Defense wins championships, right? Well defenses would have failed to win many championships if they didn’t have the guys listed here. These are the most disruptive defensive players to ever stalk opponents. They made a name for themselves in a variety of ways. Some were big hitters, while others were sound tacklers. Some players could manhandle two offensive lineman at once, while others, like Deion Sanders could shut down one half of the field.
All of the players here have a couple of things in common. They were all leaders who forced opponents to game plan around them. When Tom Brady peered across at Baltimore’s defense, he was always looking for one man, Ray Lewis. When any quarterback lined up against the Eagles and Packers from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, they always shifted protection to block Reggie White. And many times quarterbacks with a slow release probably found it difficult playing against an entire defensive line, like the Purple People Eaters, who pressured from all angles.
Teams often try to maximize their defense’s output by putting their playmakers in the best opportunities to succeed. Teams aren’t going to use John Randle solely to stop the run or Lawrence Taylor to drop into coverage. These players also have this characteristic in common. Teams cater to their best players and then try to fill in the gaps with other players who fit that system. Yes, sometimes it works the other way around, but still a quality defense needs playmakers.
And finally, these players all defined their respective generation. It’s interesting to see how some of these players are best known for qualities that ten years prior or later were not highly coveted by either teams, fans or the league. In today’s NFL, hard hitting defenders are often frowned upon, but we can still consider them a playmaker if they do other things, like intercept the football.
Defenses win championships when they have these players on them.
20. Ray Lewis, MLB
While few argue Lewis will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, debate rages about where he stands on the list of all-time greats. However, there should be little argument. Lewis was one of the most disruptive defensive players in league history, recording 1,558 tackles, 19 forced fumbles and 31 interceptions. He was the unquestioned leader on a seemingly always stout Ravens’ squad, which struggled slightly without his presence in 2013 after he retired.
19. Chuck Bednarik, LB
Bednarik was one of the last, true two-way players in the NFL, and yes, he was as disruptive on defense as he was on offense. Selected first overall in the 1949 draft by the Eagles, Bednarik quickly established himself as a force. Although the NFL recognized him as an ALL-NFL center, he made his name as a dominant, aggressive linebacker. How good was Bednarik? In 1960, at the age of 35, the iron man played 58 minutes against the Packers in the 1960 NFL Championship game. He made the game-saving tackle as time ran out.
18. Randy White, DT
White anchored the Cowboys’ defensive line for 14 seasons, including the line that also included Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Harvey Martin. He was a tremendous athlete whose longevity in the league was as consistent as his play on the field, or was it vice versa? White recorded four sacks in the three Super Bowls he played in, and he finished his career with 1,104 tackles and 111 sacks.
17. Deion Sanders, CB
Sanders was known as an all-around football player, but the fact in question is how disruptive on defense was he? Simple. Sanders was a shut-down corner. He retired a eight-time first-team All Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler. Sanders is also fourth all-time in interception return yards (1,331) and tied for 4th for most interceptions returned for a touchdown with nine. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 for his incredible ball-hawking skills.
16. John Randle, DT
Randle walked on as an undrafted free agent and played in every game during his rookie season. However, he didn’t start and only recorded one sack. Then suddenly, in year two, Randle exploded, recording 9.5 sacks in only eight games started. This would be the beginning of an epic streak of eight straight seasons with double digit sacks. He led the Vikings in sacks nine times and recorded multi-sack games 34 times. He was also named to the All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
15. Deacon Jones, DE
Jones went from being an obscure 14th-round selection to one of the most devastating defensive ends in pro football. At first, scouts weren’t sure what to make of Jones, but when they saw him outrun the running backs, they recommended the 6-foot-4-inch, 272- pound athlete. It’s hard to determine Jones’ impact on the game based on statistics alone. After all, the NFL only began to record sacks in 1982, and Jones ended his career following 1974. Statisticians place his sack total around 173.5, which would be good enough for third all time.
14. Jack Lambert, MLB
As a rookie, Lambert quickly stood out on the Steelers when he won the starting role as a middle linebacker and refused to let it go. Lambert’s intelligence, speed, durability, and viciousness helped create the Steelers’ “Steel Curtain.” He was an integral part of the franchise’s many championship runs, and even helped secure the Steelers’ fourth Super Bowl victory with an interception late in the fourth quarter. Now that is disruptive.
13. Jack Ham, OLB
Ham was a dangerous outside linebacker in coach Chuck Noll’s Super Bowl winning defenses because of his incredible instincts and game-changing ability. He helped the Steelers win their first championship by intercepting the ball and returning it to Oakland’s 9-yard line. The play eventually set up the go-ahead touchdown. The Football News named Ham Defensive Player of the Year in 1975, and the NFL selected the linebacker to eight straight Pro Bowls.
12. Doug Atkins, DE
Atkins’ mobility, strength and intelligence forced offenses to adapt quickly and often shift their game plans. The long-time Chicago Bear played 17 seasons and 205 games, which was one of the longest runs of any defender at the time. Atkins was an overwhelming pass rusher who would often leap over opponents to get to the quarterback. His goal was to do one thing: Seek and destroy. Disrupt the play and make the play. Atkins had the inconceivable strength to push offensive lineman to the side and run down opposing backs.
