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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top-10 Defenses in NFL History: Steel Curtain or Bears 46 Defense at Number One?

Top-10 Defenses in NFL History: Steel Curtain or Bears 46 Defense at Number One?

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Publish Date: 04/04/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Ranking the greatest defenses in NFL history is difficult because the game evolves over the years and rules change. A defense in the 1960s had a lot fewer constraints on it than a defense from the 1980s. So it is hard to quantify and compare different defense from different time periods.


Dominance during the year you are being rated, quality of competition, records set, games, and most importantly, championships won. The number of legendary players, how innovative the defense was at the time, and how good their defensive coordinator were all factor into these rankings.

10) 2015 Denver Broncos

They became the fourth team in the last 20 years to defeat (in the playoffs) three teams ranked in the top-five in regular-season scoring, per STATS. They held the Patriots and Steelers, who collectively averaged 27.8 points per game, to 17 points per game. The Panthers entered the Super Bowl averaging 40 points per game in the playoffs. They scored 10 on the Broncos.

Peyton Manning only threw for 146 yards in that Super Bowl win, that’s all that was needed as the defense carried the day shutting down 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and making the Panthers offense look pedestrian.

Video: 2015 Broncos Defensive Highlights

2015 Broncos Defensive Highlights


9) 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This team is the reason that the term “Tampa 2” became part of NFL vernacular. That refers to the defense employed by head coach Tony Dungy, one that took full advantage of having an unstoppable Warren Sapp upfront, 2014 Hall of Fame inductee Derrick Brooks at linebacker and guys like John Lynch and Ronde Barber in the secondary. Each level of this defense seemed more impenetrable than the last.

The Buccaneers led the league by allowing the least points and yards during their Super Bowl season, then picked off five passes and scored three defensive touchdowns in a 48-21 title-clinching victory over the Raiders. Dwight Smith was responsible for two of those pick-sixes (Brooks had the other) … and didn’t even win MVP. Safety Dexter Jackson, who had two INTs of his own, nabbed that award.

Video: Every Tampa Bay Buccaneers Interception of the 2002 Season

Every Tampa Bay Buccaneers Interception of the 2002 Season

8) 1971 Minnesota Vikings

The Purple people eaters’ talent up front was incredible: Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page, along with one-time Hall of Fame finalist Jim Marshall and two-time Pro Bowler Gary Larsen. Three Vikings also had at least six interceptions that season, paced by seven from Charlie West, also a dangerous kick returner. Paul Krause, another future Hall of Famer, finished one behind West.

Minnesota allowed just two teams to score 20 points during the 14-game regular season and hung three shutouts on the scoreboard.

Video: Minnesota Vikings • 1971 Highlights

Minnesota Vikings • 1971 Highlights

7) 1962 Green Bay Packers

The Packer defense of the 1960s produced five world championships—including the first two Super Bowl titles—and a record five Hall of Famers: DT Henry Jordan, DE Willie Davis, MLB Ray Nitschke, CB Herb Adderley, and S Willie Wood.

The 1962 team gave up just 10.8 points per game and posted three shutouts while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 43.5 rating.

Video: 1960's Packers Dynasty Highlights (Final Version)

1960’s Packers Dynasty Highlights (Final Version)

6) 2013 Seattle Seahawks

In an era of offensive firepower unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, the 2013 Seahawks carried the torch for building a team around defense first. All they did in Super Bowl XLVIII was absolutely neuter the league’s top-rated (and record-setting) Denver offense.

Richard Sherman often stole the spotlight, but this defense was so much more than just one player — a point hammered home when 2011 seventh-round pick Malcolm Smith, a player making less than $600K this season, captured the Super Bowl MVP. Some might argue that Sherman’s not even the best player in Seattle’s secondary; safety Earl Thomas could stake a claim to that spot. The Seahawks would have won two Super Bowls if not for one of the worst coaching decisions in Super Bowl history.

The Seahawks’ Super Bowl success (as with much of what they accomplished as the league’s top defense) actually started up front, with a pass rush bolstered by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril off the edges. Behind them, emerging stars Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright helped form a tremendously fast linebacking corps. Seattle’s D played with a chip on its shoulder and laid a big hit at every possible turn.

Video: Legion of Boom 2013: The NFL's Greatest Secondary! | FULL Season Highlights

Legion of Boom 2013: The NFL’s Greatest Secondary! | FULL Season Highlights

5) 1969 Kansas City Chiefs

Maybe the most forgotten great team in pro football history, perhaps their place in the AFL has limited the ’69 Chiefs in the “greatest ever” placement. Of course, as already mentioned, this team whipped Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, holding the Vikings to 239 yards of offense in a 23-7 win. That was par for the course that season; the Chiefs led the AFL in defense at 177 points allowed over 14 games. Believe it or nit, but the Chiefs were one of the biggest point-spread underdogs in Super Bowl History.

Five members of this defense went on to claim spots in Canton: Emmitt Thomas, Johnny Robinson, Willie Lanier, Jim Lynch and Bobby Bell. Thomas and Robinson combined for 17 interceptions during the ’69 season. Just two teams all season, counting the playoffs, managed to hit the 300-yard mark against the K.C. defense.

Video: 1969 Chiefs

1969 Chiefs

4) 1975 Los Angeles Rams

 Statistically, one of the finest defenses ever at 135 points allowed over 14 regular-season games (third-least behind the ’77 Falcons and ’69 Vikings). The main problem here is that the Rams were torched in the playoffs by Dallas’ Roger Staubach to the tune of four TD passes in a 37-7 loss. But at least during the regular season, few groups have been better. Los Angeles permitted all of 32 points combined over its final six games, with only the Bears hitting double digits (38-10 Rams win) during that stretch.

