The NFL in 2015 is a different beast than in years past. With pass-hungry offenses dominating the highlights (and rulebook), the prevailing assumption would be that pound-and-ground defensive teams are a thing of the past. But a quick look at the last three Super Bowl champions (Seattle over Denver, Baltimore over San Francisco, and the Giants over the Patriots) reminds us that the old mantra of "defenses win championships" still applies. Nevertheless, modern-day defenses don't share much of the spotlight with their heir-apparent stat-happy counterparts, which is why a team like the Seahawks stand out: Their stars are on the defensive side of the ball.
Just how good is the Seattle defense? For the second-straight year they've averaged the fewest points allowed, giving up just 15.9 points per game in a season when the league average was 22.6. Even more impressively, the 2013 squad allowed just 14.4 points per game when the league average was 23.4, leading the league in points allowed, yards allowed, takeaways and opponent passer rating. They also held the opposition to just 5.82 yards per pass attempt in a year when the worst team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, averaged 6.19 yards per pass. Their crowning achievement came in Super Bowl XLVII, when they held the Denver Broncos and the NFL's highest-scoring offense of all time to a mere eight points and only 306 total yards of offense, including just 27 yards rushing.
So as we head into Super Bowl XLIX, the question begs to be asked: Do they deserve to ranked among the greatest defenses of all time? A quick look at the stats suggests this year's Seahawks team would fall outside of the Top 5, but an argument could certainly be made for the 2013 squad. If the top three listed here are any indication, a good nickname would help their case.
No. 5 The 1969 Chiefs
Determining the value of statistics before the AFL and NFL fully merged in 1970 can be tough; separate leagues meant separate stats, and even without splitting them in half, there were just fewer teams playing, meaning a shallower pool of talent to wade through. But if Joe Namath's Super Bowl guarantee put AFL offenses on the map in 1968, it was the Kansas City Chiefs who were responsible for bringing the league's defenses up to par with their NFL counterparts one year later. The 1969 Chiefs allowed a paltry 226 yards per game, giving up only 12.6 points per contest. They also can boast the distinction of being the only team to hold opponents to the fewest points, fewest rushing and fewest passing yards allowed in a single season, and though this stat line is only limited to their AFL opponents, they also led the league in turnovers. But maybe most telling of the squad's dominance is that of all the defenses listed here, the '69 Chiefs have the most Hall Of Famers with five: Curley Culp (DT), Buck Buchanan (DE), Willie Lanier (MLB), Bobby Bell (OLB), and Emmit Thomas (CB), securing their place among the best defenses of all time.
No. 4 The 2000 Ravens
Statistically speaking, the 2000 Ravens are the best defense of the modern era. In 2000 Baltimore set NFL records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest yards rushing allowed (970) in a 16-game schedule, becoming the first team since the 1976 Steelers to hold teams to an average of less than 11 points per game. And the 2.69 yards per rush attempt is the fewest allowed since the 1951 Giants. Baltimore didn't allow a 100-yard rusher in 2000, giving up just six rushing touchdowns and recovering an astronomical 26 fumbles throughout the season. In fact, the only reason they're not placed higher on this list is because they played more offenses in the bottom half of the league than in the top. They rode a record-setting defense to a Wild Card berth, and it was in the playoffs where they showcased their dominance. Baltimore only gave up 23 total points (5.75 per game) in their four playoff games, including a 34-7 victory in Super Bowl XXXV against the Giants. They recorded four sacks and forced five turnovers in an astonishing defensive display as New York was only able to muster 152 yards of total offense. Despite having names like Ray Lewis, Marvin Lewis, Rod Woodson and Sam Adams anchoring their defensive unit, the 2000 Ravens legacy might be remembered most for the four head coaches it produced: Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith and Rex Ryan.
