The Championship Belt: NFL Defense Edition

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks defense needs no introduction. As a group, it’s accomplished just about everything a band of elite defensive players can be expected to do together. They’ve led the league in scoring defense. They’ve put together a streak in which they were virtually impenetrable, the 39-points-in-six-games run that ended their regular season. They’ve been the driving force behind a Super Bowl victory, pushing an occasionally struggling Seahawks offense through the playoffs in 2013 before coming up with a signature win against a legendary offense, holding what was probably the best offense in NFL history to eight points in last year’s 43-8 blowout. The only thing they haven’t done, I suppose, is repeat.

If they do defend their title with a dominant performance against Tom Brady & Co. on Sunday, the Seattle defense will have an impeccable résumé. So impeccable, in fact, that it got me wondering: Will the Seahawks have a case as the best defense in the history of modern professional football?

There are a lot of ways to ask and answer that question, none of which are ever going to be perfectly definitive, and that’s fine. In thinking about how I wanted to look at the question, an old friend popped into my head: the championship belt. Nobody doubts that Seattle is the best defense at the moment, but how long will the Seahawks have to reign supreme to mark a serious shot at the all-time throne?

With that in mind, I went back to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and started plotting out the history of the Best Defense Alive Championship Belt. For the uninitiated, I’ve run through this exercise in the past for quarterbacks, running backs, and even pitchers.

The idea is simple: If you took a poll of 1,000 dedicated football fans at the end of each given season, which team would they say had the best defense on the planet? That doesn’t necessarily mean the defense that had the best statistics that year or even the defense that looked the best that season — just, simple as can be, if you had to win a game with an average offense and average special teams, which defense would you choose?

Figuring that out from my perspective, of course, is an arbitrary and qualitative exercise that uses some quantitative data. I don’t want to just list the team that allowed the fewest points each season, but that’s also a good starting point in trying to find the likeliest candidates for each year’s spot. To get a measure of how many dominant players were on each team’s roster, I’ll be considering Pro Bowl and All-Pro nominations as well.

Trickier still is the idea of how to judge a defense’s impact on success. If the team it lines up with isn’t winning, it’s hard to really look at a defense and say it’s great, even if the losses aren’t the defense’s fault. Winning matters. Likewise, the perception of the defense’s share in the process is also important. What’s likely to seem like the better defense: a unit that finishes second in scoring defense on a 12-4 team that also features the league’s most dominant passing attack, or an identical unit with the same talent and points allowed on a 10-6 team that features a third-string quarterback and the league’s worst scoring offense? Most people would choose the latter, so here, being a great defense with a bad offense is actually a bit of a bonus.

Finally, because this is in the context of examining the Seahawks’ credentials and comparing them to great defenses from the past, I’m really more interested here in figuring out what the peak looked like for those dominant units from years gone by. There are stretches during which no single team dominates and randomness pushes a different team to the top, year after year, for a steady period of time. I made picks for those years, but they’re more arbitrary and debatable than the stretches in which one team was truly great. If you think there’s another team or set of teams that should have held the championship belt during those up-and-down times, I won’t argue with you.


The title starts with a no-brainer. Heading into 1970, the obvious choice for best defense alive was the Minnesota Vikings. Paced by the Purple People Eaters up front, Minnesota blew away the rest of the league’s defenses in 1969, allowing 9.5 points per game in an NFL where the rest of football was allowing 22.3 points per contest. If we’d held a fictional tournament in Rio de Janeiro for the belt, the Vikings would have won it comfortably. So we start there.

1969-71: Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings maintain the belt comfortably through the first two seasons of the merged AFL and NFL, leading the league in scoring defense during each of the three seasons in which they held the title. More on that rare achievement a little bit later. The Vikings allowed 143 points in 14 games (10.2 points per game) in 1970 in a league where nobody else managed to keep opposing offenses under 200 points. The following year, they held off the Baltimore Colts by one point to retain the scoring title, allowing just two rushing touchdowns in the process.

Minnesota was never able to turn its dominant defense into an actual title. Although the Vikings also ranked first in scoring offense in 1969, they ultimately lost 23-7 to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. That loss came as 12-point favorites, and the Vikings didn’t get that close again with this crew. They turned the ball over and got a 9-for-27 day from quarterback Gary Cuozzo in the 1970 playoff loss to the 49ers. The offense collapsed in 1971, falling to 18th in points scored, and despite the defense holding the Cowboys to 183 yards in the playoffs, a five-turnover game from Cuozzo and Bob Lee handed the Cowboys a 20-12 victory.

