Wednesday, January 15, 2014

NFC Championship Primer: The Best Defenses in NFL History

How do the Seahawks and their dominant secondary rank among the NFL's all time best defenses?
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

With Sunday's NFC Championship being billed as a heavyweight bout between two of the league's best defenses, I grew curious: How do these two great defenses stack up against the best in league history?

Well, it turns out at least one of them does very favorably.

By looking at a team's Defensive Simple Rating System (DSRS), we can find out how good that unit was compared to the average defense from their given season. This helps us account for changes in the game over time, and give's more credit to defenses that excelled while offenses were scoring points around them.

But, it doesn't tell the whole story. I mean, you still have to account for winning and just stopping people from scoring, right? For instance, the Miami Dolphins' DSRS from their undefeated campaign of 1972 (When they were the top ranked defense in the league across the board) would have them ranked as the fourth best defense THIS SEASON, so I think we have to look a little deeper. Maybe the system gives defenses in offensive eras a little too much credit.

Still, it's a great place to start, and after weighing Hall of Fame players, notable innovations, championships and the lasting legacy of these legendary defenses, I've come up with a list of my Top-10.

So, with just a few days to go until two fantastic defenses take center stage, join me as we take a look back at the best defenses in NFL history.

10. 2013 Seattle Seahawks
DSRS: 8.9

Oh, look what we have here, a team still alive in the current postseason!

Kidding aside, the Seahawks of this season have been no joke on the defensive side of the football, leading the league with 14.4 points and 273 yards allowed per game. These numbers, in a league that set all kinds of offensive records, is made all the more impressive by the fact that they did it while playing with the 17th best offense in the league.

The story of the 2013 Seahawks isn't over yet, so I'll leave it at that. But, if Seattle goes on to win the Super Bowl, many will remember this group as one of the best in league history.

9. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
DSRS: 8.2

The Steelers have had a lot of great nicknames for their defenses. There was the Steel Curtain of the 70s, the "Blitzburgh" defense of the early to mid 1990s, and even the short lived "Big Nasty D" of the early 2000s. From 2005 to 2010, the Steelers rode the "Renegade" defense to three Super Bowl appearances and a pair of world championships, and no unit was better than the 2008 group, led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.

As one of the NFL's best modern defenses, Pittsburgh proved to be great against the run (Allowing a league low 3.3 yards per carry), but even better against the pass. The Steelers allowed only 157 yards per game on the season, while intercepting 20 balls and recording 51 sacks, led by Harrison's 16 and Lamarr Woodley's 11.5.

Though safety Troy Polamalu would earn his own Defensive Player of the Year award two years later, you could argue this was his best season. The long-haired big hitter was a first-team All Pro after grabbing a career high seven interceptions and defending a league-high 17 passes.

While it was Santonio Holmes' catch that ultimately decided Super Bowl XLIII in Pittsburgh's favor, there is no way the Steelers defeat the Cardinals in that game without one of the greatest defensive plays in Super Bowl history: James Harrison's 101-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the first half.

8. 1975 Los Angeles Rams
DSRS: 8.7

In a year of great defenses (Pittsburgh, Dallas, Oakland, Miami and Minnesota all featured historic groups), the Los Angles Rams are often forgotten, perhaps because they wouldn't make the Super Bowl until four years later, but this was one of the best defenses in the grind-it-out 70s.

How good were they?

Well, defensive linemen Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen and Fred Dryer made everybody in LA forget, at least for a few years, about the Rams' famed "Fearsome Foursome" defensive lines of earlier in the decade. Olsen was the only holdover from those days, and though he no longer had Deacon Jones as a linemate, the future Hall of Famer would be joined by another Canton-bound end in the form of Youngblood.

The Rams stifled opponents at the line of scrimmage, holding opposing ball carriers to just 3.6 yards per carry. Isiah Robertson earned first-team All Pro honors at linebacker, and safety Dave Elmendorf proved to be the premier player in the league at his position.

Los Angeles finished the year on an amazing six-game winning streak that saw them beat eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh 10-3. Over those six games, the Rams defense surrendered a combined 32 points, an improvement on their already stellar 9.6 points per game allowed.

Things quickly unraveled in the postseason, however, as the Rams gave up 23 in a win over the Cardinals, before losing 37-7 to Dallas in the conference championship game.

7. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DSRS: 9.8

Talk about the best of both worlds.

After defensive guru Tony Dungy did his best to install a Steel Curtain Cover 2 in the Bay from 1996 to 2001, he was promptly fired to bring in an offensive guru that could take the team over the top.

