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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Top 10 Best Defensive Teams in NFL History

For this Top 10 Tuesday, we'll take a look at the best defenses in the game. These are the teams that were the stingiest in allowing yards, points, and plays on the field. These were the scariest, most intimidating defensive squads to play the game. Some of them had cool nicknames to add to their persona. Some of them were so fierce that having no nickname was even more intimidating. In any case, I try to count them down here and I welcome your opinions. My top 10 defenses of all-time:

10) 1977 Dallas Cowboys

The 1977 Dallas Cowboys defense was known as the "Doomsday Defense". The nickname was quite fitting. In helping the team comprise a 12-2 regular season record, the Dallas Doomsday D was known for keeping opposing offenses off the field. With Harvey Martin's record setting 20 sack season, and players such as Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, the Dallas defense was a force to be reckoned with.

In Super Bowl XII, Dallas faced another popular team with a prolific defense; the Denver Broncos and the "Orange Crush" defense. While the Orange Crush D was unstoppable versus the run, the team ranked low (27th out of 28 teams) against the pass. This was exploited in the Super Bowl game as Dallas went on to win 27-10. Dallas' star quarterback Roger Staubach threw for 183 yards and a touchdown on the Orange Crush D. The Doomsday Defense stole the spotlight however and the co-MVPs of the game were defensive tackle Randy White and defensive end Harvey Martin.

9) 1969 Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs had their work cut out for them in Super Bowl IV. They were playing the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings and their starting quarterback was plagued by injury and scandal. But, like they say, its the defense that wins championships. Quarterback Len Dawson recovered and became the game's MVP. But it was the Chiefs' defense that made the statement in that game.

Although the Vikings were 13 point favorites, the Chiefs held them to only 67 yards rushing. They would shut out the Vikings completely in the 4th quarter and force three interceptions. The Chiefs would also sack the Vikings tough quarterback Joe Kapp to the point where he had to be helped off the field in the final quarter.

The '69 Chiefs won that Super Bowl 23-7, which capped off their season long defensive dominance. They only allowed 177 points throughout the entire regular season. Defensive players Willie "Contact" Lanier, Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, and Emmitt Thomas were all inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

8) 1973 Miami Dolphins

The '73 Dolphins entered the season under a lot of pressure. After becoming the first NFL team to go undefeated in 1972, the expectations were quite high the following season. Although the '73 Dolphins lost two games for a record of 12-2, the team faced a much tougher schedule than it did the previous year.

Just like the '72 season, the Dolphins team of 1973 featured their "no-name" defense led by linebacker Nick Buoniconti. Also known as the "53" defense the team would use #53 Bob Matheson as a fourth linebacker in their 3-4 defense. Matheson was to be used as an additional pass rusher or for extra coverage down field. The '73 Dolphins went on to win Super Bowl VIII 24-7 over the Minnesota Vikings for back-to-back championships.

7) 1963 Los Angeles Rams

The '63 Rams did not boast an NFL Championship or a strong record. But, what they did display was what Dick Butkus himself referred to as "the most dominant line in football history". That year, the Rams acquired defensive tackle Rosie Grier to join Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, and Lamar Lundy to form the Rams' original "Fearsome Foursome".

On this line, Deacon Jones coined the phrase "sack" of which he was the master. Jones and the rest of the Foursome made it their business to get after the quarterback and "sacking" became their trademark. These four players became feared around the league as they began to gel as a unit. The team would go on to win 5 of its last 9 games and built the foundation for seasons to come.

Jones went on to unofficially record the first 20 sack season in league history the next year. And, in following seasons, the Rams and the Fearsome Foursome would go on to have better statistics than the 1963 year. In 1968, they would set the record for fewest yards allowed in a 14 game season. But it was the 1963 year that brought these 4 men together to create a defensive line of legendary proportions.

6) Tie: 1962 Green Bay Packers & 1990 New York Giants

The 1962 Green Bay Packers comprised a 13-1 record under the coaching of the legendary Vince Lombardi. But their defense particularly stands out as a dominant force of the era. The unit held opponents to an astonishing 148 points all season; with only 14 points allowed in the first 4 games. When they reached the title game against the Giants they were met with an opponent with a grudge.

The Giants had lost to the Packers in the previous NFL Championship game 37-0 and were bent on revenge in the '62 game. But it was Ray Nitschke's time to shine. The Green Bay Packer middle linebacker recovered 2 fumbles and had a pass deflection in the title game. He would finish the game MVP and go on to be the face of that defense. The '62 Packers would be just the beginning of a dominant legacy that would be displayed for the next several seasons as they went on to win more NFL Championships and the first 2 Super Bowls.

Also at my 6th spot on this list is the 1990 New York Giants. Known as the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew" the 1990 Giant Defense was led by Lawrence Taylor. Taylor started the season as a contract holdout. But, he signed just 4 days before the regular season and immediately made an impact. With 3 sacks and a force fumble in the season opener, L.T. and the Giant defense set the pace for the remainder of the season.

