Battle Of The Best: 2013 Seahawks Defense vs. 2000 Ravens Defense

the soccer stadium with the bright lights
There have been many stories about what defense stands as the best in the history of the NFL. This series intends to trump them all. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks defense belongs in the conversation for all-time great defenses, but it is unclear exactly how they compare to the legendary 2000 Ravens, 1985 Bears, the vaunted Pittsburgh Steel Curtain and others. One-by-one, I will examine the 2013 Seahawks versus titans of years gone. We will look at numbers that compare apples-to-apples as best as we can across generations and rule changes. It is not clear where the Seahawks stand as we begin. The goal is to be objective and to enjoy the battle. First up, Ray Lewis and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

A story was written by an ESPN Ravens reporter two days after the Seahawks Super Bowl victory that caught my attention. The headline read, “2000 Ravens defense trumps Seahawks.” The writer did a better-than-average job of trying to back up his brash statements like this one:

“Here’s a history lesson: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense was superior than this year’s Seattle Seahawks in nearly every way. In records. In attitude. And, yes, in the Super Bowl itself.”

He started by pointing out the Ravens had the best defensive player in the NFL in Lewis and a future Hall of Famer in Rod Woodson. He went on to list absolute performance highlights like total number of shutouts in a season. You will not see similar arguments in this series. Instead, measures will be selected at the outset that will give us far less subjective results. Here are the ground rules:
  • No player comparisons: Generalities about players are irrelevant because they are just opinion. Number of Pro Bowlers or Hall of Famers often reflects popular opinion more that actual talent. Should someone want to quantify the quality of each player at each position and aggregate the total talent, I would love to read it. Until then, we will look at the whole team performance.
  • Relative > Absolute: A team that holds opponents to 11.4 points per game (ppg) sounds better than a team that holds opponents to 14.2 ppg. But when the average offense scored 15 ppg in the year of the first team and the average offense scored 27 ppg in the year of the second team, the judgment should shift. We will heavily slant toward how the team performed in the era/year in which they played. This will also help to account for rule changes.
  • Quality of opponent matters: A team that has the best opponent scoring average in the league, and does it during a year when scoring is way up sounds dominant. But what if they played in the 2005 NFC West? Who you play, and how you perform against those opponents needs to be taken into account.
  • Strength of offense: A defense that has to make up for a horrible offense gets extra credit. We will compare the offenses these defenses played with at a high level.
  • Championships: It should not be the ultimate arbiter, but it does have to be factored in. A defense that ends the year as a champion deserves credit for the ultimate accomplishment, and one that fails in that game deserves additional scrutiny.  
  • Analysis versus facts: I will give my opinion at the end of each article about which defense was superior and why. You may come to a different conclusion. The facts should not be disputable. My interpretation of them is open to debate.

Round 1: Yards Allowed

The Ravens had a marvelous run defense. The Seahawks had a special pass defense. Yards were hard to come by against both.

Team League Avg Yards/Game Opponent Yards/Game Std Dev League Rank
2000 Ravens 319.4 247.9 -1.49 2
2013 Seahawks 348.5 273.6 -1.95 1
Comparing absolute numbers here would have the Ravens far out in front. Giving up under 250 yards per game is remarkable. That is nearly 30 yards per game fewer than the Seahawks. Looking at the league rank gives us a clue that the relative numbers may not tell the same story. The Ravens were not even first in the NFL that year in yards allowed. That was the Tennessee Titans.

The league averaged far more yards per game last season than they did in 2000, and that makes the Seahawks yardage total significantly more impressive when comparing relative numbers. Seattle has a sizable edge in standard deviation below the norm for that year. Looking at gross yards allowed gives an overview, but it is important to look at yards surrendered per play. A defense that is on the field longer because their offense cannot move the ball will face more plays and more total yards allowed. They should not be penalized for it.

Team League Avg Yards/Play Opponent Yards/Play Std Dev
2000 Ravens 5.06 4.3 -1.2
2013 Seahawks 5.34 4.4 -2.1

Even by this measure, the Seahawks were a far more stingy defense in yards surrendered, almost doubling up the Ravens standard deviation below the league average.

Round 2: Points Allowed

Yards speak to a defenses overall level of suffocation. Any coach, though, would take a defense that gives up more yards but fewer points.  
Team League Avg Points/Game Opponent Points/Game Std Dev League Rank
2000 Ravens 20.6 10.3 -2 1
2013 Seahawks 23.4 14.4 -2.1 1

Baltimore allowed four fewer points per game than the Seahawks. That is a big difference. Only eight teams have allowed less than 10.3 ppg in a season, and none later than 1977. This is where comparing different teams from different eras can be difficult. Rules were different in 2000 than they are now. Players were different. Offenses were different. More points were scored in the NFL this year than in any year in NFL history. The average offense scored 23.4 ppg in 2013, compared to 20.6 in 2000. That is not to say it was without firepower. The Greatest Show On Turf was still going strong. 
The best way to account for the differences is to take the standard deviation of what offenses were scoring in each year, and then see just how special each defense was in holding teams below the league average in their year. 
Baltimore’s 10.3 ppg was two standard deviations below the norm for that year. That is a terrific number, but is not even in the top ten historically. The best scoring defense of all-time, the 1969 Minnesota Vikings, will be the subject of a future battle. For this contest, Seattle actually comes out on top when looking at the relative numbers, holding opponents 2.1 standard deviations below the league average. Again, though, let’s look at this on a per play basis.