The defense fell to 11th in points allowed in 1972, and while the Vikings rebounded shortly thereafter, they were never really in position to claim the title again.

Joe Namath, Nick BuonicontiSteve Starr/AP

1972-73: Miami Dolphins

There’s something endearing and simple about picking a team that went undefeated. The ’72 Dolphins are an overrated football team, but their defense is difficult to argue with. The No-Name Defense basically played Pittsburgh to a dead heat during the regular season, finishing four points ahead of the Steelers in the points-allowed title. If there was a tiebreaker, it came in the playoffs, when the Dolphins overcame an early fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown by Steelers lineman Gerry Mullins. Miami held the Pittsburgh offense to 250 yards, limiting the Steelers to a field goal before a late touchdown got Pittsburgh up to 17 points. Two weeks later, Miami held Washington to seven points in Super Bowl VII.

The Dolphins retained the belt in 1973 under pressure from the Vikings, going 12-2 and leading the league in scoring defense (10.7 points per game). While the offense got quarterback Bob Griese back after he missed most of the undefeated season with an injury, the defense really stepped up, allowing fewer than 10 points in seven of Miami’s 14 games. And just as in the previous season, Miami won the Super Bowl by holding its opposition — this time Minnesota — to a mere seven points.

Miami fell to sixth in points allowed the following year, and truthfully, there was a team beating down the door to take over this belt.

1974-76: Pittsburgh Steelers

One of the perennial candidates in discussions of the best defense ever, the mid-’70s Steelers won the first two of their four ’70s Super Bowls while holding this belt. They had a budding competition going on with the Los Angeles Rams, who fielded one variation of the Fearsome Foursome over this time frame and deserved better. They just ran into the Steel Curtain.

Even though the Rams actually allowed eight fewer points than Pittsburgh in 1974, the Steelers made up for it with their postseason run. They shut out the Vikings offense in Super Bowl IX, with Minnesota’s score coming on a fumble return for zero yards. Minnesota gained just 119 yards from scrimmage. That’s enough to get Pittsburgh on the board for me.

The talent-laden Steelers then went on a tear. They had eight of their 11 defensive starters named to the Pro Bowl in 1975 and 1976, a feat unmatched in post-merger history. (Nobody else, as far as I can tell, has even made it past six.) They were again second to the Rams in points allowed in 1975, but the eight Pro Bowlers and the repeat Super Bowl victory are enough for them to retain the title.

Then, in 1976, Pittsburgh had one of the greatest defensive seasons ever seen. The Steelers allowed just 9.9 points per game and shut out five opposing offenses over the final eight weeks of the season. Five shutouts in one season hadn’t happened in professional football since 1944, when the Giants shut out five teams in a totally different league. The only problem is that the Steelers finally lost in the playoffs, allowing the Raiders to drop in three touchdowns in a 24-7 victory.

Pittsburgh still had great seasons to come, but 1977 successfully removed the title from the team’s grasp, as it ranked 17th in points allowed. That opened up the door for another famously monikered defense …

OCT 16 1978, OCT 21 1978; Football - Denver Broncos (No Action); On the Cover; The Denver Broncos' TKenn Bisio/The Denver Post/Getty Images

1977-78: Denver Broncos

The Orange Crush really came out of nowhere. The franchise was 18th in scoring defense in 1975, moved to a 3-4, and sparked a defensive revolution in Denver. The Broncos were sixth in scoring defense in 1976, moving all the way up to third in 1977 and second in 1978.

The Rams were in the running here, but the Broncos took the nod because of their star power. They had four of the 11 first-team All-Pros on defense in 1977, getting dominating seasons from Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, and safety Bill Thompson. They also didn’t have much of an offense, as a unit quarterbacked by Craig Morton finished 10th and 15th in scoring over those two years. Denver won the West both years almost entirely upon the strength of its defense.

