Ranking the top NFL defenses of all time is a challenging task that opens up a whole host of questions. While there have been numerous units through the years that are worthy of consideration, only a select few make the cut.
There’s a solid consensus on which defenses deserve to be among the top of the list, but it’s less clear cut after that.
For example, how do we compare the top units from decades ago with defenses in the modern era that have to contend with an inflated scoring environment?
To sort through that question, we have to remember that context is key. As such, we examine defenses in relation to the state of the league that year.
To determine which defenses would make the cut, we consider several variables. For starters, the ultimate success of the team in that given year.
Spoiler alert: you will see many Super Bowl-winning teams on our list.
However, we couldn’t make that the only factor to consider. After all, there have been some historically great defenses that couldn’t get the job done. You’ll see a number of them here as well.
After compiling the contenders from both categories, it was time to sift through the numbers. Key stats such as points allowed per game, yards per play allowed, turnovers and sacks generated were factored into the equation.
In the end, we had a hard time narrowing it down to a final 25, but the ones we have chosen are more than worthy.
Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the best defenses in NFL history.
25. 1990 New York Giants
The second Super Bowl team of the Bill Parcells’ era in New York did things the same way as the first: With ferocious defense and just enough on offense. While this unit didn’t smash any records for statistical proficiency, they certainly got the job done when it mattered most.
During the regular season, the club held eight opponents to 10 points or less. The performance remained stout during the postseason. After holding the Chicago Bears to 3 points in the divisional round, the high-powered San Francisco 49ers were held to 13 as the Giants won the NFC Championship.
That set up a date in Super Bowl XXV with the Buffalo Bills, another prolific offense from the era. The Giants employed a smashmouth style to control the clock, and the defense held the Bills in check for a 20-19 victory. This unit was loaded with star power as well, including legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
24. 1973 Oakland Raiders
In 1972, the Oakland Raiders lost one of the most memorable postseason games in NFL history. Franco Harris, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, snagged what has come to be known as the Immaculate Reception as the Raiders were stunned in the divisional round.
That’s a tough loss to come back from, but the Raiders did just that. While the record stood at just 9-4-1 when the regular season came to a close, this was a hard-nosed team that held opponents to an average of 12.5 points per game.
The team qualified for the postseason again, this time exacting some revenge on the Steelers to the tune of 33-14. The club would fall in the AFC title game to the Miami Dolphins, but that doesn’t take away the accomplishments of this stellar defense, which was led by all-time greats such as cornerback Willie Brown.
23. 2004 New England Patriots
It has been tough sledding for the rest of the NFL since the duo of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces. Since coming together in 2000, the New England Patriots have won six Super Bowl titles and lost in three other big games. From 2011-18, the team made it to at least the AFC title game every year.
Belichick and Brady deserve plenty of credit for the Patriots dynasty, but the defense has also been a hallmark of the club. While the Patriots may not rack up gaudy stats on that side of the ball, the unit is traditionally known for being efficient and gelling quite well when the chips are down.
The 2004 edition of the Patriots had arguably the finest defense that the team has cobbled together in its run of excellence. defensive tackle Richard Seymour, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison led the way, with all three receiving AP All-Pro honors for outstanding seasons.
22. 1993 Dallas Cowboys
When thoughts turn to the dominant Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, most folks will often think of the trio that was affectionately known as the triplets: quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin. While those offensive superstars certainly played a huge role in the Cowboys success, the defense did more than just come along for the ride.
During the regular season, the unit held six opponents to 10 points or less. In the postseason, the Cowboys had to run through a gauntlet of prolific offenses in the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills. None of them scored more than 21 points.
Appropriately, it was a 46-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, which swung the momentum in the Super Bowl XXVIII victory over the Bills. Standout performers on this underrated unit included defensive end Charles Haley and linebacker Ken Norton Jr.
21. 1984 San Francisco 49ers
What the Patriots are today is what the 49ers were back in the 1980s. Similar to the ’90s Cowboys, the 49ers of the ’80s are best remembered for stars on offense such as quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice.
However, the 49ers wouldn’t have had as much success as they did if they couldn’t bring it on defense as well. Of all the great teams in franchise history, the 1984 collection on defense was the best of the bunch, holding opponents to an average of just 14.2 points per game.
