Posted February 04, 2014

Greatest defenses of Super Bowl era

NFL history, Super Bowl XLVIII
Led by Ray Lewis, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens allowed just 165 points during the regular season.

Led by Ray Lewis, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens allowed just 165 points during the regular season. (John W. McDonough/SI)

Seattle’s Michael Bennett attempted to place his defense in proper historical context following Sunday’s stunning 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII win over Denver:

“We’re the greatest defense since the ’85 Bears.”

If nothing else, the 2013 Seahawks belong in that discussion. With their spot near the top of the charts secured, we take a look back at the greatest defenses of the Super Bowl era …

1985 Chicago Bears: “The Monsters of the Midway,” the defensive unit most would have on top of these rankings. The ’85 Bears defense was made for NFL Films, with its collection of hard-hitting, ruthless players. Linebacker Mike Singletary and DE Richard Dent were the centerpieces, but teammates Dave Duerson, Otis Wilson and Dan Hampton all joined them on the Pro Bowl roster. There also was a 325-pound rookie by the name of William “The Refrigerator” Perry along the line.

Another key member of the dominant group: ex-Vikings head coach and current Tampa Bay D-coordinator Leslie Frazier, who led the Bears with six interceptions from his cornerback spot.

Had it not been for a 38-point outburst by Dan Marino and the Dolphins on a December Monday night, the Bears would have run off a perfect 19-0 season. As it was, they finished the regular season 15-1 while allowing 10 points or fewer on 11 occasions. And then in the playoffs, they coughed up 10 points total over three games, shutting out the Giants and Rams en route to the Super Bowl.

2000 Baltimore Ravens: When Bennett made his boast on Sunday night about this year’s Seahawks, it was the Ray Lewis-led 2000 Ravens D that sparked the most argumentative responses. There’s no denying that those fans had a point.

The Ravens allowed just 165 points during the 2000 regular season — 22 fewer than the ’85 Bears permitted. 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 (one of just three LBs to take home the honor, including Malcolm Smith last Sunday). 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.

But it all started with Lewis — one of the greatest defenders to ever play.

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 up front, 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.

Oddly enough, the  most impressive defensive showing during the Dungy era may have come in a loss. In the 1999 NFC Championship, Tampa Bay held St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” to one field goal and one late, game-deciding touchdown.

2013 Seattle Seahawks: In an era of offensive firepower unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, this year’s Seahawks carried the torch for building a team around defense first. All they did Sunday 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 in the best player in Seattle’s secondary; safety Earl Thomas could stake a claim to that spot.

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.

1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: Back in 2009, when the NFL Network named its 10 top defenses of all time, it was this group — not the ’85 Bears — that landed in the No. 1 spot. One knock against that argument is that the ’76 Steelers fell shy of a Super Bowl win; the ’74 and ’75 Steelers won it (ranked No. 2 in defense both years), as did the ’78 and ’79 teams (No. 1 and No. 5, respectively). So perhaps the real point here is that Pittsburgh maintained its excellence over an extended period of time.

This defense gave up the fourth-fewest points ever over a 14-game schedule: 138, an average of fewer than 10 per game. Take out the first three weeks of the season, in which Pittsburgh started 1-2 and coughed up 75 points, and opponents managed fewer than six points per game against this defense. The Steelers shut out five of their final eight opponents, with a combined scoreline of 95-0 Weeks 7 through 9.

Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, one of the most ferocious guys to ever suit up in the NFL, held down the middle. He and “Mean” Joe Greene made up two of the eight members of this defense to claim Pro Bowl spots.

1971 Minnesota Vikings: Take your pick of the “Purple People Eaters” teams — the Vikings led the league in defense in 1969, ’70 and ’71. Only one of those teams (1969) made it to the Super Bowl, however, and Minnesota lost there to Kansas City in the final game before the NFL-AFL merger.

The 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.

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 three fellow Rams defenders: Fred Dryer, Jack Reynolds and Isiah Robertson. Safety Bill Simpson might have had a case, as well — he picked off six passes and recovered five fumbles that season.

1969 Kansas City Chiefs: 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.

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.

