Greatest defenses of Super Bowl era
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.