Which was the greatest Super Bowl performance by a defensive unit?
Ask NFL football fans that question and you are bound to get many
different responses. For those that would say the New York Giants
against the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 25, does allowing the Bills to
drive into field goal range for a game-winning field goal attempt that
did not miss by much eliminate the Giants defense from consideration?
Some may say the ’85 Bears against the New England Patriots in Super
Bowl 20. Yes, the Bears defense dominated the Patriots but did a Tony
Eason-quarterbacked offense strike fear and give nightmares for any
defensive coordinator? How good was that Patriot offense really?
I will look at and compare the most talked about greatest defensive
performances in Super Bowl history as well as the quality of offenses
they faced. Let’s look at the ones that merit consideration sequentially.
Super Bowl III: New York Jets 16 Baltimore Colts 7. The heavily-
favored Colts were the second highest scoring team in their league
averaging 28.7 points per game. Five turnovers did the Colts in despite
gaining 324 total yards and 18 first downs.
An impressive performance by the Jets’ defense as five members of the
Colts offense were named to the Pro Bowl: TE John Mackey, RB Tom
Matte, QB Earl Morrall, FL Willie Richardson and LT Bob Vogel.
Super Bowl IV: Kansas City Chiefs 23 Minnesota Vikings 7. The Vikings
led their league in scoring averaging 27.1 points per game during the
regular season yet managed only seven points and 13 first downs
against the Chiefs. Kansas City forced five turnovers as Minnesota was
held to 239 total yards of offense.
The Vikings offense had four Pro Bowlers in 1969: LT Grady Alderman,
QB Joe Kapp, C Mick Tinglehoff and WR Gene Washington.
Super Bowl VI: Dallas Cowboys 24 Miami Dolphins 3. The Cowboys
Doomsday Defense surrendered only a field goal to the Dolphins and
yielded only 10 first downs and forced three Miami turnovers. Miami
came into the game with the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL
with a 22.5 points per game average but could only manage a field goal
and 185 total yards of offense. The Cowboys held Miami’s vaunted
running attack led by Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick to just 80 yards
RB Larry Csonka, QB Bob Griese, G Larry Little and WR Paul Warfield all
were Pro Bowlers for the Dolphins in 1971 and Miami could get no
further than the Cowboys 16-yard line.
Super Bowl VII: Miami Dolphins 14 Washington Redskins 7. Even
though the Redskins had more first downs than the Dolphins (16-12),
they suffered three turnovers at the hands of Miami’s No Name
Defense and were limited to 228 yards of total offense.
The Redskins offense that was seventh best in scoring in the NFL
averaging 24.0 points per game was shutout by Miami’s defense. In
1972, RB Larry Brown, C Len Hauss, QB Billy Kilmer and WR Charley
Taylor all were named to the NFC Pro Bowl for the Redskins and the
closest they got to scoring a touchdown was the Dolphins 10-yard line.
Super Bowl IX: Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Minnesota Vikings 6. The Steel
Curtain defense reigned supreme in this one shutting out the Fran
Tarkenton-led Vikings’ offense as the Vikings only points came off a
blocked punt that was recovered in the Steelers endzone.
The Steelers defense forced five Viking turnovers and held the Vikings to a still Super Bowl record 119 yards of total offense and a record-low nine first downs despite losing two-thirds of their starting linebackers as Andy Russell and Jack Lambert to injuries during the game.
The Vikings reached the Steelers five-yard line after a 42-yard pass
interference penalty and then on the next play, the Steelers forced a
fumble and recovered the football.
Minnesota was the fifth-highest scoring team in the NFL averaging 22.1
points per game as RB Chuck Foreman, WR John Gilliam, QB Fran
Tarkenton and T Ron Yary all were named to the NFC Pro Bowl.
Super Bowl XII: Dallas Cowboys 27 Denver Broncos 10. Dallas’
Doomsday Defense II ruled the day holding the Broncos to 11 first
downs, 156 yards of total offense and forcing eight turnovers. But to be
honest, the Broncos offense was not anything special. The Broncos
averaged only 19.6 points per game in 1977 which was 10 th best in the
NFL and they did not have one player on offense named to the AFC Pro
Super Bowl XVIII: Los Angeles Raiders 38 Washington Redskins 9. The
Raiders held the league’s highest scoring team well below their 33.8
points per game average and limited the Redskins to 283 total yards
and just one touchdown and a field goal. The Raiders defense scored as
many touchdowns as did the Redskins offense. The Redskins managed
19 first downs and had three turnovers.
