Best NFL Defenses Of All Time: Top 5 Legendary Squads, According To Experts

The old saying in the National Football League (NFL) is that defense wins championships. In the NFL, if your defense isn’t a solid unit, your team will likely lose football games. Regardless of how great an offense is, the defense must be able to get stops in key moments and force turnovers such as interceptions and fumbles or your team will probably fall short of the Super Bowl. Undoubtedly, we’ve seen some all-time great defensive units over the years, but only a few can be called the best NFL defenses of all time.

The best defenses are incredibly entertaining to watch, but a recent study found that simply attending live sporting events can boost your mental health as much as getting a job. A survey out of England found that respondents who recently attended a live sporting event – professional or otherwise – scored better in terms of ‘life satisfaction’ than those who had not recently been to a game. The survey of 7,000 adults is the first of its kind to examine the mental health benefits of attending sporting events. Overall, sports fans claim that watching live events makes them feel more ‘worthwhile’ and leaves them feeling satisfied.

While we’re on the topic of attending live sporting events, another study found that the average sports fan is willing to travel and spend big bucks just to watch their favorite team play in person. A survey of 2,000 self-identified sports fanatics examined the lengths people are willing to go to in order to watch their favorite sports team play in person. The survey found that the average fan is willing to travel a whopping five hours and 48 minutes plus spend $762.20 on tickets just to see their favorite team play live. Although, if you’re buying tickets to an NFL game, you’re probably not hoping for an epic defensive battle. 

So, which defensive squads are considered the greatest in NFL history? StudyFinds did some research, consulting 10 sports and football-related websites in an effort to bring you a consensus best NFL defenses of all time. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed defensive teams from across these sites. Think one of the all-time defenses was snubbed? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

brown Wilson American football
Football (Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash)

The List: Best NFL Defenses of All Time, According to Fans

1. 1985 Chicago Bears

The top spot on the list of the best NFL defenses of all time belongs to the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. The ‘85 Bears are one of the best NFL teams in history, and that defense was a big reason for the team’s overall dominance that season. 

“The 1985 Chicago Bears are the team that all great defenses look up to. The unit was extremely physical, and Mike Singletary and crew would destroy opposing quarterbacks… 12 of the team’s final 13 opponents were held under 20 points, and the Bears were first in yards allowed per game, points allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per game, and turnovers. En route to a Super Bowl championship, the Bears didn’t allow a single postseason point until the championship game. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was must-see TV, and fans of their opponent had to pray that their quarterback wasn’t going to get injured when they played the Bears,” explains Clutch Points

The ‘85 Bears finished the regular season with only one loss, a close Monday Night Football contest against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. The team was led by legendary Chicago tight end Mike Ditka in the head coach’s role, but the defense was orchestrated by Buddy Ryan. He implemented a 4-6 defense designed to get after quarterbacks, and that’s exactly what the defense did. 

“Under the leadership of feared middle linebacker Mike Singletary, the unit is remembered for the aggressive 46 defense pioneered by Buddy Ryan. The havoc resulted in 64 sacks and pressured opponents into a league-high 34 interceptions. Chicago allowed an NFL-low 12.4 points per game and surrendered just 10 total points during three playoff wins, including a 46-10 beatdown of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX,” furthers Bleacher Report

The Bears’ defense went through the playoffs like a hot knife through butter and Super Bowl XX was no different. The Bears obliterated the Patriots with a staggering seven sacks and six turnovers. In the end, the offensive players carried Ditka off the field while the defense carried Ryan off. It’s one of the most popular images in all of Chicago sports history. 

“The success of this team is almost mythical. The ’85 Bears led the league in yards, points, first downs and turnovers en route to a 15-1 regular season. In the playoffs, they shut out both the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams and did not allow a touchdown for 11 quarters. They finished things off with a 46-10 dismantling (123 total yards allowed, 7 sacks, 6 takeaways) of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX,” adds Athlon Sports

2. 2000 Baltimore Ravens

Next up on the list of the best defenses in NFL history is none other than the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. The 2000 Ravens were led by the NFL’s all-time greatest linebacker, Ray Lewis, and that defensive unit was nothing short of dominant. 