In the playoffs, it was even better as the 49ers gave up a combined total of 26 points over three games. Linebacker Keena Turner and defensive back Ronnie Lott are among nine players from this phenomenal team who would earn AP All-Pro honors.
20. 1977 Denver Broncos
In the late 1970s, the Denver Broncos had a number of fantastic defenses. The 1977 edition was the best of the bunch. The team made it to the Super Bowl that season and a defense that held opponents to an average of 10.6 points per game played a huge role.
The club would set the tone for the year with a shutout victory in Week 1 over the St. Louis Cardinals. For the remainder of the regular season, six more opponents would fail to reach 10 points. Competition stepped up in the playoffs, but the Broncos would take down the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders to reach the big game.
A 27-10 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys was a disappointing end to the year. That doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of this standout team, led by players such as linebacker Tom Jackson on defense.
19. 1978 Dallas Cowboys
In the early years of the Super Bowl era, the Cowboys were regular participants with five appearances in the first 13 big games. That included after the 1978 season when the team would meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII as defending champs.
The Cowboys would come up short in that contest, falling by a score of 35-31. However, this was the best defensive unit the franchise put together through its run of success in the 70s. Opponents were held to an average of 13 points per game in the regular season, with eight of them scoring 10 points or less.
In the NFC Championship game, they would ultimately hold the Los Angeles Rams in check for a 28-0 victory. Among the many legendary players on this team were defensive ends Ed Jones and Harvey Martin.
18. 1992 New Orleans Saints
A ferocious corps of linebackers made the 1992 New Orleans Saints a team, which no one in the league wanted to face. Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Ricky Jackson went down as one of the best collections of linebackers in NFL history.
During the season, the Saints would hold opponents to an average of 12.6 points per game while racking up 57 sacks and forcing 38 turnovers. Six opponents were held to 10 points or less during the memorable campaign.
In the wild card round of the playoffs, the Saints would square off with another bruising team in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles. New Orleans was one and done in the postseason after a 36-20 defeat, leaving many to imagine what might have been if this team had more pieces in place.
17. 2015 Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning would earn the second Super Bowl ring of his career as a member of the 2015 Denver Broncos. While that’s the biggest headline that comes to mind when considering that squad, it doesn’t do the rest of the team the justice it deserves.
By this stage of his career, Manning was still a competent quarterback, albeit one who had seen better days. He was benched for a stretch in favor of Brock Osweiler before returning for the playoff run.
It was the defense which carried the Broncos to the Vince Lombardi Trophy. While an average of 18.5 points per game isn’t typically indicative of a great unit, this one is an exception. For perspective, Linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. were the team’s only AP All-Pro selections when it came to be award time in the NFL.
16. 2000 Tennessee Titans
If a few more footballs had bounced in the right direction, the 2000 Tennessee Titans would be up even further on this list. This unit was overshadowed by the division rival Baltimore Ravens, who would also go on to have one of the finest defensive seasons of the past two decades.
The two clubs met twice during the regular season and split a pair of hard-nosed affairs. They would cross paths once again in the divisional round of the playoffs with the Ravens picking up a 24-10 victory en route to a Super Bowl title.
The series of games between these two clubs are remembered as some of the most physical in NFL history. The Titans may have been the second-best defense in the league in 2000, but they were also one of the most impressive in the Super Bowl era.
15. 1977 Atlanta Falcons
So, how does a 7-7 squad make the list of best defenses of all time? In the annals of the NFL, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons hold the record for fewest points allowed per game. They would hold opponents to 10 points or less in 10 of 14 regular-season games.
Cornerback Rolland Lawrence and defensive end Claude Humphrey led the way for a unit which forced 48 turnovers and compiled 42 sacks. The defense played a swarming style which went on to be dubbed the “Grits Blitz.”
The offense couldn’t match the defense in productivity, as the Falcons would score 20 points or more just twice during the year. If the club had some more firepower on that side of the ball, this Atlanta team could have been one of the more memorable one-hit wonders in NFL history.
