Building a Super Bowl Winner: Defense

Building a Super Bowl Winner: Defense
Building a Super Bowl Winner: Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Last week, in Part II of this study on building a Super Bowl champion, we focused on the offensive side of the ball. (Part I, which looks at overall trends, is found here. In the DVOA era, going back to 1989, more No. 1 offenses have reached the Super Bowl than No. 1 defenses, and the average Super Bowl participant has ranked higher on offense than defense.

That may make the perception that "defense wins championships" seem strange, but there is good reasoning to support this view. For starters, very few championship-winning teams score the game-winning points at the end of the game in the playoffs. Ususally we see defenses close out a championship win after the offense jumped ahead early in the big game. In this particular era, we have been blessed to have 14 of the last 17 Super Bowls play out as one-score games in the fourth quarter. Three dominant defenses (the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, and 2013 Seahawks) had the only blowout wins, and each had at least one pick-six to highlight those performances. In fact, there has been a defensive return touchdown in nine Super Bowls since 2000, and those teams have gone 9-0.

Going back to Super Bowl XXXIV between the Rams and Titans, defensive highlights have become arguably more common than offensive highlights for title teams.

  • Mike Jones' tackle of Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line as time expired has become an indelible image from Super Bowl XXXIV.
  • Ty Law (XXXVI) and Rodney Harrison (XXXIX) should have won Super Bowl MVPs for New England after their big interceptions against the Rams and Eagles.
  • Lost in the Sean Locklear holding controversy, Matt Hasselbeck threw a pick to Ike Taylor in Super Bowl XL in a 14-10 game. Four plays later, Antwaan Randle El threw a touchdown to make it 21-10, the final score.
  • James Harrison's 100-yard interception return off Kurt Warner to end the first half of Super Bowl XLIII should always go down as one of the greatest defensive plays ever.
  • The Giants' pass rush against Tom Brady will always be cited when fans talk about those two Super Bowl upsets in XLII and XLVI.
  • Tracy Porter's thefts of Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in back-to-back championship games highlight the 2009 Saints' run.
  • The 2010 Packers had at least one big interception in all four playoff games, and stopped the Steelers on the final drive of Super Bowl XLV.
  • The 2012 Ravens and 2013 Seahawks both denied the 49ers of a potential game-winning touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree in the end zone.
  • Malcolm Butler made a name for himself in Super Bowl XLIX with the most impactful interception in NFL history, stopping Seattle at the 1-yard line with a 28-24 final.
  • In Super Bowl 50, the 14-point difference was essentially delivered by Von Miller's two strip-sacks of Cam Newton, including one with 4:16 left when it was just a 16-10 game.

The defense has tended to put the final stamp on title after title, and it is not like any of the first 50 Super Bowl winners got there by winning a series of 35-31 shootouts. Only nine of the 158 playoff games won by the 50 Super Bowl winners (5.7 percent) saw the victorious team allow 28 points or more. The 2012 Ravens are the only team to appear twice, but that 38-35 win over Denver included two return touchdowns by Trindon Holliday, and even the 34-31 Super Bowl ended with an intentional safety.

The other element at work here is that No. 1 defenses rarely lay an egg on the big stage like high-scoring offenses have for decades in the NFL. Last year, Carolina was the 18th team since the merger to score 500 points, but only four of those teams have won a Super Bowl. Like the Panthers, half of those teams failed to exceed 17 points in their season-ending playoff loss. The 1983 Redskins (33.8 PPG), 2007 Patriots (36.8), and 2013 Broncos (37.9) each set the NFL's single-season scoring record, but combined to score 31 points in three games while going 0-3 in the Super Bowl. The highest-scoring team in the NFL since 1970 is 10-10 in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, No. 1 scoring defenses are 13-4 in that time.

Offenses are tasked with building leads, but defenses have the most responsibility of protecting them. Successfully playing that role of the closer may skew our view of a defense's importance, but it is an absolute necessity to play good defense if a team wants to win a Super Bowl.

Sustaining Offense vs. Defense

A team looking to build a dominant unit for Super Bowl success may still prefer to go the offensive route. With the right quarterback, costs can be cut along the offensive line, where it is unnecessary to have five good players. Specialization at the skill positions can also cut down the salaries as teams look for receiving backs, short-yardage runners, slot receivers, and deep threats instead of paying a premium for a short supply of workhorse backs and do-everything wideouts. In building a great defense, it is ideal to have at least one standout player at each level (defensive line, linebackers, secondary). These days, top-notch defenders draw almost as much money as quarterbacks even though it is impossible for them to ever truly have that level of impact for an entire season.

