Top Ten Single Season Defenses in NFL History : #1 1985 Chicago Bears

This is The Chancellor of Football’s choice for the NFL’s greatest single season defense and there is a serious gap between #1 and the #2 Baltimore Ravens. We’ll cover why at the end of this article. However welcome to the perfect storm of dynamic personnel, innovative defensive tactics and an intensely focused unit. One interesting aspect of the 1985 Chicago Bears performance is they did so without ’84 All Pro Safety Todd Bell who held out that season.

Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan was also carried off after Super Bowl XX.

Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan was also carried off after Super Bowl XX.

This was the era of the 46 Defense of Buddy Ryan. A Nickle defense where DBs were substituted for more athletic linebackers which allowed Ryan to use it as an every down formation. He could spring it on a team at any time without substitution.

Contrary to misinformed sportswriters he had been using the defense since 1981. Considering he named the formation for the number Safety Doug Plank wore which moved him into a Linebackers position. Plank’s last full season was 1981 and was replaced by Bell in 1982.

The 46 covered the Guard, Center, Guard which kept the MLB from being blocked. Furthermore if either the Center or Guard pulled, a DLineman would be in the backfield to disrupt any running play.

The 46 covered the Guard, Center, Guard which kept the MLB from being blocked. Furthermore if either the Center or Guard pulled, a DLineman would be in the backfield to disrupt any running play.

Although this formation gave the Bears an edge over their competition they only used it 30-40% of the time. It was the element of surprise that caught the NFL off guard. What is overlooked is how great the personnel fit every scheme Ryan used. In 1984, this group set the NFL record for sacks with 72. After he departed they set the record for fewest points allowed in 1986 yielding 187 points. It’s the season in between, 1985, that was their crowning achievement.

Take a look at a few stats:

  • #1 overall ranking
  • #1 against the run #3 against the pass
  • #1 in turnovers w/ 54 forced
  • #1 in interceptions w/ 34
  • #1 in passer rating allowed w/ 51.4
  • #1 in points allowed: 198 for the season
  • #1 in 1st downs allowed per game: 14.8
  • #1 in opp. completion percentage allowed 47.7%
  • #1 in touchdowns allowed w/ 23
  • #1 in rushing touchdowns allowed w/ 6

Now add to the fact they were #3 in sacks with 64, #3 against the pass giving up yardage in garbage time with blowout leads. It was the venomous way they attacked strong competition that makes this defense the valedictorian of NFL units.

Look at the competition they faced and look what they did to them. In 1985 the NFC East champion Cowboys (10-6) were trounced 44-0, the wildcard Giants (10-6) 21-0 in the playoffs, and the 10-6 Redskins slaughtered 45-10. Outscoring them 110-10 when they were the “best division in football” yikes!! Then you have the NFC West Champion LA Rams (11-5) killed 24-0 in the NFC Championship, and the last wildcard team? The defending champion San Francisco 49ers (10-5-1), who were pounded 26-10 in Candlestick.  Funny thing was the 49er touchdown was a Carlton Williamson interception, so the 49er offense scored 3 at home.

* So the Bears gave up 20 points combined to the 5 best teams in their conference and avg. more than 4TDs margin of victory (31-4 avg. score)…damn! All were 10 win teams.

Then of course each division faces another division in the other conference which in the 85 Bears case was the AFC East.  Thank God they didn’t play my Bills… The AFC East champion Dolphins won 38-24, but both wildcards in the AFC went to the Jets and Patriots.  What happened to those teams you ask?  The Jets (11-5) were clobbered in the Meadowlands 20-6 and the Patriots (11-5) twice. The Bears beat the Patriots 20-7 in week 2, then the 46-10 smashing in Super Bowl XX.

*So the only loss was to defending AFC Champion Miami & where did the Dolphins season conclude?  They lost the AFC Championship at home to the Patriots where had they won there would have been a rematch with the Bears in the Super Bow. So you could say that they were a pretty strong team…fair to say? The Bears beat EVERY playoff team in 1985 from the NFC, and faced three from the AFC…all teams had 10 wins or more and the Bears basically laughed at ’em.  This is what a heavyweight champion should look like!!

They were 4-1 against top 10 offenses and in those 4 wins held each team to less than 10 points. In fact, the ’85 Bears held 11 of their 16 opponents to less than 10 points and recorded back to back shutouts over the Falcons and Cowboys. In the playoffs they set another record not allowing a point in back to back playoff shutouts to make it to Super Bowl XX. Once there they set records for holding the Patriots to -19 yards at the half, 7 yds rushing for the game, record 7 sacks, and allowed the fewest yards in Super Bowl history with 127.

