"Great defense always beats a great offense."
More often than not, this saying has played itself out on football's biggest stage, with a high-scoring offense getting stonewalled by an equally talented defense. Bill Belichick has had a hand in helping lead a defense that stopped two historic offenses in the Super Bowl. As the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XXV, Belichick's unit held the Bills' "K-Gun" offense to just 19 points, as New York prevailed by a point. A decade later, Belichick won his first Super Bowl as a head coach after his defense held the "The Greatest Show on Turf" to 17 points. New England beat the heavily favored Rams on Adam Vinatieri's last-second field goal.
With the start of the regular season just around the corner, we decided to look back at the five greatest Super Bowl winning defenses. When making the criteria for this list, we looked at points allowed, shutouts recorded, the talent on each unit, and the level of competition they faced from opposing offenses, particularly in the postseason.
Honorable Mention: 2002 Buccaneers
Led by Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, All-Pro Simeon Rice and Pro Bowlers Shelton Charles and John Lynch, Tampa Bay forced two shutouts while allowing just 12.3 points per game. Tampa did a number on Michael Vick, the Falcons' electric quarterback, during their two regular season meetings against Atlanta. In the playoffs, the Buccaneers allowed just six points against the 49ers before dominating Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the NFC title game, with Ronde Barber's 92-yard pick-six putting the exclamation point on Tampa Bay's 27-10 win. In Super Bowl XXXVII, the Buccaneers picked off Rich Gannon a Super Bowl record five times while returning two of those picks for scores. Game MVP Dexter Jackson picked off two of those passes, as the '02 Buccaneers captured the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy.
5. 1966 Packers
Vince Lombardi's 1966 defense is a major reason why the Super Bowl trophy is named in his honor. The '66 Packers defense, a unit that allowed just 11.6 points per game during the regular season, fielded seven Pro Bowlers and a Hall of Fame player at all three levels. Willie Davis anchored the Packers' defensive line, while Green Bay's two Hall of Fame linebackers, Dave Robinson and Ray Nitschke, patrolled the middle of the field. Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley was one of the team's five All-Pros on defense, while Hall of Fame safety Willie Brown's interception at the start of the second half of Super Bowl I turned a tight game into a Green Bay runaway.
The Packers' defense had its way against formidable competition during the regular season. In two regular-season matchups with the Colts, the Packers picked off Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas six times while holding Baltimore to 13 points. In two games against Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, the Packers held the Kansas Comet to a 2.8 yards per carry average. Green Bay's defense also won three of its four matchups against Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel and 49ers quarterback John Brodie, two of the best signal callers of that era. In the NFL Championship Game, the Packers' goal line stand on the game's final series gave them a seven-point win over the Cowboys. And after allowing 10 points in the first half of Super Bowl I, Green Bay shut out a talented Chiefs offense during the second half of its eventual 35-10 victory.
While it was loaded with talent, Green Bay's '66 defense was also an extremely intelligent, well-coached unit that related on their brains just as much as their physical prowess. The play of the Packers' defense helped Green Bay win five championships over a seven-year span.
"We were a great defensive team," Dave Robinson said of his unit during a recent interview with CBS Sports. "We had a team of veterans. So many times, teams would work all week on a play and put it in and then run it one time against us. We as a group would get together and say, 'Here's what they're doing, here's how we're gonna stop it.'"
4. 2000 Ravens
While they didn't face the stiffest of competition, the 2000 Ravens' 10.3 points per game allowed is the fewest since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season in 1978. Led by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson, defensive ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett, defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, linebackers Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper, and cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chris McAllister, Baltimore's defense shut out four opponents while only allowing three teams to score over 20 points. The 2000 Ravens' defense was so dominant that Baltimore was able to win 12 games during the regular season despite a five-week stretch where its offense failed to score a touchdown.
After holding the Broncos to just three points in the wild card round, the Ravens earned a rubber match game against the defending AFC champion Titans. Late in the game, with Baltimore clinging to a seven-point lead, Lewis managed to pull Steve McNair's pass to Eddie George out of George's hands before roaring 50 yards down the field for the game-clinching score. The Ravens were even more dominant in the AFC title game, holding the favored Raiders to just three points after Siragusa knocked out Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon in the first half.
Baltimore's defense capped off its historic season with a masterful performance in Super Bowl XXXV. Facing a Giants team that scored 41 points in the NFC Championship Game, the Ravens' defense shut out New York's offense while forcing five turnovers and holding the Giants to 2-of-14 efficiency on third downs. Starks' 49-yard interception return for a score gave Baltimore a 17-0 third quarter lead, while Lewis' four pass breakups helped him win the game's MVP award.
3. 1972 Dolphins
The Dolphins' "No Name" defense played like a bunch of no names in Super Bowl VI, when the Cowboys ran roughshod over them, 24-3. Miami, specifically its defense, used the humbling experience as motivation in 1972. En route to a perfect season, the Dolphins' defense, led by Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, defensive tackle Manny Fernandez, defensive end Bill Stanfill, and safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott, recorded two shutouts while allowing just 12.2 points per game during the regular season.
In its season-opener, Miami sacked Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson four times while recording two interceptions. Three weeks later, it held Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath to just 156 yards on 12-of-25 passing. Namath didn't fare much better in the rematch, throwing as many interceptions (two) as he did touchdown passes. The Dolphins' defense also had its way against O.J. Simpson, the NFL's best running back at the time. In two games against Simpson, Miami held him to just 3.64 yards per carry.
Miami allowed just 17 points against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game before shutting out Washington's offense in the Super Bowl. Fernandez led the way with 17 tackles, while Scott's two interceptions helped him become the first defensive back to earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
Along with intercepting Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer three times, Don Shula's defense also held All-Pro running back Larry Brown to just 72 yards on 22 carries, with a long run of 11 yards. In three postseason games, Miami's defense allowed just 31 points while helping the Dolphins win their first of two consecutive Super Bowl titles.