Defensive linemen Jack Youngblood and Merlin Olsen, both Hall of Famers, led the charge. They were joined in the Pro Bowl by five fellow Rams defenders: Fred Dryer, Jack Reynolds, Isiah Robertson, Dave Elmendorf and Nolan Cromwell. Safety Bill Simpson might have had a case, as well — he picked off six passes and recovered five fumbles that season.

From 1973-to 80, the Rams won seven consecutive NFC West titles, secured a Super Bowl berth in 1979, and finished in the top 10 in total defense in seven of those eight seasons.

In 1975, the defense surrendered just 9.6 points per game, the third-best in NFL history.

Video: A Hat Trick in the West - The 1975 Season | LA Rams Yearbook

A Hat Trick in the West – The 1975 Season | LA Rams Yearbook

3) 2000 Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens allowed just 165 points during the 2000 regular season. They pitched a 16-0 shutout in Pittsburgh in Week 1, then tossed up three more goose eggs over the course of the regular season. The culmination of Baltimore’s performance came in Super Bowl XXXV, when it picked off four Kerry Collins passes en route to a 34-7 beatdown of the Giants.

This season may have marked the height of Lewis’ extended period of greatness. He won the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year award and then Super Bowl MVP honors.There was talent all around him, too: safety Rod Woodson, pass-rushing linebacker Peter Boulware, the sturdy DT tandem of Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa. Corners Duane Starks and Chris McAlister also had career years in 2000.

Video: Baltimore Ravens Defensive Highlights

Baltimore Ravens Defensive Highlights

2) 1985 Chicago Bears

The ’85 Bears are arguably the best defense ever put on the field for a single season. The stats are overwhelming: a 15-1 regular season mark, a 12.5 point scoring average, holding seven opponents under 10 points, and racking up 64 sacks.

The defense featured two players in the Hall of Fame: MLB Mike Singletary and DE Dan Hampton. DE Richard Dent, DT Steve McMichael, OLB Otis Wilson, OLB Wilber Marshall, and S Dave Duerson were All-Pros.

Video: Chicago Bears 46 Defense Highlights (Final Version)

Chicago Bears 46 Defense Highlights (Final Version)

1) 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

“The Steel Curtain” was the most dominant, awe-inspiring, feared defense in the history of the game. No team could stop it, and many didn’t even want to go up against it.

The Steelers defense of the 1970s had arguably the greatest front seven ever assembled on one team.

Joe Greene (DE), L.C. Greenwood (DE), Dwight White (DT), and Ernie Holmes (DT) made up the front four, while Jack Lambert manned the middle linebacker slot, with Jack Ham and Andy Russell patrolling the outside.

A record 10 Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl during the ’70s: Greene, Greenwood, White, Lambert, Ham, Russell, Mel Blount (CB), J.T. Thomas (CB), Glen Edwards (FS), and Mike Wagner (SS).

Greene, Blount, Ham, and Lambert are enshrined in Canton, second only to the Packers for most defenders on one team in the Hall.

In 1976, after a 1-4 start, the Steelers’ defense surrendered only 28 points in the final nine games. Eight Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl that season. Between 1973-78, opposing quarterbacks had only a 45.0 passer rating. They also played a large part of the season without Terry Bradshaw, the defense pulled together and gave up next to nothing with Bradshaw out, culminating in a 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in a snowstorm in Cincinnati to win the division.

Video: Top 3 All-Time NFL Defenses - #3 The 1976 Steel Curtain

Top 3 All-Time NFL Defenses – #3 The 1976 Steel Curtain

Honorable Mentions

1977 Denver Broncos

Led by OLB Tom Jackson, ILB Randy Gradishar, and DE Lyle Alzado, the Orange Crush defense was a force from 1977-81. In 1977, the defense gave up only 148 points (10.6 ppg) to lead Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance, a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. C

1971 Dallas Cowboys

1971 Dallas Cowboys featured two Hall of Fame inductees: DT Bob Lilly, and CB Mel Renfro. Other standouts were DT Jethro Pugh and linebackers Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley. Crowning achievement was a 24-3 destruction of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.

1986 New York Giants

New York Giants, affectionately known as the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew,” were one of the most feared defenses in the National Football League. The strength of the unit was at linebacker, where two Hall of Famers roamed: OLB Lawrence Taylor and MLB Harry Carson.

Carson was the brains of the defense—the run stuffer and the captain who kept everyone in line.

Taylor was the wild animal, let out of his cage every Sunday to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Taylor, Carson, OLB Carl Banks, and ILB Gary Reasons formed the best linebacker corps of the 1980s.

 1977 Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys defense was led by Hall of Fame DT Randy White, while defensive ends Harvey Martin and Ed Jones and defensive backs Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris were perennial All-Pro selections.

The beating they administered to Broncos QB Craig Morton in Super Bowl XII was legendary and one of the most dominant defensive performances in Super Bowl history.

1972 Miami Dolphins

This defense produced only one Hall of Famer (LB Nick Buoniconti) but had solid All-Pros in SS Dick Anderson, FS Jake Scott, DT Manny Fernandez, and DE Bill Stanfill. From 1971-73, the No-Name Defense surrendered just 11.8 points per game. Check out our list of the Top 10 Miami Dolphins of all time!

Super Bowl VII shut out the Washington Redskins potent offense the entire game, missed credit because of a special teams touchdown given up on Garo Yepremian’s ill advised pass that was taken by Redskin great Mike Bass for a touchdown.

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