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Top 10 Defensive Lines in NFL History

TT is an online writer with over eight years of experience writing about sports and pop culture.


There's a difference in what makes a good defense or a great defense. Today I'm ranking the top 10 defensive lines in NFL history.

Defensive lines can vary from the athletic 4-3, to the stocky 3-4. Four-three lines have two edge rushers and two tackles responsible for applying pressure to the quarterback and generating sacks and tackles. Three-four lines are more responsible for occupying space by forcing double teams on the three defensive tackles. This scheme puts emphasis on the linebackers but the big bodies of the lineman can be a force against the running game and can also generate pressure on passers.

For this list, I'm taking into account the talent of the individuals, how they played as a unit, their impact on the league, and championships won.


10. The Raiders of the '80s

A line composed of Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, Reggie Kinlaw, and Greg Townsend, the Raiders possessed one of the finest overall defenses in the league during the early '80s.

In their 1983 Super Bowl run, the defensive line alone recorded nearly 60 sacks and 46 forced turnovers. Oakland went on to dominate the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9. Their defense held Washington to less than 300 yards of offense, forcing league MVP Joe Thiemann to throw two interceptions and sacking the quarterback a total of six times.

Long is in the Hall of Fame and was one of the most dominant defensive ends of the '80s. Alzado was a great defensive tackle despite his legacy being tarnished for steroid use. Townsend retired as Oakland's all-time sack leader and Kinlaw was no slouch.


9. The Jets of the '80s

Known as "The New York Sack Exchange," Mark Gastineau, Abdul Salaam, Marty Lyons, and Joe Klecko dominated the AFC.

In 1981, the line recorded an unofficial 66 sacks with Gastineau and Klecko both having over 20. The Jets' ineptitude on offense is the only thing that kept them from being a force in the playoffs.

Gastineau once held the single-season sack record but his sack celebration and lack of focus later on are what is keeping him out of Canton. Klecko made the pro bowl at every position on the line but the Hall of Fame still eludes him. Salaam and Lyons were good contributors to the line as well.


8. The Cowboys of the '90s

With guys like Charles Haley, Russell Maryland, Tony Tolbert, Jim Jeffcoat, and Leon Lett, Dallas' defensive line made a lot of noise in the '90s.

For all intents and purposes, it was the defensive line that did a large majority of the work for the best defense in the league as well as possessing a lot of personality. It was a defense that really did its best work for the 1993 Super Bowl champions in the postseason. They gave up just over 70 yards rushing per game, forcing eight turnovers in three games. In all, the defense helped the team win three championships in four years.

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Haley was a dominant defensive end in his time and is the only player in history to win five Super Bowls but he has yet to be voted into Canton. Maryland was a versatile defensive tackle playing well against the run and rushing the passer. Jeffcoat was a 15-year vet and recorded over 100 sacks in his career. Despite being remembered for two boneheaded plays, Lett was a very talented defensive tackle, while Tolbert and Chad Henning were great benefactors for that team.


7. The 2000 Ravens

With players like Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Rob Burnett, and Michael McCrary, the Baltimore line set the blueprint for what a 3-4 defense was meant to be.

In this defense, the defensive tackles occupy up to two offensive linemen each opening up space for the linebackers. This line allowed Ray Lewis to become the defensive player of the year and Super Bowl MVP. The defense in total became the greatest scoring defense in NFL history and gave up just 23 points in four playoff games.

Adams and Siragusa were the cornerstones of the line stopping the run and occupying linemen to open up space for the linebackers. McCrary was able to win one-on-one battles to be a dominant defensive end.


6. The Cowboys of the '70s

With two generations of players including Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Larry Cole, Bob Lilly, Randy White, Harvey Martin, and Jethro Pugh, the Cowboys' defensive line had some of the most productive players in both versions of the doomsday defense.

The 1978 Dallas Cowboys defense gave up just 13 points per game as they dominated the NFC East. The so-called finesse defense produced some of the best plays and players in league history. The unit helped Dallas reach five Super Bowls in the decade with two victories.

