The 1980s Chicago Bears And The Greatest Pass Rush In NFL History
By Mick Warshaw
Cold, Hard Football Facts Sultan of Sacks (@mickwarshaw)
The Monsters of the Midway. The sound of it conjures up images of frozen-faced snarling iron-hard men, breath visible in the chill air, battering the will out of other, softer men.
Men like Dick Butkus and Doug Atkins had careers of violence narrated by the legendary John Facenda, and more recently Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have upheld Chicago’s tradition of punishing defense.
To many fans, though, the first image that comes to mind with “Monsters of the Midway” is the hard-hitting, smack-talking, Super Bowl-winning dancing fools who played under “Iron” Mike Ditka in the 1980s.
Those Bears fielded the legendary “46” defense, coordinated by Buddy Ryan. The 46 has a reputation as a pressure defense, and with good reason.
The Chicago Bears from 1983 through 1987 formed the greatest pass-rushing dynasty the NFL has ever seen.
Consider: in the 2012 season, the Rams and Broncos co-led the NFL with 52 sacks. That is a solid figure, as the average league-leading total over the last 10 years is 51.6 sacks.
The Bears, in those five amazing seasons, averaged 63.8 sacks, with a low of 51 in 1983.
They averaged an incredible 67 sacks per year in the four seasons from 1984 to 1987.
For a little perspective, only five teams in history recorded 67 sacks even once.
(Note: sacks did not become an "official" NFL record until 1982 when the league started recording individual sack numbers; however, team sacks were recorded before 1982. ProFootballReference.com has sack data dating back to the early 1950s.)
The 1984 team holds the single-season record with 72 quarterback takedowns, and the 1987 team is third with 70.
Here are the all-time sack leaders:
- 1984 Bears (72)
- 1989 Vikings (71)
- 1987 Bears (70) (15 games)
- 1985 Giants (68)
- 1967 Raiders (67) (14 games)
The famed championship 1985 squad produced “only” 64 sacks, tied for No. 11 in a single season.
Extending the range through the strike-shortened 1982 campaign on the early end and the still-formidable 1988 squad late and the Bears averaged an incredible 56 sacks per season over seven years. The 2008 Cowboys were the last team to record more (59).
Altogether, the NFL has seen 21 60+ sack seasons since sacks became an official stat in 1982. The Bears produced four of them, more than any other franchise, and did it consecutively from 1984-87.
In those four 60-sack seasons, the Bears averaged an incredible 4.25 sacks per game.
For some perspective, that’s more sacks per game over four seasons than the Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters or the Steel Curtain ever managed for a single season. The Dallas Cowboys' Doomsday Defense managed to hit the mark exactly in 1966 (unofficial pre-1982 sack data from www.pro-football-reference.com).
In the official sacks era, only two non-Bears teams have managed that production over a whole season: The 1989 Vikings, who put up 71 sacks and the 1985 Giants, who managed 68. The remarkable Raiders pass-rush of the early 1980s (three straight 60+ sack seasons) never hit Chicago's 4.25 sacks per-game benchmark.
With that level of pass rush production, the Bears managed to hold opposing offenses to less than 5 yards per called pass in each of those seasons.
How did Chicago manage to dial up so many sacks? Where did the inspiration for the pressure scheme come from? Why was it so effective? What, ultimately, caused its demise?
Evolution of greatness
The Bears in the 1970s were not very good. They made the playoffs twice (’77, ’79) but had a losing record in the other eight years.
As will happen with perennially bad teams, Chicago witnessed lots of coaching turnover. In 1978 they hired Neil Armstrong (not the guy who walked on the moon) as head coach, and he in turn hired Buddy Ryan as defensive coordinator.
Ryan was thrilled to have a “true coordinator” job, but wasn’t so thrilled with his talent. He spent hours drawing up new schemes to help hide his players’ ineptitude on the field, and eventually came up with a look he thought would work.
Taking a base 4-3 defense, Ryan had two linebackers come up to the line of scrimmage, and a safety walk down to the linebackers’ vacated areas.
This was a true “eight in the box” defense, and Ryan was determined it would stop the run and get to the quarterback for him, too.
The safety that played in the box for Ryan in 1978 was Doug Plank, who wore number 46. Thus, the defense got its name.
After two more losing seasons, Armstrong was canned and Ditka hired for the 1982 season. In a remarkable demonstration of what Ryan had come to mean to the team, the entire defense signed a letter to “Papa Bear” George Halas, asking for Ryan to be retained. He was.
The 1982 season was a strike year. The Bears won only three of their nine games.
The 46 was starting to do what Ryan said it would, though, as the Bears allowed only 3.5 yards-per-carry and registered 30 sacks. At 3.3 sacks per game, that pace would have yielded 53 sacks in a 16-game season.
Starting in 1983, the 46 defense led Chicago to dizzying defensive heights. The team ranked fifth in scoring defense that year, and better than fifth every year through 1988. They clamped down on the run to such an extent that teams stopped trying to run, leading to more opportunities for sacks. They capitalized on those opportunities frequently.