Team League Avg Points/Play Opponent Points/Play Std Dev
2000 Ravens 0.327 0.179 -1.95
2013 Seahawks 0.360 0.233 -2.05

The Seahawks advantage widens when magnifying the team’s scoring efficiency per play. The advantage is not as large as it was with yards, but Seattle still clearly is ahead to this point in the bout.

Round 3: Schedule

Up to this point, we have been comparing the two defenses performance against league averages. But neither the Seahawks nor the Ravens played every opposing offense in the league. We need to get specific about which offenses they played, and how they did relative to the averages of those offenses.

Team Aggregate Opponents PPG Opponent PPG Std Dev
2000 Ravens 17.4 10.3 -1.6
2013 Seahawks 22.1 14.4 -2.5

The Ravens 16 regular season opponents scored an average of 17.4 points per game, about three points below the league average that year. One could guess that was because they faced the Ravens defense, but the Seahawks opponents averaged just under a point less than the league average. Still, it is worth looking at the standard deviation among those opponents. Maybe Seattle faced a couple power house offenses and then a bunch of weak sisters. That turns out not to be the case. Seattle has an even bigger advantage in scoring defense when regular season opponents are taken into account.

Let’s step away from the regular season for a moment though and just see how both teams did against the best offenses in the league that year. The best versus the best.

Team GMs VS TOP 10 OFF (incl playoffs) +/- Opp Avg
2000 Ravens 4 -8.74
2013 Seahawks 3 -19.9

Baltimore faced four of the best offenses in the league, including the 2nd-ranked Broncos and 3rd-ranked Raiders in the playoffs. They held those two teams to a combined 6 points. The Seahawks faced the top-ranked, highest scoring offense in the history of football in the Super Bowl, and held them to 8 points. If this was versus the top eleven offenses instead of the top ten, the Seahawks would have had six games against those teams, compared to still four by Baltimore.

The Ravens performance in the playoffs was amazing, including holding the Giants offense scoreless in the Super Bowl (the only score was a kickoff return for touchdown). But the Ravens gave up a lot of points to the 8th-ranked Jaguars during the regular season, which helped Seattle collectively hold their elite offensive opponents far more below their average output.

It would be hard to give the Ravens any edge here in terms of quality of opponent and performance relative to that competition. Seattle wins this round as well.

Round 4: Takeaways

Defense is not only about stopping the opposing offense. The most dominant defenses also create opportunities for their offense via takeaways.

Team League Avg Takeaways/Game Takeaways/Game Std Dev League Rank
2000 Ravens 1.9 3.1 2.39 1
2013 Seahawks 1.6 2.4 2.29 1

Both teams led their league in takeaways, but Baltimore comes out on top in this round both in absolute numbers and relative numbers. The gap is not wide (2.4 vs 2.3 standard deviations above norm), but it is pointing the Ravens direction.

Round 5: Offenses

Any Ravens fan reading to this point of the article is likely screaming, “But what about Trent Dilfer?! Our offense sucked!” Fear not. Let’s take a look at just how much help or harm the other side of the ball did to these defenses. Admittedly, I will not go is deep here or else this would turn into an equally long assessment of each offense. Instead, we will stick to some absolute numbers and get some relative information via league rankings.

2000 Ravens 20.8 14 313 16 1.63 9
2013 Seahawks 26.1 8 339 17 1.19 4

The Seahawks offense scored more points, gained more yards and turned it over less than the Ravens offense. It was a better offense. But the advantage is not quite as wide as most might think. That shows up in the league rankings. Seattle was actually ranked lower than the Ravens in yards per game, and was slightly above in points scored. The Ravens offense, for all the derision it gets, was a league average offense that year. Seattle’s was slightly above league average, at least in scoring. 
Baltimore gets the edge in this round, but not by a huge margin.

Winner: 2013 Seattle Seahawks

The 2000 Ravens defense is one that set the standard for dominance while I grew up watching football. It felt as though no offense had a chance against that group. They were the benchmark. It was for that reason that I wanted to start this series of battles with that team. This is a Seahawks blog, so it is natural to look at this result with skepticism, but when most impartial people review these results, I think the outcome is pretty clear. 
Seattle, for the era it played in, was a better defense than the Ravens. They were harder to score on, harder to gain yards on, played a tougher schedule and held the best offenses to weaker results. Both teams won a Super Bowl. Baltimore had the advantage in takeaways and needed to carry a larger load with a weaker offense, but the differences there were not enough to overcome the Seahawks advantages elsewhere. 
Keep an eye out for round two of the Battle of the Best when the Seahawks will take on the 1985 Chicago Bears.