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Top-15 Defensive Lines in NFL History

The best of the best
Publish Date: 04/24/2022
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

The Greatest Defensive lines in NFL history!

15) 1993 Dallas Cowboys

The Players: Charles Haley, Russell Maryland, Tony Tolbert, Jim Jeffcoat and Leon Lett.

For all intents and purposes, it was the defensive line that did a large majority of the work for the best defense in the league in 1993.Β They gave up just over 70 yards rushing per game, forcing eight turnovers in three games.

Charles Haley was one of the greatest winners in Super Bowl history and Jim Jeffcoat was one of the most underrated defensive ends in NFL history.

14) 1994 San Francisco 49ers

The Players: Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield, Rickey Jackson, Dennis Brown, and Charles Mann.

38 sacks, 45 forced turnovers and 22 fumble recoveries.

This defense forced 10 turnovers in three postseason games thanks in large part to the defensive line. Quarterbacks didn’t have much time to get rid of the ball, which led to some major mistakes on the back end.

San Francisco’s defensive line got to Troy Aikman five times, hitting him another seven times in the NFC Championship game. The fact that three Hall of Fame players were on this defensive line makes it one of the best ever.

13) 1958 Baltimore Colts

The Players: Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Gene Lipscomb and Don Joyce.

56 forced turnovers and 21 fumble recoveries. Twenty Pro Bowl and 14 First-Team All-Pro selections between these four; were truly a dominating unit in the pre-modern NFL.

Behind toughness, brute strength and amazing athletic ability, these four led a Baltimore Colts defense that forced an average of 4.3 turnovers per game.

In the NFL Championship against the New York Giants, the Colts’ defense forced four turnovers and sacked Johnny Unitas another four times en route to a league championship.

This is a team that since it was pre super bowl often gets overlooked, but this defensive line was better than most and should not be forgotten.

12) 1953 Detroit Lions

The Players: Len Ford, Bill Willis, Don Colo and Doug Atkins.

45 forced turnovers and 23 fumble recoveries.

The Lions dominated the trenches against some of the best offensive lines to ever play the game. They gave up less than 100 total rushing yards in five of the their 13 games, which is simply stunning for that era in the NFL.

It was the 1953 NFL Championship game against the Cleveland Browns that put this unit in the record books to stay. Don Colo and Len Ford both got to Otto Graham for a sack, as they forced the future Hall of Fame quarterback into a 2-for-15 passing day with zero touchdowns and two interceptions, in a 17-16 win.

11) 1987 Philadelphia Eagles

The Players: Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons and Mike Pitts.

The Eagles didn’t make the playoffs this season. In fact, they didn’t even finish .500. Their lack of success in 1987 had absolutely nothing to do with the defensive line.

Reggie White, Clyde Simmons and Jerome Brown combined for a whopping 18 Pro Bowl selections. This season saw White break the NFL single-season sack record with 21. Their defense forced an average of three turnovers a game as well.

White is a hall of famer and Brown would have been, these two players together were a force to be reckoned with.

10) 1985 Chicago Bears

The Players: Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael and William Perry.

I know a lot of people will disagree with me with this unit at number 10. They allowed justΒ 75.6 rush yards per game, 64 forced turnovers and 64 sacks. My cavet with this group is that the level of competition in 1985 was not great. Hampton and Dent were legends, McMichael was an excellent player. Perry was solid for s short period of time.

Don’t get me wrong this was a great defensive line, but I think that as a defensive line they do not stack up against the nine above them.

9) 2011 New York Giants

The Players: Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Chris Canty.

Super Bowl 42 is all I should have to say here, they singlehandedly shutdown maybe the most prolific offense in history. For the season their Β 48 sacks, 15 forced fumbles and 37 forced turnovers, helps move them up the list. The playoff performances against some great offenses makes them top 10.

8) 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Players: Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Anthony McFarland.

They gave up 10 points or less 10 times during the 2002 season, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 48.0 quarterback rating, the lowest since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. This was in large part due to the play of Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Anthony McFarland. Those three combined for 25 sacks and led the league’s top rush defense.

