The Ten (Or So) Greatest Defensive Players of All Time - The Part of Tens - Football For Dummies (2015)

Football For Dummies (2015)

Part VI

The Part of Tens


webextra Enjoy an additional Part of Tens chapter online at

In this part …

· Get to know the greatest offensive and defensive players

· Read up on the best football coaches

Chapter 19

The Ten (Or So) Greatest Defensive Players of All Time

In This Chapter

arrow Great intimidators

arrow Defensive backs who played with grace, speed, and heart

arrow Pass-rushers who paved the way for today’s heroes

arrow Safeties who hit like linebackers

When creating a top ten list, you’re bound to exclude a number of players who could easily make someone else’s top ten — it’s a subjective, personal thing. Everyone has a top ten list of all-time defensive players, so here’s mine (with a couple extra players for good measure). Some of these selections are predictable; others may raise an eyebrow or two.

Doug Atkins

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. One year, he finished second in the Southeastern Conference high jump competition. When the football coach heard of his feats, he asked him to try football and put him at defensive end. Atkins was a natural — he started hurdling offensive linemen like he did high jump bars. He became an All-American at Tennessee and is considered one of the toughest men to ever play football.

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. Atkins was a terror on the field, refusing to quit. To keep him from destroying their quarterbacks, most teams used two men to block him.

Atkins was every bit as funny as he was mean. One of the best anecdotes about Atkins is how he literally (and liberally) interpreted the words of the Bears’ tough-guy head coach George Halas. During practice one day, Halas was unhappy with Atkins’s practice habits and ordered him to take a lap around the field while wearing his helmet. Atkins took his lap with his helmet on — but that’s all he wore. His teammates cracked up, and so did Halas.

Dick Butkus

Dick Butkus is arguably the most intimidating player to ever play defense. In fact, I think players were flat-out frightened of him. He was probably the first defensive player who really caught fans’ attention. Kids growing up in the late 1960s wanted to hit and tackle like Butkus, the 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

Butkus was so good that he was All-Pro seven times. He had the speed and agility to make tackles from sideline to sideline and cover the best tight ends on pass plays. 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.

Besides being a ferocious and violent player, Butkus was an intelligent linebacker. He studied game film and knew what the opposition liked to do on offense. At the snap of the ball, Butkus seemed to fly to wherever the play was headed. He had super instincts, which is something every player needs to be successful on defense. He played every game as though it were his last, and had he not suffered a serious knee injury in 1970, his career may have lasted a lot longer.

Kenny Easley

Okay, Ronnie Lott was the best safety, bar none. But Kenny Easley, who starred in college at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), across town from USC (University of Southern California) and Lott, wasn’t too far behind. He 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 was a three-sport star at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, and was offered college basketball scholarships by ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) and Big Ten colleges.

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.

howiesays Easley was 6 feet 3 inches tall and 206 pounds, and he hit people like a freight train. He was a wild man on the field, playing with a total disregard for his body. His career was cut short by a serious kidney ailment and, believe me, our receivers had mixed feelings. They hated to see Easley retire in the prime of his career, but they sure didn’t miss his heavy-handed greeting card when they crossed the middle of the field. As a defensive player, I didn’t mind watching him while I rested on the sidelines.

Joe Greene

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. Pittsburgh’s defensive line was so immovable and suffocating that it earned the nickname “The Steel Curtain.” In fact, during a stretch of nine games in 1976, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed only 28 points while going 9-0.

However, Pittsburgh fans weren’t convinced that Greene — a 6-foot-4-inch, 275-pound defensive tackle from unknown North Texas State — deserved to be the club’s first-round draft choice in 1969. The team had suffered through five consecutive losing seasons and hadn’t appeared in a playoff game since 1947. A quarterback or running back made more sense to fans. Going with his own instincts, Chuck Noll, the first-year Pittsburgh coach, ignored some of the scouting reports and built his team, one of the NFL’s best ever, around Greene.

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. He was able to neutralize those two linemen or shoot a gap from this stance because he had such an unusual combination of speed, quickness, and sheer power. I can’t think of a player who was able to duplicate Greene’s production from that stance.

Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks

I couldn’t separate Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks; they were two of the best outside linebackers I ever saw 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. And when an offensive player went in motion, it instantly triggered something in their brains.

Ham — a consensus All-American at Penn State, the school known as Linebacker U — 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.

Besides being extremely quick, Ham was an intelligent player and usually knew his opponents’ formations as well as they did. He finished his career with 21 fumble recoveries and 32 interceptions.

Hendricks fell a little short of Ham — 16 fumble recoveries and 26 interceptions — but he was a master when the opposition was pinned near its own goal line. 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.

Hendricks and Ham opposed each other in the great Steeler-Raider rivalry of the 1970s. Off the field, the iconoclastic Hendricks was the opposite of Ham. Hendricks was a chain smoker and a Good-Time Charlie. Because he was 6 feet 7 inches tall and gangly looking, Hendricks was nicknamed “The Mad Stork” coming out of the University of Miami, where he was a three-time All-American. He played in 215 regular-season games and was selected to eight Pro Bowls.

Mike Haynes

Mike Haynes was probably the best bump-and-run cover cornerback in the history of the game; he could stick with any receiver. His coverage seemed so effortless because of his superior athletic ability and speed. Haynes was unusually tall (6 feet 2 inches) for the cornerback position, yet he was so graceful. I like to call him a “black hole player” — any player he covered seemed to go into a black hole, disappearing from the field.