From countless studies on this website, we have observed that offense has better year-to-year correlation than defense. A lot of this has to do with the consistency of the quarterback and his importance on making passing plays a success, as well as the fact that offenses run designed plays while most defenses are just reactionary units. Any of the 11 defenders can rise to the occasion to make the play a successful stop. It is easier for a quarterback to consistently get rid of the ball a certain percentage of the time -- this speaks to his playing style -- than it is for the defense's pass rush to match last year's success. Maybe last year's schedule was heavy on scramblers and inexperienced guys who like to hold the ball while this year is filled with quick-thinking pocket passers. Meanwhile, your offense's quarterback, health willing, is the same style of player for all 16 games. His accuracy is a repeatable skill, which is why we see decent correlation with stats like completion percentage and passing plus-minus. On the other side, our cornerback coverage charting numbers have wild variation from year to year even for some of the best players, because you never know when that pass is going to be overthrown to a wide-open receiver, or when Odell Beckham will just flat-out drop a touchdown against Josh Norman.

But what if I told you that great defenses have done just as well as great offenses at sustaining dominant DVOA success, if not better? Since 1989, 14 offenses have strung together multiple seasons of ranking top three in DVOA, compared to 15 defenses. Pretty unexpected, right? As we saw in Part I, 24 of the last 27 Super Bowl winners had at least one top-eight unit. When looking at streaks of top-eight units since 1989, defense again edged out offense by a count of 50 to 47.

What gives? Well, let's look at a table of those top-three units.

Longest Top 3 OFF Streaks Longest Top 3 DEF Streaks
Team Seasons Years Team Seasons Years
IND 2003-2007 5 PHI 1989-1992 4
SF 1991-1994 4 SF 1995-1997 3
DAL 1992-1995 4 TB 2001-2003 3
NE 2009-2012 4 SEA 2012-2014 3
KC 2002-2004 3 NO 1991-1992 2
DEN 2012-2014 3 PIT 1993-1994 2
BUF 1990-1991 2 GB 1996-1997 2
GB 1995-1996 2 BAL 1999-2000 2
DEN 1997-1998 2 BAL 2003-2004 2
STL 2000-2001 2 PIT 2004-2005 2
OAK 2001-2002 2 CHI 2005-2006 2
SF 2001-2002 2 PIT 2007-2008 2
GB 2011-2012 2 PHI 2008-2009 2
PIT 2014-2015 2 GB 2009-2010 2
SF 2011-2012 2

Notice the length of the streaks. Four offenses were able to finish at least four years in the top three, including the five-year run by Peyton Manning's Colts. Only four defenses managed to last three years in the top three, including the wasted efforts of Reggie White's Eagles from 1989 to 1992. The average offensive streak was 2.8 seasons, compared to 2.4 seasons for defense. We find similar results for those top-eight streaks: an average of 3.4 seasons for the offense and 2.8 seasons for the defense.

(It should be noted that Pittsburgh's offensive streak is still active, a big reason why the Steelers have the No. 1 offensive projection for 2016. In addition, for those curious about recent defenses: Denver ranked fourth in defensive DVOA in 2014 before leading the league last year, while Seattle ranked fourth last year to prevent the Seahawks from a four-year span.)

So while a good number of defenses were able to put things together for consecutive seasons, offenses were better at keeping the window open longer, which means more opportunities for championships. Seven of those top-three defenses above won a Super Bowl compared to six offenses, but the offenses actually had more total Super Bowl success (a 9-6 record) than the defenses (7-3).

While the streaks are shorter, this is still encouraging news for teams looking to sustain defensive success. If a team acquires a lot of great talent in a short period of time, then why shouldn't that unit continue to be very good as long as those parts stay together? The Ravens, led by Ray Lewis, were able to sustain an incredible 13 consecutive top-eight defenses from 1999 to 2011. The next-best units were the 1989-1996 Eagles and 1998-2005 Buccaneers. We know the Ravens and Buccaneers cashed in with rings, but those Eagles, molded by the late Buddy Ryan (head coach from 1986-1990), only won two wild-card games and never reached the NFC Championship Game. The only other defense with a streak longer than four years was the 1992-1997 Steelers in Bill Cowher's first six seasons.