They would win the first 10 games of the season and finish the season 13-3. The defense further proved its relevance in the playoffs. By beating the Chicago Bears 31-3 and holding the 49ers to only 13 points, the defense was the deciding factor in getting the Giants to the 1990 Super Bowl. Lawrence Taylor recovered a fumble late in the 4th quarter to solidify the victory over the 49ers. The 1990 Giants would go on to win Super Bowl XXV and sent three of their star defenders to the Pro Bowl: L.T., Erick Howard, and Pepper Johnson.

5) 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The 2002 Bucs were all about defense. In Jon Gruden's first season as head coach of the team, the Bucs would go all the way to the Super Bowl and show that defense really does win championships. The dominant unit was the first team to lead the league in total defense, interceptions, and points allowed since the legendary Bears team of 1985.

The team rattled off a 12-4 regular season record and matched it with convincing wins over the 49ers and on the road against the Eagles. In the game against the Eagles, cornerback Ronde Barber intercepted Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb and ran the ball 96 yards to the end zone. It was safe to say the the Tampa defense was hot entering into Super Bowl XXXVII.

In the big game, the Tampa defense dominated against the Oakland Raiders. They intercepted Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon a record 5 times with 3 of those returned for touchdowns. It was fitting that the MVP of the game was a defensive back; Dexter Jackson would get that honor.

4) 1969 Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings defense left their impressive stamp on the 1969 season with one of the most prolific front lines in NFL history. They were known as the "Purple People Eaters". It was a reference to their jersey colors, as well as a song by singer Sheb Wooley. Included in the ferocious front unit was defensive tackle Alan Page, defensive end Carl Eller, defensive tackle Gary Larsen, and defensive end Jim Marshall. They compiled a 12-2 regular season record on the strength of the dominant defense.

The team only allowed 133 points the entire season. The '69 Viking defense also featured a superb secondary. With players like Bobby Bryant and Paul Krause, the defense could defend in the passing game just as well as the running game. The defense's motto at the time was "meet at the quarterback", which accurately described their mindset. The Vikings went on the win the NFL championship that year, but lost in the Super Bowl in an upset to the Kansas City Chiefs; another historic unit whose defense was #9 on this list.

3) 2000 Baltimore Ravens

Another team to win a Super Bowl ring on the strength of its defense was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Frequently compared to as one of the best defensive units in NFL history, the Ravens were led by their ferocious inside linebacker, Ray Lewis. The team set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a 16-game season. They also led the league in both yards and points allowed.

Lewis would win the defensive player of the year and the defense was dominant enough to endure a 5 game span without an offensive touchdown, and still make the playoffs. The Ravens did not allow more than 10 points in any of their playoff games in their 2000 season. They would cap off their run with a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Ray Lewis was named the game's MVP. His regular season total of 137 tackles also helped him earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.

2) 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

The 1976 Steelers were intimidating, overpowering, and down right scary. With guys like Jack Lambert (aka Dracula in Cleats), Mean Joe Green, and Jack Ham, the "Steel Curtain" as they were called, were known for their defensive dominance of any offense to cross their path. 8 defensive players from the '76 squad made it to the Pro Bowl that year. They would finish the season 10-4; with 5 shutouts included.

After a 1-4 start and injuries to quarterback Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Green, Lambert called for the team to pull together and win the last 9 games. He physically threatened any player on the team who wasn't giving 100% to the cause. They would win them all; only allowing 2 touchdowns and 28 points along the way. Only 138 points were scored on the Steel Curtain the entire '76 season. Lambert was named Defensive Player of the Year.

1) 1985 Chicago Bears

As much as I respect all of these teams listed, I believe that the '85 Bears had the best defensive team of all-time. With a 15-1 record, the team was dominant in every aspect of the defensive side of the ball. Even the coach was intimidating. The team was led by coach Mike Ditka, who would later be named Coach of the Year. His defense comprised of guys like Dick Butkus, William "Refrigerator" Perry, Mike Singletary, and Richard Dent.

Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan instilled what was called the "46" defense which featured 4 down lineman, 3 linebackers, and 4 defensive backs. Before the West Coast Offense exploited its weaknesses, the 46 defense was hard for quarterbacks to beat. With their opponent's running games also stuffed by the formation, the Bears dominance was staggering. They would defeat their playoff opponents by a combined score of 91-10 and smash their way into Super Bowl XX.

In the championship game, the Bears beat the New England Patriots 46-10. They set Super Bowl records for sacks and the fewest rushing yards allowed in the Super Bowl. The Bears only allowed the Patriots 128 yards of offense the entire game. Richard Dent won the MVP trophy with 1.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

I had a tough time deciding between the '85 Bears and the '76 Steelers. But, in the end the Bears won me over with their dominant play in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Also, their record of 15-1 made for a good argument. The '77 Atlanta Falcons and the '91 Philadelphia Eagles were also teams that worked their way into my consideration.

They say defense wins championships. I think you need a decent offense to truly make a run for the Super Bowl. But, as these teams have shown, if you have an outstanding defense.... you will always have a shot.