1990 New York Giants: This group, with its 211 points allowed, generally falls behind the ’00 Ravens, ’02 Buccaneers and now the ’13 Seahawks in the conversation of best post-1985 Bears defenses. That’s probably a fair spot to place this Giants group in the pecking order, but the talent alone is worthy of a mention on the Super Bowl-winning squad.

Lawrence Taylor (who was to Tecmo Super Bowl defense as Bo Jackson was to offense) recorded 10.5 sacks in 1990, on his way to the Hall of Fame. Pepper Johnson, Reyna Thompson and Erik Howard joined him on the Pro Bowl team. This unit may have been even more of a force during the regular season had linebacker Carl Banks not missed seven games with an injury; he returned for the playoff run.

96 comments
GregAtkin
GregAtkin

Remove any team from the diluted cap era-post 1995

Chris P1
Chris P1

Since defenses don't play against other defenses, it's hard to say who is the "best." I'm a Steelers' fan, and they had some great defenses, but I can't definitively say that they were better than a lot of the other great ones. Besides, the game has changed into more of a passing league where you can't bump and run WRs all over the field like you once could. Therefore, each defense can only be judged in the era in which they played.

kevred
kevred

Mr. Burke, there are some gentlemen here to see you. Mr. Martin, Mr. White, Mr. Jones, Mr. Harris; something about an oversight involving "Doomsday".

JPVes1
JPVes1

The '71 Cowboys should be on this list.  Total of 6 points allowed in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl combined.  Fewer points allowed than any other team in the two games that really count.  And they set several defensive records in SBVI.  How does the 71 Vikings defense beat them out? 

mikeat2637
mikeat2637

Once again, the Jets are left out on the cold. Their 1968 team defense, when the statistics were factored in, was either ranked first or second ion both the AFL and NFL, and proved it by stoning Baltimore in Supe III. Joe Willie and the rest of the offense got a lot of the piublicity, but the D got the jiob done. Gerry Philbin led the NFL in  sacks, even though the stat wasn't official until much later on. Al Atikinson, Ralph Baker and Larry Grantham were solid linebackers and the secondary led by Johnny Sample did yeoman-like work covering receivers. The rest of the D-Line, Verlon Biggs, Paul Rochester, John Elliot (still one of the quickest dt's ever) and supersub Carl McAdams stymied many a runner and put pressure on the opposing qb's. I know they are not the 2013 Seahawks or the 85 Bears, or even the 2002 Bucanneers , but they deserve and honorable mention at least.

Boogieman1281
Boogieman1281

Actually, the '85 Bears team that won the Super Bowl allowed 198 points.  It was the '86 Bears that allowed 187.  People always get the two confused, understandably.  

RobKnorr
RobKnorr

"Some might argue that Sherman’s not even in the best player in Seattle’s secondary; safety Earl Thomas could stake a claim to that spot."
Good point, and I'd say an argument could be made for Kam Chancellor as well. All three are as good at their position as anyone playing right now. Easily, hands down the best safety tandem going.


To the main point of this discussion I will just say this; the Seahawks defense by itself, outscored the greatest offense of all time, on the biggest stage 9-8.

Honestly, what more needs to be said?

misterdeltoid
misterdeltoid

1991 Eagles.  They went 10-6 with major QB issues and didn't make the playoffs.  Led the league in both rushing and passing defense.  5th in points allowed (mostly due to offensive turnovers).  If this team had any offensive consistency, I have no doubt that they would have been serious SB contenders.  Were they the best defense of all time? Perhaps.  Should they be included in the discussion? DEFINITELY!

kidapollos59
kidapollos59

Maybe the biggest question of all is why many of these great defenses, including the '85 Bears, couldn't help their teams back to the championship. To me, that is one of the great NFL mysteries of all time, that those Bears never returned to the Super Bowl.