As for the longest offensive streaks, the 2004-2015 Patriots reign at 12 seasons and counting. Tom Brady essentially missed the 2008 season, but Bill Belichick has been the coach for every game. Brady's absence for the first four games this year could be the next biggest threat to keeping this streak alive. Manning's Colts had the next best streak at eight years in 2003-2010, and he continued that in his first three years in Denver (2012-14). San Francisco went eight years from 1989 to 1996 as it made the enviable transition from Joe Montana to Steve Young. As we add more DVOA seasons, that streak should grow to at least 10 years and as high as 16. Surprisingly, the 1999-2005 Chiefs rank fourth at seven years, showing this can be done without a top-tier Hall of Fame quarterback. The Chiefs had Elvis Grbac and Trent Green, but also had one of the best offensive lines ever, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and one of the best tight ends of all time in Tony Gonzalez.

Whether it is offense or defense, some really great talent is necessary to build a dominant unit or a championship team in general. It is not by accident that Super Bowl rosters do not look like the 2016 Browns or 2016 49ers.

Super Bowl-Winning Defenses

As we did for offenses in Part II, this table looks at the 27 Super Bowl-winning defenses since 1989. Their rank in defensive DVOA along with their rank in the previous season is included, as well as the rankings in both passing and rushing. Also included are where the defense ranked in weekly variance, ordered from most consistent to least consistent that season, and the average schedule of offenses faced, ranked from hardest to easiest. Top-three units are in bold.

Super Bowl-Winning Defenses, 1989-2015
1989 SF 5 N/A 10 4 11 16
1990 NYG 4 7 3 12 20 8
1991 WAS 3 11 3 8 24 21
1992 DAL 5 24 7 6 27 15
1993 DAL 18 5 15 17 20 7
1994 SF 7 19 3 21 27 12
1995 DAL 13 2 11 26 4 14
1996 GB 1 19 1 9 20 24
1997 DEN 8 3 5 16 24 20
1998 DEN 20 8 24 10 2 29
1999 STL 3 14 5 3 2 31
2000 BAL 2 1 7 1 2 31
2001 NE 13 21 11 28 19 27
2002 TB 1 2 1 8 16 32
2003 NE 2 14 2 13 16 16
2004 NE 7 2 6 7 32 15
2005 PIT 3 3 5 1 9 17
2006 IND 25 5 13 32 23 9
2007 NYG 13 13 14 9 18 16
2008 PIT 1 3 1 2 14 9
2009 NO 17 26 9 29 15 29
2010 GB 2 2 1 16 4 22
2011 NYG 19 3 19 20 18 6
2012 BAL 19 1 13 25 2 16
2013 SEA 1 2 1 7 28 31
2014 NE 12 20 12 13 27 15
2015 DEN 1 4 1 4 13 4
AVG - 8.3 9.0 7.5 12.9 16.2 18.2

Many of the results are similar to what we observed with the offenses. There were 10 defenses that failed to rank in the top 10. As with offenses, there were 14 top-five finishes on defense in the previous season, so most of these teams were coming off of strong defensive years. Variance and the schedule do not seem to be major factors, and in fact, these defenses were actually more inconsistent and faced easier schedules than the Super Bowl-winning offenses did.

The split between passing and rushing was larger on defense, placing much more of an emphasis on stopping the pass. Ten defenses were in the top three against the pass, compared to only four defenses ranked similarly against the run. Two of those were coordinated by Dick LeBeau, who stressed stopping the run. Five defenses managed to win it all with a run defense ranked 25th or worse during the regular season, including the dead-last 2006 Colts, while only one pass defense (1998 Broncos) ranked outside the top 20.

Stopping the run sounds good on paper, but there are very few offenses capable of starting a game successfully with a run-heavy attack. Pass defense is the crucial element of playing great defense. Good teams will have leads and force the opponent to abandon the run and throw the ball. These teams may allow lots of passing yards, but that has never mattered. The game comes down to timely pressures, turnovers, and stops. It could be a long time before you see a Super Bowl winner that was downright poor against the pass.

Why Aren't the 2000 Ravens Higher!?!?

Let's just get this one out of the way. Yes, the 1999 Ravens were No. 1 on defense, but the famed 2000 unit ranked second to Tennessee. A big part of this was the schedule, as Baltimore faced the weakest group of offenses in the league in 2000. The opposing quarterbacks were especially glaring as Baltimore feasted on the likes of Doug Pederson, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, Scott Mitchell, Kent Graham, Jake Plummer, and an old Troy Aikman.

