Best individual seasons of 2000s
Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis, 2006
The Colts scored 427 points in 2006 -- good enough for second in the league -- and Saturday, then in the midst of a three-year Pro Bowl run, and his mates were a big reason for the success. They protected QB Peyton Manning to a tee, allowing just 14 sacks in 571 dropbacks (2.5 percent) all season -- one of the best rates of pass-protection success in NFL history. Saturday's squad also opened enough holes to allow rookie running back Joseph Addai to rip off 1,081 yards on just 226 carries (an impressive 4.8 YPA).
But the best was yet to come: Saturday and the Colts produced the greatest comeback in conference title game history that year, against their nemeses from New England no less. It was a comeback some Colts credited to Saturday's impassioned speech the night before the game, telling his teammates that "it's our time." Dungy restated Saturday's cry at halftime.
The Colts, who trailed 21-6 at the break, emerged with a 38-34 victory. Saturday played a large role for a center, too: he pounced on a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that forged a 28-28 tie in the fourth quarter. Later, he steamrolled New England's mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork, which allowed Addai to race three yards up the middle untouched for the game-winning score with one minute to play.
Saturday and the Indy offense shredded the once-proud Patriots defense for 32 first downs that day -- the most ever in a regulation playoff game -- and the Colts went on to bigger things two weeks later: beating the Bears in Super Bowl XLI to end years of postseason futility for the organization.
Honorable mention: Matt Birk, Minnesota, 2007
Ray Lewis, Baltimore, 2000
Lewis kicked off the decade with a head-smashing bang that still echoes around the league.
In fact, he did it all in 2000: He was named Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and he led the single toughest defense of the Live Ball Era (1978-present), a unit that surrendered just 10.3 PPG. The 2000 Ravens were virtually impossible to run on, too; they allowed opposing ball carriers just 2.69 YPA, the lowest mark any defense has allowed in the Super Bowl Era.
Lewis' 2000 Ravens were to modern defensive football what Tom Brady's 2007 Patriots were to modern offensive football -- except that Lewis actually walked away with all the postseason hardware.
Nearly a decade later, he remains one of the league's preeminent forces on the field and one of its preeminent personalities off the field. But he, and 21st-century defensive football, was never as good as it was in 2000.
Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay, 2002
Barber had a better individual season in 2001, when he hauled in 10 INTs to tie the record for most by any defender since 1982. But in 2002, he was the leading force on the best pass defense of the past two decades -- a unit that would carry the Buccaneers to the first and only Super Bowl championship in franchise history.
That year, the Bucs led the league in total defense and scoring defense, allowing just 196 points. For a little perspective, that's two fewer than the number of points allowed by the legendary 1985 Bears.
Barber's Bucs posted a tremendous 48.4 defensive passer rating that season, the lowest mark any defense has allowed in the past 20 years and the lowest mark any Super Bowl champion has surrendered since NFL rule changes opened up the passing game in 1978, spawning the Live Ball Era of pro football.
The stifling nature of the Tampa pass defense was on full display for the nation in Super Bowl XXXVII, when Barber and the Bucs embarrassed Oakland quarterback and 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon. Tampa picked him off five times, returning three for touchdowns in a dominating 48-21 victory.
Barber is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, the active leader in defensive touchdowns (11) and the only cornerback in history with 20 or more sacks and 20 or more INTs on his resume. The 2002 season was his finest hour.
Ed Reed, Baltimore, 2004
Reed is one of the most dynamic forces in pro football -- one of the rare defenders in the history of the league with a quantifiable ability to put points on the board and change the outcome of games.
And 2004 was his signature season, one in which he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors thanks, in large part, to a series of explosive plays rarely seen from any defender.
Reed led the league with nine interceptions, while setting a single-season record with 358 interception return yards. He even set a record for the longest INT return for a touchdown in history in 2004, picking off a Cleveland pass in his end zone and then returning for what went into the books as a 106-yard score (he surpassed that mark last year with a 107-yard return for a score). Reed added one other score in 2004, scooping up a fumble and returning it 22 yards for a touchdown that proved to be the difference in a 17-10 win over the Redskins.
The season did not necessarily go well for the Ravens. The team went just 9-7 in 2004, despite surrendering just 268 points. But for one year, Reed made a bigger impact at safety than any other player this decade.
James Harrison, Pittsburgh, 2008
Simply put, Harrison in 2008 was the best player on one of the best NFL defenses in years. It was a defense that could go, statistically, toe-to-toe with the legendary Steel Curtain of the 1970s, and it was a defense that carried the Steelers to their record sixth Super Bowl title.
Harrison's production says it all: 101 tackles, coupled with 16 sacks, making him a deserving recipient of NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
He led a defense that surrendered just 4.71 yards per pass attempt last year, one of the stingiest marks in modern NFL history and easily the best of 2008. The Steelers were also the toughest team to run on in '08. They allowed 3.29 yards per attempt on the ground. To put that mark into historic perspective that every Pittsburgher can understand: in the Steel Curtain Era, only the dominating 1976 squad surrendered fewer yards per attempt on the ground (3.22) than the 2008 team.
Albert Haynesworth, Tennessee, 2008
Haynesworth could be considered a late bloomer. His first five years were solid, if unspectacular, marked primarily by a 2006 incident in which he stomped on the head of Andre Gurode, lacerating the Dallas center's face.
He exploded on the scene in 2007, and stepped it up again in 2008. Haynesworth recorded 8.5 sacks last year, a substantial number for an interior lineman, and was a leading force on one of the league's leading defenses. The Titans surrendered 234 points, second in the league last year, while the team matched a franchise record with 13 victories.
It doesn't appear the Haynesworth ascendancy will end any time soon, either. He was signed by the Redskins in February to a $100 million contract, one of the richest deals ever for a defensive player.
Honorable mention: Kevin Williams, Minnesota, 2006
Strahan was a great player in the 1990s, but he became a dominant NFL personality on and off the field in the 21st century.
The '01 season was easily the best in what will likely go down as a Hall of Fame career. It was also the best by any defensive end this decade. Most notably, Strahan set a single-season NFL record with 22.5 sacks -- though not without some controversy, as then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre appeared to take a dive in the 2001 season finale to hand Strahan the record-setting takedown.
Still, even without the controversy, 21.5 sacks would been the most by any player in history save for another New York sack specialist, former Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, who chalked up 22.0 takedowns in 1984.
The Giants struggled in 2001, finishing the season 7-9 thanks, in large part, to a moribund offensive attack that marked the beginning of the end of the Jim Fassel Era. But Strahan's performance was one for the ages, and good enough for him to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors -- with an assist from Favre.
Honorable mention: Jason Taylor, Miami, 2006
NFL Truth & Rumors