15 Best NFL Defenses in Years Past

15 Best NFL Defenses in Years Past

The NFL is packed with generational talent on the offensive side of the ball, but the best NFL defenses know how to contain that talent and put their team in a position to win. The best NFL defenses instill fear in all of their opponents – after all, defense wins championships, right? 

Some defenses excel at stopping the run, while others play their best ball against the pass. The best NFL defenses are good at both, though they often specialize in one. They consistently limit their opponents to 100 yards or less on the ground and under 250 yards through the air. 

They’re accurate with their tackles, they give 110% effort 120% of the time, they play to the whistle, they limit unnecessary penalties, and they play smart. They rarely give up the big play and they always come up big when needed most. The best NFL defenses are fun to watch. 

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What Are the Best NFL Defenses of All-Time?

15 Best NFL Defenses in Years Past
via Richard Sherman’s Instagram

Football fans have had the pleasure of witnessing plenty of quality defenses take the field every Sunday – and sometimes on Thursday or Monday. Every year, several teams emerge with dominant defenses, but have you ever wondered who the best NFL defenses are of all-time?

Just think of some of the greatest defensive players of all-time – Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Reed, Rod Woodson, Joe Greene, Ronnie Lott, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus, Ray Lewis, etc. They were great, but were they on the best NFL defenses of all-time?

Don’t worry, we’re going to answer those questions by detailing 15 of the best NFL defenses in years past. They didn’t give up much to opposing offenses, they put their team in a position to win on a weekly basis, and were often the ones hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end.

15. 2004 Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills went 9-7-0 in 2004 and finished third in the AFC East division, missing the playoffs for this fifth consecutive season. Their head coach was Mike Mularkey and their defensive coordinator was Jerry Gray. The defense played its best ball against the run. 

The Bills’ defense ranked second in yards allowed, first in turnovers, second in interceptions, second in rushing touchdowns allowed, and third in passing yards allowed. They were also top-ten in points allowed, first downs allowed, fumbles recovered, and rushing yards allowed.

London Fletcher led the team with 144 tackles. Aaron Schobel finished the year with 8.0 sacks, five forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Nate Clements had six interceptions and one touchdown, while Takeo Spikes had five interceptions and two touchdowns. 

14. 1969 Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings went 12-2-0 in 1969 and finished first in the NFC Central Division, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV. Their head coach was Bud Grant and their defensive coordinator was Bob Hollway. They ranked in the top-10 in most defensive categories.

In fact, the Vikings ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, interceptions, rushing yards per attempt, passing yards, and net yards per pass attempt. They ranked second in turnovers and most rushing categories. 

Carl Eller finished the year with 15.0 sacks and Jim Marshall had 14.0 sacks – Alan Page had 9.0 sacks. The team had eight players catch at least one interception, including Bobby Bryant with eight, Earsell Mackbee with six, Paul Krause with five, and Lonnie Warwich with four.

13. 1971 Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings went 11-3-0 in 1971 and finished first in the NFC Central division before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. They were coached by Bud Grant and their defensive coordinator was Neill Armstrong. They ranked in the top-ten in most categories.

The Vikings’ defense ranked No. 1 in the league in rushing touchdowns allowed, net yards per pass attempt, and points allowed. They also ranked No. 2 in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and No. 3 in turnovers, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and interceptions. 

Alan Page led the team with 9.0 sacks and three fumble recoveries, while Jim Marshall added 8.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. Charlie West finished with seven interceptions, while Paul Krause and Ed Sharockman each had six interceptions. Bobby Bryant also had a good year.

12. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2008 season with a 12-4-0 record and finished first in the AFC North before defeating the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. They were coached by Mike Tomlin and their defensive coordinator was Dick LeBeau. They ran a base 3-4 defense.

The Steelers’ defense ranked No. 1 in the league in points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards per attempt, and average yards per drive. They also ranked No. 2 in first downs allowed, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns allowed. 