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Yes, schedule strength had a major impact on the entire AFC Central that year, but Tennessee's defensive schedule ranked 26th. Even with non-adjusted figures, the Titans (-28.4%) still edge out the Ravens (-28.3%) by the slimmest of margins in DVOA. While Baltimore's run defense was historic, the Titans fared better against the pass, where Baltimore only ranked seventh. You may recall Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith carving Baltimore up pretty good in Week 2, prompting a 17-point comeback from the Tony Banks-led offense, or when Vinny Testaverde passed for 481 yards and only took one sack on over 70 dropbacks in Week 17.

Yes, Baltimore would get a boost from including the postseason in these stats, as the Ravens were dominant there, but let's not act like the Titans' defense played poorly in the 24-10 AFC divisional playoff loss. That 10-10 tie was broken by an Al Del Greco field goal getting blocked and returned for a touchdown, and Eddie George tipping a pass right to Ray Lewis for a pick-six. Similar blunders doomed 2000's No. 1 offense, St. Louis, in a big comeback attempt in New Orleans, when Az-Zahir Hakim muffed a late punt in a 31-28 loss. This would have been a fantastic season to watch the Rams' No. 1 offense vs. Tennessee's No. 1 defense in a Super Bowl rematch, but instead we got arguably the most boring Super Bowl on record with the Giants and Ravens.

Why Isn't [My Team] Higher?

There are a few teams where context is certainly needed when looking at their defensive rankings. No Super Bowl champion suffered a bigger year-to-year decline on defense than the 2006 Colts and 2012 Ravens, but these were strong units in both the seasons before and after those Super Bowl wins.

For the 25th-ranked 2006 Colts, it is worth mentioning the fact that safety Bob Sanders only played in four regular-season games in 2006 compared to 29 games over 2005 and 2007, when the Colts were a top-five defense. No, one hard-hitting safety cannot make up that much of a difference, but Sanders was a difference maker for that defense. The Colts just happened to face some rather weak offenses that postseason, starting with two bland power-run attacks with impotent quarterbacks in Kansas City and Baltimore. The 2006 Patriots had the weakest personnel of any of the offenses in the Belichick-Brady era, and Chicago's Rex Grossman self-destructed in the Super Bowl as expected. Just as the perceived massive improvement of the Indianapolis defense gets overstated that postseason, the No. 1 offense's struggles can also be explained in part by the competition. The 2006 Colts are the only champion to take down the top three scoring defenses in the same postseason (Ravens, Patriots, and Bears). Again, the opponent is very relevant to playoff success. The Colts drew offenses they could handle and defenses they could get by.

For the 2012 Ravens, the core group of Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed only played in four games together all season: the four postseason games. Sure, Lewis and Reed were closer to retirement than their primes, but similar to Manning in Denver last year, they were the leaders on that unit and you cannot deny the DNA of four HOF-caliber talents. The Ravens held a rookie Andrew Luck to 9 points, then greatly limited the offenses of Manning and Brady on the road before a Super Bowl win sent Lewis into retirement, ending an era in Baltimore.

As for those pesky Giants, pass rush is king, isn't it? The 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos had the highest pressure rates in the league, while the 2014 Patriots finished No. 1 in DVOA with pressure. New York's 2007 defense was nothing remarkable in the regular season, but would any offensive line want to block players like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck? Third-year corner Corey Webster played way above his head in that postseason, and that excellent pass rush helped upset the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots. Fast-forward a few years later, and some of the names changed, but Jason Pierre-Paul was the latest pass-rushing dynamo in town. In 2010, the Giants ranked third on defense and first in DVOA with pressure. While the unit fell off to 19th in 2011, the Giants were still second in DVOA with pressure that season. Sure enough, they found that pass rush in the playoffs and upset the Packers, 49ers and Patriots again. Combining a strong pass rush with clutch quarterback play is one of the top recipes for Super Bowl success. The ingredients only came together twice for these Giants, which makes many skeptical of them, but it is hard to deny the talent was always there on those teams.

The Quick Turnarounds

Two defenses were able to win a Super Bowl after a huge single-year improvement, climbing 18 and 19 spots in the rankings from the previous year. They went about it different ways.

