Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Updated: September 27, 2:35 PM ET
Readers: Best NFL defense
From the Page 2 mailbag
Earlier this week, Page 2 listed its choices for the 10 best NFL defenses of all time. However, we knew there were other potent protectors, and, as usual, we wanted your take.
We received about 1,000 letters on the topic, and here's how our readers ranked the top 10. Be sure to vote in the poll at right to crown the best NFL defense.
1. 1991 Eagles (269 letters)
Unfortunaetly people forget that this team was 8-8 with no quarterback. They went through six QBs after Randall Cunningham went down, including Pat Ryan (who was on a farm at the time) and Jeff Kemp! The Eagles averaged about 20 to 30 yards (or so it seemed) on offense a game.
The defense was a different story. They used to win us games. Not like Baltimore of 2000 that would give the offense a chance to win, this defense would actually win games (they won all eight that year). Check the stats on the '91 Birds and keep in mind the offense was regularly three and out!
Of course every defense has to be remembered for something spectacular, so if you want spectacular, you don't have to look any further than when they completely dumbfounded the Houston Oilers on Monday night. Houston could muster nothing on offense (and they were the Rams of their time). All this despite our offense contributing nothing ... again.
I can't say they were No. 1, but how can you leave the Eagles from 1989-91 off the list of top defenses? "Gang Green" terrorized offenses and quarterbacks into fear and submission. Can you say "body bag," 'Skins fans? An amazing front four plus linebackers such as Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons. ... Andre Waters decapitating hapless wideouts that dared to cross the middle of the field ... Eric Allen picking off passes left and right ...
This group is most likely left off the list because of a lack of playoff success. Blame the fog in Chicago, blame never having a dominating back, blame Randall not pulling it together or a coach who didn't lower himself to be bothered with an offense. You can't blame Gang Green. RIP, Jerome.
You completely missed the ball with the 1991 Philadelphia "Gang Green" defense. The Eagles D was led by certain Hall of Famer Reggie White, along with other Pro Bowlers such as the late, great Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen and Wes Hopkins. They led the NFL in rush defense, pass defense and total defense in 1991.
More impressively, however, was that they willed that Eagles team to a 10-win season (under Rich Kotite, no less) following Randall Cunningham's week one knee injury, while being led by such QB luminaries as Jeff Kemp, Brad Goebel and Pat Ryan, who was fresh from working at a construction site when he was called into duty after Jim McMahon's injury early in the season.
They didn't make the playoffs with 10 wins -- that's just unlucky -- it should not be held against this stellar, dominant defense.
2. 1985 Bears (231 letters)
If you love football, you loved the Steel Curtain, and Doomsday, and the Purple People Eaters, heck, you even liked Orange Crush. However, the bunch you adore is the 1985 Monsters of the Midway.
I still have the "44-0!" issue of Sports Illustrated after they demolished "America's Team." The league realized that everyone else was just playing for next year. When snowflakes started falling during the playoff game against the Rams, the Bears were scoring yet another defensive touchdown, you knew that even God was resigned to watching the "Super Bowl Shuffle."
The most intriguing part about this team is that Al Harris and Todd Bell became trivia questions -- two Pro Bowlers who held out for more money and missed the biggest party in NFL history. The only thing missing from this team was Papa Bear, but rumor has it that he's the one who nudged God and told Him to send the aforementioned snowflakes.
There is no doubt in my mind that these Bears were the greatest and most feared D of all time. Not only were other teams just plain scared of them, but Buddy Ryan's play calling and unique blitz packages confused everyone they went up against. They were also a very colorful group of personalities with guys such as the Fridge, Mongo McMichael and Otis Wilson. They have two Hall of Famers so far (Mike Singeltary and Dan Hampton), a sure-fire first-ballot inductee (once he's eligible) in Super Bowl MVP Richard Dent and other players such as Gary Fencik, Wilbur Marshall and McMichael who deserve consideration.
The Steelers were great, but Da Bears were the best.
Leaf River, Ill.
Buddy Ryan's 46 and the Bears' arrogance instilled a fear in opponents the likes of which I've never seen since (nearly matched by the 2000 Ravens). Those offenses that didn't crumble in the shadows of the complex blitzing schemes fell prey as that aggressive style exposed the vulnerable underbellies of standard O-lines. This defense, a risky gamble against offenses in later years that adjusted to it, found its place in history as the best defense of all time with one of the most talented lineups -- not only to execute it -- but to enforce it.