14. 2013 Seattle Seahawks
An aggressive defense which forced lots of turnovers became a hallmark of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, and they would save their best for the biggest stage of them all. In a 43-8 pasting of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, the team would force four turnovers.
The scoring would open up with a safety for the Seahawks, and MVP Malcolm Brown would confirm that the rout was on with a 69-yard interception return for a TD in the second quarter. Seattle entered the game as underdogs and walked off the field with the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy.
During the regular season, the team led the league in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed per game, and takeaways. Cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas earned first-team AP All-Pro honors for their stellar seasons.
13. 1968 Baltimore Colts
The 1968 Baltimore Colts will forever be remembered as the team that was on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. The New York Jets stunned the world with a 16-7 victory in Super Bowl III, providing a ton of relevancy to the upstart AFL along the way.
However, there’s a lot more to see here with the Colts. This was a fantastic team that didn’t have their best stuff when they faced the Jets. Whether it was overconfidence as huge favorites or some other reason, Baltimore didn’t live up to its performance during the regular season.
Over one seven-game stretch, the Colts would hold all of their opponents to 10 points or less. That impressive span included three shutout victories. Before squaring off with the Jets, they would also shutout the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game. Quite simply, this unit doesn’t get its due as a result of the massive upset loss in the big game.
12. 1969 Kansas City Chiefs
If the upset by the Jets in Super Bowl III confirmed that the AFL arrived, then the victory by the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV further drove the point home. In the AFL playoffs, the 1969 Chiefs allowed a combined 13 points over two games.
In the Super Bowl versus the Minnesota Vikings, the Chiefs would score 23 points while holding the opponents to seven. Over three games versus the best teams in football in 1969, Kansas City allowed a total of 20 points.
The performance during the regular season was stellar as well, with seven of 14 opponents being held to 10 points or less. Among the many standouts on defense this year were defensive tackle Buck Buchanan and linebacker Willie Lanier.
11. 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers defense would close out the regular season with the league lead in numerous statistical categories. Linebacker James Harrison led the way, and he would go on to win Defensive Player of the Year honors for his efforts.
Over the course of the 16-game regular season, half of the team’s opponents were held to 10 points or less. The icing on the cake was a 31-0 drubbing of the Cleveland Browns in the Week 17 finale at home.
The unit would bend a little in the playoffs, allowing 24 points to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round and 14 to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title tilt. The team would hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy after a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Harrison was among the stars of the game with a 100-yard interception return for a score.
10. 1991 Philadelphia Eagles
This is another of several defenses on the list that don’t benefit from similar production on the offensive’s side of the ball. The Philadelphia Eagles entered the year with Super Bowl aspirations, but quarterback Randall Cunningham would go down with a season-ending injury in the opener.
A rotating cast of characters would spend time behind center, but the defense held firm throughout. The points allowed per game is a little more than what the best of the best have accomplished. This is partially because the defense was on the field so much due to the struggles on offense.
A look at the 3.9 yards per play allowed, 48 turnovers, and 55 sacks tells you all you need to know about this star-laden unit. Three members of the starting defensive line were selected as All-Pros, led by Hall-of-Famer Reggie White.
9. 1986 New York Giants
Lawrence Taylor changed the game with his style of play for the New York Giants in the 1980s, and he delivered the finest season of his career in 1986. The Giants would go on to win the Super Bowl that year, in no small part due to the contributions of Taylor.
He was unanimously selected as league MVP, one of only two defenders to ever receive the award. Taylor racked up 20.5 sacks during the year, but this was far from a one-horse show. Defensive end Leonard Marshall and linebacker Harry Carson were among the other huge contributors on this ferocious unit.
Through two games of the NFC Playoffs, the Giants allowed a total of 3 points. They would go on to win Super Bowl XXI over the Denver Broncos by a score of 39-20, capping off a fantastic run from one of the more memorable squads of the 80s.
8. 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of many teams on the list that captured lightning in a bottle. The club entered the year off of a 9-7 campaign the year prior, but they would do more than just improve.
Instead, the 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. Safety Dexter Jackson was named MVP for the game, with other standouts on the unit including Defensive end Simeon Rice and linebacker Derrick Brooks.