Dallas managed to go from 24th on defense in 1991 to fifth in 1992, Jimmy Johnson's fourth year on the job. The Cowboys did not make many personnel changes from 1991 to 1992, but bringing in Hall of Famer Charles Haley was a huge move to weaken the rival 49ers and strengthen Dallas' pass rush. This gave Dallas a pass-rushing trio of Haley, Tony Tolbert, and Jim Jeffcoat -- Jeffcoat only had to take on a specialist role and still led the team with 10.5 sacks. 1991 draft picks Russell Maryland and Larry Brown were second-year starters instead of rookies, and while standout safety Darren Woodson was drafted in 1992, he did not become a full-time starter until 1993. Dallas got really good really fast by letting young talent mature, which was the plan on the offensive side of the ball as well with Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith. Helped by strong drafts and the Herschel Walker trade, Dallas created a dynasty before the salary cap rules, but with methods that would work in the salary cap era.

It is odd to think of Green Bay as a factor in free agency, but the Packers made one of the biggest early splashes by snatching Reggie White in 1993. He was hardly the only move that eventually led to 1996's No. 1 defense. Sean Jones, who finished his career with 113 sacks, was signed as a free agent in 1994 and formed a nice bookend on the line with White. The Packers then moved the massive Gilbert Brown into a full-time starting role in 1996. He was joined at defensive tackle by Santana Dotson, who came over from Tampa Bay, giving the Packers a starting defensive line composed of four players they did not draft. Doug Evans and Craig Newsome were pretty unremarkable starting corners, but they were young. Safety Leroy Butler was the star of the secondary, but the key move in 1996 was the free-agent signing of Eugene Robinson, who went on to lead the team with six interceptions that year. That means the best Green Bay defense since the Vince Lombardi era had five free-agent starters. Imagine that.

Roster Construction and the Biggest Turnarounds

Before players started signing with new teams in March, I tweeted my admiration for the way Denver built its championship defense, using a combination of methods from the draft and free agency.

I even created an Excel file called "Super Bowl Defenses," but unfortunately never got around to expanding on that beyond Denver's setup. As with offensive lines in my Part II roster breakdowns, I did not have the time to dissect all 11 starters (and any key role players) for the Super Bowl-winning defenses in the DVOA era. I did at least prepare the following table that looks at the leaders that season in Approximate Value (AV), Pro Football Reference's metric to measure every player season since 1950, for each level of the defense. Since we do not have a metric like DVOA for individual defenders, AV was a good compromise, and it made more sense to show the top player at each level rather than the top three defenders to show the balance (or lack thereof) in the defense.

Super Bowl-Winning Defenses: Top Defender by AV by Level, 1989-2015
Year Team Defensive Line AV Linebackers AV Secondary AV
1989 SF Kevin Fagan 9 Charles Haley 10 Ronnie Lott 14
1990 NYG Erik Howard 12 Pepper Johnson 19 Everson Walls 9
1991 WAS Charles Mann 15 Wilber Marshall 17 Darrell Green 18
1992 DAL Tony Casillas 9 Ken Norton 9 James Washington 8
1993 DAL Russell Maryland 10 Ken Norton 15 Thomas Everett 9
1994 SF Dana Stubblefield 10 Ken Norton 8 Deion Sanders 14
1995 DAL Charles Haley 8 Dixon Edwards 6 Darren Woodson 12
1996 GB Reggie White 19 George Koonce 12 LeRoy Butler 18
1997 DEN Neil Smith 12 John Mobley 17 Darrien Gordon 17
1998 DEN Maa Tanuvasa 9 Bill Romanowski 11 Steve Atwater 9
1999 STL Kevin Carter 22 Mike Jones 13 Todd Lyght 18
2000 BAL Rob Burnett 21 Ray Lewis 23 Rod Woodson 17
2001 NE Anthony Pleasant 10 Roman Phifer 10 Ty Law 11
Year Team Defensive Line AV Linebackers AV Secondary AV
2002 TB Simeon Rice 21 Derrick Brooks 22 Ronde Barber 15
2003 NE Richard Seymour 16 Tedy Bruschi 15 Ty Law 17
2004 NE Richard Seymour 14 Tedy Bruschi 12 Rodney Harrison 11
2005 PIT Casey Hampton 10 Joey Porter 14 Troy Polamalu 14
2006 IND Robert Mathis 7 Cato June 7 Jason David 6
2007 NYG Osi Umenyiora 12 Kawika Mitchell 8 Sam Madison 8
2008 PIT Aaron Smith 10 James Harrison 19 Troy Polamalu 18
2009 NO Will Smith 8 Jonathan Vilma 10 Darren Sharper 13
2010 GB B.J. Raji 9 Clay Matthews 19 Charles Woodson 12
2011 NYG Jason Pierre-Paul 14 Michael Boley 6 Aaron Ross 6
2012 BAL Haloti Ngata 13 Jameel McClain 7 Ed Reed 11
2013 SEA Tony McDaniel 9 Bobby Wagner 10 Richard Sherman 19
2014 NE Rob Ninkovich 10 Jamie Collins 9 Darrelle Revis 14
2015 DEN Malik Jackson 9 Von Miller 17 Chris Harris 13