This second look shows a few plays from the 46 front look but the final play with Steve McMichael’s sack was one of the secrets of the ’85 Bears. They lined up in a 3-4 and had DE Richard Dent the rushing weakside ‘backer a la Lawrence Taylor. Ironically the 46 defense didn’t die it evolved into teams running it from 3-4 alignments and not 4-3 alignments as Buddy Ryan originated this from. If you’ve watched the Steelers over the last 15 years they have used DEs that were built like DTs and would squeeze them down to cover the Guard,Center, Guard and position an Inside Linebacker right next to the Strong side Linebacker. They just made it interchangeable in elements to surprise their opponents from time to time.

They had NFL Defensive Player of the year and Hall of Famer Mike Singeltary, All Pro Gary Fencik, Hall of Fame DEs Richard Dent and Dan Hampton. Pro Bowl Linebacker Otis Wilson and OLB Wilber Marshall who should be in the Hall of Fame.

In 2000 when the Ravens gave up 165 points and the question was raised- “Were they better than the ’85 Bears defense?”  HELL NO!!! The Ravens didn’t face 1984 MVP Dan Marino, 3-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana, Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms, 1983 MVP Joe Theismann, and Danny White was a pro bowl quarterback as was Ken O’Brien of the Jets. ALL WERE IN THEIR PRIME!  Had the 2000 Ravens seen these quarterbacks they give up another 150 points easy and wouldn’t make the mythical Super Bowl if they played the 85 Bears schedule!!

Spurgeon Wynn. Who?? Spurgeon Wynn, Tim Couch, Anthony Wright, Kent Graham, Gus Frerotte, Brian Griese, Ryan Leaf, Scott Mitchell, and Akili Smith were some of the QBs those Ravens faced so….no way do they get this nod. I loved those Ravens don’t get me wrong, but what would the ’85 Bears have given up against the 2000 Ravens schedule? That’s frightening to think about.

me and singeltary

Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary and The Chancellor of Football on the Ravens sideline in 2003.

The best ever defense from the historian view of The Chancellor of Football’s view was the 1985 Chicago Bears hands down. How badly they trounced sound competition has resonated for decades. In compiling this list every #1 defense from 1960 to the present was used, every championship defense, and every record setting defense with the nod going to those that played since the merger in 1970. Hundreds of defenses boiled down to the 1985 Bears sitting atop as the best.

Dedicated to the memory of James David “Buddy” Ryan (February 17, 1931 – June 28, 2016)

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The Soul Of The Game: Todd Bell

When you talk about the NFL’s greatest defenses ever, our CEO’s pick is the 1985 Chicago Bears. When asked why he tells us “they set the modern standard for great defense without they’re best player.” How can this be?? Hall of Fame players Richard Dent, who went on to be Super Bowl XX MVP, and Mike Singletary (1985’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year) were front and center. Then you have blitzing linebacker Otis Wilson, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, and Gary Fencik. To know who their best player was you have to return to the season before and a player that defensive co-ordinator Buddy Ryan raved about… SS Todd Bell

Bell was a hard-hitting strong safety drafted out of Ohio St in 1981. The Chicago Bears were an average team with one superstar, the incomparable Walter Payton. Who at the time, was being recognized as he approached 10,000 yards and the inevitable question began: Could Walter break Jim Brown’s all time rushing record of 12,312?? As the media glare intensified following Payton’s pursuit of Brown’s record, some attention was being paid toward a very aggressive nickel defense that featured lots of blitzing.

Buddy Ryan was the architect of the 46 defense and he had a young safety coming into his own. He was a ferocious hitter and much like Ronnie Lott in San Francisco he was the emotional leader of that group. After finishing the 1983 season winning 5 of 6 games and with Payton on the cusp of history, media descended upon Soldier Field for 1984. Bell shined in 1984 as the Bears set an NFL record with 72 sacks (still stands) and finished #1 in defense.

For all their blitzing they needed a safety who could cover, adjust on the run and be a good open field tackler. He amassed 4 sacks, 4 interceptions and delivered countless big hits as the Bears fought for league wide respect. Not only was he voted to the Pro Bowl, in some circles he was in discussions for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

As the season went on, media attention shifted from Payton breaking Jim Brown’s record to a confusing defense wreaking havoc and…could the Bears win their first division championship since 1963??  A question that seems goofy now but back in 1984, you have to remember Chicago was thought of nationwide as the Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills are now. Twenty one years without any distinction as a team will do that for you. The current Bills and Browns have been like that ONLY 13 years… so you have to understand.

