From cornerbacks who struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks to defensive linemen who were near impossible to hold in the pocket, these dominating forces owned the field like no other. Here are some of the greatest defensive powerhouses in the history of the NFL.
5. Deion Sanders
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, Deion Sanders bounced between a number of teams throughout the course of his career, from the Atlanta Falcons to the San Francisco 49ers then to the Dallas Cowboys, followed by the Washington Redskins, before finally retiring as a Baltimore Raven. One thing that did stay consistent was Sanders’ aggressive tenacity and reputation as a Ball Hawk. Quarterbacks avoided throwing anywhere near him and for good reason. Sanders mounted some of the highest interception yardage of any cornerback in the league, retiring second of all time with 1,331 yards. During his time with the 49ers in the 1994 season, he racked up a career-high total of 303 interception return yards – the third-best ever at the time of his retirement.
4. “Mean” Joe Greene
A famed product of the 1970s “Steel Curtain” defensive forces, Charles Edward Green, better known as “Mean” Joe Greene, initially joined the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster during one of the franchise’s worst years in its history, finishing the 1969 regular season with a humiliating 1-13 record. However, within a few seasons upon Greene’s arrival, he carried the team from the laughingstock of the league to one of the most lethal defenses in NFL history. In 1976, the Steel Curtain definitively ranked first among defenses in the league, reaping 22 interceptions, 24 fumble recoveries, 46 total turnovers, and five shutouts. Counter to what his nickname implies, Greene was anything but mean, having not only received Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1972 and 1974, but also the Dapper Dan Award as Pittsburgh’s Outstanding Sports Figure in 1977 and the Vince Lombardi award for dedication in 1981. Greene has even stated, “I just want people to remember me as being a good player and not really mean.”
3. Ronnie Lott
Ronnie Lott is widely considered one of the greatest cornerbacks and safeties in NFL history. During the greater part of his career with the 49ers, Lott made the first-team All-pro as a rookie and attended the Pro Bowl his first four seasons as a cornerback. In addition to earning four Super Bowl rings as a 49er, Lott led the league twice in interceptions with a career-high of 63. He was an all-around competitive player and a tackling machine on the field, having had five seasons of at least 100 tackles and exceeding 1,000-career tackles in 1993.
2. Reggie White
Though he may barely fall short of capping the number one spot on this list, Reggie White is no less one of the all-time greatest defensive ends in the history of the NFL. He holds the record for most NFL sacks with at least 10 in nine consecutive seasons. He was later named an All-Pro for 13 of his 15 seasons, eight of which he was a first-team selection. Between 1986 and 1988 alone, White put together a staggering 57 sacks in 44 games, the most ever for a pass rusher in a three-year period.
1. Lawrence Taylor
Lawrence Taylor remains the biggest, baddest defensive player the NFL has ever known or quite possibly will ever know. Even when coaches rearranged their entire offensive lines to defend Taylor, he was unstoppable. Even after suffering from injuries that forced him to play inside linebacker, Taylor produced a seven-year crusade of double-digit sacks. His best year being 1986 in which he procured an astonishing 20.5 sacks and helped lead the Giants to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win.