James Farrior finished the year with 133 tackles, while James Harrison had 101 tackles, 16.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and one interception. LaMarr Woodley added 11.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries, while Troy Polamalu tallied seven interceptions and 17 passes defensed.

11. 1969 Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs finished the 1969 season with an 11-3-0 record and finished second in the AFL West before defeating the Oakland Raiders in the AFL Championship and Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. They were coached by Hank Stram and played in a 4-3 defense.

The Chiefs’ defense ranked No. 1 in the league in most defensive categories that season – including points allowed, total yards allowed, turnovers, first downs, passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and rushing yards per attempt.

Aaron Brown led the team with 14.0 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries, while Jerry Mays added 11.0 sacks. Emmitt Thomas had nine interceptions, Johnny Robinson had eight interceptions, and Jim Kearney had five interceptions. They had four defensive players score a touchdown.

10. 2015 Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos finished the 2015 season with a 12-4-0 record and finished first in the AFC West division before defeating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. They were coached by Gary Kubiak and their defensive coordinator was the legendary football coach Wade Phillips.

The Broncos’ defense ranked No. 1 in the league in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and rushing yards per attempt. They were third in passing touchdowns and rushing yards, and fourth in points allowed and fumbles recovered. Lastly, they were eighth in total turnovers. 

Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall each tallied over 100 tackles on the year, while Von Miller led the team with 11.0 sacks – the next closest on the team was DeMarcus Ware with 7.5 sacks. Aqib Talib finished the yearwith three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.  

9. 1986 New York Giants

The New York Giants finished the 1986 season with a 14-2-0 record and finished first in the NFC East before defeating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. They were coached by Bill Parcells and their defensive coordinator at the time was current head coach Bill Belichick. 

The Giants’ defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, No. 2 in points allowed, total yards allowed, fumbles recovered, and No. 4 in turnovers and rushing touchdowns. They gave up a lot of passing yards to opponents, but limited the amount of passing touchdowns. 

Carl Banks finished the year with 113 tackles, Lawrence Taylor stole the show with 20.5 sacks, Leonard Marshall added 12.0 sacks and three forced fumbles, and Terry Kinard and Perry Williams each had four interceptions. George Martin had a defensive touchdown.

8. 1972 Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins finished the 1972 season with a perfect 14-0-0 record and finished first in the AFC East division before defeating the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. They were coached by legendary coach Don Shula and their defensive coordinator was Bill Arnsparger. 

The Dolphins’ defense was ranked No. 1 in points allowed, total yards allowed, fumbles recovered, and first downs allowed. They also ranked No. 2 in turnovers and interceptions, and No. 3 in passing touchdowns, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. They had two shutouts.

Vern Den Herder led the team with 10.5 sacks and one interception, while Bill Stanfill added 10.0 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Dick Anderson had five fumble recoveries, Jake Scott had five interceptions, and Lloyd Mumphord had four interceptions (and a defensive TD). 

7. 1962 Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers finished the 1962 season with a 13-1-0 record and finished first in the NFL West division before defeating the New York Giants for the NFL Championship. They were led by legendary head coach Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Phil Bengston

The Packers’ defense ranked No. 1 in points allowed, turnovers, passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions, and rushing touchdowns. They ranked No. 2 in total yards allowed and first downs allowed, No. 3 in rushing yards per attempt, and No. 4 in fumbles recovered. 

Willie Davis led the team with 13.0 sacks and the next closest was Henry Jordan with 8.5 sacks. Willie Wood had nine interceptions and Herb Adderley had seven interceptions. Ray Nitschke did a little of everything, finishing with four interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

6. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles finished the 1991 season with a 10-6-0 record and finished third in the NFC East division, missing out on the playoffs. They were coached by Rich Kotite and their defensive coordinator was Bud Carson. Their offense was terrible, but their defense was great.

The Eagles’ defense was ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed, turnovers, fumble recoveries, first downs allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and rushing touchdowns. They ranked third in interceptions, fifth in points allowed, and seventh in passing touchdowns. 

