Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Best Defensive Players of the 1970s

By Joe Zagorski 

I was recently challenged by a friend to comprise a list of the best defensive players in the NFL during the 1970s. Far be it from me to avoid such a challenge, and believe me, this is indeed a challenge.  There were so many great defensive players in pro football during that decade, that narrowing my list down to the best 11 on the defensive side of the ball is quite a chore. I know that I will leave a bunch of really great players off this list, some of them Hall of Famers. But this is a completely subjective list.  

I decided to establish the criteria that a player must have played for at least five years during the decade of the 1970s to be considered for this list. Why five years? I just felt that it was a good number for overall inclusivity. Most of the players on this list also played a portion of their careers in the 1960s or the 1980s as well. Rest assured, I admit my fallibility in this discussion, and I know that most of you won’t agree with some (or many) of my selections. That is fine. That is what makes for a good debate.  So, in my book, the best defensive players in the NFL during the 1970s are now ready to retake the field.  

Here they are:

Defensive Ends: Carl Eller and L.C. Greenwood.
Carl Eller is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and L.C. Greenwood should be. Both men were similar in physical stature. Eller stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 247. Greenwood also stood 6-6 and weighed 245.  Both of their weights are considered very light for their position today, but we are talking about the 1970s here. Back then, everybody weighed less than they do today.  Both Eller and Greenwood would terrorize pass pockets anytime a pass play was called, and seldom were these two giants handled by just one blocker.  
Eller made the All-Pro team five times during his career. Greenwood made his best statements in the biggest games. In Super Bowl IX, he batted down three Fran Tarkenton passes, as the Steelers won their first Super Bowl ever over Eller and his Vikings, 16-6.  As is the unfortunate case with all defensive linemen during the 1970s, the NFL did not acknowledge quarterback sacks as an official statistic during that decade.  If they did, both Eller and Greenwood would stand out in the eyes of the league and the fans as even more impressive.

Defensive Tackles: Joe Greene and Alan Page.

Another couple of Vikings and Steelers here, I know.  But both Greene and Page are extremely worthy of this honor. Greene was known for his power, strength and determination.  Page was known primarily for his quickness. Both players knew how best to penetrate into an offensive backfield, based on their own abilities and physical gifts. Both Greene and Page presented opposing offensive coordinators with plenty of problems when trying to get their personnel to match up against these two All-Pros. 
Just like Eller and Greenwood, Page and Greene were similar, but in another aspect…that of their awards. Page became the first defensive player in NFL history to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1971.  Greene was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in both 1972 and 1974.  Both men played in four Super Bowls, and both have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 
Outside Linebackers: Jack Ham and Bobby Bell.
The NFL began to see strategies shift in the 1970s to a more passing-oriented approach to advancing the football. Perhaps no outside linebacker in the history of the sport has ever been as effective in covering tight ends and running backs than Pittsburgh’s Jack Ham. Few were the quarterbacks who were able to fool Ham whenever the former Penn State grad drifted backwards into both zone and man-to-man coverages. Ham could do it all when it came to thwarting opposing passing attacks.  He ended his Hall of Fame career with 32 pass interceptions, 21 fumble recoveries, claimed four Super Bowl rings, and made eight consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.  

Bobby Bell of the Kansas City Chiefs, on the other hand, played most of his 12-year career in the 1960s. Bell managed to pick off 26 passes in his time in the AFL and the NFL, and he scored nine touchdowns as well.  But where Bell stood out the most was in stopping opposing running plays.  Bell was simply the greatest open-field tackler in the game while he played. He is still regarded by most experts as such, even though he retired before the start of the 1975 season. Regardless of how fast, shifty, or strong an opposing running back was, if the plan was to run sweeps to the right, they had better have at least two blockers to keep Bell from making the tackle. Like Ham, Bell is also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 
Middle Linebacker: Jack Lambert.
As with a lot of names on this list, plenty of great players (including Hall of Fame players) did not make this list. One player who seemed to personify defensive football – and the Pittsburgh Steelers – during the 1970s, did make the grade. That guy was Jack Lambert. Jack Freaking Lambert. A Kent State University product, Lambert personified fury and desire. He was not a smooth defender.  Rather, he played the game in a perpetual state of angry fervor, seldom more so than in the second half of Super Bowl X.  