Lilly and White are two of the greatest defensive tackles in history and both of them are in the Hall of Fame. Jones is one of the tallest players ever to play and was also a dominant defensive end. Martin retired as Dallas' all-time sack leader as well as co-MVP with White in Super Bowl XII. Cole and Pugh played in both generations of the doomsday defense and both had great success despite playing behind two Hall of Famers.


5. The '85 Bears

With a unit consisting of Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, and William Perry, the Bears were the cornerstone of the 46 defense.

Their dominance during the 1985 season is unmatched in the history of the NFL. They gave up 10 points or less 13 different times en route to a 15-1 regular season. In the playoffs, the defensive line made its mark. They became the first team in the modern history of the league to compile two consecutive postseason shutouts against the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams. In those two games, Chicago allowed a total of 311 yards and compiled 10 sacks. In their Super Bowl XX victory, Chicago's defense yielded just 123 total yards and forced six Patriots turnovers. Their defense sacked Steve Grogan a total of seven times and held New England to seven yards on 11 rushes.

Dent and Hampton are both in Canton and are considered among the best at their positions for that era. McMichael was a force inside and outside and William "Refrigerator" Perry was a playmaker on both defense and offense.


4. The Eagles of the '80s

With a line of Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, and Mike Golic, Philadelphia had one of the most underrated defensive lines in history.

The line combined for a whopping 18 Pro Bowl selections. This season saw White break the NFL single-season sack record with 21. Their defense forced an average of three turnovers a game as well in the decade.

Jerome Brown and Reggie White were arguably the most dominant pair of pass rushers in history. Brown died in a car accident in the prime of his career and White passed away from sleep apnea the year before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Clyde Simmons and Mike Golic were underrated for their contributions but their legacies live on in Philadelphia.


3. The Vikings of the '70s

Known as the "Purple People Eaters," the defensive line of Carl Eller, Alan Page, Jim Marshall, and Gary Larsen was a dominant defensive force in the NFC.

Probably the best season that this group had was in 1971. They gave up 10 points or less 10 times, averaged single digits against and completely dominated their opponents in the regular season. In the six-year span from 1971 to 1976, their defense gave up 11.2 points per game. One of the most dominating stretches you will ever see. Their lack of success in the playoffs is what keeps them from being higher on this list.

Eller and Page are both in Canton and were some of the best defensive linemen of the decade. Marshall was an NFL iron man playing 20 seasons but has yet to make the Hall of Fame. Larsen was a two-time pro bowler and was a great complement to Page.


2. The Steelers of the '70s

The cornerstone of the Steel Curtain defense, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White, were the face of the Steelers defense for the decade.

Pittsburgh's defense was so good in 1975 that they finished sixth in the AFC in scoring offense, but they outscored their opponents by 211 points. For all intents and purposes, they were the reason that the Steelers won the Super Bowl. The Super Bowls against the Dallas Cowboys will be remembered for Lynn Swann's acrobatic fourth-quarter touchdown and Jackie Smith's drop, but the defense is the reason Pittsburgh was in position to win those games. They intercepted Roger Staubach four times while holding the running backs as non factors in those games.

Joe Greene was the change the Steelers needed to be great and was voted into the Hall of Fame for his efforts. L.C. Greenwood retired as Pittsburgh's all time sack leader but has yet to make it to Canton. Ernie Holmes and Dwight White stabilized the line and made many plays throughout the decade.


1. The Rams of the '60s

Known as the "Fearsome Foursome," Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosie Grier, and Lamar Lundy can be considered the first dominant defensive line in history.

The four players combined for 29 Pro Bowl appearances. Their defense yielded just two touchdowns per game, gave up 100 yards rushing only three times during their time together and forced multiple turnovers in each outing. The reason this unit doesn't get as much credit for being one of the best ever is because of their lack of success in the playoffs, but their individual talent and ability to play as unit make them number one for me.

Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen are considered the best ever at their positions and are both in Canton. Rosie Grier was three years All-Pro defensive tackle but has yet to make the Hall of Fame. Lamar Lundy used his skills as a basketball player to be a dominant defensive end.

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