These Defensive Backs Were So Good They Still Give Receivers Nightmares

Football | 7/30/19

Life isn’t easy for defensive backs in the NFL. The modern game has become a passing league with rules that make it nearly impossible for defenders to actually defend. There was a time not too long ago that defensive backs roamed the field, laying down crushing blows on their opponents. The memories of Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater wreaking havoc have earned them their places in NFL history. Meanwhile, players like Richard Sherman have had to reinvent the position to cement their legacies. These are the greatest defensive backs of all-time, and they still cause wide receivers to wake up in cold-sweats!

Deion Sanders Was Prime Time For A Reason

deion sanders greatest defensive backs nfl history
Monica DAVIES/AFP/Getty Images
Monica DAVIES/AFP/Getty Images

Deion Sanders played in the NFL from 1989 until 2005. During that time, he recorded 513 tackles, 53 interceptions, and won two Super Bowls. He was an eight-time All-Pro and one of the most athletic players to ever grace the field.

While Sanders was in high school, one of his friends gave him his famous “Prime Time” nickname. For 16 years he lived up to the moniker, never failing to entertain the millions of fans watching around the world. In 2011 he was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Rod Woodson Was A Bruiser

rod woodson nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

If you thought Deion Sanders put up big numbers in his career then you must not remember Rod Woodson. The definition of a bruiser, Woodson retired in 2003 with 1,163 career tackles, 71 interceptions, and 13.5 sacks.

Woodson had a nose for the ball and was willing to get it any way possible. As a member of the Ravens, he won a Super Bowl in 2001. For all his accomplishments, Woodson was not only inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he was also named as a member of the NFL 75TH Anniversary Team.

Darrelle Revis Was An Island

darrelle revis greatest defensive backs nfl
Billie Weiss/Getty Images
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

While Darrelle Revis’ career might not be as long as other defensive backs on this list, his impact on the game is undeniable. At his peak, quarterbacks refused to throw the ball to his side of the field, which was nicknamed “Revis Island.”

Unfortunately, near the end of his decade long career, Revis’ body began to wear down, and his play on the field became less consistent. Still, he won one Super Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro four times.

Richard Sherman Is The New Normal

richard sherman nfl greatest defensive backs
Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images
Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

Love him or hate him, Richard Sherman is one of the most well known modern defensive backs playing in the NFL. He’s also one of the best. A Super Bowl champion in 2014 with the Seattle Seahawks, the dynamic playmaker moved his talents to San Francisco in 2018.

So far in his career, he has over 400 tackles, 30 interceptions, and three first-team All-Pro selections. When all is said and done, he should be a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Ty Law Helped Jump Start The Patriots Dynasty

ty law greatest nfl defensive backs
Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images
Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Ty Law played for the New England Patriots from 1995 until 2004 and helped usher in the monster that the team became in the Tom Brady era. Many might not remember it this way, but when Brady started, they were anchored by a brick wall of a defense led by Law.

Law won three Super Bowls as a Patriot and made a habit out of intercepting passes thrown by Peyton Manning. For everything he did on the field, Law entered the Hall of Fame in 2019 alongside Champ Bailey and Ed Reed.

Troy Polamalu Was A Master At The Snap Count

troy polamalu greatest nfl defensive backs all time
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

With Troy Polamalu on the field, the Pittsburgh Steelers were an unstoppable defensive force. He was one of the few players in league history to be allowed to “roam” at his discretion instead of following the play call.

With 770 career tackles and 14 forced fumbles, Polamalu was a special player. He also had the ultimate trick up his sleeve. The crafty defender usually knew the snap count better than the quarterback and would jump over the offensive lineman to get into the backfield before the quarterback could make a play.

Steve Atwater Wasn’t Scared Of Anybody

steve atwater nfl greatest defensive backs
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Remember when we said defensive backs used to be able to crush wide receivers on the move? Steve Atwater might be the reason they changed the rule. He refused to back down from anyone and earned a reputation for hitting like a dump truck.

By the time his career was over, Atwater had 1,180 tackles, each one leaving lasting marks in the eyes of his victims. In 2012 Atwater was inducted into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame but is yet to hear his name called for enshrinement in Canton.

Ronnie Lott Was Unstoppable

ronnie lott nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images
Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Ronnie Lott might be the greatest player in the history of the NFL to ever wear the number 42. He was both freakishly athletic and freakishly intelligent, diagnosing plays in a split second and getting the ball even faster.

Lott played the first half of his career in San Francisco, providing the 49ers’ defense the extra oomph they needed to win four Super Bowls. Having Joe Montana as the team’s quarterback didn’t hurt, either. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, Lott retired with 1,146 tackles, 16 forced fumbles, and 63 interceptions.

Dick Lane Wrote The Book On The Position

dick lane nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Dick “Night Train” Lane began his historic NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1952. When he retired in 1965, he had also made stops with the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. The technique he played with was so revolutionary it became the outline for future defensive backs at the corner.

Lane was named a first-team All-Pro six times and retired with 68 interceptions. That number places him fourth all-time behind Rod Woodson, Emlen Tunnell, and Paul Krause.

Champ Bailey Lived Up To His Name

champ bailey nfl greatest defensive back all time
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When your nickname is “Champ” and your brother goes by “Boss” you know talent runs in the family. Champ Bailey was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1999 and found his way to the Denver Broncos in 2004.