If you ask many fans today what play they remember most from that game, some might say the play where Lambert grabbed Dallas safety Cliff Harris and threw him down like a rag doll.  True, it inspired his teammates immensely. But few fans remember that Lambert spent every moment after that incident playing with a rage that pushed him into superstar status. 

With Joe Greene suffering an injury and sitting on the bench, Lambert took it upon himself to lead the Steelers defense. He did that to the tune of effectively shutting down the Cowboys offense during the final two quarters. Pittsburgh prevailed for a 21-17 win, their second consecutive Super Bowl triumph. Lambert, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1976, and he played in nine Pro Bowls in his 11-year pro career.

Cornerbacks: Mel Blount and Ken Riley.
This was a very tough one, because there were several very good cornerbacks in the NFL during the 1970s. But I chose Mel Blount of the Steelers, and Ken Riley of the Bengals.  Blount is in the Hall of Fame, and Riley should be. Perhaps no cornerback other than Blount played the position with more vigor and ruthlessness than Blount. He was a terror, and no wide receiver who ever went up against him man-on-man would disagree with that. Blount ended his 14-year pro career with 57 interceptions, four Super Bowl titles, and was named the NFL defensive MVP in 1975.  

The case for Riley to make the Hall of Fame is unfortunate.  He finished his 15-year career with 65 interceptions.  At the time of his retirement (1983), that statistic ranked as the fourth-most in the history of the league. But Riley played all of his years in Cincinnati, which was not a major media market during the 1970s. Another factor that is possibly keeping him out of the Hall of Fame is the fact that his Bengals never won a Super Bowl. Despite this, Riley, like Blount, was extremely difficult for opposing passing attacks to deal with all decade long.  

Safeties: Cliff Harris and Jack Tatum.
Rounding out this list are the safeties.  Like most of the other positions, plenty of others could rightly be considered right alongside the two defenders that I have chosen here.  But because there were usually only two safeties on the field during any given play in the 1970s, so too will there be only two safeties on my list here. Both Cliff Harris of the Dallas Cowboys and Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders were first and foremost consummate hitters. Many wide receivers in the league who were required to go over the middle when playing against these two intimidators would inevitably spend plenty of time dealing with numerous bruises and on occasions, concussions. Both Harris and Tatum inflicted such pain by just exploding into their opponents.  
Of the two, Tatum was the most vicious. Harris had more speed. But both were free safeties, which meant that both often had free reign to roam the defensive secondary in zone coverages, which made the most of their talents. Harris finished his 10-year Hall of Fame career with 29 interceptions, while Tatum also played 10 years, and recorded 37 thefts. Both Harris and Tatum were members of Super Bowl championship teams. Both men had great defensive back nicknames too.  Harris was known as “Captain Crash,” and Tatum had the moniker “The Assassin.”  Both tags were appropriate for these two hitmen. 

So there you have it…11 men.  The best of the best on defense in pro football during the 1970s, in my opinion.  The debates and disagreements regarding this list are sure to follow.  But those debates are important, in getting fans to at least recall the great exploits of the men who played pro football during the 1970s.  Those players deserve to be remembered and lauded, even five decades later.

Sources Used: 
Siwoff, Seymour.  The 2014 Official NFL Record & Fact Book.  New York, NY: Time Home
Entertainment, Inc., 2014.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Pro Football Researchers Association. He runs a Facebook page entitled The NFL in the 1970s. He has written five pro football books, and he is currently working on a biography of former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Little.


  1. Randy White #54 Dallas Cowboys was the Best defensive player to ever play football!

  2. Thanks Joe - great article! It was fun to hear those names again. We could all quibble with who should/shouldn't be on that list but one glaring oversight to me was the exclusion of Ken Houston. I believe that he was far and away much better than Jack Tatum (Houston was named to the pro bowl all 10 years of that decade; Tatum 'only' 3 - similar disparities exist for the all-pro teams of the decade). But it's your list - thanks again.

