Few NFL stretches match Watt's emergence. Working more as an inside rusher during his early-2010s breakout, Watt became the lone NFLer to produce two 20-sack seasons. And he holds this century's top three tackle-for-loss slates. Even in the season he did not win Defensive Player of the Year acclaim (2013), Watt's four-year run of leading the league in QB hits did not cease. A 2012 first-rounder, Mercilus was a solid enough counterpart. He reeled off a 12-sack season in 2015. Houston boasted three top-10 defenses during this span. Though injuries stopped Watt and Clowney from teaming up much, they combined for 25 sacks in 2018.
Mike Zimmer's defense was a top-10 unit throughout Hunter and Griffen's five years together. Minnesota's defensive end duo played a key role in the team booking three playoff berths in five years -- with three different QBs. Not a starter until his third season, Hunter still became the youngest player ever to reach 50 sacks. He now has two 14.5-sack seasons. Griffen spent his first four years as a backup but made four Pro Bowls while working with Hunter. They combined for at least 20 sacks in four seasons and pressured Drew Brees consistently in the Vikings' 2019 playoff upset. The Vikings defense without them in 2020...less good.
More of a lifetime achievement-based placement, this Bengals pair played together for nearly a decade. The 2010 draftees are far and away the top sackers in team history -- Dunlap with 82.5, Atkins with 75.5. The edge-interior tandem proved vital during Cincinnati's five-year streak of wild-card berths, and Atkins (eight Pro Bowls) has been one of this century's top inside rushers. Dunlap's impact in Seattle last season illustrated his capabilities, and while he was Atkins' sidekick, the edge rusher remains the Bengals' single-season sack leader. Cincy's playoff shortcomings limited this duo for recognition.
For two players not on track to receive Hall of Fame busts, the Buccaneers' outside linebackers have made a substantial impact in just two years together. Tampa Bay's edges led the way in halting the NFL MVP's comeback charge in the NFC championship game, sacking Aaron Rodgers five times, and held one of the scariest pass offenses ever to a nine-point Super Bowl. A Von Miller apprentice, Barrett has joined his ex-teammate in becoming a menace for right tackles. He has 31.5 sacks in two Bucs slates. Pierre-Paul has shaken off two potentially career-ending injuries to become one of the NFL's most consistent rushers.
The Oilers of this era became known more for Warren Moon's Run and Shoot offense, but the team was never in the bottom half on defense during this trio's six seasons together. A handful inside, Childress anchored Houston's rush and sound run defense. The five-time Pro Bowler helped Jones and Fuller, but the Oilers' edge duo produced in and out of Houston and did so well into their 30s. Jones and Fuller combined for five double-digit sack seasons as Oilers and each compiled 100-plus as pros. This D-line is one of the more underrated crews; it was 6-for-6 in playoff berths (1988-93).
Ray Lewis' top linebacker sidekick does not receive nearly as much credit, but Boulware was instrumental in driving arguably the greatest single-season defense in modern NFL history. An outside 'backer in Baltimore's 4-3 scheme, Boulware also rushed QBs on passing downs; he got home a lot. He and McCrary, a 1997 free agency add, teamed up for four-plus seasons. Three of those produced top-two defenses. Boulware posted 15 sacks in 2001, while McCrary -- a D-end -- had six in Baltimore's four 2000 playoff games to clinch a Super Bowl crown. They combined for five Pro Bowls as teammates; a knee injury ended Boulware's prime soon after.
The Steelers have led the NFL in sacks in each of the past four seasons. The NFL's top inside-outside pair of the moment led that charge, with Watt helping open the league's eyes to Heyward's abilities. While T.J.'s breakout cannot match J.J.'s, the youngest Watt has 42.5 sacks and 16 forced fumbles since 2018 and has ignited the latest Steeler sack surge. Dupree belatedly realizing his promise has overshadowed Heyward to some degree, but he and Watt both have two All-Pro honors since 2017. He has been a handful for interior O-linemen. This partnership has shifted Pittsburgh back to a defense-oriented team.
If only these two had played together longer. The Buccaneers scored big during the 2001 free agency period, signing Rice and QB Brad Johnson. One of the sack era's most efficient rushers, Rice provided Sapp an edge counterpart as his prime wound down. Sapp ceded his place as the Bucs' most productive player to Rice, who ripped off 42 sacks during their time together (2001-03). The ex-Cardinals defensive end posted six between the 2001-02 postseasons, dropping Rich Gannon twice in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII rout. Both were All-Pros in 2002, leading an all-time defense. But Sapp was a Raider by 2004.
Only one post-merger defense has led the NFL in points allowed in four straight seasons. Three of those years involved Avril and Bennett. The Legion of Boom overshadows the defensive ends' work, but the Seahawks' 2013 free agent signings were essential in changing the team's trajectory. Bennett thrived both outside and inside, anchoring Seattle's D-line. This pair only combined for two 10-sack seasons in four-plus years together, though Clark added one off the bench, its impact was clear. Avril's front-side rush buried the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII; his concussion in Super Bowl XLIX may have saved the Patriots a year later.