Note: Giants fans are probably the most curious about where their two greatest pass-rushers are, but 1990 Lawrence Taylor (AV: 17) and 2007 Michael Strahan (AV: 8) did not beat out their teammates in those years.

Defensive backs (13.0) averaged the most AV, but linebackers (12.8) and defensive linemen (12.1) were very close. The most interesting finding was the fact that I count 14 out of 27 teams with a HOF-likely player featured in the secondary. That's even excluding some solid candidates unlikely to ever get in such as Darren Woodson, Leroy Butler, Darren Sharper, and Rodney Harrison. I think it is very realistic to expect Steve Atwater, Ty Law, Ronde Barber, Troy Polamalu, Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Richard Sherman, and Darrelle Revis as future HOFers. Chris Harris is obviously trending that way too in Denver. I think Ray Lewis, Clay Matthews, and Von Miller will be the only linebackers likely to join Charles Haley and Derrick Brooks in Canton, for a total of five players. The defensive line number may be even smaller if you are not feeling the cases of Haloti Ngata, Robert Mathis, and Richard Seymour to go along with Haley and Reggie White.

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Even if one strongly disagrees with my HOF designations, it is hard to argue that defensive backs are not the highest caliber of player here. Some of the best "one-year rentals" for Super Bowl winners were cornerbacks, including Deion Sanders on the 1994 49ers and Darrelle Revis on the 2014 Patriots.

Earlier we mentioned the sustained success Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay managed on defense. Those units were built largely through the draft. That core of Lewis, Suggs, Ngata and Reed were all high draft picks by Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore. I gave Tampa Bay plenty of credit in our study of the 1994-1999 drafts, but recall that the Buccaneers drafted John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, and Ronde Barber (four likely future HOFers) in a five-year span from 1993 to 1997. Pittsburgh's preference for hanging onto talented defenders it acquired during the Dick LeBeau era is well documented, highlighted by the likes of Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and James Harrison. This is also why the Steelers have gone through some recent down years on defense after a huge turnover.

Seattle's incredible collection of talent, found mostly through the draft a few years back, rivals what the '90s Cowboys did, which is why this team was the logical pick for the NFL's next dynasty. On defense alone, Seattle's 2010 draft that brought in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor was followed by Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Byron Maxwell and Malcolm Smith in 2011, and then Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, and Jeremy Lane in 2012. Throw in some smart, low-key signings like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in 2013's free-agency period, and the Seahawks have done historic things on the defensive side of the ball in this time.

There is no one right way to build a defense, but all of these championship units share something in common: they have several core players. No one is winning a title with three scrubs leading the defense. The 2006 Colts (20) were the only defense here without at least 26 AV from its top three defenders, but we know that roster had a core of Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders to lead the way -- two pass-rushers and an eraser to stop the run.

The Biggest Single-Season Turnarounds

As it is with offense, building a dominant unit usually takes multiple years, but we wanted to find teams that made the biggest leaps from one year to the next in defensive DVOA to see if any trends jump out that could fast-track a team's rise. I gathered the 20 teams with the largest single-year improvements in defensive DVOA since 1989 (among all teams, whether they played in the Super Bowl or not). I noted changes at head coach or defensive coordinator, as well as any significant changes in the secondary, pass-rusher or anything else noteworthy. Rookies are noted with an "RK" in parentheses. "FT" is for players on the roster the previous year, but now in a full-time starting role. "H" is for players that had their previous season significantly hindered by injury. Finally, Frank Warren (SUS) was suspended from the 1990 Saints for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Teams in a Super Bowl window are in bold.