They did just enough to win the belt in 1977, and while the Steelers led the league in points allowed and won the Super Bowl in 1978, they led by only three points. That’s not enough to take the belt away. In 1979, with Denver dropping back to a fifth-place tie in points allowed, finishing second in the West, and losing a wild-card heartbreaker to Houston, the title fell almost by default to the …

1979: Pittsburgh Steelers

There was no clear-cut favorite in terms of raw defensive performance in 1979, so it seems natural that the belt would have fallen to the Steelers. Pittsburgh had a roster full of defensive legends like Joe Greene and Jack Ham, won the Super Bowl with the league’s best-scoring defense in 1978, and successfully defended its crown in 1979. The team ranked only fifth in scoring defense that year, but that was in a tightly contained league where six teams finished within 25 points of the league’s leading defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I find it hard to believe that fans would have chosen the Bucs over the Steelers if they needed a defense to win one game, at least in 1979.

Pittsburgh retreated to 15th in scoring defense the following year, opening up the prize for the team’s local rivals.

1980-81: Philadelphia Eagles

One of the league’s better defenses for years under the stewardship of Dick Vermeil and defensive coordinator Marion Campbell, the Eagles took a leap forward at the turn of the decade. They allowed just 16 points over their first three games and never looked back, leading the league in points allowed during the 1980 and 1981 campaigns.

It was a relatively anonymous defense, as the only Eagles defender to make the Pro Bowl in 1980 was nose tackle Charlie Johnson, but the Eagles made their name with a 20-7 victory over the Cowboys and their top-ranked offense in the NFC Championship Game, forcing the Cowboys into three third-quarter turnovers in 12-degree weather. Curse you, Tony Ro— oh, not yet?

The Eagles fell to 19th in scoring defense during 1982, a season in which there were no winners.

1982: Vacant (strike year)
1983: Miami Dolphins
1984: San Francisco 49ers

After the strike, the belt bounced around for a couple of years. I picked the Dolphins in 1983 because their defense really kept them afloat as the team transitioned to Dan Marino as their quarterback of the future. Miami’s defense was strong enough to keep the Dolphins afloat before turning things over to Marino, who took over for a benched David Woodley in Week 5. Of course, Marino would produce one of the greatest seasons in NFL history the following year; Miami’s defense, which had ranked first in points allowed in 1983, fell to seventh and had its status usurped.

The 49ers were a dominant defense whose only problem was also being masked by their incredible offense. They went 15-1, won the Super Bowl, sent five defenders to the Pro Bowl, and ranked first in points allowed. They even delivered a heroic run during the playoffs, holding the middling offenses of the Giants and Bears to a combined 10 points before limiting Marino’s attack to 25 rushing yards, two interceptions, and 16 points in a Super Bowl blowout.


1985-88: Chicago Bears

But they just weren’t the ’85 Bears. The 49ers finished second in points allowed in 1985, allowing an impressive 263 points over the 16-game schedule. The Bears allowed 198 points for the whole season. They were not on the same planet as the rest of the NFL, and you probably don’t need me to tell you about it.

It wasn’t just 1985, though. The Bears were almost as good in 1986, when they allowed 187 points, beating out the second-placed Giants by 49 points. The Giants got an MVP performance from Lawrence Taylor that year and won the Super Bowl, but their success involved a competent offense. The Bears could offer up no such argument, as Mike Ditka turned to rookie Doug Flutie to start a playoff game after having him throw just 46 regular-season passes. It didn’t go well.

It’s hard for me to take the title away from the Bears in the two subsequent years, either. They were fourth in points allowed in 1987, but the league leader in that category was a Colts team that had been terrible the previous year. Maybe the third-place Niners could get the belt, but I don’t think they were that much better than the Bears, who went 11-4 on the strength of their defense despite starting four quarterbacks. In 1988, they started three passers and finished 18th in points scored, but by virtue of leading the league in points allowed for the third time in four years, they rolled off another 12-4 season and another NFC Central title.

Things fell apart quickly after that. The defense fell to 20th the following season as the Bears finished 6-10; after two 11-5 seasons built around a more balanced roster, Ditka went 5-11 and was let go. The Bears will reclaim the belt eventually. Just not any time soon.

1989-90: New York Giants

It’s much harder to pick the Giants in 1989 than it is in 1990. 1990 is the easy one, when they win the Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler filling in at quarterback and knock Joe Montana out of football for nearly two years in that brutal NFC Championship Game.