The team had six players finish with 100 or more tackles – Andre Waters led the team with 156 tackles. Reggie White finished the year with 15.0 sacks, Clyde Simmons had 13.0 sacks, Seth Joyner had six forced fumbles, and Wes Hopkins and Eric Allen tallied five interceptions each. 

5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished the 2002 season with a 12-4-0 record and finished first in the NFC South division before defeating the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. They were coached by none other than Jon Gruden and their defensive coordinator was Monte Kiffin

The Buccaneers’ defense was ranked No. 1 in points allowed, total yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and interceptions. They also ranked No. 3 in turnovers and rushing touchdowns, and No. 5 in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt.

Derrick Brooks led the team with 118 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 4 defensive touchdowns. Shelton Quarles added 113 tackles, two interceptions, and one defensive touchdown. Simeon Rice had 15.5 sacks, and Brian Kelly had eight interceptions and 21 passes defensed. 

4. 2013 Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks finished the 2013 season with a 13-3-0 record and finished first in the NFC West before defeating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. They were coached by current head coach Pete Carroll and their defensive coordinator at the time was Dan Quinn. 

The Seahawks’ defense was ranked No. 1 in points allowed, total yards allowed, turnovers, passing yards, interceptions, and rushing touchdowns. They also ranked second in passing touchdowns, third in first downs allowed, and were known for their extremely loud fanbase. 

Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas each tallied at least 105 tackles and combined for seven interceptions. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril combined for 16.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles, Richard Sherman finished with eight interceptions, and three defensive players scored a TD.

3. 2000 Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens finished the 2000 season with a 12-4-0 record and finished second in the AFC Central division before defeating the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV. They were led by head coach Brian Billick and their defensive coordinator was Marvin Lewis

The Ravens’ defense was ranked No. 1 in the league in points allowed, turnovers, fumble recoveries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. They also ranked second in total yards allowed, first downs allowed, and passing touchdowns. They made their offense look good. 

Ray Lewis led the team with 137 tackles, 3.0 sacks, three fumble recoveries, and two interceptions. Rob Burnett had 10.5 sacks, Jamie Sharper had five forced fumbles, Duane Starks had six interceptions, and Chris McAlister and Rod Woodson had four picks each. 

2. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 1976 season with a 10-4-0 record and finished first in the AFC Central division before losing to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game. They were led by head coach Chuck Knoll and defensive coordinator Bud Carson

The Steelers’ defense was ranked No. 1 in points allowed, total yards allowed, first downs allowed, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. They also ranked third in fumbles recovered and passing touchdowns, and fifth in turnovers. They only allowed five rushing touchdowns. 

Joe Greene led the team with 6.0 sacks, while Jack Ham and L.C. Greenwood tallied 4.5 sacks each. Jack Lambert had eight fumble recoveries, Mel Blount and Glen Edwards had six interceptions each, and Steve Furness added 2.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries. 

1. 1985 Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears finished the 1985 season with a 15-1-0 record and finished first in the NFC Central division before defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. They were led by legendary head coach Mike Ditka and legendary defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan

The Bears’ defense was ranked No. 1 in points allowed, total yards allowed, turnovers, first downs allowed, interceptions, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. They also ranked third in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and fifth in fumbles recovered. They were vicious. 

Richard Dent led the team with 17.0 sacks, two interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and one touchdown, but Otis Wilson also impressed with 10.5 sacks, three interceptions, and one touchdown. Leslie Frazier had six interceptions and three different players recorded a safety. 

What Are the Best NFL Defenses in 2022?

Every season, we see a handful of teams emerge with elite defenses. Some are built through the draft, some through free agency, but most are built through a combination of both. As we prepare for another season in 2022, we’re excited to see what defenses have in store for us. 

Some of the best NFL defenses entering the 2022-23 season include the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore Ravens. 

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For now, football fans have a lot to look forward to as free agency continues and teams look to beef up their rosters ahead of training camp, preseason, and the regular season. We also have the NFL Draft coming up towards the end of this month, which is always an exciting time.

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