C Jeff Bostic, WR Charlie Brown, G Russ Grimm, T Joe Jacoby, RB John
Riggins and QB Joe Theismann all were chosen for the NFC Pro Bowl in
Super Bowl XX: Chicago Bears 46 New England Patriots 10. With one
of the greatest defenses in pro football history, the Bears demolished
the Patriots 46-10. The “46 defense” held the Patriots to 12 first downs
and just 123 total yards and forced six turnovers and scored as many
touchdowns as the Patriots offense did.
WR Irving Fryar, G John Hannah, T Brian Holloway, and RB Craig James
were named to the Pro Bowl for the Patriots, and despite having two
Pro Bowl offensive linemen, the Patriots could only manage seven
rushing yards on 11 attempts.
However, the Patriots offense was hardly the Greatest Show on Turf.
Their offense was 10 th in the NFL in 1985 averaging 22.6 points per
game. One has to keep that in perspective as it’s not like the ’85 Bears
faced Dan Marino in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXIV: San Francisco 55 Denver Broncos 10. Everyone
remembers the 49ers great offense, but their defense was very good as
well. The 49ers held the Broncos to only 12 first downs and just 167
yards of total offense and forced four turnovers.
Denver’s offense in 1989 was eighth in the NFL in scoring averaging
22.6 points per game and quarterback John Elway was the only Bronco
to be named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad.
Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants 20 Buffalo Bills 19. The 1990 Buffalo
Bills were the highest scoring team in the NFL averaging 26.8 points per
game. C Kent Hull, QB Jim Kelly, WR Andre Reed, RB Thurman Thomas
and LT Will Wolford all were named to the Pro Bowl for the Bills and
despite the Giants keeping the Bills offense below their scoring
average, the Bills still racked up 371 yards of total offense.
The Giants defense did allow the Bills to get into field-goal range on the
final drive of the game for a game-winning field goal attempt. The
Giants time-consuming running attack led by O.J. Anderson did a great
job in limiting the Bills offensive possessions by possessing the football
for 40:33 of the game clock to the Bills 19:27.
Super Bowl XXXV: Baltimore Ravens 34 New York Giants 7. The Ravens
defense kept the Giants offense off the scoreboard as the Giants only
points were from a 97-yard kickoff return by Ron Dixon. The Ravens
defense outscored the Giants offense when Duane Starks had a 49-yard
interception return for a touchdown.
The Giants offense managed only 152 total yards and 11 first downs
and the Ravens defense forced five turnovers. The Giants deepest
penetration into Ravens territory was Baltimore’s 29-yard line. No one
can say however, that the Ravens faced a great offense against the
Giants. In fact, the Giants averaged only 20.5 points per game which
was 15th in the NFL in 2000 and only G Ron Stone was named to the Pro
Bowl for the Giants.
Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots 20 St. Louis Rams 17. The
Rams were the highest-scoring team in the NFL in 2001 averaging 31.4
points per game. They had 26 first downs but also three turnovers
against the Patriots.
WR Isaac Bruce, RB Marshall Faulk, WR Tory Holt, T Orlando Pace, G
Adam Timmerman, QB Kurt Warner were all named to the NFC Pro
Bowl in 2001.
The St. Louis Rams offense was known as the Greatest Show on Turf
and the Patriots managed to keep the high-scoring Rams to under 20
points, but no team’s defense was ever considered dominant that
surrendered 427 yards of total offense to an opponent and that
happened to be 160 yards more than what New England had in total
Super Bowl XXXVII: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48 Oakland Raiders 21.
Tampa Bay held Oakland to 269 total yards on offense and only 11 first
downs and forced five turnovers against a Raiders team that was
second in the NFL in scoring with a 28.1 points per game average, but
the Buccaneers defense did give up 21 points. However, the Buccaneers
defense scored 21 points on three interception returns.
The Raiders had four offensive players named to the Pro Bowl: C Barret
Robbins who did not play in the Super Bowl, QB Rich Gannon, RT
Lincoln Kennedy and WR Jerry Rice.
Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants 17 New England Patriots 14. The
18-0 New England Patriots had the league’s highest-scoring offense
averaging 36.8 points per game in 2007 and were looking to make
history. The Giants defense had other plans and held the Patriots to 22
first downs, 274 total yards and forced a turnover.
QB Tom Brady, C Dan Koppen, G Logan Mankins, WR Randy Moss, and T
Matt Light were all named to the Pro Bowl for the Patriots in 2007.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Seattle Seahawks 43 Denver Broncos 8. The Legion
of Boom defense kept the Broncos league-leading scoring offense well
under their season average of 37.9 points per game. Seattle limited
Denver to 18 first downs, 306 total yards and just one touchdown while
forcing four turnovers. Seattle’s defense had an interception return for
a touchdown and registered a safety against the Broncos.
QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, TE Julius Thomas and RG
Louis Vasquez from Denver were all Pro Bowlers in 2013.
