"Selecting the greatest defenses of the Super Bowl era is a little like choosing the best-looking vintage automobiles. There is an "eye of the beholder" factor. But there are other, more black and white factors when discerning great defenses, like statistics, schematic advantages, championships and player legacies.
The dominant performance of the Seahawks defense in Super Bowl XLVIII has re-opened the discussion, and the perspective of time will give us a better feel for the historical significance of their accomplishments. In the moment, though, it is difficult to refute that the Seahawks belong in the conversation.
With help from many who played and coached for and against these units, here are my top 10 defenses of the modern NFL. Some of the great defenses dominated over a period of years, in which case only the year that was deemed the best was considered.
1. 1985 Bears
Never in the history of football has a defense intimidated quarterbacks any better. Playing with passion, ruthlessness and cunning, the 1985 Bears forced seven quarterback substitutions over the course of the season.
This may have been the best blitzing team of all time. The front seven was loaded with phenomenal pass-rushing talent, including Hall of Famers Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary. Also in the mix were Steve McMichael, who ranks third all-time among defensive tackles in sacks, and outside linebacker Wilber Marshall, who some think was the most talented player on the unit. The defense featured nine players who would at some point play in a Pro Bowl.
What’s more, the Bears had a cutting-edge scheme: Buddy Ryan’s 46. "Buddy did a great job of coaching them," said Mike Ditka, head coach of the ’85 Bears. "That was a big part of it. He was doing something nobody else was doing. At that time, people didn’t understand our system. You wanted to keep people in to block it, and that was the worst thing you could do because you couldn’t have enough people to block it and you wouldn’t know which ones were coming."
What separated the ’85 Bears from the rest is they could beat offenses with overwhelming athleticism as well as with scheme. "I think the Bears were the best because they had a combination of talent and confusion that got you," said Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, who played against the Bears as a member of the Vikings.
As the season went on, this monster kept getting meaner, wilder and more oppressive. They shut out their first two playoff opponents; then, in a lopsided Super Bowl victory, they had seven sacks, held the Patriots to seven rushing yards and scored nine points. "I’ve never seen a defense like that in terms of smothering people, not even letting them move the ball, let alone score," said former Colts and Bucs coach Tony Dungy.
The ’85 Bears are thought of as somewhat of a one-hit wonder because they never won another Super Bowl, but their defense actually was superior over a period of time. In 1984, they set the record for most sacks in a season with 72. In 1986, the Bears allowed 11 fewer points than they did in 1985, and were statistically much better than the defense of the Super Bowl champion Giants. In 1987, the Bears sacked quarterbacks 70 times.
Wilson once had to come off the bench in a game against the Bears when he was the Vikings’ backup, and he was not very enthusiastic about the opportunity. "I remember telling Archie [Manning], ‘You’re OK, come on, champ, get up, come on.’" Wilson once told me. "But after the 11th sack, he wasn’t getting up. It wasn’t a great feeling having to go in there against those guys at that point." "