In 1989, the Giants are one of a handful of choices. You could give it to the Broncos, who led the league in points allowed, but they weren’t as dependent upon their defense because of John Elway, and they got stomped in the Super Bowl by 45 points. The 49ers could claim another year with the title, but again, they were so good on offense that it’s hard to say people really would have pinpointed the defense as the cause of their success. The Giants finished second in points allowed and went 12-4 in spite of their 12th-ranked offense, not because of it. That’s enough to win a very narrow tiebreaker.

Bill Parcells left after the Super Bowl win, starting the Ray Handley era, about which there is little to say. Here, the belt starts to jump around.

1991: Washington
1992: New Orleans Saints
1993: New York Giants
1994: Cleveland Browns
1995: San Francisco 49ers
1996: Carolina Panthers
1997: Kansas City Chiefs

That’s an ugly run, a seven-year stretch in which no team could hold on to the belt or stand out as particularly dominant for more than a season at a time. Look at that entire seven-year run and the best defense was probably a race among the 49ers (who allowed a league-low 16.3 points per game over that run), the Chiefs (second at 16.8 points per game), and the Cowboys (third at 17.1 points per game) — but none of those three really ever stood out from the pack for more than a season at a time. This was an era of inconsistency and parity, and most of the picks from this stretch are narrow selections at best.

Brad Culpepper (L) and Warren Sapp (C) of the TampJEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

1998-99: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Finally, stability! The Buccaneers had a reasonable claim on the belt in 1997, when they sent four players to the Pro Bowl and made the playoffs at 10-6 with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. But the Chiefs were so incredible over the final six games of the season, going on a winning streak with victories over the 49ers and Broncos, that it was hard to keep them out. When the Chiefs fell off in 1998, it left a wide-open race with no obvious winner, so I awarded the belt to the Buccaneers, who finished fifth in points allowed and sent three players — Warren Sapp, Hardy Nickerson, and Derrick Brooks — to the Pro Bowl.

The following year, Tony Dungy basically deserved a medal. The combination of Dilfer and injury replacement Shaun King could only push the Bucs to 27th in points scored, but that was no problem for the league’s third-ranked defense. Tampa Bay needed to win low-scoring games and had no problem doing so; the team won games 19-5, 13-10, and 6-3 before Halloween.

The Bucs also delivered one of the forgotten incredible performances in playoff history. Facing the Greatest Show on Turf Rams in St. Louis for the 1999 NFC Championship Game, Tampa Bay held the Rams to a field goal (and a safety) for the first 55 minutes, with a pair of short Martin Gramatica field goals leaving the score at 6-5. The Rams finally broke through with a third-down touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl, taking an 11-6 lead. Tampa Bay’s desperate final drive would stall after Bert Emanuel’s catch was famously overturned, wasting an incredible defensive performance.

2000: Baltimore Ravens

You already know about the 2000 Ravens, so I should talk about why they lost the belt. They were still very good in 2001, finishing fourth in points allowed, but there was a gap of more than 50 points between Baltimore and the three teams at the top of the list. That’s just too big of a chasm to overcome. It’s also hard to tell the story of a defense being held back by its offense after what the Ravens did with Dilfer and Tony Banks at quarterback the previous year. Elsewhere, there was magic happening.

2001: Chicago Bears

The Bears led the league in points allowed and went 13-3 despite giving Jim Miller 13 starts at quarterback. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache had a weird career; his Bears were the best-scoring defense in football in 2001 and didn’t rank better than 20th in his other four years at the helm. When he took over as Washington’s defensive coordinator six years later under Jim Zorn, he immediately improved Washington’s scoring defense from 11th in 2007 to sixth in 2008, only for that figure to fall to 18th the following year and end Blache’s career as an NFL defensive coordinator.

2002: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is a popular choice as the best season of defense in NFL history. The Bucs rated second in the Standard Score analysis I conducted before last year’s Super Bowl. Tampa Bay sent five defenders to the Pro Bowl, and really, it wouldn’t have been that far off to send the whole team. The Buccaneers allowed 12.2 points per game in a league where the average team scored 21.7 points per game. That’s just unreal.

They fell to fourth in scoring defense the following year and got jumped by a defense that couldn’t stop winning.