Ray Lewis in his Ravens uniform
Ray-Lewis-2008-Steelers-regseason-game” by Andy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cropped by User:Blueag9. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“Baltimore had a ton of stars, including Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, Rob Burnett, and Peter Boulware. The Ravens allowed 924 points and 970 rushing yards. Both marks set an NFL record for a 16-game season. In the playoffs, there was very little letdown… Baltimore advanced to the Super Bowl with a 16-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders. The over/under for the Super Bowl was 33 points. Baltimore forced five turnovers for the second straight game as they defeated the New York Giants 34-7. New York’s only touchdown came on a kickoff return. To recap, Baltimore allowed one offensive touchdown in four playoff games,” explains Gambling Sites

The 2000 Ravens’ defense was nothing short of amazing. The team played a physical brand of football, and it all started in the first game of the season. The Ravens opened with their rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers and shut them out in week one. That victory set the tone for the rest of the season, and if fans weren’t taking this team seriously before that game, they certainly would after that dominant performance. 

“During the regular season, the Ravens shut out four opponents, then got better in the playoffs, allowing a total of only 23 points in four games, including their 34-7 victory over the Giants in the Super Bowl. Even though they had a relatively easy regular-season schedule (opponents had only a .428 winning percentage), their playoff performance was outstanding,” writes ESPN

If you ask Lewis, the 2000 Ravens are the best defense of all time. However, Lewis was still very young in the 2000 NFL season. His career had just begun and Lewis was still in the process of solidifying himself as the top middle linebacker in pro football. However, he was joined by legendary safety and defensive back Rod Woodson, who helped lead that defense and the rest is history. 

“The 2000 Ravens also have a case for boasting the best defense ever. They led the league in points allowed (10.3), run defense (60.6 yards allowed/game) and takeaways (49). Hall of Famer linebacker Ray Lewis was the heart of the unit, but it also had a Hall of Famer in the back end in safety Rod Woodson in addition to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sam Adams,” furthers Fox Sports

3. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers

Next up on the list of the best defensive teams in NFL history is the legendary ‘76 Pittsburgh Steelers and the “Steel Curtain” defense. The Steel Curtain was tough, gritty, and incredibly fun to watch — unless you cheered for one of their rivals. 

“The Steelers allowed 138 points, and had 41 sacks this year. Mel Blount and Glen Edwards were part of a ball-hawking secondary, both with six interceptions. This was a stretch of years with a very good defense, as Pittsburgh has often been known for in their franchise history. Jack Lambert and Jack Ham are some other names. Did I forget to mention Mean Joe Greene was bullying offensive linemen for a decade. This was truly a toss-up, as I wouldn’t deny anyone arguing they were the best defense of all-time,” writes Lineups

The ‘76 Steelers had playmakers at every level of the defense. In fact, the entire starting secondary made the Pro Bowl that season. However, the ‘76 Steelers defense wasn’t a ‘lightning in a bottle’ type of team. This was a dynasty that had dominated opposing NFL offenses for years.  

“In 1976, after a 1-4 start, the Steelers’ defense surrendered only 28 points in the final nine games. Eight Steeler defenders made the Pro Bowl that season. Between 1973-78, opposing quarterbacks had only a 45.0 passer rating. They also played a large part of the season without Terry Bradshaw, the defense pulled together and gave up next to nothing with Bradshaw out, culminating in a 7-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in a snowstorm in Cincinnati to win the division,” explains The Grueling Truth.  

Although the ‘76 Steelers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl that season, the defense did everything it could to get the team to the championship game. The Steelers lost the AFC Championship to the Oakland Raiders, but no one can discount the sheer dominance of that defense. 

“Statistically, this was the best overall defense of the team’s dominant run, but the season would end in disappointment. After taking down the Baltimore Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Steelers would fall to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game. In no way should that take away from the accomplishments of the team in 1976. The Steelers would shut opponents out five times. Over one five-game stretch, they allowed a total of 9 points. For the final three games of the season, opponents put a grand total of 3 points on the board. Team MVP Jack Lambert led the way for one of the best defenses of all-time,” furthers The Lines

4. 1986 New York Giants

The fourth spot on the list of the best NFL defenses of all time belongs to the ‘86 New York Giants. The ‘86 Giants were led by Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor (LT), arguably the greatest defensive football player ever. Together, the two Hall of Famers led the ‘86 Giants to the Super Bowl in dominating fashion. 

“The Big Blue Wrecking Crew was led by arguably the game’s best defensive player ever in Lawrence Taylor. The linebacker became the second (and most recent) defensive player to win MVP of the league. He then took his team to a dominant Super Bowl win over John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Taylor recorded 20.5 sacks and 105 tackles this season, but the Giants weren’t all about LT. The G-Men had three other defensive Pro Bowlers, in Harry Carson, Jim Burt, and Leonard Marshall. Carl Banks had 113 tackles, and no one could run the ball on New York in 1986,” writes Clutch Points

LT is arguably the greatest defensive player who ever played in the NFL, but he had a lot of help on that ‘86 team. LT was joined by future Hall of Famer Harry Carson and together they simply dominated the competition. 

