We’re honoring the playmakers in the secondary who were dynamic enough to finish with the most defensive interceptions in a season in NFL history.
When you think about it, NFL interceptions are some of the most impressive plays in sports.
The quarterback and receiver know exactly what they want to do, and defensive backs are simply in reaction mode. Not only do they prevent the offense from succeeding, but they also get to the right spot early enough to catch the ball themselves.
Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott was known for his big hits in the defensive backfield for the San Francisco 49ers, but he also led the league with 10 interceptions in 1986 and again with eight for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991.
Here is an ode to the playmakers who were dynamic enough to get these picks. These are the individual and team interception leaders across the history of the National Football League.
Most Defensive Interceptions in a Season
14 – Dick “Night Train” Lane in 1952
We’ve touched on Lane’s dominance for the Los Angeles Rams before when talking about rookie records because he set the record for interceptions in a single season as a rookie in 1952.
And it still stands today.
Although Lane’s incredible rookie season laid the mark for a Hall of Fame career, he only reached double-digit interceptions one more time after his rookie year, finishing with 10 in 1954. He also played for the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions.
13 – Lester Hayes in 1980
While several players accumulated high interception totals in the pre-Super Bowl era, Hayes is the only player with 13 or more picks after that line of demarcation.
Hayes was a good player prior to his breakout for the Oakland Raiders in 1980, but he took a huge leap forward that year with his 13 interceptions leading to the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Although his next highest pick total for a season was seven, he still made the Pro Bowl five years in a row starting with the 1980 season.
His 1980 season was part of the reason the NFL instituted the “Lester Hayes rule” prior to the 1981 season, banning the use of adhesives such as Stickum. Still, Hayes proved his production was based on a lot more than adhesive with his excellent career following the rule’s institution.
13 – Spec Sanders in 1950
Sanders had an impressive but short NFL career. After being selected sixth overall in the NFL Draft in 1942, he elected to serve in World War II and then finished his college degree before finally playing professional football for the New York Yanks in 1946.
He led the league in rushing yards in 1946 and 1947 while also playing defense and punting. He retired in 1948 due to knee problems but decided to come back for the 1950 season and focus solely on playing defense and punting.
That season, he tied the NFL record for interceptions before calling it quits for good. It was quite the sendoff to an impressive four-season career.
13 – Dan Sandifer in 1948
Like Lane, Sandifer was a rookie for Washington when he set the interception record, snatching 13 picks in 1948. He was also a two-way player who had the longest touchdown reception that year, taking an 86-yard pass for a touchdown as a halfback.
Sandifer would only account for 10 interceptions the rest of his career, but his 13 in 12 games in 1948 has still only been bested once.
Most Defensive Interceptions in a Season Since 2000
11 – Trevon Diggs in 2021
Diggs became the first player since Hayes in 1980 to have more than 10 interceptions in a season when he snagged 11 for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021. The playmaking corner took two of those picks back for touchdowns and was awarded with his first All-Pro selection.
Despite the season, Diggs didn’t receive a single NFL Defensive Player of the Year vote, as T.J. Watt won the award with 22.5 sacks and Diggs’ teammate Micah Parsons finished second. It’s tough for cornerbacks in the modern NFL.
10 – Xavien Howard in 2020
Prior to Diggs having a big year in 2021, Howard’s ball-hawking skills allowed him to become the first player with double-digit interceptions in a season in 13 years.
In 2018, Howard led the league with eight interceptions, but he got hurt in 2019 and only had one pick in five games for the Miami Dolphins. He more than made up for it in 2020, leading the league in both interceptions and passes defended.
Unlike Diggs, he received some votes for Defensive Player of the Year, finishing third in the voting behind winner Aaron Donald and runner-up T.J. Watt.
10 – Antonio Cromartie in 2007
Like several players on this list, Cromartie’s interception spree for the San Diego Chargers came out of nowhere and went away as teams stopped throwing pickable passes to him later in his career.
Cromartie played in all 16 games as a rookie and didn’t intercept a single pass. But his sophomore season was one for the ages, as he nabbed 10 picks and finished fourth in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting.
He would go on to make three more Pro Bowl teams after his standout season and play for the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts, but Cromartie would never have more than four interceptions again.
10 – Champ Bailey in 2006
In a nod to just how different the NFL used to be, the Denver Broncos acquired one of the best cornerbacks in the game for star running back Clinton Portis.
Bailey paid immediate dividends for the Broncos, but he really took off in 2006 when he had 10 interceptions and 21 passes defended. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Jason Taylor.
Others With 10
The early 2000s saw many more high interception totals for cornerbacks before offenses became more afraid of turnovers. Asante Samuel had 10 picks for the New England Patriots in the same season as Bailey but somehow didn’t even earn a Pro Bowl nod. Both Ty Law of the New York Jets and Deltha O’Neal of the Cincinnati Bengals had 10 in 2005, and Anthony Henry of the Cleveland Browns and Ronde Barber of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers achieved the feat of 10 picks in 2001. So, from 2001-07, seven different players had 10+ interceptions, but from 2008-19, none did, which illustrates how important an era is to interception totals.