3. 1976 Steelers (135 letters)
Steel Curtain all the way. The Steelers in the '70s dominated the game in a way that was -- and still is -- unmatched. An unbelievable offense didn't hurt, but it was all in their defense. The Bears in 1985 came close to replicating this, but players who played the Steelers to this day speak of looking across the neutral zone and being scared of Jack Lambert growling back. John Randle loved to freak out the offensive line, but he never had the word "Mean" permanently added to his name. Not intimidated, not worried -- scared, completely scared.
Spout off stats all you want, but a frightened 300-pound offensive lineman says so much more. And what is also said more ... Whenever a defense is performing well over a season, who do analysts and announcers compare it to first and with more frequency than anything else. The Steel Curtain nickname is the most widely known nickname in sports, there's a reason for it.
University Park, Pa.
You'll undoubtedly get screaming protests from Bears fans for placing the '76 Steelers ahead of Buddy Ryan's crew, but you made the right choice.
The main thing that always impressed me with the Steelers' defense was that they were already the best, but when faced with a 1-4 start and Terry Bradshaw's injury, they stepped up and took their excellence to an untouchable level.
I was only 10 years old at the time and, being a Cowboys fan, absolutely hated the Steelers. But my dad taught me to appreciate defensive football, and 26 years later I still think the '76 Steelers were the best I've ever seen.
4. 2000 Ravens (92 letters)
They might be Johnny Come Latelys, but the 2000 Ravens went a month -- a month -- without scoring and offensive TD. That same team, obviously inept on offense, went on to win the Super Bowl (they went 2-2 during the no TD span) that season.
The amazing thing about that defense is they never tired. The philosophy is that you can grind it out against a team and eventually their D-line will wear down and become susceptible to big gains, especially on the ground. Not the Ravens, who played the four teams with arguably the best running games in the league in the postseason -- the multiback Denver Broncos, the Eddie George-led Titans, the Raiders who led the league in rushing yards and the Giants' thunder and lightning. All were emphatically shut down.
Even next season, with Elvis Grbac throwing picks right and left, and no Jamal Lewis to chew up the clock, the Ravens had the No. 2-ranked D, which carried them into the second round of the playoffs before the Steelers finally proved to be too much for them. But in 2000, the Ravens defense was king.
Offenses of recent years are more sophisticated than those of the '60s through '90s. They required smarter, stronger defenses to stop them. Unlike the '76 Steelers, the Ravens won it all and unlike the '85 Bears, Baltimore won the AFC championship on the road against a favored Oakland team -- not everyone realized just how dominating the Ravens were until they accomplished that little trick.
Finally, their offense was below average and left them poor field position to defend, but they still got the job done providing the O with good field position via takeaways.
5. 1986 Giants (61 letters)
I'm 33 and have been watching football regularly for the past 20 years. I didn't see first-hand the great defenses that were fielded in the 60s and 70s so I can't offer comment on them. But as far as the 16 game schedule goes, how could the '86 Giants not be on this list. I agree statistically other teams had better years, (an example is the 90 Giants which you have on the list).
But I remember watching the G-Men of '86 and they were being compared to da Bears of '85 as the most feared unit to ever play the game. That year nobody wanted to play the Giants. Also the NFC East was the toughest division in football that year. Also remember the playoffs that year, 49-3 over the 49ers and 17-0 over the 'Skins. In the Super Bowl they gave up 20 to Elway and the Broncs, 10 of which came in garbage time. The front seven in the 3-4 scheme was one of the best ever. If comparing defenses on a season by season basis is your goal here, you fumbled the ball (or maybe LT came from your blind-side & stripped the ball from you). Add the '86 Giants to your list.
They ran the perfect 3-4 defense. Their front seven was dominant. On the defensive line George Martin and Pro-Bowlers Leonard Marshall and Jim Burt plugged the two-gaps, pressured the QB and swallowed up runners. They also got big contributions from rookies Erik Howard and Eric Dorsey.
L.T., Carson, Banks and Reasons at LB were the best foursome ever put on the field. L.T. may be the best defensive player ever and he was at his best in 1986 as the NFL's best player on either side of the ball. Carl Banks was the perfect strong-side LB. He could shed the TE, stuff the run, cover downfield and pressure the QB. Future Hall-of-Famer Harry Carson was selected to his eighth Pro-Bowl in '86 and seemed to spend the whole season in the offensive backfield. They also had four contributing backups at LB (Pepper Johnson, Byron Hunt, Andy Headen and Robbie Jones) who could have been a starting quartet for most teams in the league.