Dean9
Dean9

There is always a problem when you compare era's ...the game change so quickly.  The 85 Bears were the best of their era but could they defend a Cam Newton?  They weren't built for mobile QB's with Cam, Colin or Russel running around their would be more open receivers.   They didn't play much against spread formations.  The 2000 Ravens had a similar look.  Great inside anchors with  great players all around.   I'd say the Seahawks are the greatest of their era so far.   Built to stop passing games that have evolved in today's game.  They have the speed to chase mobile QB's and to force plays.  They just dismantled the greatest offense points-wise that the NFL has ever seen.   Put them in with the Bears and they won't stop the run like the Bears but the Bears wouldn't have have stopped Peyton's game as thoroughly as the Seahawks did.  It's like saying a 1 ton turbo diesel truck is better than a corvette.  Depends on what you are trying to do. 

Fins
Fins

The '72 Dolphins didn't give up a single Touchdown on defense (Washington's score came from the botched Field Goal). Not on here? And then in 73 they only gave up 1 TD. So...1 garbage time TD at the end of the game scored on the 72/73 Dolphins across two super bowls. 

thedudescloset
thedudescloset

Come on everyone, for those who can remember the 1969 Baltimore Colts, gave up a meer 133 pts. over a 14 game schedual . Shut out  the Cleveland Browns in the NFC championship game 35 - 0 and the league's leading rusher Leroy Kelly to 2 yards per carry. Went into Super Bowl three, an 18 point favorite with the entire sports world saying the Jets did not belong on the same field with Baltimore. Yes the greatest upset in sports history happened that day with Namath's  Jets winning 16 - 7. I still believe the Colts defense has to be considered as one of the best ever.

HypoCycloid
HypoCycloid

And for the record, the '76 Steelers are the gold mark.  They were the best defense the NFL has ever seen.  The problem that year for Pittsburgh...the offense couldn't score at all because it was ravaged by injuries.  

HypoCycloid
HypoCycloid

I find it absurd that the 2008 Steelers Defense isn't in this.  Either Burke doesn't like Pittsburgh or he didn't do his homework.  Since we are talking about '85 til current, the 2008 Steeler defense gave up a lot less yards, including a lot less passing yards and rushing yards than the Seahawks.  In addition to giving up less points per game.  They both culminated in a superbowl win.  James Harrison was defensive MVP and the defense got the longest defensive play in SB history.  This unit was highly ranked including quite a few years in the top 5.  I see no reason why anyone would say that the Seahawks are a better d.  Tampa Bay's was better than the Hawks also.  Giving up less yards and points than the Hawks.  And the 2000 Ravens as well.  The Seahawks are an elite defense, but lets not get caught up in the moment and crown them best ever.  They aren't even the best in the past decade.   But this proves again, defense wins championships!

big55ed
big55ed

Baltimore's defense allowed zero points in the super bowl. Greatest defensive performance in the history of the super bowl.

HarlanThacker
HarlanThacker

I'm going with the team that not only still holds the all time record for fewest points allowed in a 16 game regular season, then topped it off by allowing a total of 23 points in 4 playoff games.  And 7 of those came on a kickoff return in the Super Bowl.  So the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense allowed a total of 16 points in 4 post-season games.  You know, one fewer than Seattle gave up in the NFC championship game.

Bearsclone
Bearsclone

Hard to compare the '85 Bears to defenses that came after them, since the rules have changed quite a bit.  You just can't hit QBs in the head or drive them into the ground the way you used to, not unless you want escalating fines and then suspensions.


Given the way the rules are now, I think the 2013 Seahawks and the 2000 Ravens are as good as you will ever see.


MikeHarrison
MikeHarrison

IMO, the 85 Bears wins hands down, and this years Seahawks and the 2000 Ravens are #2.

It's going to take a lot to ever topple that 85 Bears team defense wise, especially in the post season

JJ72
JJ72

@WilliamCross  Canton is hardly the best way to weigh this yet.  Obviously the more recent teams have had less time to place anyone in the Hall of Fame.  I would expect one of the older teams such as Pittsburgh, the Rams, or Minnesota to lead the Hall membership.  Chicago will catch up in time and time will tell how the current Seahawks fare.

fabio.fantone
fabio.fantone

@WilliamCross Off the top of my head, probably the 76 Steelers. I'd say (again guessing without looking anything up) that at least 5 members of the defense are in the Hall:
Mel Blount

Jack Ham

Jack Lambert

Joe Greene

LC Greenwood

???

