Friday, 28 March 2014

THE 10 TOP DEFENSES IN NFL HISTORY: MY FRIDAY MONTHLY TIGHT END COLUMN

I write a weekly column for nfluk.com during the American football season, called Friday Morning Tight End, a play on Peter King's Sports Illustrated Monday Morning Quarterback and Gregg Easterbrook's ESPN Tuesday Morning Quarterback cols. In the offseason, it becomes Friday Monthly Tight End, and this month's column takes off from one I wrote for the online magazine Gridiron, about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' and their defense. (Note: originally I'd linked to the nfluk web site for the article, but it, along with most of my work for them, seems to have disappeared there). So here it is as I originally wrote it:

THE NFL'S TOP 10 DEFENSES:
 
After Seattle's dominant defensive performance against what was the most formidable offensive team in the NFL, there was a rush to list the Seahawks among the all-time great defenses. In the current issue of Gridiron magazine, I compared them with the two great defenses of the past decade, the 2000 Ravens and the 2002 Bucs, and the most salient point was the way both those teams had their best players, and they were great players, at the key positions for their defense.

Along those lines, I thought to go back and pick the top 10 defenses of all time, keeping that criterion in mind. It's hard to compare statistics, because of the ways the game has changed. The 2000 Ravens allowed nearly 30 yards less per game than the 2013 Seahawks, but Seattle led the league and Baltimore was only second. In the late Seventies, easing the blocking rules and introducing the five-yard 'chuck' area on receivers opened up the passing game, and of course the modern game is even more open. So what follows is relatively subjective, based on the mix of personnel and scheme. But I don't have many surprises.

The close runners-up included the team I think might be the best comparison with the Seahawks, the 77-78 Broncos, whose lineup has a few borderline HOF players (Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar, and Tom Jackson) but was built around the schemes of Red Miller and Joe Collier, which influenced Bill Belichick's 3-4 schemes; Belichick's 90 NY Giants, with the four-man linebacker group of Lawrence Taylor, Henry Carson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons; the 08 Steelers, which may have been Dick LeBeau's best group, the 63 Bears (Doug Atkins, Bill George, Joe Fortunato, Ed O'Bradovich and a great four-man secondary: Richie Petitbone, Rosey Taylor, Dave Whitsell and Bennie McRae) and maybe even the 58 Giants. But here's my top 10:

  1. Dallas 71: The Doomsday D was built around two Hall of Famers DT Bob Lilly and CB Mel Renfro, MLB Lee Roy Jordan, who's borderline HOF, and two very good players, DT Jethro Pugh and LB Chuck Howley, the only Super Bowl MVP from a losing team. I rate them above the '77 version, which still had Lilly, plus Randy White, Too Tall Jones, and Cliff Harris, but I often wonder if Tom Landry's strict reliance on his containing scheme may have held some of the players back.
  1. Miami 71-73: The players fit the scheme; Bill Arnsbarger's '53' was designed around hybrid DE/LB Bob Mathieson. MLB Nick Buoniconti is the only HOF player, but their safety pair of Jake Scott and Dick Anderson was excellent, Manny Fernandez was a prototype move DT and Bill Stanfill a fine DE. Plus they went undefeated with Doug Swift, from Amherst College and cut by the Montreal Alouettes, starting at LB. They allowed 11.8ppg during that three-year span; hard to pick the best of the three. This is one of the teams that remind me a lot of the Seahawks.
  1. LA Rams 75: Like the Cowboys, this Rams' D had one HOF DT left over from another great line, in Merlin Olson. Although the Fred Dryer, Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks line may not quite match up to Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, and Rosey Greir, the 75 edition also had Isiah Robertson at MLB and Nolan Cromwell and Dave Elmendorf in the secondary.