7. 1966 Green Bay Packers
Back in the 1960s, the Green Bay Packers were the dominant force in football. The team would win five NFL titles during the decade, and also claim victory in the first two Super Bowls. Head coach Vince Lombardi was a legendary figure who got the most out of his club.
His contributions to the league are immortalized with the Super Bowl Trophy which bears his name. Of course, the Packers weren’t all about Lombardi. Numerous hall-of-famers wore the green and gold in this era, including Bart Starr and Paul Hornung.
For a traditionalist such as Lombardi, you can be sure that the Packers brought it on defense. The 1966 unit was the finest of the team’s run of excellence, holding opponents to a meager 11.6 points per game.
6. 1975 Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams of the 1970s had one of the finest defenses ever, but the team could never quite get over the hump to win a Super Bowl. The team would hold nine of its 14 opponents to less than 10 points during the regular season.
For the last four games of the regular season, no opponent would put more than 7 points on the board. Unfortunately, the wheels would come off in the postseason. They would take down the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round by a score of 35-23 but fall to the Dallas Cowboys the following week by a score of 37-7.
Defensive end Jack Youngblood and defensive tackle Merlin Olsen were among the stars for this legendary unit. While the ’70s Rams never won the big one, the defense was undoubtedly among the 10 best in NFL history.
5. 1971 Minnesota Vikings
This is another stellar defense from the 1970s that could never seal the deal. From Super Bowl IV through Super Bowl IX, the Minnesota Vikings would make it to the big game four times. The Vikings record in those games was 0-4.
Heartbreak on the biggest stage aside, a good part of the reason for the team’s lengthy run of success was the ferocity of its defense. The 1971 edition was the finest of the bunch, holding opponents to an average of just 9.9 points per game and 3.9 yards per play.
During the regular season, the Vikings picked up three shutouts while only allowing 20 points or more twice. Defensive end Carl Eller and defensive tackle Alan Page led the way and were selected to the AP All-Pro first team, with Page also becoming the first defensive player to win league MVP.
4. 1972 Miami Dolphins
Is it possible for the only team to cap off an undefeated regular season with a Super Bowl victory to be underrated? The 1972 Miami Dolphins have certainly received plenty of praise through the years, but the team’s defense doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves.
That’s a mistake. The Dolphins were the top defensive unit in the league for the year, despite being referred to as the no-name defense. Defensive end Bill Stanfill and linebacker Nick Buoniconti are among those who led the way for a team which held opponents to 12.2 points per game.
The Dolphins would pick up three shutout wins during the season, including a 16-0 win over the Baltimore Colts in the regular-season finale. The perfect season was capped off with a 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
3. 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers
So, why couldn’t teams such as the Vikings and Rams get over the hump in the ’70s? That’s because there were other dominant squads during that era, including a Pittsburgh Steelers franchise which won four Super Bowl titles in the decade.
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.
2. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
We touched on the 2000 Baltimore Ravens briefly while discussing the Tennessee Titans of the same year, but now it’s time to give them their due. For the entire regular season, the Ravens allowed a total of 970 rushing yards, holding opponents to a mind-blowing 2.7 yards per rush.
The team would shut opponents out four times, and hold another seven teams to 10 points or less. Through three games in the AFC playoffs, the Ravens allowed a total of 16 points. They faced the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, walking off the field with a dominant 34-7 win.
Linebacker Ray Lewis would take home a Defensive Player of the Year trophy as he led the way for this dangerous squad. The Ravens defense was truly something to behold in 2000, and the team is more than deserving of all the accolades it receives as a result.
1. 1985 Chicago Bears
The 1985 Chicago Bears put together what is arguably one of the finest seasons in NFL history. When it comes to the defense, there’s absolutely no debate about it. A massive part of the team’s 15 regular-season wins and dominant run through the postseason is due to the strength on that side of the ball.
Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent have all been enshrined in Canton. Singletary was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1985, while Dent would be named MVP of the Super Bowl. Head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan clashed often, but that didn’t impact the results generated by the vaunted 46 defense.
With a total of 64 sacks while holding opponents to 12.4 points per contest help to place the Bears in perspective the greatness. The unit picked up back-to-back shutouts during the year. The 1985 Chicago Bears are at the head of the class for the Top 25 defenses in NFL history.