Data Crunch: Super Bowl Winning Defenses

With the Seahawks heading to their second straight Super Bowl, the old moniker “Defense Wins Championships” is making a comeback.  But Seattle isn’t the only team to win the big game by deploying an imposing defense.  Did the 2013 Seahawks have the best defense of any Super Bowl winning team?  Was their pass defense better than the historically great 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers?  (Hint: no and no)

As New England and Seattle prepare for Super Bowl XLIX, we take a look at the best defenses of all time to have captured the coveted Lombardi Trophy.First some ground rules:

How can you compare the pass-happy stats of 2013 to the low-scoring battles in 1966?*

To compare across different eras, we use the team’s defensive stats standardized to the league’s average (NFL avg) that year.*

What if a team played a cream puff schedule that year?*

We will include Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) numbers from Football Outsiders

to take into consideration strength of opponent.  In essence, it is how much better a team is than an average team that season.  (You’ll have to check out their page if you’d like a full explanation.)*

Which stats are considered?

1. Overall Defense

a. PPG Below Avg (NFL avg points allowed/game - team points allowed/game)
b. YPG Below Avg (NFL avg yards allowed/game - team yards allowed/game)
c. Defensive DVOA (shown as a positive percentage)

2. Pass Defense

a. Pass Yards/Att Below Avg (NFL avg passing yards allowed/attempt - team passing yards allowed/attempt)
b. Pass Rate Below Avg (NFL avg passer rating allowed - team passer rating allowed)
c. Pass Def DVOA (shown as a positive percentage)

3. Run Defense

a. Run Yards/Att Below Avg (NFL avg rushing yards allowed/attempt - team rushing yards allowed/attempt)
b. Run Def DVOA (shown as a positive percentage)

Use the interactive graphic below to compare the five greatest defenses to win the Super Bowl: the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and our very own 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


So who is the best?  Let’s sort through the stats.

Best Run Defense:  2000 Ravens

Best Pass Defense:  2002 Buccaneers

Most Well-Rounded:  2008 Steelers

*Best overall? * That one is a bit tricky.

The 2002 Buccaneers allowed the second least points per game and second least yards per game (when adjusting for era).  They also come out on top when you adjust for strength of opponent (DVOA).

They get my vote.*

These methods have been used in similar comparisons by *Bill Barnwell of Grantland and Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders.*

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