7 Strongest NFL Defenses in History

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Green Bay Packers celebrate a victory. | Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

You can’t blame teams, players, and organizations for thinking ahead to what it’s going to take to bring home a Super Bowl title. That’s just the way it is. And while the game has become very offense-minded over the last decade with high-octane running and passing attacks, there’s still validity in the saying, “Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.”

The squad with the most balance is the one that usually comes out victorious. Throughout NFL history there have been plenty of defensive units that wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, essentially winning titles for their teams. However, as far as we’re concerned, only these seven particular groups managed to revolutionized the game.

7. 1960s Green Bay Packers

Legendary head coach Vince Lombardi led one of the most intimidating defensive units in NFL history in the 1960s. In a dominant 1962 season, the team yielded just 10.8 points per game, shut out three opponents, and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 43.5 rating. It had five Hall of Famers in defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, linebacker Ray Nitschke, cornerback Herb Adderley, and safety Willie Wood. The Packers defense of the ’60s won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

6. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coach Tony Dungy speaks with Warren Sapp (R). | Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did major damage to NFL offenses, led by Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and all-pros Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, and Ronde Barber. The Bucs became the second team to ever lead the NFL in total defense, points allowed, and interceptions. With a 12-4 record, the team annihilated the Oakland Raiders in Superbowl XXXVII by a score of 48-21. Safety Dexter Jackson was the MVP. Throughout the ’02 season, Tampa Bay held its opponent to 10 points or fewer nine times.

5. The Big Blue Wrecking Crew (New York Giants, ’85-90)

Between 1985 and 1990, the New York Giants’ defensive unit was known as the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew,” headed by Hall of Fame linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. In the midst of their success, the Giants added all-pro defensive end Leornard Marshall, making the unit one of the most feared in NFL history. Coached by the legendary Bill Parcells, the Giants won two championships in that time span: Superbowl XXI in 1986 and XXV in 1990. The defensive coordinator was Bill Belichick, who would eventually go on to coach the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in four years during the 2000s.

4. 2000 Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens take the field. | Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In the year 2000, the Baltimore Ravens put themselves on the map with a defense that included arguably two of the greatest players of all time at their positions: linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Rod Woodson. Despite a poor offense, this group, coached by Brian Billick and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, still managed to finish the season with a 12-4 record. The Ravens did not allow an offensive TD in Super Bowl XXXV, when they beat the explosive New York Giants, 34-7. Lewis was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year after recording 3.5 sacks, 137 tackles, and 2 interceptions.

3. The Purple People Eaters (Minnesota Vikings, ’60s-’70s)

Making reference to a 1958 pop song by Sheb Wooley, the defensive line of the Minnesota Vikings from the late 1960s to the late 1970s was called the “Purple People Eaters.” With nine-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Alan Page and six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Carl Eller among several others, the Vikes came up short on four trips to the championship game in Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX, and XI. The unit’s best season was in 1971, when Page won league MVP and the team only gave up an average of 9.9 points per game, holding quarterbacks to a 40.4 efficiency rating. With opposing passers running for their lives all season, the People Eaters’ motto was simple: “Meet at the quarterback.”

2. 1985 Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears celebrate a turnover. | Elsa/Getty Images

Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s 46 scheme led the Chicago Bears of the mid 1980s to a Super Bowl championship in 1985. Featuring Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive end Dan Hampton, they also had all-pros Steve McMichael, Richard Dent, Otis Wilson, Dave Duerson and Wilber Marshall. The group was given the name “Monsters of the Midway” because of its blitz-happy scheme that aimed to obliterate opposing quarterbacks. With head coach Mike Ditka at the helm, “Da Bears” finished the ’85 regular season with a 15-1 mark and are considered by many to be the best single-season defense of all time.

1. The Steel Curtain (Pittsburgh Steelers, ’70s)

The most ferocious, intimidating, and dominant defense in NFL history belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, otherwise known as the “Steel Curtain.” With victories in Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, and XIV, the Steelers were unstoppable, and nobody wanted to face them. Between 1973 and 1978, opposing quarterbacks had a pitiful 45 passer rating. The squad was lead by “Mean” Joe Greene, J.C. Greenwood, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, and Jack Lambert. After a 1-4 start in 1976, the Steelers gave up only 28 points in the final nine games. Eight defensive players wound up making the Pro Bowl that season.

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference