Steel Curtain, Doomsday Defense, Lombardi Packers, Purple People Eaters, Buddy Ryan's 46 defense.... Now, on the heels of their 34-7 triumph in Super Bowl XXXV, we have the Baltimore Ravens. Are they as good as those proud and dominant defensive units of the past? Better, maybe? Or one-year wonders, so new on the scene that they don't even have a nickname?
"You can compare them with anybody," Giants coach Jim Fassel says. "They're that good."
"They compare favorably with any defense I've ever seen," says new Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who has worked in the NFL for more than two decades. "The offenses they face are more wide open than offenses of the past. They have to defend against more things every week than previous defenses did."
"Time will tell," Giants defensive coordinator John Fox says. "Based on what they accomplished today, and this year, they stack up against those defenses, but it's only a starting point."
My opinion? It's impossible to rank them ahead of the great Dallas, Green Bay and Minnesota units of the late '60s and early '70s, because the game is so different now than it was then. The Ravens certainly can't match the Pack's collection of five defensive Hall of Famers, but none of those teams, including Green Bay, could match Baltimore's team speed, which the Giants found out about the hard way.
What's more, none of those teams had a middle linebacker who could play the pass like Ray Lewis can. His run-stopping ability is well known, but what won him MVP honors on Sunday was his brilliance against the pass. The official stat sheet credited him with a game-high four knockdowns, but that didn't include a Jamie Sharper interception off his deflection. "As a unit, the Ravens' starting linebackers are terrific pass defenders," Giants backup quarterback Jason Garrett says. "They get great depth and then rally to the ball on underneath patterns. And, of course, you can't run on them."
Ryan's Chicago Bears defense of the mid-'80s was a crushing, punishing, overwhelming unit, keyed by the relentless blitzes of the outside linebackers, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson, and occasionally the middle linebacker, Mike Singletary. The Bears had two terrific frontline rushers in Richard Dent and Dan Hampton. The cornerbacks were ordinary and basically anonymous. The safeties, Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik, were All-Pro at one time in their careers. Singletary had great range in his coverage, but he was usually dropping into a zone. He couldn't lock onto an intermediate receiver as Lewis can. Call it a tie for second between Chicago and Baltimore.
My No. 1 defense, though, remains the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974 through '79, if only for the sheer abundance of talent. That unit didn't have to face the variety of offenses that the Ravens do, but the '70s wasn't a primitive era, either. Bill Walsh was working his magic in Cincinnati, Don Coryell had already put his offensive stamp on the Chargers, and Tom Landry's Cowboys presented a tremendous assortment of formations and innovations.
If you want to compare personnel, let's start with the tackles: Ernie Holmes and Hall of Famer Joe Greene against Baltimore's Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. Both sets of tackles have the responsibility of keeping blockers off their middle linebackers, but Holmes and Greene did more and were quicker. Hall of Fame middle linebacker Jack Lambert had more range than any other middle linebacker of his era, but Lewis is better in pure coverage. The Ravens have no counterpart to Hall of Fame outside linebacker Jack Ham or right cornerback Mel Blount, and two other Steelers, left end L.C. Greenwood and strong safety Donnie Shell, were good enough that they've appeared on Hall of Fame ballots. Someday Lewis will be up for enshrinement, and Baltimore's free safety, Rod Woodson, should make it on the first ballot—as a cornerback, which he played for 12 years, primarily with the Steelers. Cornerback Chris McAlister is also on the verge of a magnificent career.
Baltimore has put together a beautifully integrated, shockingly fast unit. Still, the Steelers of '74 and '75 had 10 of 11 starters who made the Pro Bowl at some time in their careers. Plus the Steel Curtain dominated for more than half a decade.