Ranking the last leg of "Doomsday" is tricky, because White and Jones formed an elite duo well before the sack era began. But since we are charting only rush arsenals' post-1982 work, they land here. Each thrived past age 30. A double-team magnet, White was a first-team All-Pro D-tackle from 1982-85. The Cowboys finished in the top five in sacks from 1982-85, with the supremely gifted 6-foot-9 end posting 13 sacks at age 34 in '85. The attention Jones and White received opened the door for Jeffcoat, a 1983 rookie who stuck around through Dallas' early-'90s Super Bowls. Never a Pro Bowler, he still logged 102.5 sacks.
The Steelers ventured to two Super Bowls in a three-year span, posting the top defensive DVOA marks in both the 2008 and '10 seasons. Harrison and Woodley played central roles. Pittsburgh did not unleash Harrison until Joey Porter's 2007 exit. Beginning that season, he and Woodley began a long-term partnership. Harrison made the next five Pro Bowls, becoming a powerful edge rusher who forced 14 fumbles from 2007-08. He punctuated that Defensive Player of the Year slate with a memorable Super Bowl sequence. Woodley made just one Pro Bowl but had three 10-sack seasons and added six during Pittsburgh's 2008 playoff run.
Playing in the NFC at the same time Hall of Fame defensive ends Reggie White, Richard Dent and Chris Doleman did, Washington's duo is light on Pro Bowls. But the team received steady production from Mann and high-ceiling work from Manley, its enigmatic blindside rusher. Washington pulled off multiple upsets in the 1987 playoffs, en route to a Super Bowl rout, thanks to its Manley-Mann tandem combining for 7.5 postseason sacks. They teamed up for seven seasons, prior to Manley's drug-related suspension, combining for seven double-digit sack slates.
Known more now for his broadcasting work, Long gave the Raiders versatile, high-floor work during his 12-year career. The flat-topped Hall of Famer played outside- and inside-rushing roles for the Raiders. Arriving ahead of the then-Los Angeles Raiders' 1983 Super Bowl title, Townsend is the franchise's all-time sack leader (109.5; 23rd all-time). He and Long teamed up on the L.A. D-line for 11 seasons, with Pickel providing inside rush support from his nose tackle spot early in his career. During Pickel's pass-rushing heyday in the mid-'80s, the Raiders ranked in the top three in sacks three times in a four-year span.
The NFL's No. 3 all-time sacker, Greene made his three-year Steelers run count. The maniacal edge rusher teamed with Lloyd from 1993-95 to resurrect the Steelers' defensive reputation. Greene, 31 when he signed with Pittsburgh, remained elite and teamed with homegrown talent Lloyd. A fearsome presence at outside linebacker, Lloyd created havoc as a rusher and tackler. He finished with 27 forced fumbles from 1991-95. Both were All-Pros in 1994. The duo then lifted the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in '95. The era then abruptly ended soon after; Greene left for Carolina and an injury ended Lloyd's prime.
Doleman played 15 seasons and did not lose much steam. The Hall of Fame defensive end was dropping QBs regularly into his late 30s as a 49er. His most memorable work came as a Viking when he formed a top-end tandem with Millard in the 1980s. Doleman and Millard's 1989 season -- 39 sacks, two All-Pros, Millard earning Defensive Player of the Year honors -- is the best by a duo in the sack era. The playoff-bound Vikings led the NFL in total defense in 1988 and '89; they owed that chiefly to their sackers. A Millard 1990 injury cut his prime short, but he and Doleman accomplished plenty in their five prior years together.
Sacks came to appear on stat pages in part because of Lawrence Taylor's emergence. Another key role in the stat's 1982 rookie year: Klecko and Gastineau's 1981 dominance. The leaders of the "New York Sack Exchange" each posted 20 sacks, making their ranking tricky because these are not official numbers. But Gastineau's sack dances were commonplace in the years that followed; the Jets defensive end combined for 41 -- including a then-record 22 in 1984 -- in a two-year span. Klecko moved around the formation, making the Pro Bowl at three spots, but never approached his 1981 peak again. The NYSE remains a top bullet point in sack lore.
This group may have the title for sack-era depth. While Strahan is a Hall of Famer and JPP posted the best season of a Giants pass rusher in this period (2011), Umenyiora and Tuck were together the longest. They made their six-year stay count. A slim speed rusher, Umenyiora has a six-sack game and a 10-forced fumble season on his resume. When the Giants' NASCAR package assembled, Tuck battled guards as an elite interior rusher. He broke out with a two-sack Super Bowl XLII and again dropped Tom Brady twice in the Giants' second Super Bowl upset. Only totaling four Pro Bowls, Osi and Tuck significantly impacted the league for a time.
