Skip to main content

Originally published Thursday, January 8, 2015 at 8:01 PM

  • Share:
  • Comments
  • Print

Seahawks’ defense is in the discussion of best ever in NFL history

The play of the Seahawks’ defense over the past three years has given increasing validity to the proclamations of Seattle players such as defensive end Michael Bennett. But putting them in historical perspective is tricky.

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Denver's Peyton Manning feels the weight of Seattle's defense after getting taken to the ground by Michael Bennett (72) and Bobby Wagner this season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Major rule changes that aided offenses over the years

1977: Head slap outlawed; Defenders are only permitted to make contact with receivers once. The rule is amended a year later to limit contact within the first five yards.

1978: The pass blocking rules were extended to permit extended arms and open hands.

1996: Hits with the helmet or to the head will be called personal fouls and subject to fines.

1998: A defensive player can no longer flinch before the snap in an attempt to draw movement from an offensive linemen.

2001: Roughing the passer was strictly enforced.

2004: Officials are instructed to strictly enforce illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding.

2005: The “horse-collar tackle,” in which a defender grabs inside the back or side of an opponent’s shoulder pads and pulls that player down, is prohibited. The next season, the rule is expanded to prohibit any tackling of a ball carrier from behind by tugging inside his jersey.

2006: Defenders were prohibited from hitting a passer in the knee or below unless they are blocked into him. Clarified in 2009 to say that a defender on the ground cannot lunge or dive at or below the passer’s knees.

2009: The initial contact to the head of a defenseless receiver is prohibited.

2011: The league instructs game officials to “err on the side of caution” when calling defenseless-player penalties, and that they will not be downgraded if they make a mistake so that they will not hesitate on making these kinds of calls.


The comparisons could make a player such as Carl Eller protective of the legacy of Minnesota’s famed Purple People Eaters or dismissive of the idea that any defense today could be as good as one from his era.

Instead, when Eller watches the Seahawks from his home in Minnesota, he feels only appreciation.

“It’s really exciting to see that kind of play from the Seahawks,” said Eller, a defensive end for Minnesota from 1964 to 1978 before — as he is quick to remind a caller — spending one final year with Seattle in 1979.

Watching the Seahawks, he says, revives memories of what the NFL used to be, before changes in rules and philosophies made 300-yard passing days as common as Johnny Manziel parties.

“When you compare teams with the Vikings, you really are comparing kind of a lost art,” says Eller, who keyed a defense that led the NFL in fewest points allowed for three straight years, from 1969 to 1971, something no NFL team had done until the Seahawks did it the last three seasons.

So, Eller is asked, can he say which defense is the best?

“I wouldn’t say we were better,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say they were better than we were, either. I feel like the game has changed. We played the game at an extremely high level.”

And so, of course, have the Seahawks the last three years. That consistent stretch of play has given increasing validity to the proclamations of Seattle players such as defensive end Michael Bennett, who said after the team’s 35-6 win at Arizona that “every week we come out and show why we’re the best defense to ever play the game. That’s what we do.”

But are the Seahawks really the best defense to ever play the game?

It is, of course, a subjective question for which there can never really be a right answer.

As Eller noted, the game is different now than it was then, due in large part to a variety of rule changes beginning in the late ‘70s that have aided the passing game.

Beginning in 1977, for instance, defensive players could make contact with eligible receivers only once (a rule amended in 1978 so that defenders could make contact with receivers only in the first 5 yards). The head slap has also been outlawed since 1977, rules like illegal contact increasingly emphasized, and offensive linemen allowed to block with their arms extended.

“Ronnie Lott, half of his hits would have been fines these days,” Bennett said recently of the former 49ers safety.

As evidence of how that has changed the game, consider that in 1971, the passing average per team was 155.7. This season, it was 236.8, the highest in NFL history. In 1971, teams averaged 285.8 yards. This year, it is 348.1, also an all-time NFL high.

“You have to rate defenses in their own time periods, because the rules today, I don’t know if the defenses back then would be as good, and they were killing quarterbacks and they’d probably get ejected out of games for half of the stuff they were doing back then,” said Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman.

One way to look at it is that over the last three years, Seattle has allowed 282.3 yards per game when the league average was 347.9. As one comparison, the Vikings allowed 212.2 yards per game over a three-year span when the league average was 289.

So maybe a fairer way to compare is to look at where teams ranked each season in the key stats — points and total yards allowed.

