In professional American and Canadian football, defensive back is a position, where the players on the defensive team who take positions somewhat back from the line of scrimmage. While defensive line players and linebackers take positions just behind or close to the line of scrimmage, defensive backs are way behind of them.
The position has many different roles or ‘specialized positions.’ For instance, free safety is the deepest, while strong safety is more of a physical role. Similarly, defensive halfback is a position which does not exist in American football and is only limited to its Canadian counterpart. Cornerback, nickel back, dime back, dollar back, and other such ‘back’ positions exists as a part of defensive back position.
In this article, we discuss some of the most distinguished defensive backs that American football history has witnessed.
1. Dick Lane
Having served 4 years in the army before becoming a football player, Dick Lane was a natural athlete, perfectly carved-out for a contact-sport like football. He was known for his hard tackling and sheer strength. In his rookie season, Lane caught the eye of the world when he made the record for most interceptions in a season, with 14 interceptions to his name. This record stood for a massive 60 years, despite the fact that the duration of a single game today is more than it was back then. Having played from Chicago Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions, he was named the best corner back of the first fifty years of the game’s existence. Today, the guy who was nicknamed ‘Night Train’, is regarded as one of the best defensive backs of all time. The Sporting News ranked him 19th in the best football players of all time, which makes him the highest ranked defensive back in the list. Dick Lane passed away in January, 2002.
2. Jack Tatum
One of the hardest hitters the sport has ever witnessed, Jack Tatum was an American football safety, who was nicknamed ‘The Assassin’. He was known to be a bold and fierce competitor. One of the most memorable moments from Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977, came when Tatum knocked the helmet off Minnesota Vikings’ Sammy White. A hit that is still considered as one the hardest in the history of the game. Another hit came when he tackled New England Patriots’ Darryl Stingley, which paralyzed him. He was not just a hard hitter but a great, great football player. He was voted into three consecutive Pro Bowls, from 1973 to 1975. In a poll by Sports Illustrated, Tatum was voted the best defensive back of all time by a massive 80% votes. He passed away in July, 2010.
3. Willie Brown
Having won ALL-AFL honors in his second season only, Willie Brown was a shining prospect that shone like no other. Throughout his career, he was ALL-AFL 3 times, and ALL-NFL 4 times. He gained recognition playing for Oakland Raiders, where he was the defensive captain for 10 out of 12 years. Brown’s most extraordinary flash as a Raider came during Super Bowl XI, when he intercepted a pass Frank Tarkenton and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. This became an all-time Super Bowl records, which stood for 29 years. Willie Brown retired after the 1978 season, and ended his Raiders career with 39 interceptions, tied for first all-time on the team. Overall, he ended his 16 Pro Football seasons with 54 interceptions, which he returned for 472 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also recovered 3 fumbles. He is a member of the American Football League All-Time Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 28, 1984, which was the first time he became eligible. In 1999, he was placed number 50 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, the highest-ranking for a Raider.
4. Rod Woodson
Rod Woodson played 17 years of professional football, and throughout his career, he was one of the most feared cornerbacks, while also playing a ‘safety’ role. A player who also excelled in track and field athletics, his speed and agility set him apart. Voted best defensive player of 1993, Woodson holds the NFL record for most interception returns for touchdowns. This record of 12 such interceptions-turned-touchdowns, is still unparalleled. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2009. Throughout his career, he accumulated a total of 71 interceptions, which is the 3rd highest in NFL history.
5. Paul Krause
A true legend of the game, Paul Krause was as good of a defensive back as they came. His ability to make interceptions were obvious from his college days, which he worked on and perfected. What led to this was a world record of 81 interceptions. A record which stands to date. He picked up these interceptions from 45 different quarterbacks. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1998. An extremely athletic and strong player, Krause, in his 16 years of professional career, missed only two games due to injury. A marvelous achievement, indeed. However, this health did not accompany him always, spending 5 months in coma, after a car accident, in 1996. Today, he runs several businesses like real-estate, restaurants and others, while he remains a legend for the Vikings faithful.