Buffalo Bills Vs. New England PatriotsBarry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

2003-04: New England Patriots

Here, in the early days of the Tom Brady era, the Patriots were a defense-first team that protected the football and tried to avoid putting too much on Brady’s shoulders. A staggeringly deep, talented defense delivered consecutive titles during these seasons, leading the league in scoring defense in 2003 before tying for second in 2004. Their spell over Peyton Manning didn’t hurt things, either. They were almost exactly league-average in 2005, opening up the door for …

2005-06: Chicago Bears

… yet another run from the Bears, who carried a rookie Kyle Orton and an injury-riddled Rex Grossman to two otherworldly seasons. The Bears led the league in scoring defense by 45 points in 2005, going 11-5 and winning the NFC North with a rookie fourth-round pick under center. Other rookie fourth-rounders are a combined 18-44-1 since the merger. Maybe it was just Orton’s moxie.

Taking Grossman to the Super Bowl the following year might be even more impressive. That season started with a combined 36 points allowed through five games before the Cardinals showed up and dropped 23 points in the Dennis Green press conference game. They couldn’t do much about Manning in the Super Bowl, having lost some effectiveness after critical defensive tackle Tommie Harris tore his hamstring in December. Again, though: Rex Grossman. Baltimore posted the best Standard Score in league history during the 2006 season, but perception doesn’t include Standard Score, and the Bears were going to the Super Bowl with that guy as their quarterback.

The Bears retreated to league-average the following year, going 7-9 while finishing 16th in scoring defense. That launched another stretch of one-year runs with the belt:

2007: Indianapolis Colts
2008: Pittsburgh Steelers
2009: New York Jets

There’s no real strong candidate in 2007; you could technically pick the Giants for what they did to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but trust me: They were not that good for most of the season. That Colts season is forgotten now, but it was the best defensive performance Manning ever got over a full season during his time in Indy, with Bob Sanders playing 15 games for a unit that led the league in scoring defense.

With no dominant team in 2008 or 2009, it comes down to dominant players. The Steelers had arguably the best overall defender (Troy Polamalu) and best pass-rusher (James Harrison) in football on their roster in 2008, which couldn’t have hurt their case. They led the league in points allowed and won the Super Bowl, which actually really strengthens the case. In 2009, though, the Jets had Rex Ryan and Darrelle Revis coming together for the first time, and what could be more beautiful than that?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo BillsJared Wickerham/Getty Images

2010-11: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers ranked 12th in scoring defense in 2009 and missed the playoffs at 9-7, so we can’t just sneak them in and suggest Pittsburgh had a four-year dynasty. The Steelers were slightly ahead of their competitors in a pair of two-team races these years. First, they beat out the Packers in 2010 by virtue of allowing a league-low 14.5 points per game, even if Green Bay responded by beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Then, although the 49ers went 13-3 in 2011 with Alex Smith at the helm, the Steelers again led the league in points allowed, which really makes it tough to take the title away. Sadly, the Steelers held on to this group for too long, and Pittsburgh is now desperate for reinforcements on the back end.

2012-14: Seattle Seahawks

There they are, and it isn’t really close. You could maybe make a case for the Bears in 2012 by virtue of their ridiculous eight-touchdown season, but that’s the only contender. The Seahawks have now led the league in scoring defense in each of the past three seasons, becoming the first team since the 1969-1971 Vikings to pull off that feat. They have an impeccable résumé, as I mentioned above. There’s almost nothing left for them to do.

Well, repeating as champion and establishing a fourth season as the best defense in football would help. That would tie them with the 1985-1988 Bears for the longest peak with the Best Defense Alive Championship Belt. If they could win the scoring title for a fourth consecutive year, that would make Seattle the first team to accomplish that since the Browns, who did it four consecutive times from 1954 to 1957. That’s unheard of.

The Seahawks haven’t had a high quite as staggering as the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Buccaneers did, but this Seattle team has been the best in football for a very long time. It holds the Best Defense Alive Championship Belt, and it’s going to take a herculean effort from the Patriots on Sunday to make it look like Seattle’s longtime status is up for grabs. If the team can repeat on Sunday and hold on to this championship belt for one more season in 2015, I think it would be fair to say the Seattle Seahawks are the best defense in modern NFL history.

Filed Under: Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, NFL, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins, 2015 NFL Playoffs

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell