The 100 Stingiest Defenses In Football History

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 01, 2013

Defense wins championships, or so goes the old cliché.

But does that trusty crutch of gridiron analysis pass the statistical sniff test?

Not exactly. Only one of the 11 stingiest defenses in NFL history won a championship. That was way back in 1942. And it took a Hall of Fame quarterback, an epic goal-line stand and one of the great upsets in history to make it happen.

Never foget that team-wide balance, not dominance in one area, is the coin of the championship realm in professional football.

We’ve done some pretty comprehensive studies of the greatest offenses of all time, and how they historically fail miserably in the postseason.

In fact, we re-published one article, "The Big Tease," last month in the wake of another colossal offensive meltdown by the high-powered New England Patriots.

Naturally, we wanted to see how the great defenses fared, too. We put the cut-off at those defenses that surrendered 14.0 PPG or less.

It’s a nice round number in football terms: you’re pretty damn good in any era if you hold opponents to just two touchdowns per game or less over the course of an entire season.

It also gave us a perfectly round set of results: exactly 100 teams since 1940 surrendered 14.0 PPG or less. The most recent: the 2008 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who surrendered 13.93 PPG.

Note, we didn’t title this story the “greatest” defenses in NFL history. That judgment is a little more subjective and will also involve adjusting for various eras. These are the 100 “stingiest” defenses of all time: a 100 -percent objective proposition.

Clearly, giving up 14.0 PPG does not mean the same thing in all eras. Scoring was quite low right through the World War II years (the mid 1940s) before sky-rocketing in the late 1940s. Defenses came to rule again in the late 1960s through 1977 – the period which we call the Dead Ball Era. In a future study, we’ll adjust for the scoring in each individual season.

However, other than those exceptions, scoring in the NFL has been fairly consistent since the post-World War II scoring boom of the late 1940s. In fact, the greatest period of scoring in NFL history is not today. It was the late 1940s and early 1950s. The 1948 season and 1950 season, for example, rank No. 1 and No. 3 all time in average score per team. The 1965 season is No. 2 for scoring, at the height of the AFL-NFL wars.

Our list of 100 stingiest defenses in history reflects those historical truths: there are a cluster of defenses from the World War II era and again from the Dead Ball Era. Otherwise, the stingiest defenses in history are largely scattered throughout time (our list includes NFL, AFL and AAFC teams).

Sure, we’ve gone four straight seasons without a Top 100 defense. But that’s not unusual just yet. The longest spell without a Top 100 defense came in the seven-season span from 1955 through 1961.


The 1944 Giants fielded the NFL's stingiest defense, surrendering a total of 75 points in the 10-game season, the last season to be played during World War II (the war had ended by the time the 1945 season got underway, but millions of men, including hundreds of football players, were still in uniform).

The manpower shortage on NFL fields created a variety of statistical anomalies on both sides of the field, and the 1944 Giants are no exception. But even then, the 1944 Giants were a truly awesome unit: the average team scored 18.0 PPG in 1944, well above the 7.5 PPG average surrendered by the Giants.

But even the best defenses can’t get it done alone: Giants quarterback Arnie Herber threw four interceptions in New York's 14-7 NFL title game loss to Herber's former team, the Packers. The 1944 Giants were a mere No. 5 in scoring offense in the 10-team NFL.


The 1977 Falcons fielded the stingiest defense of the Super Bowl Era. In fact, it was the stingiest defense since World War II. Atlanta surrendered just 9.2 PPG, or a total of 129 points in the 14-game season.

For a little perspective: the 2012 Bills gave up 131 points in their first four games.

But with no offense, the 1977 Falcons went just 7-7, three games out of first place in the NFC West.

Balance, not defense, wins championships, despite what the cliche tells us.

That unit was truly a no-name defense at its finest: despite its status as the stingiest defense since World War II, the 1977 Falcons sent only two defenders to the Pro Bowl: cornerback Rolland Lawrence and defensive end Claude Humphrey.

It was truly a one-hit wonder of a unit: the 1976 Falcons possessed one of the worst defenses in the league (22.3 PPG); and it largely fell apart in 1978 (18.1 PPG).

The most famous personality on the 1977 Falcons was not a player but defensive assistant Jerry Glanville, who installed in a swarming style of play in Atlanta remembered (by very few) as the "Grits Blitz" defense.

Is it any coincidence that Glanville helped build one of the great defenses in history in the immediate aftermath of the death of his hero Elvis Presley in August 1977? Perhaps divine intervention was working in Atlanta's favor. 

But so was the weight of NFL history: Nine of the 100 stingest defenses played in 1976 and 1977, which marked the depths of the Dead Ball Era. It was so hard to score across the league in 1977 that the NFL was forced to make radical changes to the game before the 1978 season, marking the dawn of what we now call the Live Ball Era.



Ray Lewis and the famed 2000 Ravens produced the best defense of the Live Ball Era, surrendering just 10.3 PPG – good enough for No. 14 in NFL history.

Baltimore rode that unit all the way to a dominating defensive-field victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, with Lewis the game’s MVP.

The 2000 Ravens were about as close as you'll get to a team that won by defense alone: they surrendered just one offensive touchdown and posted a Defensive Passer Rating of 34.5 in four playoff games.

We’ll be providing analysis of this list in Forearm Shiver and elsewhere here during the offseason, including OUR list of the 10 greatest defenses of all time. But here are some of the stat highlights of the 100 stingiest.

The bottom line is that fielding a great defenseis NO guarantee of postseason success. 

19 of the stingiest defenses failed to even make the postseason. Keep in mind, however, that the NFL did not adopt a playoff format until 1967. Before then the top team in each conference squared off in the NFL championship game, except in the rare instance of a two-way top atop the conference leader board.

25 of the stingiest defenses won championships. However, three of those defenses belonged to the Cleveland Browns in the old AAFC, a league which they utterly dominated all four years before moving to the NFL and instantly winning a championship there, too, in 1950.

25 of the stingiest defenses have come here in the Live Ball Era (1978-present). But those 35 seasons represent nearly half of all the years on our list (1940-present).

26 NFL current and former franchises are represented on the list, led by the Chicago Bears, who have produced 10 of the 100 stingiest defenses in NFL hisotry, from the 1940 NFL champs (No. 92 at 13.8 PPG) to the the 2005 Bears (No. 48 at 12.6 PPG).

We'll have much more to follow. For now, here is the list.


Rk Tm Year PA  PPGResult
1New York Giants19448-1-1757.50lost NFL title
2Chicago Bears194211-0847.64lost NFL title
3Atlanta Falcons19777-71299.21missed playoffs
4Washington Redskins194210-11029.27won NFL title
5Minnesota Vikings196912-21339.50lost SB
6L.A. Rams197512-21359.64lost NFC title
7Cleveland Browns194612-21379.79won AAFC title
8Pittsburgh Steelers197610-41389.86lost AFC title
9Minnesota Vikings197111-31399.93lost div. playoffs
10Baltimore Colts197110-414010.0lost AFC title
11Minnesota Vikings197012-214310.21lost div. playoffs
12Chicago Bears196311-1-214410.29won NFL title
13Baltimore Colts196813-114410.29lost SB
14Baltimore Ravens200012-416510.31won SB
15New York Giants19418-311410.36lost NFL title
16L.A. Rams197710-414610.43lost div. playoffs
17tGreen Bay Packers196213-114810.57won NFL title
17tDenver Broncos197712-214810.57lost SB
19Pittsburgh Steelers19465-5-111710.64missed playoffs
20Miami Dolphins197312-215010.71won SB
21Pittsburgh Steelers19427-411910.82missed playoffs
22tBrooklyn Dodgers19408-312010.91missed playoffs
22tGreen Bay Packers194110-112010.91lost div.
24Philadelphia Eagles194911-113411.17won NFL title
25Brooklyn Dodgers19417-412711.55missed playoffs
26Pittsburgh Steelers197512-216211.57won SB
27Green Bay Packers196612-216311.64won SB
28Chicago Bears198614-218711.69lost div. playoffs
29Philadelphia Eagles19506-614111.75missed playoffs
30Tennessee Titans200013-319111.94lost div. playoffs
31tCleveland Browns195010-214412.0won NFL title
31tMinnesota Vikings197312-216812.0lost SB
33New York Giants19406-4-113312.09missed playoffs
34Washington Redskins19458-212112.10lost NFL title
35Kansas City Chiefs196812-217012.14lost div. playoffs
36Pittsburgh Steelers197814-219512.19won SB
37Miami Dolphins197214-017112.21won SB
38TB Buccaneers200212-419612.25won SB
39tDenver Broncos197810-619812.38lost div. playoffs
39tChicago Bears198515-119812.38won SB
41Miami Dolphins197110-3-117412.43lost SB
42tNew York Giants195010-215012.5lost div. playoff
42tPittsburgh Steelers197211-317512.5lost AFC title
42tOakland Raiders19739-4-117512.5lost AFC title
45Baltimore Ravens200613-320112.56lost div. playoffs
46Minnesota Vikings197611-2-117612.57lost SB
47Chicago Bears194810-215112.58missed playoffs
48tNew Orleans Saints199212-420212.63lost div. playoffs
48tChicago Bears200511-520212.63lost div. playoffs
50New York Giants19425-5-113912.64missed playoffs
51tDetroit Lions196211-317712.64missed playoffs
51tKansas City Chiefs196911-317712.64won SB
53Cleveland Browns195111-115212.67lost NFL title
54Chicago Bears200113-320312.69lost div. playoffs
55L.A. Rams197312-217812.71lost div. playoffs
56Cleveland Browns199411-520412.75lost div. playoffs
57New York Giants199311-520512.81

lost div. playoffs

58Minnesota Vikings197512-218012.86lost div. playoffs
59Washington Redskins19409-214212.91lost NFL title
60L.A. Rams197410-418112.93lost NFC title
61tPhiladelphia Eagles19489-2-115613.0won NFL title
61tDallas Cowboys197812-420813.0lost SB
61tPhiladelphia Eagles200111-520813.0lost NFC title
64Philadelphia Eagles19447-1-213113.10missed playoffs
65Green Bay Packers199613-321013.12won SB
66New York Giants199013-321113.19won SB
67New Orleans Saints199111-521113.19lost div. playoffs
68Cleveland Browns194712-1-118513.21won AAFC title
69Pittsburgh Steelers200113-321213.25lost AFC title
70Dallas Cowboys196812-218613.29lost div. playoffs
71Philadelphia Eagles19457-313313.30missed playoffs
72Chicago Bears194110-114713.36won NFL title
73New York Giants19519-2-116113.42missed playoffs
74Detroit Lions19699-4-118813.43missed playoffs
75Chicago Bears198812-421513.44lost NFC title
76tSan Francisco 49ers19469-518913.50missed playoffs
76tCleveland Browns195311-116213.50lost NFL title
76tCleveland Browns19549-316213.50won NFL title
76tPittsburgh Steelers197410-3-118913.50won SB
80Washington Redskins19779-518913.50missed playoffs
81Jacksonville Jaguars199914-221713.56lost AFC title
82tCleveland Browns194814-019013.57won AAFC title
82tWashington Redskins19719-4-119013.57lost div. playoffs
82tL.A. Rams197610-3-119013.57lost NFC title
82tSan Francisco 49ers19768-619013.57missed playoffs
86Cleveland Rams19459-113613.60won NFL title
87Carolina Panthers199612-421813.63lost NFC title
88Washington Redskins19436-3-113713.70lost NFL title
89tNew York Yanks194610-3-119213.71Lost AAFC title
89tKansas City Chiefs19737-5-219213.71missed playoffs
91Philadelphia Eagles198110-622113.81lost wildcard
92Chicago Bears19408-315213.82won NFL title
93Dallas Cowboys197611-319413.86lost div. playoffs
94Philadelphia Eagles198012-422213.88lost SB
95Detroit Lions19405-5-115313.91missed playoffs
96Minnesota Vikings197410-419513.93lost SB
97Pittsburgh Steelers200812-422313.94won SB
98tL.A. Rams196711-1-219614.0lost div. playoffs
98tWashington Redskins197410-419614.0lost div. playoffs
98tWashington Redskins199114-222414.0won SB

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