6. Bruce Smith
Selected by the Buffalo Bulls in their first pick, in the 1985 NFL Draft, Smith did not take time in perfecting his specialty, becoming one of the best sack specialist of all time. He holds career record for quarterback sacks, while also having the privilege of being the part of the Bill side that played four consecutive Super Bowls, as AFL champions. After leaving the Bills as a free agent, he signed for Washington Redskins. It was here where he achieved the biggest milestone of his career, taking over Reggie White’s record of 198 sacks, with his own 200 sacks. In 2009, which was his first year of eligibility, he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
7. Ronnie Lott
Ronald Mandel Lott is one of the most versatile defensive backs to have played the game. He played as a corner back, free safety and also, strong safety. Hailed from the very start, Lott was hailed as an All American, while he played college football with University of Southern California. San Francisco 49ers saw this potential and acquired his services in their first pick, in the 1981 NFL Draft. Having been inflicted with injuries throughout his career, with the extent of having his tip of his left pinky toe amputated, his performances remained intact. Throughout his career, Lott recorded 8.5 sacks and 63 interceptions, which he returned for 730 yards and five touchdowns. He recovered 17 fumbles, returned them for 43 yards He was titled All-Pro eight times, All-NFC six times, and All-AFC once. Lott was a champion beyond statistics, having an uncanny awareness of how a play was developing, which allowed him to break up passes and earn a reputation as one of the hardest and most efficient open-field tacklers in the history of the league. He was inducted in Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2000.
8. Roland Bailey
Nicknamed ‘Champ’, Bailey is one of the best contemporary NFL stars. Having drafted by Redskins, in 1999, Bailey has not looked back. Now a cornerback at Denver Broncos, Bailey equals the all-time record for most Pro Bowls played, with 12. This is the highest for any cornerback and only paralleled by Randall McDaniel and Ray Shields. Bailey is widely regarded as the best pass defenders in NFL history and ranks highest in the career interception rankings, for Broncos. When he transferred to Broncos, he signed a massive 7-year contract, worth $63 million. He has various records and awards to his name, including the highest no. of interceptions in Pro Bowl, with 4 interception. He continues to play-on at the age of 35 and although he may not be at his peak, he continues to be one of the best defensive backs in the game.
9. Ed Reed
Another contemporary, Ed Reed is the perfect example of his position ‘free safety.’ A hard work fellow at the University of Miami, before he made it pro, he was two time All-American. He was the heart and soul of Raven, until recently when he transferred to the Texans. At Ravens, Reed tasted amazing success. He has been selected to 9 Pro Bowls, 3 less than the all-time record, was hailed as the best defensive player in 2004, and has two longest interceptions to his name with the first one, of 106 yards, coming in 2004 and the other one, of 108 yards, coming in 2008. If this was not enough to highlight his golden career, he also has the record for interception return yards, with 1506 yards, which is the all-time record, of course. He is extremely hardworking and is known to study videos of opposition to learn about their traits. He is not just strong, but smart and has a knack for luring quarterbacks into throwing interceptions. He is considered one of the best safeties to have ever played the game and for this absolutely amazing skills and an eye for the ball, is hailed as the ‘ball hawk’, sometimes.
10. Joe Greene
Joe Greene is a retired professional football player, who played for Steelers, from 1969 to 1981. In these 12-13 years, what he has achieved is totally remarkable. Throughout his career, he was always looked upon as a threat, a dominant force to be reckon with. Having won 2 NFL defensive player awards, Mean Joe, as he is widely known as, also has five first-team All-Pro selections. He was known for astonishing speed in pursuit and for his ability to make the big defensive play and turnaround the entire momentum of the game. Due to his ruthless tackling, he was given his famous nickname, ‘Mean Joe.’ Throughout his illustrious career, he went to the Pro Bowl 10 times. In Super Bowl IX, Greene became the first player ever to record an interception, a forced fumble, and fumble recovery in a single Super Bowl. He was the true anchor, the cornerstone of the famous ‘Steel Curtain’ defense, which won 4 Super Bowls. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. Today, every young defensive player looks up to Mean Joe. His no. 75 jersey has not been issued to anyone since his retirement, while his alma mater, the University of North Texas’ athletic teams are nicknamed the “Mean Green” in honor of Greene. A true hero of the game.