The value of Smith's longtime wingman should not be overlooked. A do-it-all outside linebacker, Bennett was a 1990s All-Decade teamer who once fetched two first-round picks and a second-rounder in a three-team 1987 trade (the Eric Dickerson deal). The former No. 2 overall pick teamed with Smith for nine years, making the Pro Bowl five times and providing a high-caliber bookend. All Smith did was book eight All-Pro honors, finish as the NFL's sack king (200), and be the best player on four AFC champions. Left tackles came up short on many spin moves during this period, and Bennett provided steady backup vocals.
Ware missed time during two of his three seasons with Miller, but the Broncos made the most of this historically talented partnership. After the Elvis Dumervil fax machine fiasco , Miller gained an even better sidekick in 2014. Ware still had plenty left in Denver, and his role during one of the best playoff pass-rushing displays goes overlooked. Ware totaled 2.5 sacks and 11 QB hits on Tom Brady and Cam Newton; his two-point pressure on Brady cemented Denver's AFC title. Ware's years doubled as Miller's apex. His tour de force stretch in Super Bowl 50 entrenched the 2015 Broncos as an all-time defense. This period will highlight each's Canton montage.
Combining longevity and upper-crust production, the Colts' speed-rushing pair led two defenses to Super Bowls (Peyton Manning helped, but still). Freeney and Mathis teamed up for 10 seasons. Eleven double-digit sack slates followed, with the undersized D-ends maintaining their elite rush capabilities well into their 30s. Freeney's spin move was one of the most identifiable sequences in 2000s NFL highlights, while Mathis -- who produced annually as a backup over his first three seasons -- led the league in forced fumbles three times. Both finished their careers as top-20 all-time sackers.
It would have been unfair to give Bill Belichick and the best defensive player ever an elite sidekick. But Marshall goes overlooked in NFL annals. A 3-4 end who played inside extensively on Belichick's first defenses, Marshall made two Pro Bowls and compiled three 10-sack seasons. He sacked John Elway twice in Super Bowl XXI and got to Jim Kelly once in Super Bowl XXV. Marshall is obviously known more for the crushing NFC title game hit that doubled as Joe Montana's last relevant 49er play. Taylor's unparalleled gifts changed football, as Sandra Bullock once explained. The Giants' linebacker icon is on the NFL's Mt. Rushmore.
Rarely have linebackers impacted a team's trajectory like this. New Orleans' "Dome Patrol" troops changed a woeful franchise's fortunes. The Saints' Jackson-Swilling-Sam Mills-Vaughan Johnson quartet combined for 20 Pro Bowls; Jackson and Swilling handled New Orleans' pass-rushing duties in seven seasons together. This duo paired a Hall of Famer (Jackson) with the 1991 Defensive Player of the Year, with Swilling posting a 16.5-sack season and a 17-sack slate as a Saint. Jackson maintained his effectiveness into his mid-30s to lead this group. The Saints made four playoff trips from 1987-92 and closed the era with back-to-back No. 1 defensive rankings.
The Chiefs used prime resources to form this edge tandem, drafting Smith second overall in 1988 and taking Thomas fourth in '89. The latter's lightning-quick first step put him on frequent collision courses with QBs. For speed-rush success, Thomas is on the top tier. He has a 20-sack season, a record seven-sack game, and a six-sack game. Thomas and Smith played eight seasons together, and the latter -- a defensive end -- led the NFL in sacks in 1993, but the Hall of Fame outside 'backer was always the team's centerpiece. The duo drove Kansas City to six playoff berths, with four different QBs, creating one of the modern NFL's most reliable defenses.
At the center of the most celebrated defense ever -- the 1985 Bears -- Dent and Hampton led helped a different team set the single-season sack record. Unleashed in Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, the 1984 Bears recorded 72 sacks. Dent and Hampton combined for 29 of those, and Dent -- a Chicago D-end until 1993 -- followed that up by leading the league with 17 for the Super Bowl champs. A D-tackle who moved around and catalyzed these revered defenses, Hampton missed time due to knee issues in the late '80s but teamed with Dent until 1990. The Hall of Famers had help, but they were the primary disruptors on the modern NFL's most disruptive defense.
The NFL's D-line pass rusher GOAT had quality sidekicks, particularly during his Eagles days. A ninth-round pick, Simmons beat the odds to become a longtime sack artist; his 121.5 are 21st all time. White's most common Philly D-end counterpart was a two-time All-Pro, leading the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 1992. Simmons, White, and Brown -- a Hall of Fame-caliber talent at D-tackle -- all made the 1991 All-Pro team. Brown's tragic 1992 death hit the Eagles hard, but White and Simmons were teammates for seven years. White during that time: six All-Pros, 21 sacks in a 12-game season. The power rusher's Philly years are some of the best by a defender ever.