Super Bowl L: Denver Broncos 24 Carolina Panthers 10. The Panthers
came into the game with the league’s highest scoring offense averaging
31.3 points per game. The Broncos defense kept the Panthers offense
in check holding them to 21 first downs, 315 total yards of offense and
forced four turnovers and had as many touchdowns (one) as did the
Carolina Panthers offense. Conversely, the Panthers defense allowed
only 11 Denver first downs and 194 yards of total offense.
C Ryan Kalil, QB Cam Newton, TE Greg Olsen, RB Jonathan Stewart and
G Trai Turner all were named to the NFC Pro Bowl for the Panthers in
Super Bowl LIII: New England Patriots 13 Los Angeles Rams 3. The
Rams had the second-highest scoring offense in the league in 2018
averaging 32.9 points per game. Surprisingly, the Rams only had two
offensive players named to the Pro Bowl: QB Jared Goff and RB Todd
The Patriots defense limited them to just one field goal, 260 total yards
of offense, 14 first downs and forced a turnover. The deepest the Rams
got into New England territory was the Patriots’ 26-yard line.
Super Bowl LV: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Kansas City Chiefs 9. Tampa
Bay limited the Chiefs to just three field goals and forced two
turnovers. The Chiefs did manage 22 first downs and racked up 350
yards of total offense which was 10 more yards than Tampa Bay’s
offense. The Chiefs averaged 29.6 points per game during the regular
season which was sixth in the NFL in 2020.
LT Eric Fisher, RB Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce and QB Patrick Mahomes
were all named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad for the Chiefs.
If you’re going to select the greatest and most dominant performance
by a defense in a Super Bowl, there are certain criteria that narrows
down the selection process.
- The Super Bowl-winning team should have more total yards on
offense than the losing team. That eliminates New England vs. St. Louis
in Super Bowl XXXVI, Denver vs. Carolina in Super Bowl L and Tampa
Bay vs Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.
- You must hold your opponent to less than 20 points. Giving up more
than 20 points automatically takes a defense out of this discussion. If
you surrender more than 20 points, that is hardly a dominant
performance especially when you consider other defenses have shut
out their Super Bowl opponent’s offense. That eliminates the Tampa
Bay vs Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII even though their defense had
three touchdown interception returns.
- You must hold your opponent to under 350 total yards. If you are
giving up more than 350 yards of offense, your defense certainly was
not dominant. That eliminates the New York Giants vs. Buffalo in Super
Bowl XXV. The Bills had 371 yards in total offense.
With still so many outstanding defensive performances to choose the
criteria needs to be more stringent.
- You must keep your opponent’s offense from reaching the end zone
twice. That eliminates the New York Giants against New England in
Super Bowl XLII.
- The defense does not allow an offensive touchdown. Not an easy
thing to do obviously. That eliminates the New York Jets vs. Baltimore
in Super Bowl III, Kansas City vs. Minnesota in Super Bowl IV, Dallas vs.
Denver in Super Bowl XII, the L.A. Raiders vs. Washington in Super Bowl
XVIII, Chicago vs. New England in Super Bowl XX, San Francisco vs.
Denver in Super Bowl XXIV, and Seattle vs. Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.
- The defense does not even allow a field goal and shuts out the
opposing offense. That eliminates Dallas vs. Miami in Super Bowl VI and
New England vs. the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
- The defense outscores the opposing team’s offense. That eliminates
Miami vs. Washington in Super Bowl VII.
This leaves just Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota in Super Bowl IX and Baltimore
vs. the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Which team faced a better
offense? The Vikings offense had more Pro Bowlers (four) to the Giants
having only one and the Vikings offense averaged more points per
game than the Giants and Minnesota was the fifth-highest scoring team
in 1974 and the Giants were 15th in 2001.
The Giants in the first half of Super Bowl XXXV had 116 total yards of
offense which was three yards less than the Vikings had in the entire
game of Super Bowl IX.
That is why the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in Super Bowl IX was the
greatest performance by a defense in a Super Bowl.
Lombardi Trophy Photo credit: JeromeG111 on VisualHunt.com
NFL Field Logo Photo credit: jonathan_moreau on VisualHunt.com
Miami Orange Bowl photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida on Visualhunt.com
Chicago Bears helmet on lions Photo credit: Senor Codo on Visual Hunt
Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl XXV photo courtesy of the Baltimore
Ravens football organization.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers helmet Photo credit: rope88 on VisualHunt
Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl victory parade Photo credit: evilpeacock on Visualhunt
Super Bowl L Photo credit: CDOM Photography on VisualHunt.com
Bill Belichick Photo credit: Paul-W on VisualHunt
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports
publications, and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can
be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/