Though the success of many NFL teams in the modern day has been measured largely by offensive production, there have been many instances through the years of championship teams having quality defense. In some cases, a Super Bowl-winning team may not have had a franchise QB or an ace WR to lean on, and therefore had to rely on defensive stops and turnovers to give their offense the ball in a timely field position. Indeed, the old adage, "defense wins championships," has proven to be true in the NFL on many occasions, and many of these Super Bowl-winning defenses rank as some of the greatest of all time.
Of course, with the development of passing offenses in the past 20-30 years, there's a definite scale that has to factor in to all of this. A lockdown defense in the year 2000 is generally considered more impressive than one from 30 years prior, given the reliance on sub-packages and increased big play potential. Regardless, every defense on here made their mark in their own way and are all rightfully considered among the best ever. Without question, these are the best of the best.
Ranked below are the 15 greatest defenses to ever win the Super Bowl.
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15 Los Angeles Raiders, 1983
This Raiders team was generally known as an offensive juggernaut, led by star-RB Marcus Allen, and influential pass-catching TE Todd Christensen. However, their bend-don't-break defense was also an asset to their Super Bowl victory, with DE Lyle Alzedo, LB Lester Hayes and SS Mike Davis leading the way. They gave up some 30-plus point games during the middle of the regular season, but buckled down during the stretch run, allowing more than 24 points just once in their final ten overall games. In the playoffs, they were dominant; allowing less than 15 points in each of the three games, including a nine-point route of the Redskins in the Super Bowl. They generally aren't remembered as the flashiest defense, but stepped up when it mattered most, and performed well in meaningful games, which warrants their inclusion here.
14 New York Giants, 1986
One of the most low-key greatest defenses ever, the Giants were a force to be reckoned with in their first Super Bowl-year. Anchored by transcendent Hall Of Fame LB Lawrence Taylor, who contributed a whopping 20.5 sacks, they had one of the best line-backing corps' of all-time, which also featured Carl Banks (113 tackles), and Harry Carson. Factor in pass-rushing compliment Leonard Marshall with 12.5 sacks, and it was nearly impossible for opposing teams to run against, or have adequate time to throw the ball. Overall, the Giants gave up 20 or more points just twice in the entire season, and in eight games gave up less than 10. Nearly unstoppable in the playoffs, they gave up three points in the first two games, and just 20 in a blowout Super Bowl victory over the Broncos.
13 Denver Broncos, 1997
Given that they had certified stars such as John Elway and Terrell Davis on the offensive side of the ball, this Broncos defense is generally one of the most underrated. It was a tough unit that displayed the fundamentals well. While there wasn't really an all-time standout talent present, there were however three players with four INTs, three with 8.5 sacks, and seven with at least 40 tackles. It was a group that was better than the sum of its parts, with a total of 11 games where they held opponents to 20 points or less. They finished sixth overall in points against, and while they didn't possess the big name, they played well when it mattered, and should go down as a great all-time championship defense.
12 Dallas Cowboys, 1992
Another team that was overshadowed by their Hall Of Fame-laden offense, the Cowboys defense during the 90's had just as much to do with their success. It was a well-rounded group, featuring quality pass-rushers such as Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert and Jim Jeffcoat, alongside secondary monsters like Darren Woodson and Larry Brown. Consistency was paramount; the Cowboys held their opponents to a sub-20 point total on 15 occasions, including every game in the playoffs. The offense may have gotten the overwhelming credit and air-time, but this Dallas defense was probably the best of their Super Bowl-winning teams from the 90's, and had just as much a role to play in the early days of their dynasty. An overlooked unit overall.
11 San Francisco 49ers, 1995
The secondary was the main strength of this San Fran defense in the mid-90s. The 49ers boasted two players, Deion Sanders and Merlton Hanks with at least six INTs, with Dana Hall and Tim McDonald chipping in with two a piece. It was a quality group on the back end of the field, with top-notch LB and secondary units, which allowed for a finish of sixth overall in the league for points against. The offense, anchored by Hall Of Fame WR Jerry Rice was excellent, but the defense performed in equal measure, usually holding opponents to under 20 points during the regular season. This high quality play allowed the offense to get their sea legs after a couple of questionable performances early in the season. This group wasn't intact for a long time, but deserves credit nonetheless.
10 New England Patriots, 2004
It's often forgotten just how good the Pats defense was during the early years of the Brady-dynasty, and just how much they carried the team at times. The unit featured an all-star cast; LBs Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison in the secondary, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork up front. It was an intimidating group, and was good enough for second in the league in points against. On seven occasions, the Pats held opponents to 10 points or less, with is incredible in the modern era. Overall, they were the backbone of a 14-win team, and went on to claim their third Super Bowl victory under Brady and Belichick. Not quite the best defense of the Pats dynasty, but certainly one of the best of the decade, much deserving of mention here.
9 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2008
Featuring a pair of pass-rushing LBs in the forms of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (16 and 11.5 sacks respectively), the Steelers were the best defensive team during the 2008 season, and made their presence felt. The unit effectively carried the team as a whole, with a young Ben Roethlisberger at QB, having limited weapons at his disposal. The defense finished first in the league in points against, combining their pass rush with a strong secondary that featured Troy Polamalu and Tyrone Carter (seven and three INTs respectively). Though they performed better overall during the regular season than the playoffs, it's still enough for a memorable defense, and one that had the ability to carry the team to championship success, several years before Roethlisberger and the offense began performing at a consistently high level.