What made Todd Bell was not the statistics but the moments. Those where a football game is teetering when it comes to balance…momentum, or who is going to dominate?? Who is going to establish tone?? The only way to do so in contact /collision sports of yesteryear was to have your main player deliver a thunderous hit to intimidate the opponent, and this was where Bell established himself.

In a week 10 win over the defending champion LA Raiders, it was Todd Bell’s fight with Todd Christenson that got the Bears going. They went on to sack Raider QBs 9 times in a 17-6 win. Four weeks after a rousing win against Minnesota, the Bears traveled to Minnesota with a chance to win that first division title since the merger. It was Todd Bell that sent the message that Chicago came to dominate. In the vignette below, on the second to the last play shown, you’ll see Bell’s hit on Vikings RB Ted Brown that broke his ribs and the Vikings spirit where Chicago went on to win 34-3.

After this win came the FIRST gatorade shower in the NFL between Head Coach Mike Ditka from Todd Bell, Dan Hampton, and Steve McMichael. It was the 1984 Chicago Bears that first performed this…not the 1986 Giants the New York based media has fed to the nation….yet we digress. It was Bell’s hit that changed the course of the game. Yet now they made the playoffs for the first time and NFL pundits thought the Bears reached as far as they could go. With a 10-6 record they were relegated to traveling to Washington for the divisional playoff.

The Redskins were two-time defending NFC Champions and had they won Super Bowl XVIII, would have gone back to back as one of the great teams in NFL history. So they had won it all once and played in the Super Bowl the year before and here they were on their way to possibly a third straight Super Bowl against the overmatched Bears at home. A season before, they had the highest scoring offense in NFL history (541 points) …surely they could best the #1 defense the following year right??

Well the Redskins were ahead 3-0 and driving in a tense game where they were about to wrest control over Chicago. The had crossed midfield when at the 35 yard line Bell struck with the single greatest hit of the last generation. Had this hit happened in New York and not Washington it would be as famous as Chuck Bednarik’s hit on Frank Gifford in 1960.

The Redskins offense was intimidated the rest of the day and we didn’t see of Joe Washington any after that. His team gained so much confidence from that shot they went on to win 23-19 and moved on to the 1984 NFC Championship Game. Shamefully he and Bears management couldn’t agree to terms on his demands in 1985.

He sat out the season and the Bears, whom he helped give ultimate confidence to soared to new heights without him. Bell’s story is a cautionary tale. To what heights would he have gone to had he been there for the 1985 season??

As they used to do before every Bears game during player introductions, the late Walter Payton and Todd Bell used to high five as Payton was introduced last. This high five was when Bell was the first to greet Payton at midfield after he became the NFL’s All Time Leading rusher during a game against the Saints on October 7, 1984.

How many fewer points and shutouts would they have achieved had they had their hatchet man patrolling the secondary?? For 1984, 1985, and 1986 the Bears fielded the NFL’s #1 defense. They set the NFL record with 72 sacks in 1984. They led in nine of fourteen defensive categories as the great ’85 team won it all. Then they were 14-2 in 1986 and the team set the NFL record for fewest points allowed with 187 in the new 16 game season format. How would Todd Bell’s career have gone had he stayed on the field and gained momentum from his 1984 season leading into 1985?? Leaves you to wonder how his meteoric rise would have played out.

Prologue: Bell returned to the team in 1986. During his holdout, many Bears were disgruntled by management’s unwilling to negotiate agreeable terms to such a proven player yet could give a $1.35 million contract to William “Refrigerator” Perry for being a 1st round draft choice. To which Defensive Co-Ordinator Buddy Ryan scoffed “We should have given the money to Todd Bell and the pros we know who can play and we should have forgotten about Perry.”

After his contract was up Ryan signed Bell to play for his Philadelphia Eagles where he was converted to linebacker just to get him on the field. A safety converting to linebacker in the pros?? That is a rarity and shows what kind of confidence Ryan had in Bell. The Eagles played the Bears in the 1988 playoffs and Bell starred intercepting two passes in what has come to be known as the Fog Bowl. Yet Bell’s career ended the following year (1989) with a broken leg ironically at Soldier Field again.

Todd Bell left us in 2005 after he suffered a heart attack… Bell was 46, the same number of the defense he helped make famous in Chicago. A ferocious hitter. Gone but not forgotten.


todd.bellwayDedicated in memory of Todd Anthony Bell: (November 28,1955 – March 16, 2005)

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