Plus they helped a team with Brad Johnson win the super bowl, enough said!

7) 1981 New York Jets

The Players: Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons and Joe Klecko.

“The New York Sack Exchange,” as they were called, dominated the American Football conference in the year of my birth, 1981. New York led the NFL with 66 sacks, with Gastineau and Klecko bother obtaining over 20.

Klecko in my opinion was the most versatile defensive lineman to ever play the game, he made the pro bowl at every position on the defensive line.

6) 1975 Los Angeles Rams

The Players: Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen and Fred Dryer.

Dick Butkus called them “the most dominating line in NFL history.” Wide praise coming from one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, but he wasn’t necessarily wrong.

This unit was just as good as Butkus hyped. In the final six games of the 1975 regular season, Los Angeles surrendered a total of 32 points (5.3 per game). The defensive line was instrumental in this, giving up less than 200 total yards on average.

5) 1978 Dallas Cowboys

The Players: Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Randy White, Harvey Martin and Jethro Pugh.

The 1978 Dallas Cowboys defense gave up just 13 points per game as they dominated the NFC East. Randy White and Harvey Martin both made the Pro Bowl, while Ed “Too Tall” Jones did his thing on the outside.

It was in the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams that this unit made a name for itself in the heralded history of the franchise. They forced seven turnovers, sacked Rams quarterbacks a total of seven times and held them to less than three yards per rush.

4) 1969 Kansas City Chiefs

The Players: Curley Culp, Jerry Mays, Buck Buchanan and Bobby Bell.

As a whole one of the most underrated defenses in NFL history, and the defensive line was the strength of the defense.

Culp and Buck Buchanan combined for a whopping 15 Pro Bowl appearances with the Chiefs. However, it was the 1969 season that defined this tandem and the entire Chiefs defense. This was truly a dominant unit. Kansas City held opposing teams to single-digit first downs five-time, less than 100 rushing yards in all but three games and surrendered over 300 yards in just two games.

During their playoff run, which led to the franchise’s only Super Bowl championship, Kansas City’s defense forced 13 turnovers in three games.

3) 1967 Los Angeles Rams

The Players: Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Roger Brown and Lamar Lundy.

The four players I have listed on this slide combined for 29 Pro Bowl appearances. Yes, 29.

During a three-game stretch from November to December, the Rams yielded a total of 13 points while forcing 11 turnovers. The reason this unit doesn’t get as much credit for being one of the best ever is because of their lack of success in the playoffs. If you truly look at it the game was played in Green Bay and should have been in L.A. The Rams had the better record and had beaten the Packers in L.A. a few weeks earlier.

Olsen and Jones are hall of famers and their teammate Roger Brown should be in also.

2) 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Players: Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes Β and Dwight White.

Not only did the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers dominate during the postseason, they did it all year long. You are looking at a unit that gave up 20 first downs just once, forced four or more turnovers seven times and held quarterbacks to less than 100 yards another six times.

This defense had Joe Greene in his prime, and the defense was the main reason for their first two super bowl victories. Dwight White and Ernie Holmes were underrated players and L.C. Greenwood was coming into his own.

1) 1971 Minnesota Vikings

The Players: Carl Eller, Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Gary Larsen and Roy Winston.

The “Purple People Eaters.” This was the name of the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line of the 1970s. Yes, it was a confusing time for not just America but football as well.

This defensive line had two men that would become hall of famers and a third that should be in. Plus add in Gary Larsen and this was a deep talented defensive line.

Probably the best season that this group had was in 1971.Β They gave up 10 points or less 10 times, averaged single digits against and completely dominated their opponents in the regular season.

One of the most dominating performances in the modern history of the NFL came against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3. The Vikings held Buffalo to eight passing yards, sacked Dennis Shaw seven times and yielded just seven first downs. O.J. Simpson also tallied only 45 yards in that game.

From 1971-76 the Vikings gave up an average of 11 points per game!

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