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Ranking the Top 10 Most Dominant Defenses in NFL History

Which teams had the best defenses in NFL history? We're ranking the top 10 defenses of all time, from the 1985 Bears to the 2015 Broncos.

The NFL never makes it easy on defenses. Throughout league history, the NFL has consistently altered rules to encourage more offensive production, restricting what defenders can do in the name of points.

Which defenses posted the best performances in the NFL history books? These units repeatedly stymied opposing offenses, sacked quarterbacks, generated turnovers, and — in many cases — won Super Bowls.

Here are the top 10 defenses in NFL history.

Top 10 Defenses in NFL History

Honorable mention: 1962 Green Bay Packers, 1969 Kansas City Chiefs, 1975 Los Angeles Rams, 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

10) 2015 Denver Broncos

While Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ high-powered offense guided the club to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2013 season, the team’s outstanding defense was the driving force behind its Lombardi win in 2015.

Wade Phillips’ unit ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total yards, passing yards, yards per play, points per drive, and expected points added. Denver’s defensive backfield — dubbed the “No-Fly Zone” — sent cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward to the Pro Bowl. Pass rusher Von Miller was in his prime, posting 11 sacks in a first-team All-Pro campaign.

With Manning a shell of his Hall-of-Fame self, the Broncos’ defense took the team through the playoffs, allowing just 44 total points in three postseason games. Denver held the Carolina Panthers to 10 points in Super Bowl 50 to claim its third Lombardi.

9) 1991 Philadelphia Eagles

Bud Carson made his bones as the defensive coordinator of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (a unit that will make an appearance on this list). But Carson’s effort with the 1991 Eagles — the only team on our list that failed to make the playoffs — was just as impressive.

Philadelphia led the league in total yards, passing yards, and rushing yards allowed while ranking first in sacks and tying for the NFL lead in takeaways. Aaron Schatz’s DVOA ranks the ’91 Eagles as the greatest regular-season defense since 1981.

Even though quarterback Randall Cunningham went down in Week 1, and backup QB Jim McMahon struggled while also missing time, Philadelphia still managed a 10-6 record thanks to its stifling defense. Defensive linemen Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, and Jerome Brown, linebacker Seth Joyner, and cornerback Eric Allen made the Pro Bowl.

8) 2013 Seattle Seahawks

One of the most aggressive defenses in recent memory, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks became the first NFL team in nearly 30 years to lead the league in points allowed, yards allowed, and takeaways.

Everyone remembers the “Legion of Boom,” Seattle’s Tier 1 secondary that included two first-team All-Pros — corner Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas — and another Pro Bowler in safety Kam Chancellor.

But the Seahawks’ front seven was outstanding, too. Bobby Wagner might be a Hall of Fame linebacker someday, while edge rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril combined for 16.5 sacks. Even Malcolm Smith, a virtually unknown linebacker, earned Super Bowl MVP honors after taking an interception back for a score in Seattle’s 43-8 destruction of the Broncos.

7) 1973 Miami Dolphins

While the 1973 Dolphins didn’t go undefeated like their 1972 brethren, they still won the Super Bowl — and their defense was arguably better than the year before.

Despite playing a more difficult schedule in 1973, Miami’s defense statistically improved, allowing 21 fewer points and a half-yard less per play than the season before. The Dolphins ranked first in scoring, giving up just 10.7 points per game, and suffocated opposing passing attacks, limiting passers to only 3.5 yards per attempt (No. 1 in the NFL).

Miami’s “No-Name Defense” — named for its lack of recognizable stars — earned plaudits after the 1973 campaign when safety Dick Anderson won NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

6) 1990 New York Giants

Both the 1986 and the 1990 New York Giants won the Super Bowl, but the latter had the better defense. The 1990 defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and gave up fewer yards, yards per play, and points than the ’86 version.

Lawrence Taylor posted 10.5 sacks in his last great season, earning a Pro Bowl nod alongside linebacker Pepper Johnson. With DC Bill Belichick calling plays, New York allowed only two opponents to score more than 20 points in a game; just seven foes topped 10 points.

After starting QB Phil Simms went down with a broken foot in Week 15, the Giants had to rely on their defense to carry them with backup Jeff Hostetler under center. In Super Bowl 25, Belichick’s defense shut down Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills, who led the NFL in scoring in 1990 and had put up 51 points against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game. His game plan from the victory is now in the Hall of Fame.