Luckily for new coach Jon Gruden, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin stayed on board, and the Bucs would go on to have their best defensive season of the "Tampa 2" era.

With Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp pushing and going around the pile up front, plus linebacker Derrick Brooks doing his best Jack Ham impression in the flats, Tampa Bay held opponents to just 12.25 points per game. The Bucs then held the high-scoring Eagles and 49ers to a COMBINED 16 points in the NFC playoffs before blowing out Oakland in the Super Bowl.

The Bucs were good against the run, 5th best in the league, in fact, but were brilliant against the pass, with corners Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly throwing receivers off their routes, and safeties John Lynch and Dexter Jackson each patrolling a deep half of the field. Add in Simeon Rice's phenomenal 15.5 sack season, and you have the best pass defense in modern NFL history, holding opponents to just 2,490 passing yards (155.6 per game) and 10 touchdowns, while grabbing -get this- 31 INTERCEPTIONS!

6. 1972 Miami Dolphins
DSRS: 6.5

The '73 Dolphins actually rank  higher on the Defensive Simple Rating System (8.3), but come on, these are the undefeated Dolphins we're talking about! While many raved about the offensive success of this team, led by quarterbacks Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, along with running backs Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, it was the defense that made a name for itself in '72.

Well, sort of.

The Dolphin defense became known as the "No-Name" defense for several reasons. First, the highly acclaimed offense received most of the credit for the team's success, but also because it was rumored that All Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti's last name couldn't fit on the back of his jersey when uniforms were first printed.

That is, of course, not true, but the "No-Name" defense's success was no myth. The Dolphins ranked first in the league in total, rushing and scoring defense, and No. 5 in passing D. The team overcame an early injury to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, who returned to the field in time to defeat Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game, just one week after the "Immaculate Reception."

5. 1977 Atlanta Falcons

DSRS: 6.6

The "Grits Blitz" Falcons of '77 are statistically the stingiest defense of all time. With a true no-name unit that featured two Pro Bowl players, and no players that would go to the Pro Bowl before or after that season, Atlanta set a league record with only 9.21 point per game allowed, a mark that stands to this day.

What made this defense so unique was the fact that it was the ultimate one-year wonder and the product of an incredible strategic gamble. The '76 Falcons ranked 24th in the league in points allowed, but then-defensive back coach Jerry Glanville had an idea.

Why not just blitz every freaking play?

But the Falcons weren't just blitzing (Though they did blitz over 90 percent of the time), they were sending eight and nine guys with an emphasis on stopping the physical running games that ruled the NFL in the 70s.  It worked, as the Falcons were soon allowing under four yards per carry, but the unintended result of blitzing indiscriminately was that the simple and slow-developing passing plays
of the time were crushed.

The Falcons led the league in pass defense and sacks, despite running the video game equivalent of "Engage 8" or "Suicide Blitz" nearly every snap. If only the Atlanta offense had even been decent. The Falcons scored only 12.8 points per game, and lost five games where the defense surrendered two touchdowns or less, including a 3-0 loss to Buffalo in week five.

Obviously, once teams realized that beating this defense was simple, as long as your quarterback got the ball out of his hand quickly, things again fell apart for the Falcons. As hot routes became a popular antidote to the obvious blitz and the West Coast offense pervaded the league, the "Grits Blitz" became the Chumbawamba of NFL history.

4. 1969 Minnesota Vikings
DSRS: 10.6

Minnesota's "Purple People Eaters" defense of the late 60s and early 70s helped Minnesota qualify for four Super Bowls in eight seasons, though they would lose every one of them. The first Super Bowl team of the bunch came in '69, and was the only Super Bowl team not to feature Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

Two years earlier, after head coach Norm Van Brocklin decided the Vikings couldn't win with a scrambling quarterback, Minnesota dealt Tarkenton to the Giants for a pair of first round and second round picks.

The Vikings would turn one of those picks into Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page, their best defensive player throughout the Purple People Eater run, and rated by Pro Football Reference as one of the Top 100 Players in NFL History. Page earned his first All Pro honor in '69, and the Vikings ranked No.1 in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and No. 2 in passing yards allowed.

Van Brocklin's replacement at head coach, Bud Grant, even held up his end of the deal, as the Vikings led the league in scoring, with Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Kapp throwing for over 1,700 yards and 19 scores, big numbers back in those days.

Of course, like all Viking Super Bowl teams, this group ultimately lost the big game, this time to Len Dawson and the Kansas City Chiefs. Three years later, the Vikings traded back for Tarkenton, who would combine with Minnesota's great defenses to produce some of the best teams to never win a title. Unfortunately they fell to some of the finest teams in NFL history, losing to the '73 Dolphins, '74 Steelers and '76 Raiders.