WilliamCross
WilliamCross

Haha! Yeah, have 'em limp in and tell me how the Steelers kept taking their lunch money.

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

@kevred  For some reason when these lists are made, the COwboys always manage to be disresected.  Drew Pearson deserves to be in the hall of fame, more catches and yards than Lynn Swann.

Cartesian
Cartesian

@RobKnorr  


"Greatest offense of all time?" Are you daft? Did you even watch any games of the Broncos? The 2007 Patriots offense was better, and not by a little bit. As were the 2000 Rams. 


These Broncos got their points against lesser competition, and they were FAR from explosive. They had some big plays, sure, but nothing compared to the 07 Pats or the GSOT. 


Great offense? Definitely. But they were one dimensional and didn't even have a threatening deep passing game. 



Not to knock anything away from what Seattle did. They mauled Denver. Of course, San Diego held Denver to 24 points in the playoffs, and under 30 the other two times they played. That's the TWENTY-THIRD best defense in the NFL. 

Cartesian
Cartesian

@misterdeltoid  


1991 Eagles are the most underrated defense in NFL history. 


Football Outsiders has a metric for overall value of an offense or defense that takes into account everything you might consider. NEGATIVE values are good for defense, and the smaller the number (i.e. the more negative), the better the defense is.


Here are some comparisons (in order from "worst" to "best" by this metric:


2000 Ravens:  -23.8


2013 Seahawks: -25.8


2002 Bucs: -31.8


1991 Eagles: -42.4


1985 Bears: unavailable.




You can see there is a substantial jump between the Bucs and the Ravens/Seahawks. How? Well, did you know that those Bucs played MORE THAN AN ENTIRE GAME'S WORTH more defensive possessions than the 2013 Seahawks (due to their horrible offense, particularly their 27th ranked running game). Those Bucs were on the field AN ENTIRE GAME more than the Seahawks but still managed to allow 17 fewer points.



But look at the jump between the 2002 Bucs and the 1991 Eagles. It isn't even close. The 1991 Eagles are BY FAR the best defense of those four going by this rating system. I wonder what the 1985 Bears would be ranked. 

arete8218
arete8218

@misterdeltoid  Great point.  According to Football Outsiders, it was the best regular season defense since 1989, and much better than Seattle ('13), Pittsburgh ('08), Baltimore ('03), or Tampa ('02), which are the other great defenses of the last 25 years.

bn53FLA
bn53FLA

@Fins  The Dolphins never got their due.  Their record for 2 years was 32-2 including 2 superbowls.  

mwr5053
mwr5053

@thedudescloset  The NFL Championship game was Colts 34-0 over Cleveland; the Browns were not all that talented and that game was played on a bad field of frosted mud in Cletown. Yea, the Colts D that year was excellent but when you lose the Super Bowl by 9 when you were favored by 2+ touchdowns you can't make all that many claims about your D. Namath, Snell and many others riddled the Colts defense that day. The Jets outplayed them to the point that I've never been a great fan of Shula's since. 

arete8218
arete8218

@HypoCycloid  Great point.  Less than 6 points per game after dropping two of the first three is by far the lowest points allowed average ever seen through such a long stretch, and their 9.8 ppg even including the disastrous start is better than both the Bears and Ravens best performances.

mwr5053
mwr5053

@HypoCycloid  I'm with you on the Steelers as finest defense I've ever seen in NFL since the merger back in 1970. They had it all going in Super Bowl IX vs Minnie Vikes. Poor Fran Tark couldn't get a pass beyond the line of scrimmage very often and the run defense was absolutely impossible to exploit. 


Yes, the '85 Bears were great - but mostly for just that one season. The Steelers defense was great year in and year out in the middle '70s.