2. 1975 Steelers
If we were picking the best defense over an extended period of time, the Steel Curtain defense is second to none. But the issue with the Steelers is that their best defense, and arguably, the greatest single season defense of all-time, was part of a team that didn't win a Super Bowl. Over a nine-game span, the Steelers' 1976 defense allowed just nine points while shutting out five opponents. For the season, they allowed just 9.9 points per game while helping Pittsburgh win 10 straight games entering a third consecutive AFC title game showdown against the Raiders. The shorthanded Steelers, playing without 1,000-yard backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, fell to the eventual champion Raiders, 24-7.
The best of the Steelers' championship defenses comes down to their '74 and '75 units. While the '74 defense allowed fewer points in the playoffs, the '75 defense allowed fewer points during the regular season. It also played with the confidence of a defense that knew it was good enough to lead the Steelers to a title. The '75 Steelers also faced slightly better competition, both during the regular season as well as during the postseason.
Pittsburgh's '75 defense boasted five Hall of Fame players: defensive tackle Joe Greene (the reigning Defensive Player of the Year), linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, cornerback (and 1975 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) Mel Blount, and safety Donnie "The Torpedo" Shell. Pittsburgh's defense also included Pro Bowlers L.C. Greenwood, Andy Russell, Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards. Along with Greenwood and Green, defensive end Dwight White and defensive tackle Ernie Holmes helped form the best defensive line of the Super Bowl era. The play of Pittsburgh's defensive line was a major reason why the Steelers allowed just 17 touchdowns during the regular season.
After shutting out the Chargers in the season-opener, Pittsburgh was gashed by O.J. Simpson in Week 2, as he galloped for 227 yards while leading Buffalo to a 30-21 win. Pittsburgh's defense was air tight after that, allowing just 18 points over their next three games. Overall, the Steelers held seven opponents to single digits while allowing over 20 points only twice. In four games against divisional foes Cincinnati and Houston, who went 21-3 against the rest of the NFL, the Steelers went 4-0 while allowing just 16 points per game during those matchups. Pittsburgh had three different three-game stretches where they held the opposition to fewer than 10 points.
In the playoffs, Pittsburgh held the formidable Baltimore and Oakland offenses to just 10 points while punching their ticket to Super Bowl X. After allowing a first quarter touchdown for the first time all season, Pittsburgh's defense clamped down on the Cowboys' exotic defense, sacking Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach seven times while forcing him into throwing three interceptions. The complexion of the game changed in the second half, when Lambert threw down Cowboys safety Cliff Harris after Harris taunted Pittsburgh kicker Roy Gerela after a missed field goal. Led by a possessed Lambert (who finished the game with 14 tackles), the ferocious pass rush of White and Greenwood (who combined to record all seven of Pittsburgh's sacks) and the rest of Pittsburgh's defense helped the Steelers turn a 10-7 deficit into a 21-17 victory. The Steel Curtain would help the Steelers win two more Super Bowls during the '70s while becoming the first and only team to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice.
1. 1985 Bears
Perhaps the most intimating defense ever assembled, the Bears' 46 defense ran through seemingly every opponent during Chicago's magical 1985 season. The brainchild of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense was full of complex blitz packages that made playing against them a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Only Dan Marino, who was armed with a his quick release and a formidable receiving duo of Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, was able to tame the Bears' defense in 1985.
Fortunately for the Bears, Marino and the Dolphins were upset by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. New England's "reward" was a showdown against arguably the greatest defensive unit of all-time. Simply put, the Patriots' offense didn't stand a chance, as they committed six turnovers while rushing for a just nine yards, a Super Bowl record for futility. The Patriots' only touchdown, along with most of their 123 total yards on the day, didn't come until garbage time with the Bears enjoying a 41-3 lead.
Chicago's defense was anchored by Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who worked tirelessly with Ryan as it related to the Bears' defensive scheme. Singletary was complemented by Hall of Fame defensive end Dan Hampton (6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent (17 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles), All-Pro defensive tackle Steve McMichael (eight sacks), Pro Bowl linebacker Otis Wilson (10.5 sacks, three interceptions), fellow linebacker Wilber Marshal (six sacks, four interceptions), Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson (five interceptions), fellow safety Gary Fencik (five interceptions), and rookie defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry (five sacks, two fumble recoveries).
After some early struggles, the Bears' defense started to roll in Week 6, holding Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and the rest of the defending champion 49ers to just 10 points. That game seemed to be a turning point for the Bears, who allowed just 29 points over their next five games that included consecutive shutouts over the Cowboys and Falcons. And after seeing their dreams of an undefeated season crash and burn in Miami, Chicago permitted just 33 points during their final three games of the regular season, as the Bears finished the '85 regular season with a 15-1 record.
While it produced a historic regular season, the Bears defense raised its game to an even higher level in the playoffs. In its first two playoff games, Chicago's defense did not allow a single point, shutting out the Giants (the next Super Bowl champion) and the Rams. Against the Giants, the Bears sacked future Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms six times while holding New York to just 181 total yards. A week later, they held Eric Dickerson, who rushed for a league record 2,105 yards the season before, to just 46 yards and two fumbles. Fittingly, the Bears' defense scored the game's final touchdown, with Marshall returning a fumble 52 yards to pay dirt.
In Super Bowl XX, Chicago's defense recorded seven sacks (that included a safety) and two interceptions that included a pick-six by Reggie Phillips. Dent took home the game's MVP award, while Ryan was carried off the field by his players, becoming the first -- and only -- assistant coach to be carried off the field at the conclusion of a Super Bowl.