Top 20 Year-To-Year Increases in Defensive DVOA Since 1989
Rk Team Year DEF Rk Y+1 DEF Rk DIFF New HC/DC? DB Change? Pass Rush Change? Other
1 MIA 1997 11.7% 28 -22.4% 1 -34.1% - SAF B.Marion LB R.Jones CB S.Madison (FT)
2 DEN 2008 20.7% 31 -9.8% 7 -30.5% J.McDaniels/M.Nolan SAF B.Dawkins - CB C.Bailey (H)
3 OAK 1997 14.4% 29 -15.2% 3 -29.6% J.Gruden/W.Shaw CB C.Woodson (RK) CB E.Allen
4 TEN 1999 4.2% 20 -25.0% 1 -29.2% - - LB G.Favors (FT) MLB R.Godfrey
5 JAC 2010 17.7% 32 -11.3% 5 -29.0% J.Del Rio fired in '11 SAF D.Landry - MLB P.Posluszny
6 NO 1990 2.8% 16 -24.5% 2 -27.3% - CB V.Buck (FT) DE F.Warren (SUS) -
7 HOU 2010 17.5% 31 -9.5% 6 -27.0% W.Phillips (DC) CB J.Joseph DE J.Watt (RK) LB B.Reed (RK)
8 STL 2000 14.9% 27 -11.7% 5 -26.6% L.Smith (DC) CB A.Williams - LB M.Fields
9 PHI 1990 -15.9% 3 -42.4% 1 -26.5% R.Kotite - - DT M.Pitts (H)
10 DEN 1995 10.5% 27 -15.3% 3 -25.8% - - DE A.Williams LB B.Romanowski
11 MIA 1989 18.3% 28 -7.2% 8 -25.5% - CB T.McKyer LB D.Griggs (FT) LB J.Offerdahl (H)
12 NYJ 2008 -0.8% 14 -25.5% 1 -24.7% R.Ryan/M.Pettine SAF J.Leonhard - ILB B.Scott
13 GB 1995 5.3% 19 -19.3% 1 -24.6% - SAF E.Robinson - DT G.Brown (FT)
14 BUF 2012 10.6% 27 -13.8% 4 -24.4% D.Marrone/M.Pettine - - LB K.Alonso (RK)
15 WAS 2003 8.6% 24 -15.4% 4 -24.0% J.Gibbs/G.Williams CB S.Springs DT C.Griffin SAF S.Taylor (RK)
16 MIN 1991 10.6% 23 -12.8% 4 -23.4% D.Green/T.Dungy SAF T.Scott (FT) DT J.Randle (FT) MLB J.Del Rio
17 CLE 2000 9.8% 25 -13.1% 3 -22.9% B.Davis/F.Fazio - DT G.Warren (RK) LB D.Rudd
18 WAS 2006 15.0% 32 -7.9% 7 -22.9% - SAF L.Landry (RK) - MLB L.Fletcher
19 PIT 1989 0.2% 15 -21.6% 1 -21.8% D.Brazil (DC) CB D.Johnson (FT) - DE D.Evans
20 IND 2006 8.5% 25 -13.0% 2 -21.5% - SAF B.Sanders (H) - CB K.Hayden (FT)

The 1991 Eagles were so loaded that they only climbed from third to first in DVOA, but it was such a dominant performance in 1991 that they still make this list. Not even Rich Kotite could screw that one up in taking over for Buddy Ryan. The offense on the other hand…

There were some pretty significant coaching changes for 11 of the teams, not counting the time Jacksonville fired Jack Del Rio during the 2011 season. That year, Gary Kubiak made his first smart decision to hire Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator, and Houston also brought in cornerback Johnathan Joseph and drafted J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed for one of the best turnarounds on this list. Watt took a year to become the force we know him as now, but he is one of the very few impactful pass-rushers listed. Alfred Williams had 13 sacks in an All-Pro season for the 1996 Broncos and John Randle was obviously a HOFer for Minnesota, but only became a full-time starter in Tony Dungy's first year as coordinator. There were more interior linebackers to speak of here.

There were some HOF-caliber defensive backs that helped teams, including Charles Woodson, Brian Dawkins and Aeneas Williams, but a lot of these "significant" additions are bending the definition of that word and relying heavily on AV to make that claim. The 1990 Steelers' unlikely climb to No. 1 in DVOA had little to do with Donald Evans or D.J. Johnson, but Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson, and Carnell Lake sure gave the Steelers one of the best young cores in the league. Similarly, those dominant 2000 Titans were led by some very young players in Jevon Kearse and Samari Rolle. For the teams that did not make a coaching/scheme change, it was crucial to already have a dominant level in place, such as New Orleans' Dome Patrol or that Freeney/Mathis duo in Indianapolis. While the aforementioned Bob Sanders was healthier for the 2007 Colts, that defense actually replaced both starting corners (Jason David and Nick Harper) from the previous season with playoff heroes (and young, high draft picks) Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden.