11.”Mean” Joe Greene, DT
Greene was a monster in coach Chuck Noll’s Steelers defense, showcasing a set of powerful and gifted skills to counter his opponents. In 1974, the same year Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl, Greene lined up in a new way, at an angle between the guard and center to further showcase his ability to adapt and obliterate. He had the aptitude to take over games, as fans watched him to do against Minnesota in Super Bowl IX when his interception and fumble recovery were crucial to the Steelers’ victory.
10. Ronnie Lott, SS
Lott made an impact from the moment he stepped onto the football field. In his first season, the safety became only the second rookie in NFL history to return three interceptions for scores. He placed second in Rookie of the Year honors behind linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Lott was a hard hitter who also had a knack to find the football. During his 14-year career, he record 63 interceptions and 1,113 tackles. If the receiver ever caught the ball, Lott was going to take it away. He piled up 16 forced fumbles.
9. Rod Woodson, CB
How disruptive was Woodson? He had 71 career interceptions–third all time–and returned 12 of those for touchdowns. While coach Chuck Noll realized Woodson’s potential, coach Bill Cowher helped Woodson become a Hall-of-Famer. In 1993, Woodson recorded eight interceptions, two quarterback sacks, 79 solo tackles, and 28 passes defended. He also forced two fumbles and had a blocked field goal. As a result of his incredible season, the Associated Press named Woodson the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And as a result of his incredible career, the NFL elected the cornerback to the Hall of Fame in 2009.
8. Mel Blount, CB
Do you hate how the NFL currently caters towards offenses? Blame Mel Blount. Midway through Blount’s career, the NFL established a rule that prohibited defenders from harassing receivers five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. To say Blount was a physical cornerback is an understatement. He specialized in “bump-and-run” coverage and swallowing receivers whole. In 1972 he failed to surrender a single TD pass and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Defender in 1975.
7. Mike Singletary, MLB
Ask any Bears’ defender from their 1985 Super Bowl winning team who their standout player was, and they’ll say Mike Singletary. Leading up to the Bears’ embarrassing victory over New England, Singletary recorded 13 tackles and a sack. In the Super Bowl, he recovered two New England fumbles and helped hold the Patriots to a record low seven yards rushing. “To me, “said Singletary, “sacking the quarterback isn’t that big of a deal. When I get to hit a great back in the hole or when I knock down or intercept a pass, that’s where I get my thrill.”
Singletary’s preparation for big games was legendary. His ability to carry out that preparation in real time was even more impressive. The middle linebacker was a quiet leader who would deliver a hit so hard it could change the outcome of the game. He did so countless times.
6. Jack Tatum, DB
The hit on New England Patriots’ wide receiver Darryl Stingley may be the one reason Tatum is not in the Hall of Fame. He never apologized for the hit, but says he tried to visit Stingley at the hospital soon after and was denied by the receivers’ family. Undoubtedly, Tatum is one of the best defensive players to strap on the cleats and certainly one of the hardest hitters. He passed away on July 27th, 2010 still waiting for that gold jacket.
5. Dick Butkus, MLB
Hopefully Butkus’ impact on football doesn’t fade with time. Younger generations of fans may believe guys like Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis and Clay Mathews stand atop the pantheon of all-time great linebackers, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Butkus was an original beast of the gridiron, racking up 22 interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries over his career. He played every game with a mean streak that struck fear into the hearts of opposing offenses that is unparalleled today.
4. Hardy “The Hatchet” Brown, LB
Brown is the single hardest hitter of all time. Period. Brown’s coach was so afraid the linebacker would hurt his teammates, he often had the player banned from team practices. In 1951, the linebacker knocked out 21 players and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most lethal players to roam the field. Brown, who grew up in an orphanage and watched his father murdered at an early age, harnessed his anger in productive ways, obviously.
3. Bruce Smith, DE
The greatest sack master in football history, Smith finished his career with an incredible 200 sacks in 19 years. The defensive end consistently anchored Bills’ defenses, and his disruptive nature helped carry Buffalo to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Teams had to constantly double or triple team Smith, which took an incredible amount of pressure off the rest of the defense.
2. Reggie White, DE
Reggie White never really had a down year. Even in his last year he recorded 5.5 sacks, which is still more than most active defensive players produce. White played eight seasons with the Eagles and recorded double digit sacks every year, recording a total of 124 before leaving for Green Bay. His career total stands at 198, which is three less than Bruce Smith. However, Smith played four more years than Smith, which is the main reason White is number three on our list.
1. Lawrence Taylor, ROLB
Considered the greatest linebacker to ever play, Taylor left his mark on football–literally. He retired with 132.5 sacks, with his best year coming in 1986 where he recorded 20.5 sacks. You’d be hard pressed to find a more electric player on the defensive ends, to the point where you could feel the hits he was putting on opponents from your couch. By the end of his illustrious career, Taylor had racked up a Defensive Rookie of the Year, three defensive MVPs, ten Pro-Bowls, ten All-Pro Teams, and a Hall-of-Fame gold jacket.
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