Elected to 12 Pro Bowls, Bailey was one of the best defensive backs of his era. He led the league in interceptions in 2006 and was named to the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Unfortunately, Bailey came up on the losing side of the only Super Bowl he appeared in.

Darrell Green Played In Three Different Decades

darrell green nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT
Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT

Darrell Green played his entire career (1983 – 2002) with the Washington Redskins. An icon of the franchise, he played in three decades, recorded 54 career interceptions, and won Super Bowls XXIII and XXVI.

Known for his blazing speed, Green had an intuitive nose for the ball. In every season he played, he intercepted at least one pass, becoming the only player to do this for 19 consecutive seasons. The NFL honored him with enshrinement into Canton in 2008.

Paul Krause Is The INT King

paul krause nfl greatest defensive backs all time
JOHN CROFT/Star Tribune via Getty Images
JOHN CROFT/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Things could have turned out much differently for Paul Krause if a shoulder injury at a young age didn’t sideline his possible MLB career. The legendary defensive back ended up playing in the NFL from 1964 until 1979 and intercepted 81 passes, the most of all-time.

Inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1998, Krause left a mark on the NFL few other defensive players have. To this day, his 81 picks stand alone as one of the sports unbreakable records.

Ed Reed Was A Bad Man In A Good Way

ed reed nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ed Reed may have technically been a safety in the defensive backfield, but he played more like a shutdown corner. Playing with Ray Lewis for most of his career in Baltimore, Reed was unstoppable, recording 643 tackles, 64 interceptions, and scoring 13 defensive touchdowns.

Did we mention he also won one Super Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro five times? At the end of his iconic career, Reed played for the New York Jets and Houston Texans, but he will always be remembered for his decade in purple and black.

Charles Woodson Could Have Been A Linebacker

charles woodson nfl greatest defensive backs
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Not many players get to say they played for two legendary franchises in their prime. Charles Woodson is the exception, and he also did something no one else in the history of the game ever did; intercept more than 60 passes and record 20 sacks.

Woodson won a Super Bowl as a member of the Packers in 2011, one year before retiring. When he finally called it quits he had 1,003 tackles, 13 defensive touchdowns, 65 interceptions, and 20 sacks.

Emlen Tunnell Would Have Terrorized The Modern NFL

emlen tunnell nlf greatest defensive backs all time
Robert Riger/Getty Images
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Making his professional football debut in 1948, Emlen Tunnell played at a time when running was still how the ball was moved. His 79 career interceptions were mind-boggling back then. Today, we imagine he could eclipse 100.

Of course, earlier we called Paul Krause’s record unbreakable, and we stand by that. Tunnell didn’t play in the modern NFL, and his level of ball-hawking skills have not been seen since he retired. To honor his great career, Tunnell was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1967.

Dick LeBeau Was A Player Before A Coach

dick lebeau nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

Although today Dick LeBeau is known more for his legendary coaching career, he started out as a player. The big man played for the Detroit Lions from 1959 until 1972 and intercepted 62 passes while forcing nine fumbles.

When LeBeau hung up his cleats, he couldn’t leave the game behind. He worked as a coach for more than 40 years, winning two Super Bowls in the process. He last coached on the Tennessee Titans staff at 80-years-old.

Rodney Harrison Loved His Sack Lunches

rodney harrison nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Rodney Harrison was known as the “enforcer” of the defensive backfield wherever he played. He spent time with the Patriots and Chargers not only terrorizing wide receivers but also collecting sack lunches from quarterbacks.

If you don’t know, a “sack lunch” refers to any player sacking the quarterback. Harrison was one of the best defensive backs to do this and finished his career with 30.5 of them. The only question is whether those stats will be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame.

Mel Blount Was The Steel Curtain

mel blount nfl greatest defensive backs all time
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

In the ’70s, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was known as the “Steel Curtain.” It was unbreakable and anchored Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Blount. Blount won four Super Bowls with the Steelers and was named a first-team All-Pro four times.

After retiring, Blount continued to make a difference and opened a youth shelter, the Mel Blount Youth Home, in 1983. Six years later he opened a second home in Claysville, Pennsylvania. The same year he found his place in Canton.

Herb Adderley Used His Size To His Advantage

herb adderley nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Vic Stein/Getty Images
Vic Stein/Getty Images

Herb Adderley was a big man, and he used every inch and pound to impose his will on wide receivers. As a key piece for the Packers and Cowboys, Adderley won five World Championships (three Super Bowls) and was put in the Hall of Fame in 1980.

Among the many accomplishments that got him to Canton, Adderley was first-team All-Pro four times. He was named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team and ended his career with 48 interceptions.

Mike Haynes Meant Everything To The Raiders

mike haynes nfl greatest defensive backs all time
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

While playing the last half of his career with the Los Angeles Raiders, Mike Haynes solidified the team’s secondary. The team won Super Bowl XVIII, holding the formidable Redskins’ offense to just nine points.

The Raiders aren’t the only team Haynes made his presence known with though. He started his career with the New England Patriots. The team retired his number in 1994 and inducted him into their team Hall of Fame. Furthering his legend, the NFL Network ranked him as the 49th best player to ever suit up in the NFL.