  3. As someone who lived in the Rams TV market in the 1970’s despite previously living in Pennsylvania I would have to say that Jack Youngblood was a much better player than LC Greenwood and Carl Eller for that matter. In fact I would take Bill Stanfill at his healthy peak over either Ellen or Greenwood.

    1. I used to live in Pennsylvania too. I could have gone with Bergey or Lanier at MLB, but Lambert was too important for me to lose the top spot.

  4. fun list Joe, but I agree with Anonymous regarding Youngblood over Eller....better for longer in the decade of the 70s, of course Carl had a body of work in the previous decade as well....Houston over Tatum at safety as big an impression as the Assassin's hits remain in memory (and YouTube)....remember the game on MNF against the Skins when he saved the game by holding Walt Garrison back from the goalline? the DECADE of the 70s Ted Hendricks had sustained accomplishments that the great Bobby Bell (a 60s AFL all-timer) did not.....are you going to do 50s and 60s and 80s next?

    1. No. My only era where I know something is during the 1970s. My first book was on the 1970s in the NFL.

  5. From Brian Wolf ...

    Greenwood was great, especially in postseason but Youngblood gets my vote. Houston, Scott and Anderson were great at safety as well. Parrish or Brown would have been my corner besides Blount, though Werhli excelled as well. I felt Lanier was as good as Lambert but postseason gives Jack the edge ...
    Bell is tough to displace but Jackson for Denver was underrated and Hendricks and Robertson for the Rams excelled also ...

  6. From Brian Wolf ...

    RIP Hugh McElhenny

    One of the most explosive and exciting runners in NFL history.
    Based on highlights I saw when he was with the Vikings and Giants --still having quickness-- I felt those teams didnt utilize him enough ...

    1. Hugh McIlhenny died this week at age 93. He grew up in Los Angeles and after winning state championships in the high hurdles (while setting a national record), low hurdles and long jump at George Washington High School, the San Francisco 49ers offered McElhenny a contract to bypass college football entirely for the NFL. Instead, he spent a year at Compton Junior College, then transferred to the University of Washington. McIlhenny was an All-American running back for the Huskies in 1950 and 1951 – he was the first UW runner to gain over 1,000 yards in a season in 1950. Two games as a Huskie stand out

      On Nov. 25, 1950, McElhenny amassed 296 rushing yards — still a program record — and five touchdowns on just 20 carries in a 52-21 win over Washington State, the highlight being a game-ending 84-yard sprint – that’s 14.8 yards per run in the game. In three games against the Cougars, McIlhenny ran for 578 rushing yards, 10.1 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.

      On Oct 6 1951, the Huskies trailed USC 20-7. At this time, punt returners almost never returned punts from inside their own 20 (Billy Cannon’s return against Ole Miss was one such return). McElhenny took the ball at the goal line, with his coach screaming at him to let the ball go into the end zone. 100 yards later, McIlhenny had a touchdown and the coach’s tune had changed. McIlhenny’s nickname was “The King” and he was also known as “Hurrying Hugh”.

      I’m not sure if this is a true story. While working for Rainier Brewery, McIlhenny was told to take $200 and go down to the taverns that lined First Avenue and buy everyone a round, making sure they drank only the company stuff. Instead, they all bought him beers, and the $200 stayed in his pocket.

      In 1952, McIlhenny was drafted at #9 by the 49ers and he joined YA Tittle, John Henry Johnson and Joe Perry in the “Million Dollar Backfield” in San Francisco. He was an All-Pro in 1952 and 1953 and played in numerous Pro Bowls as he gained almost 7,000 yards from scrimmage with the 49ers from 1952-1960. The 49ers best year of that era was 1957, when 60,000+ fans crammed into Kezar Stadium to watch the 49ers face the Lions for the NFL Western Division Championship. San Francisco led 27-21 entering the final quarter but Detroit rallied with 10 final quarter points to win 31-27. The Lions would go on to pummel the Browns 59-14 for the NFL Title.

      McIlhenny played out 1961-1962 with the expansion Vikings, 1963 with the Giants who lost the NFL Title game 14-10 to the Bears and the Lions in 1964. In 1970, he was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.

  7. Jack Youngblood over LC and Lem Barney over Riley