Most Interceptions by a Team in a Season
49 – 1961 San Diego Chargers
The 1961 NFL season was significant for two reasons for the Chargers: It was their first year in San Diego and the team set numerous defensive records that have yet to be broken.
The Chargers set the record not only for most interceptions with 49, but also for most takeaways and most interceptions returned for touchdowns. Their penchant for forcing turnovers led the team to a 12-2 record and a trip to the AFL championship game.
Unfortunately, the defense couldn’t do everything in the title game, and the Chargers lost to the Houston Oilers 10-3.
42 – 1943 Green Bay Packers
The 1961 Chargers have seven more interceptions than any other team in AFL/NFL history, but the 1943 Packers lead the rest of the pack.
The Packers were led by Irv Comp, who had 10 interceptions in just nine games, but 14 different Packers collected a pick during the season. The team had just two losses during the season, finishing 7-2-1 and second in the Western Conference.
The two teams that beat them, however, squared off in the NFL Championship Game, with the Chicago Bears downing Washington 41-21.
41 – 1951 New York Giants
The Giants are another good team on this list that came up short in a championship pursuit, going 9-2-1 with two losses to the Cleveland Browns.
But the team was great at generating takeaways, with Otto Schnellbacher leading the way with 11 interceptions. Notably, future coaching legend Tom Landry chipped in with eight picks of his own.
The Giants did beat their intrastate rival, the New York Yanks, in the last game of the season. It was the last game the Yanks ever played.
40 – 1959 Baltimore Colts
Finally, a league champion on this list! The 1959 Colts won their second straight NFL championship and had 40 interceptions in the process.
The Colts had five players with at least five interceptions, led by seven apiece from Milt Davis and Don Shinnick. The team went 9-3 to win the Western Division before beating the New York Giants for the second straight year in the NFL title game by a score of 31-16.
40 – 1940 Green Bay Packers
The 1940 Packers were similar to the later version of the team in 1943. Both teams generated a ton of takeaways, and both finished second in the Western Conference.
The 1940 team went 6-4-1 and was led by Don Hutson, who had six interceptions.
40 – 1933 New York Giants
The 1933 Giants held the team interception record by themselves for seven years, until the Packers tied it in 1940. The team finished 11-3, winning the Eastern Division before losing to the Bears 23-21 in the NFL Championship Game. It was the team’s second loss to the Bears that season, having dropped a 14-10 decision in the regular season.
Most Interceptions by a Team Since 2000
33 – 2001 Cleveland Browns
The 2001 Browns lead all teams in interceptions since the turn of the century with 33. Anthony Henry led the way with 10, and seven Browns had multiple picks.
Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t keep up with the defense, and, after a 4-2 start, the Browns ended the season 7-9.
31 – 2005 Cincinnati Bengals
The 2005 season seemed so promising for the Bengals, as Carson Palmer led a talented offense and the defense had 31 interceptions, led by the 10 of Deltha O’Neal. The Bengals won the AFC North with an 11-5 record and looked poised to end a 16-year playoff winless streak.
But the season isn’t known for a happy ending, as Palmer tore his ACL in the AFC divisional round – a 31-17 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl, and the Bengals season is remembered for misfortune instead of the opportunistic defense.
31 – 2011 Green Bay Packers
The Packers have had several successful seasons in franchise history, but the 2011 team was one of the best in the regular season.
With Aaron Rodgers leading the offense and a turnover-forcing defense, the team went 15-1. Two years removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson led the team in interceptions with seven.
Green Bay ended up the first upset victim of the New York Giants in the playoffs, losing in the divisional round. The team only had one pick of Eli Manning in the game, and the Packers became the first team to go 15-1 and not win a single playoff game.
31 – 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The only Super Bowl champ on this list, the 2002 Buccaneers defense is regarded as one of the best of all time, and the 31 interceptions have a lot to do with that.
Brian Kelly led the way with eight interceptions, but it was linebacker Derrick Brooks who won Defensive Player of the Year. Brooks had five interceptions and returned three of them for TDs, to go along with a fumble return touchdown.
The Buccaneers went 12-4 on the backs of the exceptional defense, and cruised through the playoffs with three double-digit victories, culminating in a 48-21 thrashing of the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl.
30 – 2009 Green Bay Packers
Another Packers team led by Charles Woodson makes the list. Woodson had nine interceptions in 2009 en route to the Defensive Player of the Year Award. The defense helped the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
But there wasn’t much defense to be found in the playoffs, as the Packers lost 51-45 in overtime to the Arizona Cardinals. It was the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history, and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 379 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
30 – 2007 San Diego Chargers
The Chargers had one of their best years in 2007 when the team went 11-5 and won the AFC West.
The defense was full of ballhawks, and Antonio Cromartie led the way with 10 interceptions. He also had one of the two interceptions returned for a touchdown by the Chargers that year.
The Chargers won two playoff games before becoming another chapter in the lore of Tom Brady, losing the AFC championship 21-12 to the Patriots.
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