5) 1969 Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings’ defense was totally dominant from 1969 through 1971, earning the unit the nickname the “Purple People Eaters.”

In 1969, every starting Minnesota defensive lineman — Alan Page, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, and Gary Larsen — went to the Pro Bowl. The Vikings gave up just 133 points (55 fewer than the No. 2 Detroit Lions) while leading the league in yards and yards per play allowed.

The second defense on our list that failed to win the Super Bowl, the 1969 Vikings couldn’t capitalize on their point and yard prevention. Despite ranking top three in points allowed seven times in eight seasons from 1969 to 1976, Minnesota never captured a Lombardi Trophy.

4) 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense was absolutely stacked with talent. Defensive lineman Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber, and safety John Lynch are each in the Hall of Fame, while edge rusher Simeon Rice could get to Canton at some point.

Tampa Bay led the league in scoring, yardage, and takeaways. Boasting one of the best pass defenses in NFL history, the Bucs gave up just a 48.4 passer rating in coverage, 20 points better than any other club in 2002 and the third-best mark since the league moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978. No other team has surrendered a sub-50 passer rating since 1992.

The Buccaneers stormed through the postseason, creating eight turnovers while allowing only 16 total points through the first two rounds. Facing head coach Jon Gruden’s former Raiders in Super Bowl 37, Tampa Bay picked off Rich Gannon five times, three of which were returned for TDs by Brooks (one) and safety Dwight Smith (two).

3) 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

A few different iterations of the “Steel Curtain” defense were emblematic of Pittsburgh’s 1970s dominance, but the 1976 unit was the best of the bunch — even though the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl that season.

With injuries devastating the Steelers’ offense, DC Bud Carson (remember him?) and Pittsburgh’s defense took charge. Eight of the team’s 11 defensive starters made the Pro Bowl. Linebacker Jack Lambert won Defensive Player of the Year. Lambert, fellow linebacker Jack Ham, defensive lineman Joe Greene, and cornerback Mel Blount are all in the Hall of Fame.

Here’s how many points Pittsburgh allowed in each regular-season game after Week 5: 6, 0, 0, 0, 3, 16, 3, 0, 0.

The Steelers’ 1976 season ended with a 24-10 loss to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Although Pittsburgh would win two Super Bowls on either side of this team, the ’76 Steelers’ defense was the best of the decade.

2) 2000 Baltimore Ravens

With little offensive help to speak of outside of rookie running back Jamal Lewis, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense was forced to step up — and they did just that, all the way to a victory in Super Bowl 35.

Baltimore’s defense, coordinated by Marvin Lewis, set numerous NFL records, among them the fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) in a 16-game season. The Ravens shut out their opponents five times and held offenses to 10 points or fewer in 15 of 20 total games, including the playoffs.

Defensive tackle Sam Adams, linebacker Ray Lewis, and safety Rod Woodson made the Pro Bowl, while Lewis was a first-team All-Pro. With so much talent on defense, Baltimore had no trouble in the postseason, allowing only 16 total points through three games en route to a Super Bowl appearance.

The Ravens’ win over the Giants was authoritative. New York’s only points came on a 97-yard kickoff return. Every other Giants drive ended with a punt, interception, fumble, or the (merciful) end of the game.

1) 1985 Chicago Bears

The Super Bowl Shuffle. Buddy Ryan’s “46” scheme. Linebacker Mike Singletary’s Defensive Player of the Year campaign.

The 1985 Chicago Bears defense had it all.

Chicago allowed just 12.4 points per game, pacing the NFL in scoring, yards, turnovers, and first downs. Ryan’s aggressive play-calling harassed opposing offenses, while defensive linemen Richard Dent and Dan Hampton joined Singletary as future Hall of Famers. The Bears lost just one game during the regular season, finishing 15-1 and winning the NFC Central by seven games.

The playoffs were even less challenging for Mike Ditka’s club. Chicago shut out the Giants and Los Angeles Rams in the first two rounds of the postseason before holding the New England Patriots to a single touchdown and field goal in an unforgettable 46-10 win in Super Bowl 20.

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