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. He was so good that opposing quarterbacks quit throwing in his direction — which is the highest compliment for a cornerback. 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.

howiesays Haynes joined me with the Raiders after seven seasons in New England. With the Raiders, Haynes and Lester Hayes formed one of the finest cornerback tandems in the history of the game. During those years, teams threw toward Hayes because they feared Haynes. And Hayes was a great cornerback in his own right; in 1980, he had 13 interceptions, just one shy of the NFL single-season record. You can’t play pass defense without solid cornerbacks, and Haynes simply put on a clinic every game, teaching other cornerbacks how the game should be played.

Ken Houston

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.

Houston (6 feet 3 inches, 198 pounds) was a long strider with exceptional quickness and strength. He would sit back from his viewpoint as a safety and attack the line of scrimmage. He had tremendous instincts and owned that proverbial “nose for the ball.” With the Oilers, he returned nine interceptions for touchdowns, an NFL record at the time. During his career, he intercepted 49 passes and returned them for 898 yards. He also recovered 21 fumbles.

halloffame One of the most memorable instances of Houston’s signature style of tackling occurred in one of the Redskins’ great rivalry games against the Dallas Cowboys in 1973. With seconds remaining, Cowboys running back Walt Garrison caught a short pass and started heading toward the end zone. Houston met him at the 1-yard line, lifted Garrison off his feet (a hit called a decleater), and planted him in his tracks. The game ended, and Houston’s tackle preserved Washington’s victory. Throughout his career, the super-strong Houston repeated this style of bone-chilling tackle.

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 was a well-known player because his reign of terror emanated from New York City. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine when he was 24 and was even the subject of a television special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” He 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. And both seemed to love the violent aspects of the game; losing their helmets after a rousing tackle was a trademark. Both were instinctively tough players who enjoyed football’s collisions and brutality.

They were smart players, too. 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. He was a soft-hearted man who was loved by many thousands of Packers fans. He kept a home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until his death in 1998.

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. But regardless of their backgrounds, these two players worked together to wreak havoc on opposing teams. Because of Jones and Olsen, who lined up side by side on the left, the Rams’ defensive line (nicknamed “The Fearsome Foursome”) was one of the most feared and successful units in the history of pro football.

Olsen, who was 6 feet 5 inches tall and 270 pounds, was named to the Pro Bowl team a record 14 consecutive times. He was very agile for a big man, and he clogged the middle of the line, enabling speed rushers like Jones to cause trouble from the outside. Jones, 6 feet 5 inches tall and 272 pounds used his speed, strength, and quickness to beat offensive tackles who attempted to block him. While he played, Jones coined the term sack, which is used today to define the tackling of a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. Jones claims that he’s the all-time sack leader. And arguing with him is difficult because the NFL didn’t begin to include this defensive statistic officially until 1982 — two seasons after Jones was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 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. In addition to acting on TV dramas such as Little House on the Prairie, Olsen was a football analyst on network television for many years after he retired from football.

Jack Lambert

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. At 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, 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 is one of three Pittsburgh players I mention in this chapter.)

Lambert had an 11-year career with the Steelers and starred in their four Super Bowl victories. He was known for his toothless glare and confident demeanor. He was both an intimidator and a tormentor. Unlike the prototypical middle linebacker — the big, huge run-stuffers — Lambert could drop 20 yards deep into pass coverage because he was so fast. He had exceptional range while still possessing the toughness to make rock-solid tackles. No one messed with Jack Lambert, including his teammates.

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.

Most secondary coverage in those days was man to man, and Lane was fast enough to stick with any receiver. Plus, he fully understood the passing game because he had been a receiver on his military team. (Lane shifted to cornerback because the Rams already had Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, two future Hall of Fame receivers.) Lane also got his nickname via Fears, who was partial to Buddy Morrow music. “Night Train” was one of Morrow’s favorite songs, and a teammate put the tag on Lane one night while he sat in Fears’s room listening to Morrow’s music.

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 behind Paul Krause of the Minnesota Vikings, Emlen Tunnell of the New York Giants, and Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and a couple of other teams.

Bob Lilly

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 (in fact, Lilly was the first ever draft choice of the expansion Dallas Cowboys). He had such a legendary 14-year career that he earned the nickname “Mr. Cowboy.” At 6 foot 5 inches tall and 260 pounds, Lilly was built like some of today’s pass-rushing defensive ends. And he played outside for two seasons before coach Tom Landry moved him to tackle, where his cat-like speed and punishing style forced most opponents to double-team him. Ernie Stautner, his old line coach, remembers some teams putting three blockers in his way.

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.

Usually, defensive tackles fall down when they recover fumbles, but Lilly could run. He returned three fumbles for touchdowns and scored again on a 17-yard interception return.

Gino Marchetti

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. Marchetti played the run and the pass equally well — he did it all. And he did it with his hands. 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.

howiesays When I first came into the NFL, I studied four or five players, looking for technique and style. I looked at some of Marchetti’s old NFL films, and I tried to play the run like he did. His technique and style would have fit in the 1980s or 1990s — he had all the right pass-rush moves, using his hands so well. Marchetti, who was 6 foot 4 inches tall and 245 pounds, used his long frame to hound opposing quarterbacks. If the NFL had monitored quarterback sacks when he played, he probably would have ranked ahead of great pass-rushers like Reggie White and Bruce Smith.

Marchetti was also a tough guy. In the great 1958 NFL championship game between Marchetti’s Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, Marchetti made a key tackle on Frank Gifford, stopping him short of a first down with two minutes left and forcing the Giants to punt. Marchetti broke his leg making that tackle. (The Colts rallied to win the game in overtime after Marchetti was carried to the locker room.) The injury forced Marchetti to miss the Pro Bowl game. Had he not missed this game, he could have claimed after he retired that he had made ten consecutive visits to that all-star game during his career — a benchmark for many Hall of Fame players.