That was not a long-term solution, but most of these defenses fell victim to the Plexiglas Principle the following year. Again, no one said sustaining greatness was easy.


Denver looks to have a strong defensive core in place, led by Von Miller, to continue having success for several more years. Maybe Paxton Lynch is the future at quarterback, but chances are this defense is ultimately remembered for the success of the 2015 season. Even though the Buccaneers and Ravens sustained their defensive success and the Bears were incredible beyond just 1985, there is a reason we always refer to the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, and 2002 Buccaneers, and not the 1980s Bears, 2000s Ravens, and 2000s Buccaneers.

It comes back to the ring, and how only in one season did those dominant units compensate for any other shortcomings in making sure the team finished the season on top. The fact that there have only been 50 Super Bowls limits the strength of our conclusions. There are going to be outliers to come, whether it is another 1999 Rams situation, the last-ranked defense winning a title, or a rookie quarterback finally breaking through. After all, Sammy Baugh won a title for the 1937 Redskins, so it would not be unheard of in football. It's just that even with a limited sample size of championship seasons, there are some trends that should not be ignored.

If winning a Super Bowl is the ultimate sign of greatness in the NFL, then you can bet the team that does so was comprised of many people that had already displayed a lot of individual greatness. Things just came together perfectly for that one season, or maybe a couple of seasons if enough things worked out. But with so many talented players and coaches in the NFL at the same time, some are undoubtedly going to retire without a ring, and we should not disparage them for that.

Winning the Super Bowl is a process, and it always has and always will take the effort of many individuals. Some of those individuals only needed to be great for one moment, but that often is the difference between success and failure in this game.


8 comments, Last at 07 Sep 2016, 4:23pm

#1 by theslothook // Sep 07, 2016 - 1:03am

Winning a sb may be a nuanced affair, but confirmation bias is just plain easier

Points: 0

#2 by Raiderjoe // Sep 07, 2016 - 5:36am

2000 gaints also had faced a number of turd quartebacks. Such a bad Super Bowl 35 was in many ways. Unfortunatelt, Titans had two bad plays. then Raiders didn't play grat and fat guy Siragusa fell like wet rhinoceros onto R. Gannon

Points: 0

#3 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 07, 2016 - 11:18am

It's weird thinking of 2015 CAR as an offensive juggernaut. Per DVOA, they had a better defense than offense.

Points: 0

#4 by jonnyblazin // Sep 07, 2016 - 11:44am

"Yes, Baltimore would get a boost from including the postseason in these stats, as the [2000] Ravens were dominant there"

Dominant may be an understatement. Here are their defensive numbers in 4 games:

84 rushes for 258 yards (3.1 Y/R)

77 completions in 161 attempts (48%)
583 net passing yards (3.6 NY/A)
10 INT

Whatever issues they had during the regular season defending the pass were obviously fixed.

Points: 0

#5 by LyleNM // Sep 07, 2016 - 12:07pm

Couldn't Bobby Wagner be reasonably considered a HOF-worthy LB? Or would his eventual candidacy be overshadowed by Sherman and Thomas?

Points: 0

#6 by theslothook // Sep 07, 2016 - 12:34pm

Short of him winning dpoy like suggs, yes his candidacy will be overshadowed. Im not sure how great he is in a vacuum either. Good to be sure, but hard to say beyond that.

Points: 0

#7 by mrwalterisgod // Sep 07, 2016 - 1:25pm

Up until 2015, I didn't think the gap between Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechley was all that much, but that had more to do with my thoughts that for the previous 3 seasons Luke was a little overrated. Wagner is an excellent MLB when healthy, but as said above if he doesn't garner a DPOY award he'll be forgotten for the most part, unless he can run off a string of All-Pro selections.

Points: 0

#8 by Sixknots // Sep 07, 2016 - 4:23pm

Interesting that 7 AFC teams own 8 of the 14 "Longest top 3 OFF streaks" while only 2 AFC teams are in the DEF column for a total of only 5 of 15 streaks.

Points: 0

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