Ranking the 10 greatest defenses in NFL history

Steelers 1976
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long had a steeler defensive reputation. Photo from Fansided.

Even if the modern NFL is centered around offense, it’s more relevant than ever to debate the greatest NFL defense ever.

After all, the offense might sell tickets but the defense wins championships, which is why so many Super Bowl winners have been led by their defense. 

Of course, deciding on the best NFL defense ever is no easy task. Top-flight defenses used to be a lot more common than today. Plenty of teams have put together elite defensive units using some of the best NFL defensive players of all time. In other words, we’ve had a lot of options to consider.

Greatest NFL defenses ever

Every year, one team has the best NFL run defense while another team has the best NFL pass defense. But it’s not every team that can dominate in both of those areas and create a defense that’s worthy of being considered among the best of all time.

While it was a challenge, here is our countdown of the best NFL defenses ever. 

10. 1969 Chiefs

This defense was incredible all season, ultimately leading the Chiefs to a win in Super Bowl IV. During the season, they allowed just 12.6 points per game and a mere four yards per snap.

They also racked up 32 interceptions during the season with 17 of them coming from Johnny Robinson and Emmitt Thomas alone. When Kansas City got matched up against another top-flight defense in the Super Bowl against the Vikings, the Chiefs proved to be the better team, winning 23-7.

9. 1972 Dolphins 

The Miami offense got most of the credit for the Dolphins surviving the entire season undefeated, but the defense played just as big of a role.


It was called the “No-Name Defense” because it didn’t receive much attention, but there were some big names on it, including four players who were selected to the Pro Bowl that year. Including the playoffs, only three teams scored more than 17 points against the Dolphins in 17 games.

Keep in mind the Dolphins scored 24 points or less in 10 of their 17 games, so there’s no way they would have gone unbeaten if this wasn’t one of the best defensive teams in NFL history.

8. 1986 Giants

The 1986 Giants had Lawrence Taylor in his prime, which is enough to put together a great defense. But they also had Pro Bowlers Leonard Marshall and Jim Burt at the line of scrimmage, as well as a rock-solid secondary.

This group got after quarterbacks in a way few defenses ever have before, racking up 59 sacks and knocking a few quarterbacks out with good, clean hits. Naturally, the G-Men rode this defense to a Super Bowl victory after giving up just three points in the Divisional Round and shutting out Washington in the NFC Championship Game.

7. 2013 Seahawks

There’s no better proof for how good the Seattle defense was in 2013 than what they did in the Super Bowl. The Broncos had a historically good offense that just set the record for points scored in a 16-game regular season, averaging 37.9 points per game.

But the Denver offense was helpless against the Legion of Boom and the Seahawks, mustering a measly eight points in the Super Bowl.

They became the first defense to lead the league in points allowed, takeaways, and yards allowed since the team at no. 1 on our list. This team is best known for its secondary, which had three All-Pros, but the likes of Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright also played a huge role on this great defense that allowed just 40 points in three playoff games on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

6. 2015 Broncos

Two years after an amazing defense dominated their historically good offense in a Super Bowl, the Broncos won a Super Bowl with their own historically good defense. Led by cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, the Denver secondary was known as the “No-Fly Zone.”

They also had Von Miller when he was undoubtedly the past pass rusher in the league. During the regular season, half of their opponents were held to 17 points or less. But the Broncos were even better during the playoffs, giving up just 14.7 points per game. Tom Brady’s Patriots managed just 18 points while MVP Cam Newton and the Panthers were held in check despite going 15-1 and scoring 49 points in the NFC Championship Game.

The Broncos forced four turnovers in the Super Bowl with Miller earning MVP honors.

Read more: Best NFL Draft classes of all-time

5. 1991 Eagles

Not only did this team not win the Super Bowl, but they also didn’t even make the playoffs. But that has more to do with Randall Cunningham tearing his ACL in Week 1. The fact that the Eagles still went 10-6 that season is a testament to how good the Philadelphia defense was in 1991.

They had five All-Pros on defense, including three members of the defensive line. The great Reggie White had 15 of the team’s 55 sacks, which is why the Eagles went 10-6 with the Eagles scoring the fourth-fewest points in the league. In 16 games, the Eagles held 10 opponents to 20 points or less but still lost two of those games.

4. 2002 Buccaneers

The Super Bowl-winning Bucs had five All-Pros in 2002, and all of them played defense. Thanks to John Lynch and Ronde Barber in the secondary, Tampa had 31 interceptions while allowing just 10 passing touchdowns during the regular season.

It also helped to have Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice at the line of scrimmage, combining for 23 sacks, not to mention the great Derrick Brooks cleaning up everything in the middle of the field.

In 19 total games, the Bucs had two shutouts and held nine other teams to 10 points or less. How else do you explain winning a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson?

3. 2000 Ravens

It’s not every day that a defense holds opponents to just 10.3 points per game over a full season. But that’s what the Baltimore defense pulled off in 2000 on its way to claiming a Super Bowl while giving up just 23 total points in four playoff games with the Baltimore special teams giving up seven of those points.

This team had one of the NFL’s best run defenses, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry and one of the NFL’s best pass defenses, giving up a mere 11 passing touchdowns during the season.

Somehow, there were just three Pro Bowlers on this defense, although one of them was Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, as well as Sam Adams and Rod Woodson. The likes of Rob Burnett and Peter Boulware were also impact players despite being Pro Bowl snubs.

2. 1976 Steelers

This had to have been the best defense the Steelers had during the years of the Steel Curtain.

After a sluggish start, the Steelers won nine in a row to finish the season, giving up a total of 28 points in those nine games. That stretch included five shutouts. In fact, even if you include the two losses right before that winning streak, the Steelers only gave up 5.7 points per game over a stretch of 11 games.

This team had four All-Pros on defense and two more Pro Bowlers. Of course, they were led by the legendary Mean Joe Greene with all three starting linebackers being selected to the Pro Bowl. In the end, they lost in the AFC Championship Game, but during the 10 games before that, there was no better defense in NFL history.

1. 1985 Bears

While the Steel Curtain was special, the greatest NFL defense ever belongs to the 1985 Bears. Behind this legendary defense, the Bears went 15-1 and cruised through the playoffs, outscoring their three opponents 91-10.

Somehow, the defense had more All-Pros than Pro Bowlers. Mike Singletary was the most memorable member of the Chicago defense, but it was Richard Dent and Otis Wilson who did the most damage with 17 and 10.5 sacks, respectively.

As mentioned, the Bears led the league in points allowed, yards allowed, and takeaways thanks to 34 interceptions and 20 recovered fumbles, not to mention 64 sacks. Including the playoffs 14 of 19 teams scored 10 points or less against the Bears, including a stretch of seven straight games in the middle of the season and three dominant games in the playoffs. That puts the 1985 Bears just a little ahead of the pack for the greatest ever NFL defense.

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About Bryan Zarpentine 220 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

2 Comments

  1. They forgot the gritz blitz falcons 1977 held all opponents to an average of around 10 points a game. They went 7-7 and did not make the playoffs due to a terrible offense but since this countdown is about great defenses they should get mentioned.

    • well every great defense needs to have a good offence and if they were truly that good they would score on defense

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