Unstoppable: L.C. Greenwood and the Most Punishing NFL Defenses of All Time

The football community suffered an enormous loss when it was announced that former Pittsburgh defensive end L.C. Greenwood passed away at the age of 67. Greenwood, a six-time Pro Bowler, helped the 1970’s Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in six years as a member of the infamous defensive line that came to be known as the “Steel Curtain.” Remembering Greenwood’s legendary career also brings to mind other dominant defenses that made a name for themselves keeping opponents out of the end zone and in some cases out of the game completely. Here are the top five NFL defenses of all time:

1.)    1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, “The Steel Curtain” – Widely considered the greatest defense in history, the “Steel Curtain” featured defensive ends Greenwood and Dwight White and tackles “Mean Joe” Greene and Ernie Holmes. After starting their season 1-4, the Steelers went on to record five shutouts while allowing only 28 points in the final nine games of the season for an average of 3.1 points allowed per game. Behind their completely dominant defense, the Steelers went all the way to the AFC Championship but lost to the Oakland Raiders due to an injury-depleted offense. Even without a Super Bowl victory, the ’76 Steelers are still regarded as the best team in the franchise’s history.

2.)    1985 Chicago Bears and “The Super Bowl Shuffle”- Led by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, father of Rex and Rob Ryan, Chicago’s famous “46” defense allowed only 198 total points all season. The Bears’ linebacking corps featured Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson and has been ranked the fifth greatest linebacking unit of all time. Behind defensive tackles William “Refrigerator” Perry and Dan Hampton, the Bears were 15-1and then shut out both the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams in the postseason on their way to a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. Following their only loss of the season, the team also recorded the rap song “The Super Bowl Shuffle” which reached No. 41 on the Billboard charts, making the Chicago Bears the only professional team of any American sport with a hit single.

3.)    2000 Baltimore Ravens- Behind fierce linebacker and team captain Ray Lewis and safety Rod Woodson, Baltimore’s run-stopping defense tore through opposing offenses as well as NFL record books. The Ravens set the NFL records for both fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970) in a 16-game season. They shut out four different opponents completely and gave up only five rushing touchdowns and 2.7 yards per rush all season. On their way to defeating the Giants in the Super Bowl, Baltimore allowed a total of 23 points the entire postseason.

4.)    1971 Minnesota Vikings, “The Purple People Eaters”- With the motto “Meet at the quarterback,” the Minnesota “Purple People Eaters” played some of the most memorable defense in NFL history. The Vikings were led by defensive tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen and defensive ends Carl Eller and Jim Marshall, all of whom had multiple Pro Bowl appearances. They held opponents to an unbelievable average of 9.9 points per game and opposing QB’s to a rating of just 40.4. In a week 13 game against the Detroit Lions, Page played one of the best defensive games ever. On a single drive, he had a sack on first down and tackles on both second and third downs to end the drive and went on in the fourth quarter to block a punt in the end zone for a safety. Page became the first and only defensive lineman to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award.

5.)    1990 New York Giants, “The Big Blue Wrecking Crew”- During a season in which they faced seven different playoff teams, the Giants’ defense allowed a remarkably low 13.2 points per game. The “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” featured hall-of-fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor who revolutionized the position and considered by some to be the greatest defensive player in history. Taylor’s relentless approach is widely credited with altering the pass rushing schemes, offensive line play and offensive formations used throughout the NFL. Under head coach Bill Parcels and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, New York finished the season with a 13-3 record and went on to defeat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. Belichick’s radical defensive scheme used during the game was so effective that it is now featured in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In today’s high-scoring, pass-heavy league, it can be easy to forget that throughout the history of the NFL, some Super Bowl teams have been defined by their defenses as much as their quarterbacks. L.C. Greenwood’s death represents the loss of one of the last members of one of the greatest defenses to ever play the game.