Offenses in charge, but defenses will rise in NFL
For all the high-flying offenses and high-scoring games, defense still
matters in the NFL. And when the weather gets nasty and injuries and
fatigue begin wearing down players, that will be even truer.
Yes, the league is on pace to set some offensive records, led by Peyton
Manning's magic in Denver. Nine teams are averaging at least 25 points
a game and Indianapolis is barely under that.
Yet, on several division leaders — New England, New Orleans, Seattle,
Kansas City, Cincinnati, Indy — defense has more than played its part.
"It's a highly motivated group," Saints coordinator Rob Ryan says,
knowing full well how awful New Orleans was on defense in 2012, when
Ryan was with the Cowboys. "I think we all have egg on our face from
last season and take that seriously. We want to be a hell of a lot
better than what people think we are, so we're just working hard to be
a little tiny part of our success."
Offenses tend to be ahead of defenses early in the season for several
—Teams rarely show their full offense in preseason games, so defenses
need time and game film to get up to speed.
—New schemes presented by offensive coordinators, which can range from
the read-option to the spread to whatever is next (the power pistol?),
depending on coaches' whims and opponents' tendencies, are challenging
—Although every game is worth 1-16th of a team's record, gambling on
offense in the early season is more prevalent.
—With normally good weather, the passing game is easier to implement,
harder to defend.
—Placekickers have fewer negatives to deal with.
Much of that will change in November and, particularly, in December. So
teams with solid defenses — only Seattle's might be called a shutdown
D, although Kansas City comes close with all the takeaways it forces —
could rise to the top as the temperatures plummet, the winds whip
wildly and the precipitation falls.
That hardly means plenty of 10-9 games are ahead. But a 21-20 score
nowadays constitutes a defensive battle.
"It's a transition league," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose
defense is as responsible, if not more, for a 5-1 record as is Tom Brady. "You have to find a way to win every year and every week. That's
what we're trying to do, is just trying to find a way to win. We're not
trying to replicate anything from some other year or team or whatever
it is. We're trying to find a way for the 2013 team to win. Whatever
that is — offense, defense, special teams — whatever those 45 guys can
do, that's what we're trying to do."
With injuries and a lack of depth on his defense, Belichick might be
hard-pressed to get such strong performances from his squad the rest of
the way. If any coach can do it, though, it's probably him.
Which teams are well-suited to have their defenses carry them to the
playoffs, and then deep into January? Try these:
SEATTLE: The Seahawks should be nicknamed The
Smashmouths. They have the size, speed, intelligence and nastiness to
handle any offense, particularly if the game is at CenturyLink Field.
SAN FRANCISCO: From front to back, this might be the
most talented bunch in the NFL. No team is better at safety, where
rookie Eric Reid has been outstanding, complementing Donte Whitner. But
with the uncertainty surrounding Aldon Smith, will the Niners have
enough of a pass rush?
CINCINNATI: When the Bengals get their pass rush
cranked up, it comes from the inside and the outside. There's lots of
experience in the secondary, too.
KANSAS CITY: Ball hawks everywhere. Like Cincinnati,
the Chiefs get after the quarterback, and they do it with their
linebackers more than almost any other team. If Justin Houston isn't
the top defensive player in the league so far, maybe Tamba Hali is.
BALTIMORE: This is the wild card, which is where
the Ravens might wind up if they get into the postseason. The defense
is younger, faster and more agile than the unit that helped Baltimore
win the Super Bowl in February. In Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, it
has the dynamic pass rushers. But it needs to force more turnovers.
Finally, there are the potent offensive teams that, if they can mix in
steady defenses, should be favorites to lift the Lombardi Trophy. The
Saints, who have made those huge strides under Ryan; the Colts, when
they are aggressive; and Broncos, now that Von Miller and Champ Bailey
are back, fall into that category.
So when that white stuff is falling from the sky, the tundra becomes
slippery and the biting wind swirls, think defense.