8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2002
Surely one of the best of their era, John Gruden's Bucs had one of the premier secondaries of their time. Featuring the likes of Ronde Barber, John Lynch and Brian Kelly (8 INTs), the team cruised to 12 regular season wins, and a playoff run where the lowest margin of victory in any of the three games was 17 points. The Bucs simply dominated on the defensive side of the ball, which was good, because they had a marginal talent in Brad Johnson as their starting QB. All in all, the offense was able to muster up enough productivity in the run game, and the defense did the heavy work throughout the season. There were a few defenses who were better during the same era, which keeps them down a bit, but this is still an all-time great defense all things considered.
7 New England Patriots, 2001
As mentioned earlier, it's hard to image a time when Tom Brady wasn't the focal point of the Patriots, but such a time did exist, when he was in his developing stages as a franchise QB. Unquestionably, this Super Bowl run was entirely dependent on the defense, and in particular the elite secondary they fielded. Indeed, the back end of the unit was one of the best ever, with Lawyer Milloy, Otis Smith and Ty Law, all having some of the best seasons of their career. Elsewhere, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were making a name for themselves on the LB corps, with Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasent being the most effective edge rushers on the team. They were underdogs in the Super Bowl when they faced the "Greatest Show On Turf" St. Louis Rams, but this elite defense was able to keep them under 20 points, and spearhead one of, if not the best dynasty in the history of the NFL. Frankly, Brady should be thanking them to this very day.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1978
The "Steel Curtain" era Steelers teams are now stuff of legend in the football world, and this 1978 defense was the best of the bunch, of the team's four Super Bowl victories during the 70s. The numbers bear out; ranked first in points against, and only in three games all season did the opposition score above 17 points in a game (one came in the Super Bowl against the Cowboys). The team still possessed all the favorite of the era in Tony Dungy, Jack Ham, "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Ron Johnson and Mel Blount. The only thing holding them back here, is that the era they played in was much more conducive to holding teams to a low score. Passing offenses hadn't progressed to the level they are at today, and the schemes in general were much simpler in nature. That doesn't detract from the "Steel Curtain" legacy, and the fact remains that the 1978 Steelers defense is one of the best in league history.
5 Green Bay Packers, 1996
This team is always remembered for Brett Favre's QB prowess, but the defense was also one of the best in the league, and often forgotten as an elite unit. While Hall Of Fame DE Reggie White anchored the pass rush, the secondary possessed three players with at least five INTs. Outside of White, it was a group that featured few household names, but were ultimately greater than the sum of their parts, allowing more than 21 points just two times in the entire season. While they did possess a dynamic offense, the defense was the insurance the team needed to effectively sweep their way through the season, almost unscathed, losing just three games. One of the most underrated teams of all-time in general, and that certainly applies to the defense as well.
4 Denver Broncos, 2015
The Broncos truly had a historic season this past year, sending off Peyton Manning in a blaze of glory. The one thing that will ultimately prove it to be an anomaly, was the team's success despite the uncharacteristically bad QB play (due to Manning's age). The Broncos posed the best secondary in the league last season, with Chris Harris, T.J. Ward and Aquib Talib at the helm. All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller was aided in the LB corps by prime tacklers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, and Malik Jackson anchored the defensive line almost single-handedly. There wasn't a weak spot on the whole defense, and for them to be so dominant in the modern day, shows just how good they really were. It remains to be seen if the same quality can be achieved this season, but the 2015 Broncos defense earned a spot as one of the all-time greats in the sport.
3 Chicago Bears, 1985
This is probably everyone's reflexive "best defense ever" pick, and they do come very close. Behind the mastermind of Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan and his 46 defensive scheme, the Bears trounced everything in their path, losing only one game the entire season, and doing behind a shaky starting QB in Jim McMahon. Granted, the offense did have the likes of Walter Payton, but the defense was truly what carried the team. In total, the defense picked off 34 passes, and notched 64 sacks during their dominating run. They held the opposition to 10 points or fewer on an astounding 14 occasions, including four shutouts, and very quickly solidified themselves as the best in the league. Probably the best defense of their era, but don't quite get the top spot. Still, they are one of the most renowned teams ever, and were a force to be reckoned with in their heyday. More than worthy of a top-three Super Bowl-winning defense.
2 Baltimore Ravens, 2000
Anchored by the incomparable Ray Lewis, this Ravens defense was, all things considered, probably the best of all-time for quite a while. Outside of three games, the opposition never scored higher than 19 points, and the team posted four shutouts. To do that in a modern NFL era, with advanced offensive schemes is simply incredible. In the four playoff games that they played, they allowed a combined total of 23 points, and the opposition never scored more than 10. What that represents, in a nutshell, is complete and utter domination of opposing offenses. With a limited offense, that had Trent Dilfer starting at QB, this defense had to be an all-time elite to win a Super Bowl, and that's exactly what they did. They're still an acceptable number one choice on most lists, but there's one that still outdoes it by a hair.
1 Seattle Seahawks, 2013
Context has a lot to do with this choice, but really, everything considered, this is probably the best defense of all-time. In the modern era of elite passing offenses and schemes, this Seahawks defense was able to hold opponents to 20 points or less 13 times during the regular season, and in all three playoff games as well. In seven of those games, the point total was 10 or less. That's almost impossible in the modern game, and it got the "Legion Of Boom" of to a rousing beginning as a renowned, elite NFL defense. It all culminated with a 43-8 thrashing of Peyton Manning's Broncos in the Super Bowl, much to everyone's surprise, and cemented them as a generational defense. Within the context, one of the best defenses of all-time, and one that was able to capture a Super Bowl with an against-all-odds performance for the ages. It'll be debated for years whether this Seahawks team, or the 2015 Broncos was the better defense of their generation. I'll go with the former.
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