3.  2000 Baltimore Ravens
DSRS 8.0

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens set the standard for modern defense. The Ravens weren't even the best defense in the league by total defense (yardage), that would be the Titans, but Baltimore was the greatest "bend but don't break" defense of all time, holding opponents to just 10.31 points per game, the fewest in NFL history over a 16-game schedule.

Everything started up front, as Baltimore led the league in rush defense with massive defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa holding the point of attack and eating up blockers so that All Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis could roam freely. The Ravens lacked a truly elite pass rusher, but ends Rob Burnett (10 sacks) and Michael McCrary (6.5 sacks), along with outside linebacker Peter Boulware (7 sacks) combined to form one of the league's best pass rush trios.

On the back end, Hall of Fame corner Rod Woodson made a smooth transition to free safety, and the oft-forgotten Kim Herring had his finest season as a pro at strong safety. Corners Duane Starks and Chris McAlister proved to be the most physical duo in the league, and outside linebacker Jamie Sharper cleaned up everything Ray Lewis missed (Which wasn't much).

Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis had his defense playing so well, that they won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Keep in mind that Dilfer only started half the games that season after taking over for Tony Banks, yet still threw 11 interceptions while completing under 60 percent of his throws and fumbling eight times.

Despite all this, and Dilfer's offense only putting up six points in a week nine loss to Pittsburgh, the Ravens rallied to win seven in a row to close out the regular season, then three AFC playoff games (2 on the road) and the Super Bowl, ending the year on an 11-game winning streak.

2. 1975/76 Pittsburgh Steelers
DSRS: 8.8/9.6

Here is where I cheat a little bit as a Steelers fan, because I didn't want to have to choose between the best Steelers defense to win a Super Bowl (The '74 group), or just the flat-out best Steelers defense of all time.

The 1976 Steelers did not win the Super Bowl, but their 9.6 DSRS was the best in team history, and the unit forced five shutouts to overcome injuries to Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris on the offensive side of the ball. Despite an early, injury-induced three game losing streak, Pittsburgh finished 10-4, but lingering injuries to Harris, as well as fellow 1,000 yard running back Rocky Blier, sank the Steelers in an AFC title game loss to Oakland.

Both defenses were built around the Cover 2, and the principles of not getting beat deep, mauling receivers at the line of scrimmage, controlling the point of attack with four physical linemen, and covering the flats and seams with speedy linebackers.

Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell took care of the deep throws, while Hall of Fame corner Mel Blount beat receivers up so badly before the ball was thrown, the league had to change the rules and allow for only a "five yard" contact period. The Steel Curtain defensive line, led by Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and end L.C. Greenwood made sure running room was hard to find, and Hall of Fame 'backers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham cleaned up everything that leaked through.

1. 1985 Chicago Bears
DSRS: 9.4

Some would argue that the '86 Bears defense was even better, but offense as a whole dropped off dramatically after the 1985 season until the 2000s began. That makes what Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and the '85 Bears did all the more impressive.

The Bears ranked first in the league in total, scoring and rushing defense, and only finished third in pass defense because they faced 522 pass attempts on the year. That's nearly 100 more passes than Chicago threw offensively, and 6 pass attempts per game above the league average for that season.

Most will remember that Bears team for the Super Bowl Shuffle, Mike Ditka, Mike Singletary, and the personality of William "Refrigerator" Perry, but it was the crazy "46" scheme run by Ryan, along with outstanding play from the defensive line that made this defense so good.

Up front, the Bears featured the league's best defensive end in Richard Dent. The young strongside end held the point of attack in a hybrid three or four man line, and accounted for a then-absurd 17 sacks. Weakside defensive tackle Steve "Mongo" McMichael accounted for eight sacks and a safety, while hybrid end/tackle Dan Hampton did a little bit of everything, including dropping into coverage.

Speaking of doing everything, safety Dave Duerson was the most complete player on the back end of the Bears defense. He ranked fourth on the team in tackles, snatched a team-high five interceptions, recorded two sacks and recovered a pair of fumbles. In the old "46," Ryan asked his strong safety to be all over the field (Think Troy Polamalu in his prime) and his defensive linemen to defend the run and the pass equally well from multiple spots on the formation (Think J.J. Watt now).

It was a defense that coordinators are still trying to recreate, and with good reason. The '85 Bears are the only Super Bowl winning group in the franchise's rich history that includes nine NFL championships, and they are remembered as a fun, but extremely feared bunch, due in no small part to Buddy Ryan's "46" defense.

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