“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,” adds Franchise Sports

The ‘86 Giants destroyed the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs with a score of 49-3. The 49ers were led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, arguably two of the greatest at their respective positions in NFL history, and the Giants were able to hold them to only a field goal. The team went on to beat the Washington team 17-0 before meeting John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. The Giants were down 10-9 at halftime of that Super Bowl before coming out hot in the second half and obliterating the Broncos.   

“Not only did the 1986 New York Giants wreak havoc on offensive players, they mangled coaching styles and confounded quarterbacks along the way… New York amassed 59 sacks, knocking out several quarterbacks yet never building a reputation as a dirty team. The Giants intercepted 24 passes and gave up only 14.8 points per game. They held three postseason opponents to 23 total points, winning Super Bowl XXI 39-20 over the Broncos,” furthers Bleacher Report

5. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rounding out the list of the best defensive units in NFL history is none other than the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The ‘02 Bucs were led by a whole squad of eventual Hall of Fame defensive players including Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, and Ronde Barber. This team had playmakers at literally every level of the defense, and that was never more apparent than during their Super Bowl trouncing of the Oakland Raiders. 

“In addition to dominating opponents, the 2002 Buccaneers were always a threat to take interceptions to the house. They did so three times in their Super Bowl win over the Oakland Raiders,” explains Athlon Sports

The ‘02 Bucs didn’t just shine in the Super Bowl. This team was one of the toughest defenses to pass on in the history of professional football, allowing only 10 passing touchdowns all season. Similar to the other defenses on this list, the ‘02 Bucs defense featured Hall of Famers at every level and had almost no weaknesses for offenses to exploit.  

“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,” furthers Franchise Sports

Warren Sapp penetrated the interior of offensive lines while Simeon Rice dominated the edge. If teams were lucky enough to get past those two, Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks was waiting for them at the next level while safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber held down the secondary. Still, no one gave the Bucs a chance in the Super Bowl against the high-powered offense of the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs dominated the Raiders, intercepting quarterback Rich Gannon a staggering five times and returning three of those for touchdowns. It was a masterclass on defensive football. 

“[T]he Buccaneers went 12-4 during the regular season and followed that up by dominating in the playoffs. For two NFC playoff contests, opponents could only muster 16 points. In Super Bowl XXXVII, they dominated the Oakland Raiders in a 48-21 win. The game was nowhere near as close as the score suggested. Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon was picked off five times, three of which were returned for scores,” adds The Lines

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Comments

  1. 85 Bears are without a doubt the greatest D ever. Would love to know where the experts would rank the Purple People Eaters ?

  2. Where’s the nofly zone we held Tom Brady Ben roethlisberger and Cam Newton when he was leaving MVP the one touchdown pascoon all three of them and not f****** postseason you’re going to it it ain’t on the list f*** this

  3. I am a huge Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan . If they weren’t on this list expletives were forthcoming and your knowledge & credibility is negligible. U gave them no. 5. I will take it and you did accurate analysis of every team . Excellent job .

  4. Pittsburg’s defense was dominant over a longer period of time. If you notice, the’85 Bears were domiant over the course of ONE year while Pittsburg’s Defense was dominant from 74-80. Had to adjust to new rule changes that were a result of the way that team played. NO OTHER defense can claim that. The Ravens defense ( and I HATE the Ravens ) was consistent over the course of many years too, not just a flash in the pan like the ’85 Bears. So my points are, if you are doing ONE year, this list is accurate, but if you are grading over the course of several years, this list would look VERY different. #1 would be PIttsburg 1974-1980, #2 would be Ravens, 2000-2004, # 3 Would Be Dallas’ from 75-80, #4 Would be TB 99-2002, #5 Seattle 2011-2014.

    1. The 1984 Chicago Bears recorded 72 sacks, still a record today. The 1986 Bears allowed 187 points, a record for fewest points allowed that has been broken once (2000 Ravens). In between those record defensive seasons they won the Super Bowl with the greatest D of all time. The Bears won their division 5 years in a row and 6 times in 7 years. Not a flash in the pan by any measure.

  5. I agree with your assessment of the ‘85 Bears as the greatest, but they did not run a “4-6 defense” as you stated. It was named 46 after the number of strong safety Doug Plank, who was on th team as the D was being honed. What would a 4-6 defense be? Please do your homework and don’t make stuff up.

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