Their secondary is underrated with guys like Mark Collins, Terry Kinard, Perry Williams and Kenny Hill. They didn't need to cover downfield too long as the opposing QB was usually on his back and they all provided physical run support.
Can we mention the defensive coaching staff too? This team had two great defensive coaches with Parcells as the head coach and the young defensive guru, Bill Belichik as the defensive coordinator.
How about playoff dominance? First, they crushed the powerful 49ers team 49-3 (remember Jim Burt slamming Montana into the turf and L.T. returning the pass for a TD). In the NFC Championship Game, captain Harry Carson set the tone against the potent Skins Offense when the Giants won the toss and he elected to defend first. What followed was a 17-0 shutout. Then they capped it all off by punishing the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXI.
6. 1977 Cowboys (36 letters)
Uhh, Doomsday? I know there are a lot of player haters out there who want to give the Cowboys NO credit, but those D-day defensive teams have to be way up there with the Steel Curtain. Unbelievable.
Cowboys' "Doomsday Defense" dominated opposing offenses, and lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win over Denver. Harvey Martin, Randy White, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Larry Cole, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson and cast.
Second best defense was the 1971 Dallas Cowboys that crushed the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI by a score of 24-3, the last game Miami lost before beginning its undefeated season of 1972. Bob Lilly, Herb Adderly, and Chuck Howley (who was the MVP of Super Bowl a year earlier in loss to Baltimore Colts) led the charge through the season and earned victories for the team in spite of the distractions caused by a season-long QB controversy between Craig Morton and Roger Staubach.
No Doomsday I or II?? What were you thinking? I am certain that some stats wienie will pencil whip me on this one, but answer me this, which team placed defensive linemen as MVPs of the Super Bowl? ... and P.S. What's wrong with the Raiders of the Alzado or Matuszak eras?
7. 2001 Patriots (33 letters)
You guys will get flooded by this, considering how rabid most Bostonians are on Page 2. But, ya gotta give some credit to the 2001 Pats.
It wasn't a particularly dominating defense statistically, but watching them on field -- they just destroyed the opposing offense. It's like Belichick was psychically picking up their plays and deploying the perfect defense to crush them. They finished the year with nine straight games of allowing 17 points or fewer -- all wins. Of course, it culminated in the complete shut down of a Rams team that was nearly unchanged and just as "unstoppable" as their 2000 team, which Page 2 just picked as No.1. on their list. Only a No.1 defense can shut down a No. 1 offense! Give the Pats the props.
They may not have stricken the pundits with awe, but everyone who played against them came out black and blue. Nobody wanted to see them again. Consider the postseason performance, allowing the vaunted running attack of the Steelers, the high scoring balanced attack of the Raiders and the Greatest Show on Turf an average of only 15.6 points per game. Consider six defensive touchdowns and a +13 turnover differential. Finally, consider playoffs and the Super Bowl, where the Steelers were going to stuff the football down their smash mouth style and wound up licking their wounds and where the Rams receivers folded up against the toughest, meanest defense they had seen all year. Give the coaching staff a couple of game films and I will take the Patriots defense over anyone.
8. 1973 Dolphins (28 letters)
You can't get any better than perfect! 17-0 says it all! This offense wasn't overpowering, it was the defense kept this team in every game.
1973 Fish hands down. The primary job of a defense is to stop scoring, and to get your O in position to score. They win games. Nicky's no-name beats out the superstar d's anyday.
East Lansing, Mich.
9. 1971 Vikings (22 letters)
They struck fear into offenses everywhere and left opposing coaches with limited options. The QB was scared to say "hike" when the Vikes were on the other side of the line ... he knew he was about to get sacked. Then there was the awesome nickname, its gotta be the "Purple People Eaters!"
Winter springs, Fla.
10. 1977 Falcons (19 letters)
How can you forget the Gritz Blitz? They hold the record for least points allowed in a 14 game season. Led by linebackers Tommy Nobis and Greg Brezina, along with defensive end Claude Humphrey and John Zook, they simply punished every team.
That year, Sports Illustrated featured an article where offensive players chose the team they least wanted to play -- the Atlanta Falcons were the overwhelming choice. As one QB put it, "You know going in that you are likely going to come out of that game on a stretcher. They hit, hit, hit, and then hit again."