The Greatest Defensive Football Players of All Time
Everyone has a top ten list of all-time defensive football players, so here’s a couple extra players for good measure. Some of these selections are predictable; others may raise an eyebrow or two.
Doug Atkins, a 6 foot 8 inch, 275 pounder from Humboldt, Tennessee, started his athletic career as a basketball player at the University of Tennessee, where he also ran track.
Atkins played for 17 years in the NFL, from 1953 to 1969, a total of 205 games, mostly for the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints. He played in eight Pro Bowls.
Dick Butkus is arguably the most intimidating player to ever play defense. Butkus was so good that he was All-Pro seven times. The NFL didn’t officially begin recording quarterback sacks until 1982, but the Bears say Butkus had 18 in 1967, a huge number for a middle linebacker. He averaged 12.6 tackles per game — today’s pro players think that 10 tackles is a great game. The growling man dominated games, finishing his career with 22 pass interceptions and 27 fumble recoveries.
Kenny Easley was the first player in Pac-10 Conference history to be selected All-Conference all four years, and he was an All-American three times.
Easley played only seven years in the NFL, but he managed 32 interceptions during his career. He was named AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981 after the Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the first round. In 1984, Easley was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he collected ten interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. He was the defensive heart of his team and a huge reason why the Seahawks finished 12-4 that season.
Most people, especially in Pittsburgh, remember Joe Greene as “Mean Joe Greene.” He was the heart and soul of the great Pittsburgh Steelers defensive teams of the 1970s. During a stretch of nine games in 1976, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed only 28 points while going 9-0.
The imposing Greene made an immediate impact in the league and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named All-Pro five times in the 1970s, played in ten Pro Bowls, and was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1972 and 1974.
In 1972, with the Steelers needing to beat Houston to clinch their first-ever division title, Greene had an amazing game — five sacks, a blocked field goal, and a fumble recovery — in a 9-3 Pittsburgh win. During Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl–winning season, Greene used a new stance, lining up almost sideways between the guard and center.
Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks
Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks were two of the best outside linebackers to ever play. Both had tremendous range and a rare instinct for the game. They saw offensive plays developing before the ball was snapped: They could interpret any running back’s stance.
Ham — a consensus All-American at Penn State — was the first and only linebacker of the 1970s to be named to eight consecutive Pro Bowls. Ham started every game as a rookie and was a Pittsburgh regular until he retired after the 1982 season. He was a big-play performer, much like Hendricks, and was adept at shutting down the short passing game; there were few running backs he couldn’t defend.
Ham finished his career with 21 fumble recoveries and 32 interceptions.
Hendricks fell a little short of Ham — 16 fumble recoveries and 26 interceptions. He retired with a record-tying four safeties. Like Ham, Hendricks was a starter on four Super Bowl–champion teams. He won three Super Bowls with the Raiders and his first with the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V.
Mike Haynes was probably the best bump-and-run cover cornerback in the history of the game. His coverage seemed so effortless because of his superior athletic ability and speed.
Haynes finished his 14-year career in 1989 with 46 interceptions, which ranks low on the all-time list. But in Haynes’s case, statistics don’t tell the whole story. In 1976, the New England Patriots drafted Haynes in the first round, and he finished his first season with eight interceptions, a 13.5-yard punt return average, and AFC Rookie of the Year honors.
How great of a strong safety was Ken Houston? So good that Washington Redskins coach George Allen traded five veteran players to the Houston Oilers for him in 1973. Houston was a defensive back who tackled like a linebacker. For 12 consecutive seasons, between 1968 and 1979, Houston was selected to either the AFL All-Star game or the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl. Without question, Houston was the dominant player at his position in that era.
Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke
Dick Butkus stands alone as the game’s best middle linebacker, but Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke stand right behind him in terms of how they tackled running backs from the middle linebacker position. During a 13-year pro career, Huff played in six NFL championship games with the New York Giants before finishing his career with the Washington Redskins.
Both Huff and Nitschke had a nose for the football and were difficult to block from their 4-3 formations. Huff had 30 interceptions; Nitschke had 25. And when Nitschke’s team, the Green Bay Packers, beat Huff’s Giants for the 1962 NFL championship, Nitschke was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen
Listing one of these great Los Angeles Rams defensive linemen without including the other is impossible. David (Deacon) Jones and Merlin Olsen were a dynamic duo for the Rams for ten seasons (1962 to 1971) until Jones was traded to the San Diego Chargers. Olsen joined the Rams as a first-round draft choice in 1962 after an All-American career at Utah State and was a mainstay on the team’s defensive line for 15 seasons.
Jones entered the NFL as an obscure 14th-round draft choice who had played at South Carolina State and Mississippi Vocational. Olsen was named to the Pro Bowl team a record 14 consecutive times. Jones used his speed, strength, and quickness to beat offensive tackles who attempted to block him. In 1967 and 1968, Jones was chosen as the NFL’s best defensive player.
The Rams teams of his era were defense-oriented, and Olsen was their leader. Olsen was team MVP six consecutive seasons and in 1974 was named NFL Player of the Year by the Maxwell Club, an athletic club based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that conducts an annual poll of the national media.
The beauty of Jack Lambert’s career is that he came from a small, non-football power (Kent State) and was rather small by NFL standards, only to rise and become a Hall of Famer. Lambert was Defensive Rookie of the Year with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 after being a second-round draft choice. He was Pittsburgh’s defensive captain for eight years, and many people believe that his presence at middle linebacker solidified the Steelers as a great defensive team.
Lambert was All-Pro seven times and was twice named Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 28 interceptions.
Dick “Night Train” Lane
Dick Lane’s story is an improbable one. He played one season of junior college football and a few years on a military team at Fort Ord, California. In 1952, he was working at an aircraft factory in California, carrying oil-soaked sheet metal, when he showed up at the Los Angeles Rams offices looking for work. Coach Joe Stydahar was impressed by his workout and signed him. Lane went on to intercept 14 passes in his 12-game rookie season, a league record that still stands.
Amazingly, the Rams kept Lane for only two seasons, trading him to the Chicago Cardinals, who later dealt him to the Detroit Lions. His best seasons were with the Lions, where he played the final six seasons of his 14-year career. Lane never won a championship, but he finished with 68 interceptions, which is fourth all-time.
Bob Lilly was the first-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys in 1961 after being a consensus All-American at Texas Christian in nearby Fort Worth. Lilly was selected to 11 Pro Bowls in his 14 NFL seasons and was so durable that he played in 196 consecutive games.
In the early part of Lilly’s career, the Cowboys kept winning regular-season games and making title game appearances but couldn’t win the championship game. Dallas played in six NFL/NFC championship games in an eight-year period. When the team finally won a title, Super Bowl VI, Lilly sacked Miami quarterback Bob Griese for a record 29-yard loss.
Big Gino Marchetti was to defensive ends what the Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown was to running backs; he was light-years ahead of his time. During his era (the 1950s), most defensive linemen used their forearms and shoulders a lot, but not Marchetti. He kept consistent separation with his hands, meaning he shed blockers instead of battering his way through them by lowering his shoulder or knocking them over with his forearm.