    7. Green Bay 62-67: Actually this is another team where it's hard to pick between multiple seasons. I'd choose the '66 version. HOF DT Henry Jordan had retired, but they still had five HOF players: DE Willie Davis, OLB Dave Robinson, MLB Ray Nitschke, CD Herb Adderly, and FS Willie Wood, three of whom would be in the top five alltime at their positions, and DE Lionel Aldridge, LB Lee Roy Caffey and CB Bob Jeter.
    6. Minnesota 69-71: These Vikes replaced the Pack as the NFL's best defense, built around the Purple People Eaters, arguably the best front four ever.: HOFers Carl Eller and Alan Page plus Gary Larson and Jim Marshall. FS Paul Krause is in the HOF, LB Wally Hilgenberger is another borderline case, and CB Bobby Bryant was very good. They held teams to 9.9ppg over that three-year span.
  1. Kansas City 69: The AFL pioneered a number of defensive features that became commonplace, not least the use of a nose tackle in even fronts, which was Chuck Noll as defensive coordinator in San Diego with Sid Gillman, and The Big Cat, Ernie Ladd played the nose. This was the best defense in the AFL's short history, and oddly, they were better even though Ladd, who'd joined them in 1968, and gave them a deep tackle rotation, missed the season. It didn't matter, because the starting tackles were HOFers Buck Buchanan and Curly Culp, Culp was the prototype of the smaller nose tackle who used leverage (he was a champion wrestler) to stuff the gaps. Bobby Bell, to my mind one of the two greatest OLBers ever, and MLB Willie Lanier are both in the HOF, Jim Lynch was excellent at the third spot. Emmitt Thomas had replaced Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson, and Jim Marsalis was the other corner, FS Johnny Robinson to me is HOF worthy as well.

    4. Tampa Bay 02: There aren't much better fits of personnel and system; the Bucs' best players played the key spots in the Tampa 2 defense: Warren Sapp at under tackle was unblockable when he wanted to be, and this was one of the seasons he wanted to be, while Derrick Brooks was perfect at SLB. CB Ronde Barber is a likely HOF pick, and SS John Lynch at the third key spot, is borderline. The addition of DE Simeon Rice made double-teaming Sapp more dangerous, and MLB Sheldon Quarles and NT Booger McFarland had replaced Hardy Nickerson and Brad Culpepper with no decline. Dexter Jackson and Brian Kelly had their best seasons in the secondary.
  1. Baltimore 2000 The Ravens case rests largely on the brilliance of Ray Lewis, who was certainly the best defensive player in the NFL for a number of years. Dick Nolan's defense was based on having two huge tackles, Sam Adams (much underrated as a NT) and Tony Siragusa, clogging the middle and keeping blockers off Lewis. In later years the Ravens would switch to a 3-4, and Lewis would have a rougher time making plays, having to absorb more blockers himself, but they added Ed Reed behind him. Their supporting cast would be better remembered if so many of them hadn't had careers lessened by injury; OLB Peter Boulware was a first-rate pass rusher, and corners Duane Starks and Chris McAllister both looked like they would become stars. Jamie Sharper was a fine linebacker, Kim Herring a banger at SS, and DEs Rob Burnett and Mike McCrary rarely faced double-teams because of the mess being made in the middle. They had 'only' 35 sacks but grabbed 49 take aways (Seattle had 44 and 39 respectively).
  1. Chicago 85: I don't need to tell British fans about Da Bears, but with their championhip Dyou have another system, Buddy Ryan's '46,' devised around the versatility of one very good player, safety Doug Plank (the prototype for the SS in a Tampa 2) who'd been upgraded in '85 to Dave Duerson. There were two HOF DEs in Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, a HOF MLB in Mike Singletary, two very good OLBs (Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall) another fine ball-hawking safety (Gary Fencik) and CB Leslie Frazier. Steve McMichael was very good for a short time, and the Fridge, in relatively good shape, held his own as a space-eater. They moved Hampton inside on passing downs too
  1. Pittsburgh 1976: This is another tough pick between multiple great seasons, but it's hard to argue against a team that built to coordinator Bud Carson's strengths so effectively. You probably know the names, a line with Mean Joe Greene, LC Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White, and behind them Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, and Andy Russell at LB. Mel Blount is a HOF corner, Glen Edwards was a fine free safety, and JT Thomas and Mike Wagner were very good at the other spots. They have five HOF players, and a couple of borderline cases who won't get in because of the cast around them. The Steelers' offense collapsed in 76, but this D allowed only 28 points in their last nine games to finish 10-4, and beat the Colts before losing to Oakland in the AFC championship.

Where would Seattle fit in? They have two players (Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman) whom you might say are on HOF paths with their careers, in that each is clearly the best or one of the top 2-3 at his position. Kam Chancellor, whom I thought was the Super Bowl MVP, is a very good player, and I'd put Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett in the same category, and Red Bryant when he's at his best. That's not as impressive on paper as most of the teams above, but Seattle has exceptional depth, which they use to keep linemen fresh and to vary schemes, and their personnel is fitted perfectly to what they want to do, so the limitations of players like Bruce Irvin (who still has star potential) Chris Clemons or Cliff Avril become big strengths. In a few years people could be trying to pick which year's Seahawks' D was the best of an excellent bunch.


1 comment :

Bryan Sperry said...

Only a patriots fan would leave the NY Giants off this list.