Best Scoring Defense, Live Ball Era (1978-present):
- 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 10.3/game
- 1986 Chicago Bears, 11.7/game
- 2000 Tennessee Titans, 11.9/game
- 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, 12.2/game
- 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 12.3/game
- 1985 Chicago Bears, 12.4/game
- 1978 Denver Broncos, 12.4/game
Collection of studs
The defense got its biggest advantage from what Ryan called its “TNT” (tackle-nose-tackle) front line, a collection of mass that lined up directly over the center and guards of the offense.
By 1985, that meant Dan Hampton, Steve “Mongo” McMichael and William “Refrigerator” Perry. These space eaters kept the linebackers clean to make tackles, and kept the offensive linemen too busy to block pass-rushing demon Richard Dent.
Dent was a rookie in 1983 and didn’t contribute much. He exploded onto the scene in 1984 with 17.5 sacks, led the NFL with 17.0 in 1985 and tallied double-digit sacks eight times in 10 years. Excluding his non-productive rookie season, he averaged 11.05 sacks per year in his 12 years with the Bears.
McMichael averaged 8.6 sacks per year from 1983 to 1988, and Hampton averaged 7.9 from 1982-88. Hampton’s numbers are hurt by missing his half of the 1987 season. If that year is excluded, his average jumps to 8.5.
Outside linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilber Marshall were capable pass rushers as well.
One guy who never got in on the quarterback-crushing party was Mike Singletary. The Hall of Fame middle linebacker recorded a career high of 3.5 sacks in 1983 and 1984, then got 3.0 in 1985, and never again topped 2.0. Singletary finished his career with only 19 sacks in 12 years.
The 1982 season was another losing campaign for Chicago, the last one for the Bears until 1989. In the years in between, they rode their suffocating defense to a sterling 70-25 record (.737).
They finished sixth in the league in sacks in 1983, then first, third, second, first and seventh the next five years.
Their scoring defense was fifth in 1983, then third, first, first, fourth and first.
The teams’ per play efficiency on the defensive side of the ball bordered on the absurd, as over the entire seven-year period they held teams to a mere 3.6 yards per carry and recorded a sack on an embarrassing-to-the-opposition 10.6 percent of called pass plays.
This suffocating combination led to opponents calling fewer run plays against the Bears than any other team over that span. Chicago’s consistent punishment of quarterbacks made passes seem like a bad idea too, and fittingly the Bears allowed the fewest number of first downs in the NFL three years running as well.
Lots of sacks and keeping teams from first downs means the defense got the heck off the field and gave the ball back to Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and company quite well. Chicago ran more plays than the opposition every year from 1983 through 1988, peaking at a +215 plays differential in 1984.
The team won its only championship in 1985, losing to the dynastic 49ers in the NFC championship round, the 12-4 Redskins in the 1986 playoffs, the eventual champion Redskins in the ’87 playoffs and the 49ers in the NFC championship game again in the 1988 playoffs.
That 1985 playoff run was historic, though.
The Bears plowed through two very good teams in the Giants and the Rams, shutting them both out and allowing a combined total of 311 yards.
They were the first Super Bowl Era team to shut out its conference in the playoffs.
Then, in the Super Bowl, Chicago hung a very appropriate 46 points on the Patriots, for a final score of 46-10. The hopelessly overwhelmed New England offense mustered a mere 123 yards of offense (2.3 yards/play) and 12 first downs (1 on a penalty), and had -19 yards at halftime.
New England’s only first half points came on a zero yard field goal drive following a Bears turnover at their own 19. The Bears defense sacked Tony Eason and Steve Grogan a combined 7 times.
Even though the Patriots ultimately scored 10 points, it was a frighteningly dominant peformance. As CHFF wrote earlier this off-season, "Football fans in New England can still hear the blood-curdling screams of Richard Dent’s helpless victims when a cold January wind blows in from the Midwest."
All told in the playoffs, the defense registered 16 sacks, 10 turnovers, 144.7 yards-per-game and held opponents to three-and-outs on 64 percent of possessions.
The performance was telegraphed: the Bears cut the Super Bowl shuffle video after Week 12. That week was the end of a six-week stretch in which the Bears defense scored as many points (27) as its opponents’ offenses.
While the Bears offense in 1985 was very good, it did not remain so throughout the brilliant defensive run.
With the defense posting even better numbers in the 14-2 1986 campaign, the offense slipped from second to thirteenth in scoring, dropping 104 points from their phenomenal ’85 total. The 1987 and 1988 squads were also uninspiring on offense, finishing ninth and eighteenth in scoring respectively.
The offense struggled to stay on the field in those years as well, tumbling from 343 first downs in 1985 to 305 in 1986.
Unlike the perennially great 49ers, the Bears in the 1980s were unable to consistently pair an offense good enough to contend with a historically impressive defense. It’s a good thing for the rest of the league too, because the one time the Bears did turn the trick, they had one of the greatest, most memorable seasons in NFL history.
That defense, though, carried the water in unprecedented fashion. We’re not likely to see another defense perform that incredible level any time soon.
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