In a sport where nasty play is welcomed on both sides of the ball, it is the nasty defenders who have been the major contributors to the often criticized violence of the game. For many of these players, a nasty disposition was a major character trait of each, as well as sometimes being a great flaw.
Defensive players have always had to play with a certain tenacity that allows them to get in position to make big plays. Many of the greatest defensive players are all men who have been blessed with a combination of great size and speed, but what seems to make them all great is a nastiness that comes from within.
Dick Butkus was nasty in the way he could separate offense players from the ball. Ray Lewis was nasty when it came time to make a big play. Big John Matusak was nasty on and off the field, using it to land a few roles on the big Hollywood screen. Jack Tatum had a good career, but his nastiness can be summed up in one unfortunate play.
The following players are some of the nastiest to ever play the game. It is not all about penalties, fines and fights that contribute to the distinction of making this list. Many of these players played the game with a great intensity that some of them found hard to control. Nasty or sometimes even violent, these players could all be considered as examples for the violent nature of the NFL game.
10 Ray Lewis, LB - 6-1, 240 pounds
Ray Lewis might not be the nastiest player on this list, but something about the way he plays the game makes him fearsome to say the least. Lewis could tackle with the best and run down just about any play. His quickness to the ball evoked fear in many of his opponents. If players were not intimidated by his play, he could go face mask to face mask to anyone who had the audacity to give him any lip. He could bark as well as he could bite and made it a habit to get under his opponents' skin.
9 Ndamukong Suh, DT - 6-4, 307 pounds
He might still be a rising star, but Ndamukong Suh has had plenty of experiences to make a place for himself on this list. Kicking opponents in the groin, hands to the face or many other actions that have earned him a personal foul, are all parts of Suh's repertoire and current game. Suh has racked up the penalties and over $216,000 in fines that lend support to his nasty reputation. He has the nastiness of a great linebacker and the mammoth size that makes him even more mean.
8 Lyle Alzado, DE - 6-3, 255 pounds
Lyle Alzado was mean and intimidating to say the least. He wasn't a huge guy, but had a nasty disposition that challenged his opponents on every play. He was so violent that he inspired the league's rule against throwing a helmet, after he threw an opponent's helmet wildly into the turf. Teammates who knew him, said he was a terrific man off the field, but between the white lines, Alzado was nothing short of a beast. Alzado played defensive end and even spent some time at defensive tackle, willing to fill in where his team had a need.
7 Bill Romanowski, LB - 6-3, 245 pounds
There might have been something wrong with Bill Romanowski that contributed to his violent nature. Rumors of steroid abuse were fueled by his actions on and off the field of play. He once kicked a player who was down on the ground twice in the head. He spit in a receivers face after being taunted during a game, threw a punch at another player's head, hit another with the toss of a football to the groin and even crushed an opposing quarterback's jaw following a helmet to helmet hit. Romanowski was so violent that he injured his own teammate with a punch that caused permanent damage and forced his retirement from football, leading to a famous lawsuit.
6 James Harrison, LB - 6-0, 275 pounds
James Harrison is one of the nastiest players who currently still plays the game. Harrison plays with a reckless abandon that has him throwing his weight around or lowering his helmet to take down opponents on any play that comes his way. He has been painted as one of the league's villains for using his helmet to make more than his share of scary helmet to helmet plays. Harrison was fined $125,000 in one season (2010) for his brutal collisions with unsuspecting opponents.
5 John Matuszak, DE - 6-7, 280 pounds
John Matuszak was the poster child for defining nasty in the 1970s. The hulking defensive end was named one of the top five all-time bad boys of the NFL, in a 2005 Sports Illustrated article. Matuszak was so mean that he even assaulted one of his own coaches, just because of a rumor that one of his teammates he was fond of was going to get traded away. He was so mean that Hollywood took notice and cast him in perfect character roles in movies like the Caveman and The Goonies. His NFL career was productive, but his presence was often more of an opponent's concern.
4 Jack Lambert, LB - 6-4, 220 pounds
Jack Lambert was intimidating with his toothless snarl, but it was his ability to avoid blocks and get to the ball that made him more than just mean. Lambert might have been light for a linebacker, but he was never afraid to make a big hit. He was known for making plays all over the field, but it was the contact he was able to make with a ball carrier that made him one of the nastiest players of his time.
3 Jack Tatum, S - 5-10, 200 pounds
Jack Tatum was nicknamed, "The Assassin", for his formidable style of play. He was nasty, he was mean, and many of his hits seemed to leave lasting impressions felt well beyond the field of play. In an unfortunate incident, one of Tatum's tackles left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the chest down. Tatum sent many receivers to the sidelines, starting with his first career game against the Baltimore Colts when he knocked two of the Colts tight ends, John Mackey and Tom Mitchell, out of the game.
2 Joe Greene, DT - 6-3, 275 pounds
"Mean" Joe Greene was a legendary defensive tackle who spent his whole career playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the pillar of Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s. Greene makes this list primarily because of his ability to play the game with an edge and motor that undeniably led to his appropriate nickname. He had the size, strength and speed that was unique during his era, but it was his love for making a big hit that really added to his overall game.
1 Dick Butkus, LB - 6-3, 245 pounds
Dick Butkus was one of the most feared and intimidating football players of his time. He had the size that was more like the linemen of his time, but his speed and instincts made him the best linebacker of his time. Butkus built his reputation by making big plays that often included hits that separated the football from the grasp of opponent's hands. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970, for being recognized as "The Most Feared Man in the Game." He played through pain and was also one of the most durable players of his time, playing despite several knee injuries throughout his career.
Butkus would have led the NFL in forced fumbles if there was such a statistic during his time, but he did have 27 fumble recoveries to set an NFL record at that time. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970. His play earned him a number ten rating for the NFL.com Players of All-Time. Butkus was a hitter who could play through whistles as well as he could through pain. His intensity and above average size made him a formidable foe for anyone with the mettle to stand in his way.
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