7 Most Smothering Pass Defenses Over the Last 40 Years

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If last year’s Super Bowl was any indication of anything, it was clear that the best defense can completely and utterly dismantle the best offense, as the Seattle Seahawks secondary made the Denver Broncos look like a bunch of amateurs.

The Broncos, we should reiterate, were one of the best passing offenses in NFL history, managing to average almost 3 net yards over the league average last year. They did not pass the football poorly, and they were stopped cold by a Seattle defense that was the best in the league last year at defending against the pass.

While the Seahawks may have been the best pass D in the league last year, they’re not the greatest passing defense in NFL history, measured here starting from the NFL-AFL merger and using data from the always awesome FiveThirtyEight. Read on to see how the Legion of Boom stacks up to historical contemporaries.

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7. 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers, -96.2 ANY/G

Most famous as the first Steelers team to win the AFC Central, the ’72 Steelers boasted a ferocious pass defense, holding the unfortunate offenses of their day to an impressive 96.2 net yards a game less than expected, which is to say that any team looking to gain yardage through the air was going to have a bad time when facing down the Steelers. Their Super Bowl hopes were derailed when they faced off against the Miami Dolphins, losing the AFC Championship game, 21-17.

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6. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, -97 ANY/G

Another team that rode an excellent defense all the way to a Super Bowl title, the ’08 iteration of the Steelers bested the Arizona Cardinals on football’s biggest stage, as the Pittsburgh squad was able to lead the league in almost every defensive measurement, allowing 97 fewer yards than the average defense that year. It must be noted, though, that the Cardinals were able to score on three consecutive offensive drives in the fourth quarter, as the vaunted Steeler’s D briefly unraveled, only to be bailed out by a decisive two-minute drill that saw Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for the final score of the game.

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5. 1975 Oakland Raiders, -97.2 ANY/G

While the Raiders, like the ’72 Steelers, only played 14 games a season, the fact that the squad was able to hold each team to just 6.94 net yards per game (multiplied by 14 to give you their seasonal total) on the way to total divisional dominance is just as impressive as if they’d played two more games. The Raiders won 11 games that year, something they haven’t done since 2002, also the last time the team had a winning record — they made it all the way to the Super Bowl only to get dismantled by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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4. 2013 Seattle Seahawks, – 98.9 ANY/G

The original FiveThirtyEight post that compiled this data was a study in whether dominant offenses and defenses (like last year’s Broncos and Seahawks) would be able to sustain their league-shaking play into the following season. Ultimately, the reporter found that while regression toward the mean was largely inescapable, Seattle seemed more poised to keep the pressure on than Denver, as the Seahawks defense relied on significantly younger parts than the Broncos offense. Which is good news for Seahawks fans, and not-so-good news for everyone else.

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3. 1982 Miami Dolphins, -103.5 ANY/G

The ’82 Dolphins finished the season 7-2, having held offenses to more than a full football field’s of unfulfilled offense. Whether they would have been able to maintain that level of defensive intensity over a full season is a question that’ll never be answered. The regression that the team saw on D over its next 16-game stretch (they dropped down to just -28.4 ANY/G) would be offset by the most impressive passing offense in NFL history, also known as Dan Marino’s rookie season.

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2. 1970 Minnesota Vikings, -107.6 ANY/G

The first dominant defense for a post-merger NFL, the 1970 Minnesota Vikings went 12-2 while holding the league to the fewest yards allowed and the fewest points scored. They were, in a word, unfun, despite their “Purple People Eaters” moniker. The ’70 Vikings finished the year 12-2 and only allowed an average of 10.2 points a game, an NFL-leading statistic that was the second consecutive year the Vikes would smother scoring efforts all season long. They were defeated in the playoffs by the San Francisco 49ers, playing in their first playoff game in a decade.

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1. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, -107.6 ANY/G

The ’02 Bucs, who were able to throttle the Oakland Raiders in that season’s Super Bowl (they won, 48-21) for the franchise’s first and only NFL title, are the best passing defense in league history. They’re also the best squad in the team’s history, with Jon Gruden’s inaugural season in Tampa Bay coinciding with a 12-4 record and a first-place position in the NFC South. For more analysis and a fun read into how offenses and defenses regress after a dominant season, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight‘s story here.