The NFL's single-season sack leaders from 1 to 10

ByBrianna Williams ESPN logo
Friday, February 11, 2022

Pittsburgh Steelers star and 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the YearT.J. Watt came dangerously close to breaking former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan'ssingle-season sack record.

With an extra game added to the schedule for the 2021 season, it was widely assumed that many single-season records were in jeopardy.

Watt, however, did not need 17 games to tie the 21-year-old record. He missed two games -- and sat out most of a third -- due to injury.

From Mark Gastineau to Aaron Donald, here's where Watt's 2021 sacks campaign ranks among the all-time greats.

1. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

Sacks: 22.5

Year: 2021

Watt's chance at eclipsing Strahan's mark was bolstered by his four-sack performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week 16. That left him just 1.5 sacks from setting the record heading into the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens.

In the end, Watt recorded one sack in the first half to tie the historic mark. He had two near-sack opportunities that were negated due to aTyler Huntley fumble and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Cam Heyward.

He also was voted Pittsburgh's team MVP for the third consecutive year, the only player to achieve the feat, and became the franchise's single-season sack leader in Week 15.

Michael Strahan, New York Giants

Sacks: 22.5

Year: 2001

In the 2001 season finale, Strahan took down Green Bay Packersquarterback Brett Favre for his record-setting sack, which came with its share of controversy. He landed on a sliding Brett Favre, which had many, including former record holder Mark Gastineau, questioning its legitimacy.

Strahan ended his career on a high note, upsetting the then-undefeated New England Patriotsin Super Bowl XLII and recording the final sack of his career against Tom Brady in the process. His No. 92 was retired by the Giants this season.

3. Mark Gastineau, New York Jets

Sacks: 22

Year: 1984

The league began recording sacks as an official statistic in 1982, and it did not take long for Gastineau to assert his dominance.

The 22-sack mark came on a team with a trio of dominant defensive players, with Gastineau being the one to reach the milestone. He was a member of the Jets' early 1980s defensive front dubbed the "New York Sack Exchange."

Gastineau became known for his sack dance, a signature celebration that he performed often until a March 1984 NFL ruling that declared it as "unsportsmanlike taunting."

4. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings

Sacks: 22

Year: 2011

New Year's Day is especially notable for Allen, who notched sack No. 22 in Minnesota's Jan. 1, 2011, regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears. His 3.5-sack performance left him just shy of Strahan's single-season total.

"It's like being runner-up at the prom," Allen said of missing the record. "The crown doesn't weigh as much, I guess."

Allen isamong 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2022.

5. Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

Sacks: 22

Year: 2014

Like Allen, Houston also finished a half-sack short of Strahan's record, but it was a big leap for the Chiefs star, who notched 21 sacks in his previous two seasons combined.

Despite leading the league in sacks, he didn't receive a vote for Defensive Player of the Year that season.

6. Chris Doleman, Minnesota Vikings

Sacks: 21

Year: 1989

Doleman's dominant 1989 season led to a sack record. He and teammate Keith Millard combined for 39 sacks, the most ever by a duo, and contributed to over half of the Vikings' league-leading 71 sacks.

He retired with the most forced fumbles of any player since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1999.

Doleman was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

7. Reggie White, Philadelphia Eagles

Sacks: 21

Year: 1987

The NFL's 1987 strike shortened the season to 15 games, but that did not hinder White from etching his name in the record books.

He remains the Eagles' all-time sack leader, recording 124 sacks in 121 games, and is second to Bruce Smith on the NFL's all-time sack list.

White, a 2006 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, had 13 consecutive Pro Bowl selections. At the time of his retirement in 2000 after 15 NFL seasons, no player had more than his 198 sacks.

8. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

Sacks: 20.5

Year: 2018

En route to Super Bowl LIII, Aaron Donald bullied offensive backfields and set the NFL record for sacks by an interior lineman.

Donald, named the Rams' Player of the 2010s by ESPN, earned back-to-back NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017 and 2018.

9. Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants

Sacks: 20.5

Year: 1986

In 1986, Taylor became just the second defensive player to be named the league's MVP. He had a career-high 20.5 sacks paired with 105 total tackles, 5 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer is regarded as one of the best defensive players of all time.

10. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Sacks: 20.5

Year: 2012, 2014

As he jokingly reminded his brother, J.J. Watt is the only player to record 20-plus sacks in multiple seasons.

He also became a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner (2012, 2014, 2015) in his first five seasons. Watt is the only player to unanimously win the award (2014) and was one vote shy of being a unanimous winner in 2012.

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