The Brandt Report  


1985 Bears, 2015 Broncos among five best defenses of all time


As the old saying goes, offense sells tickets but defense wins championships.

This truism is illustrated by the fact that, though we're in the midst of an increasingly pass-happy era, two of the past three Super Bowl championships were won by defensive juggernauts (the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and 2015 Denver Broncos).

Of course, it's easy to get swept up in the moment and celebrate the most recent champions. So I wanted to take a step back and assess where the Broncos' astoundingly dominant defense ranks among the all-time best. Below, you'll find my top five defenses of all time.

A note before we begin: I also considered the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but those units did not make the cut.

1) 1985 Chicago Bears

Yards allowed: 258.4 per game (first in the NFL). Points allowed: 12.4 per game (first).

Bill Parcells told me this is the best defense he's ever faced. The Bears trampled offenses in the regular season before going on an astonishing playoff run in which they shut out the Giants (21-0) and Rams (24-0), then beat the Patriots by 36 points in Super Bowl XX -- during which they held New England to 7 rushing yards. Between coordinator Buddy Ryan and a unit that included some really good players -- defensive ends Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, linebackers Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson and safeties Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik -- Chicago's defense won with both superior scheming and superior talent, collecting 34 interceptions and 64 sacks. Not for nothing, Chicago's point differential of 258 remains the fifth-best mark since 1970.

I was with the Cowboys when we played this team, and the Bears just manhandled us, romping to a 44-0 win. Chicago did benefit from having the No. 1 rushing attack that season, which helped limit the amount of time the defense spent on the field. But the bottom line is, the Bears shut people down by relying on man coverage, blitzing a lot and taking away the run. People really couldn't do anything against them.

2) 2000 Baltimore Ravens

Yards allowed: 247.9 per game (second). Points allowed: 10.3 per game (first).

Aside from Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson and star linebacker Ray Lewis, this group didn't have a ton of big-name players. Rather, the Ravens' defense played extremely well as a unit, serving as the driving engine of Baltimore's run to Super Bowl XXXV. Consider that the offense, which really only had one legitimate threat in running back Jamal Lewis, scored 16 points or less in nine of the team's 20 games (including the playoffs). And yet, the Ravens and their top-ranked scoring defense qualified for a wild-card berth, then won three playoff games, including tough road contests in Tennessee and Oakland, before capturing the Lombardi Trophy. And it's not like the defense dominated the stat sheet; with two very average quarterbacks (Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer) under center, Baltimore gave up more sacks (43) than the defense recorded (35), while Banks and Dilfer threw nearly as many interceptions (19) as the Ravens snared (23).

Ironically, head coach Brian Billick was seen as an offensive-minded coach. But consider the names on the defensive staff, including coordinator Marvin Lewis, defensive line coach Rex Ryan, linebackers coach Jack Del Rio and defensive assistant Mike Smith. All of those guys went on to have success as head men, and all are currently employed with teams today.

3) 2015 Denver Broncos

Yards allowed: 283.1 per game (first). Points allowed: 18.5 per game (fourth).

I was very surprised to see it happen in this pass-happy era, but the Broncos' defense basically single-handedly won Super Bowl 50. Denver's offense was outgained in the playoffs and couldn't even muster up more than 200 yards against the Panthers in the Super Bowl, but the Broncos held all three playoff opponents to an astonishing combined total of 44 points -- that's less than 15 points per game scored by offenses featuring top-notch quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton. The Steelers and Patriots were good teams, and the Panthers, of course, led the NFL in scoring in 2015. Denver collected 27 takeaways, tied for seventh-most in the NFL, but still posted a negative turnover differential (minus-4), illustrating just how little the offense contributed to the cause. The Broncos allowed an NFL-low 283 yards per game and were one of four teams to allow less than 300 points for the season. Accomplishing such dominance in today's offense-driven environment is even more impressive than what some of the big-name defenses of the past did.

Interestingly, Denver didn't do it with a lot of bells and whistles -- just old-time football. They'd make one or two substitutions on third down or in special situations, but the defense was comprised of really solid players who were very thoroughly coached, technique-wise. Coordinator Wade Phillips is like his late father, Bum -- kind of a throwback, an old Texas high school coach who has gotten great defensive play wherever he's been. It's not flashy, it's not exotic, it's just solid football, with guys being in the right place.

Of course, it's rare that you'll have a team like this, with two great pass-rushers (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware), three shutdown corners (Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby) and a line (with Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson) that can stop the run. Not often will a team have all those pieces in place. As Newton told me before the Super Bowl, a lot of teams have one outstanding corner, some have two, but you hardly see three. But thanks to some shrewd moves, including the opportunistic additions of Ware and Talib in 2014, the Broncos had something special in place.

4) 2013 Seattle Seahawks

Yards allowed: 273.6 per game (first). Points allowed: 14.4 per game (first).

This team ranks this highly because of the degree of difficulty in being a dominant defense in the current era. The Seahawks gave up a league-low 231 points in the regular season, finishing 2013 with the NFL's best overall and passing defense. They racked up 28 interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, and 44 sacks. Seattle didn't blitz very much; rather, the Seahawks relied on outstanding linebackers (Bobby Wagner) and defensive backs (Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas against the run; Thomas and Richard Sherman against the pass) to shut everyone down.

Seattle truly made its mark in the playoffs, where the defense simply dazzled. The sign of a great defense is an ability to make critical stops, and like the 2015 Broncos, the Seahawks knew how to stop 'em when they had to, squashing late comeback attempts by the Saints in the Divisional Round and the 49ers in the NFC title game. And, of course, Seattle completely dominated the Broncos -- who, like the Panthers in 2015, were the NFL's highest-scoring offense in 2013 -- in Super Bowl XLVIII.

5) 1986 New York Giants

Yards allowed: 297.3 per game (second). Points allowed: 14.8 per game (third).

Like the rest of the teams on this list, the 1986 Giants absolutely steamrolled their playoff opponents, allowing a combined 23 points -- 20 of which came in Super Bowl XXI. That's right: New York held the Joe Montana-Jerry Rice Niners to three points and shut out the Redskins in the NFC title match before beating John Elway's Broncos for all the marbles. And the Broncos' 15th-ranked offense was the lowest-ranked of the bunch, with San Francisco (third) and Washington (fifth) landing in the top five.

Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson were outstanding, as was fellow linebacker Carl Banks, but New York didn't have any shutdown corners or outstanding defensive linemen. This team won more because of scheme than an overabundance of defensive talent. Parcells and coordinator Bill Belichick knew how to make the most of each guy, getting their players in the right place and not giving up big plays. They knew how to adjust to stop the opponent of the day. I speak from experience. When we played them in the regular-season opener, we beat them, 31-28; when we saw them again in November, we lost, 17-14.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.



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