, XIV

    Key Stats: 57 interceptions, four defensive touchdowns

    How many players have actually changed the NFL's rules? Blount did.

    Blount was so dominant, jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and punishing the opposition, that they started enforcing the rules of pass defense differently.

    That helped open the door for the passing boom of the 1980s, but at the time, it didn't affect Blount one bit. He was just as dominant afterwards.

No. 6: Ray Lewis, LB

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    28 Jan 2001: Ray Lewis # 52 of the Baltimore Ravens gets a hand on his head after Super Bowl XXXV between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Years: 1996-present

    Super Bowls: XXXV

    Key Stats: 38.5 sacks, 30 interceptions

    He's only made one Super Bowl appearance in his long career, but Ray Lewis made the most of it. 

    That historically good Ravens defense (they allowed 10 points per game in 2000) didn't allow a single offensive point in their 34-7 victory over the Giants.

    In the decade since, he's won a second Defensive Player of the Year award and earned eight more Pro Bowl selections. 

    But more than his stats (team or individual), Lewis' legacy is something impossible to measure: Sideline to sideline, there has never been anyone as good.

No. 5: Bob Lilly, DT

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    Years: 1961-74

    Super Bowls: V, VI

    Key Stats: 11 Pro Bowl selections

    Lilly was virtually impossible to block with one offensive lineman, something that the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins learned in Super Bowls V and VI, respectively.

    Back in the early 1970s, when Roger Staubach's Cowboy offense was still searching for an identity (and wasn't as prolific as it would become towards the end of the decade), it was their defense that dominated.

    Lilly, aka "Mr. Cowboy," was the most efficient member of that Doomsday unit.

No. 4: Alan Page, DT

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    Years: 1967-81

    Super Bowls: IV, VIII, IX, XI

    Key Stats: nine Pro Bowls

    Much like Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills two decades later, losing four Super Bowls does nothing to ruin the legacy of Alan Page.

    Because he could move so well laterally and was allowed to rove wherever he felt like, he trampled tackles, guards and centers across the NFC.

    The fact that he won the NFL MVP award, as an interior defensive lineman, in just his fifth season proves that he was a one-of-a-kind defensive talent the likes of which no one had yet seen.

No. 3: Ronnie Lott, S

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    Sep 1988:  Strong safety Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers focuses on the ball as he follows in pursuit during a 49ers game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.   Mandatory Credit: Allsport USA/ALLSPORT
    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Years: 1981-95

    Super Bowls: XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV

    Key Stats: 63 interceptions, five defensive touchdowns

    Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Bob Sanders and all those who followed are still playing catch-up with Ronnie Lott.

    He nabbed interceptions with the frequency of Mel Blount. He hit with the ferocity of Jack Tatum. And he was as tough as Jack Lambert...remember his missing pinky finger?

    While the 1980s were filled with scores of outstanding linebackers and defensive linemen, Lott was without a doubt the best defensive back of the era.

No. 2: Joe Greene, DT

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    Years: 1969-81

    Super Bowls: IX, X, XIII, XIV

    Key Stats: 10 Pro Bowl selections

    The most important and most dominant member of the Steel Curtain was actually the first player drafted by that defense's architect, Chuck Noll.

    Green opened up holes for Jack Lambert and Jack Ham to run through and forced bad throws from quarterbacks so Donnie Shell and Mel Blount could pick off passes.

    Green was the first man to win a pair of AP Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the best defender to play in the Super Bowl—until the arrival of the man who won that award three times...

No. 1: Lawrence Taylor, LB

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    12 Nov 1989:  Linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Rams at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California.  The Rams won the game, 31-10. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn  /Allsport
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Years: 1981-93

    Super Bowls: XXI, XXV

    Key Stats: 132.5 sacks, 1986 MVP

    It's a bit surprising that the most fearsome pass rusher in NFL history didn't record a sack in two Super Bowl appearances. In fact, in Super Bowl XXV, against Will Wolford of the Buffalo Bills, L.T. recorded only two tackles.

    But the Giants won both of those championships largely because so much of the opposition's attention was centered on Taylor.

    In the first nine seasons of his career, Taylor won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, earned eight First Team All-Pro nominations and kept offensive tackles across the NFL sleepless on countless Saturday nights.

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