Seattle has been first in points allowed three straight seasons, and fourth, first and first in yards allowed. Add up those standings and you get nine.

Minnesota’s run from 1969-71 — first in points each year and second, first and first in yards allowed — adds up to seven. Of defenses often mentioned as among the best in the NFL over that span, the only other one that compares are the 1984-86 Bears — who were third, first and first in points and first in yards allowed each season, a total of eight.

Then, of course, there is the simple eye test and on-field accomplishment.

“Let’s say they go on to win another Super Bowl,” said former NFL cornerback Solomon Wilcots, now an analyst for the NFL Network. “Then it’s a legit conversation to say it’s one of the greatest defenses ever.”

It’s there — in winning another Super Bowl — that the Seahawks could set themselves apart from teams such as the mid-1980s Bears or the 2000 Ravens, who won a single Super Bowl and never so much as got to another. Nor, for that matter, did the Purple People Eaters win a Super Bowl, though they did get to four.

“You look at some of the great defenses, whether it’s the Ravens or the Bears, and as good as those defenses were, they won one championship,” said Brian Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman who is also now an analyst for the NFL Network. “So I do think if (the Seahawks) win a second (Super Bowl) then you have to start talking about them in that regard because they took down the highest-scoring offense in the history of pro football last year and if they back it up with another championship this year, then some of that conversation (of Seattle as the greatest defense of all time) is warranted.”

Some contend that the changes in the game only make what Seattle is doing more impressive.

Warren Moon, who played against the Bears as quarterback of the Houston Oilers in 1986, says that Chicago team feasted on the fact that the NFL of that time didn’t feature as many teams that spread the field, as just about every offense does these days.

“The Bears were great in a phone booth,” Moon said, referring to offenses focused mostly on the middle of the field. “But when you spread them out was when they had trouble (such as their only loss in 1985 to a Miami team led by Dan Marino that beat them, 38-24).

“But the Seahawks, you can play them in a phone booth or spread them out and it doesn’t matter. Their speed, they are just so fast and they are such a good tackling team. There are no yards after the catch against them, and that’s something that so many teams rely on.”

Indeed, Seattle’s defensive philosophy hinges on playing fairly simply and conservatively, with the Seahawks looking to limit everything to small gains — no boom-or-bust like teams that blitz a lot.

Opponents may complete passes against the Seahawks — Seattle allowed teams to complete 61.7 percent of passes this season, 12th-lowest in the NFL. But those passes don’t go for much — the Seahawks allowed just 6.3 yards per attempt, second-fewest in the NFL.

That philosophy isn’t statistically sexy, especially compared to some of the greats of the past. Consider that Seattle has just 36 sacks this season, tied for 18th in the NFL, a far cry from the ’84 Bears who had an NFL-record 72 with their revolutionary 46 defense.

Some observers, though, say Seattle’s defense is groundbreaking in its own way.

“What they are doing is the new pattern of how you have to play defense in a pass-happy league where all the rules are dead set against you being successful,” Wilcots said.

For the most part, Seattle’s players say that for now, they just want to be in the conversation.

Leading the charge has been Bennett, who has taken just about every chance possible in recent weeks to tout the historical greatness of the Seattle defense.

After he made his statement following the Arizona game, he got a text from former Tampa Bay star Warren Sapp. The leader of the 2002 Bucs team that also ranks as one of the greatest one-season defenses playfully disagreed.

After Seattle backed it up with another similar performance against the Rams, Bennett said he texted Sapp: “I told you so.”

“They all got their time,” Bennett said. “But our time is now.”

Before they know it, though, history will also come to judge them.

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner recently recalled watching a show that rated the top 10 defenses of all time.

“And I was just like ‘Man, think about it — 20 years from now they could do a special on us,’” Wagner said. “That would be crazy. We’d be all old and got gray hair and they are talking about us. That would be dope.”

Repeating themselves
The Seahawks are the fourth team in NFL history to lead the league in fewest points and yards allowed in consecutive seasons:
YearsTeamPPG averagesYPG averages
1954-55Browns13.5, 18.2221.5, 236.8
1969-70Vikings9.5, 10.2194.3, 200.2
1985-86Bears12.4, 11.7258.4, 258.1
2013-14Seahawks14.4, 15.9273.6, 267.1

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Sports

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.


Partner Video


The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►