Sportsredo
Sportsredo

@HypoCycloid  Absolutely!  3rd string QB most of the season and both Harris and Blier (both 1,000 yd rushers that year) were out injured for the AFC Championship game against Oakland. Would have easily been 5 SB's in 6 years!!  One more thing, in a SB that was less than a TD lead until 7 minutes left in the game, Minnesota had only 22 yds rushing in the ENTIRE GAME!  The Bears and Seahawk SB's were blow-outs so the Pats and Broncos had to throw more. 

arete8218
arete8218

@HypoCycloid  According to Football Outsiders adjusted statistics, the '08 Steelers defense was better than the 2013 Seahawks defense, but so are the '91 Eagles, '03 Ravens, and '04 Bills.

AllThingsConsidered
AllThingsConsidered

@big55ed  The Ravens 2000 allowed 7 points in the Superbowl. I was too young for the 85 bears, let alone the 76 Steelers, but I agree that from the all the SB that I actually followed, I'd put the Ravens 2000 at the top, right before Tampa 2002, with Seattle 2013 a close third

JeffBockert
JeffBockert

@big55ed  Seattle was playing the best offense in the history of the NFL. 

arete8218
arete8218

@HarlanThacker  But the '76 Steelers had a lower average points allowed than the Ravens.  It wasn't their fault that they couldn't play two more games, but if they had, they likely would have topped the Ravens--they were averaging less than 6 points at the end of the season.  I like the Ravens more than Seattle, as well, and it's hard to compare eras, but what the Steelers did in that non-SB-winning year is really unprecedented.

RyanTims
RyanTims

@fabio.fantone @WilliamCross  


The Bucs will eventually!


Warren Sapp

Derrick Brooks

John Lynch (he'll get in)

Ronde Barber (he'll get in)

Simeon Rice (he'll get in)

Tony Dungy (he'll get in)

fabio.fantone
fabio.fantone

You can take Greenwood off the list. Still not in the Hall, but he should be. Stats completely support him being there.

Chris P1
Chris P1

@kidapollos59 I was surprised, too. But, Buddy Ryan - the REAL coach of the team - left after that win. Mike Ditka was never a good coach (just ask the people in New Orleans), and there were too many egos on that team for him to handle, Plus, I had the feeling that the offensive coordinators around the league "figured out" that "46" defense, and it wasn't as effective after that. But, for one year, the Bears were the scariest team I ever saw - and this is coming from a diehard Steelers' fan!!!

fabio.fantone
fabio.fantone

@Sportsredo @HypoCycloidI completely agree with this logic, but I'm not entirely sure a healthy Steeler team would have beaten that 76 Oakland team. That is arguably the most talented Raider team ever. They went 13-1 in the regular season and steamrolled the Vikings in the SB. Still can see that shot in my head of Tatum knocking the helmet off Chuck Foreman going across the middle.

RobKnorr
RobKnorr

@JeffBockert @big55ed  Exactly.

The Seahawks defense outscored the greatest offense of all time, 9-8. As far as all time greatest SUPERBOWL defenses are concerned, I'd say that is the end of the debate.

All time for longevity and for a single season etc...those can rage on, but in that one biggest of all games, there can be no doubt.

jcrist
jcrist

@Kevin11 @MikeHarrisonHey Kev, I see that you hate the Bears and all of their fans. Who are you a fan of Cjhief? F'ing troll.

MikeHarrison
MikeHarrison

@Kevin11 @MikeHarrison  

How many other teams have gotten to the Super Bowl on back to back shutouts?

Seattle Opponents scores in 2013  playoffs

1st game-15

2nd game -17

Super Bowl 8 points

total - 40 total points given up


2000 Baltimore Points allowed

1st game - 3

2nd game - 10

3rd game- 3

Super Bowl -7

total - 23

1985 Bears Points allowed

1st game - 0

2nd game - 0

Super Bowl - 10

total - 10

And the 85 Bears are still the only team to get to the Superbowl on 2 straight shutout victories in the playoffs

Its amazing, you blast me for being a Bears fans, yet all I said is that based on stats, the 85 Bears were dominate in the post season only giving up 10 points, while the other two teams, while dominate in the post season, they still gave up more points.  Its close for #2, hence why I said they are virtually tied at #2 behind The 85 Bears

big55ed
big55ed

@MikeHarrison @Kevin11Baltimore's defense allowed zero points in the super bowl. Greatest defensive performance in the history of the super bowl.