No. 3 The 1985 Bears (Monsters of the Midway)
The 1985 Bears are arguably the best team in NFL history, and many could argue their defense was the best the NFL has ever produced. Led by legendary Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan, this is a unit so (in)famous that names like Mike Singletary, William "The Refrigerator" Perry and Richard Dent still resonate 30 years later. Using Ryan's "46" defense, the '85 Bears blitzed at an unconscionable rate, amassing a total of 64 sacks and forcing seven quarterback substitutions over the course of the season. It's fair to say that no team has intimidated opposing quarterbacks more than these Bears, who are‚ along with the 1976 and 2008 Steelers, one of three defenses in NFL history to rank first in points and yards allowed. The '85 Bears held 11 of their 16 opponents to 10 points or fewer, and after losing their only game of the season in Week 13 (ironically, to the Dolphins, whose 1972 team is the only in NFL history to finish a season undefeated), Chicago only allowed an average of 7.1 points per game for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs. In fact, it was in the playoffs that the 1985 Bears cemented their legacy, posting shutouts in both the divisional round and conference championship games. They held Eric Dickerson and the high-flying Rams offense to 130 yards of total offense in that NFC Championship en-route to Super Bowl XX. And modern-day New England Patriots haters can always take solace in knowing their first trip to the Super Bowl resulted in a 46-10 drubbing at the hand of these same Bears. Oh yeah, and this happened.
2. The '91 Eagles (Gang Green)
This pick may surprise some as they gave up the most points of the five teams listed here. In fact, many experts often look to the 1990 Super Bowl-winning Giants as the best defense the '90s produced, but a deeper look at the stats support this choice. Fielding some of the best players at each level of defense, the 1991 Eagles had maybe the best defensive player ever in Reggie White anchoring their line, Seth Joyner leading their linebacker core, and the great cover-corner Eric Allen in the backfield. And unlike most teams on this list, the '91 Eagles offense was horrible, ranking 26th out of 28 teams in total yards with the eighth-worst rushing attack. Considering they also played one of the toughest schedules of any of the teams on this list and started five different quarterbacks, it's a remarkable achievement the '91 Eagles still managed to finish 10-4. Despite facing four out of the top five statistical offenses, including the top three scoring offenses of 1991, the Eagles led the league in fewest yards allowed against the rush, the pass, and overall. They also led the league in sacks, forced fumbles, and takeaways, resulting in the second-best overall numbers against the run and the pass in NFL history. When you consider the quality of offenses they played against and the fact their offense was rarely on the field, their fewest yards allowed stat might be the most impressive achievement on this list.
Incidentally, the '91 Eagles were coached by Buddy Ryan and when Randall Cunningham was lost for the year with a torn ACL in the season opener, it was iconic '85 Bears QB Jim McMahon who stepped in to replace him. Adding yet another link to the past, the 1991 Eagles defensive unit was put together by Bud Carson, the architect responsible for the Steel Curtain defenses of the 70s.
No. 1. The 1976 Steelers (The Steel Curtain)
If the 2000s are the era of the high-flying offense, the 1970s were its defensive counterpart. The '70s produced some of the greatest defenses of all time, with some equally impressive stat-lines. The 1973 Los Angeles Rams and 1977 Atlanta Falcons (both teams who could've easily made this list) hold the 14-game records for fewest yards and points allowed respectively. In fact, the '73 Rams are the only team in NFL history to hold every opponent under 300 yards (the '91 Eagles and '08 Steelers each held 15 of 16 opponents under that number). But it's the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers and their "Steel Curtain" defense by which all defensive standards are judged. The '76 Steelers held opposing offenses to less than 10 points per game, joining the '77 Falcons as the only two teams in NFL history to do so. What sets the Steelers apart however, was the offenses they opposed. In 1976, the Steelers played more than half of their games against teams who ranked in the top half of the league in total offense, with six of those games against Top-10 offenses, whereas the Atlanta team of '77 played ten of their 14 games against teams in the bottom half of the league. Most-impressively, after a 1-4 start to the season, the '76 Steelers ran the table for the last nine games, giving up just 28 along the way. Let me say that again: 28 points in nine games. A remarkable average of a mere 3.1 points per game, and that includes the 16 points they gave up in Week 11 to the Houston Oilers. In fact, if you take out that game against the Oilers, the Steelers defense only allowed 12 total points (1.5 points per game) and didn't give up a single touchdown over the course of those final nine games.
Of course, nearly every team the Steelers fielded throughout the 1970s could boast a game-changing defense, but 1976 averaged the highest offensive output of the decade. Thus we're giving the nod to that year's team as the best defense of all time.
The "Steel Curtain" defense gave us four Hall of Famers: "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount, sent eight defensive players to the Pro Bowl, and produced possibly the most iconic NFL-crossover commercial of all time.