Pack, Steelers prove defense still matters

Posted: February 01, 2011

DALLAS - Word of the death of defense in the NFL has been greatly exaggerated, including in this very space.

All season, it looked as if the Eagles had picked the perfect season to have an explosive offense and a flammable defense. After years of rules changes designed to make the game more exciting (read: higher scoring), and a more recent focus on dangerous hits - the NFL had finally come to resemble the Arena League than its nasty old fire-breathing self.

After all that, the two teams that remain alive in the NFL prove that defense is very much alive. Things are different, to be sure, but an intense, intimidating defense is still a key ingredient if you hope to win a championship.

You can look at numbers. The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers ranked at or near the top in most important defensive categories. Most sacks: Steelers were first, Packers were tied for second. Fewest touchdown passes allowed: Pittsburgh was third, Green Bay fourth. Interceptions: Green Bay was second. Opponent passer rating: Green Bay was first, Pittsburgh second.

If you're not a numbers person, just look at the players. Green Bay has linebacker Clay Matthews. His teammates include cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, safety Nick Collins, and cornerback Tramon Williams. The Steelers have safety Troy Polamalu, who was named NFL defensive player of the year Monday, plus linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior, and defensive linemen Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel.

Let's put it this way. Each of these teams has four to six players who would be the very best defensive player on the Eagles - and it wouldn't be close.

This is very important to bear in mind as the Eagles interview candidates to replace Sean McDermott as defensive coordinator. When an offensive coordinator sits down to watch tape of the Packers' or the Steelers' defense, he keeps a bottle of antacid close by. Block Matthews, account for Woodson, keep Raji from stuffing the run inside? Control Polamalu and Harrison at the same time?

"They do the same thing we do," Farrior said Monday. "Wreak havoc on the field."

It has been quite some time since the Eagles were seen to wreak havoc on the field. They have a very good defensive end in Trent Cole. They have an excellent cover corner in Asante Samuel. But Cole is not a guy who takes over games. As for Samuel, his limitations as a run defender and occasional poor risk taker make him less valuable than an all-around talent such as Woodson.

There is no one on that Eagles' defense that causes opposing coaches the night sweats. That has much to do with personnel decisions and, to be sure, something to do with the way McDermott deployed the talent he did have.

The Steelers' defensive coordinator is Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau. The Packers' is Dom Capers. Both have been NFL head coaches. Both bring vast experience to their jobs.

"Both of them are great innovative coaches," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "First and foremost, they cater their attack to fit the men."

And the men - guys like Matthews and Harrison, Woodson and Polamalu - play the game in a rage. That has everything to do with their teams flying into Dallas-Fort Worth for Super Bowl XLV.

"We better be prepared to deal with him," Tomlin said of Matthews. "He is a unique and dynamic player. . . . They wouldn't be in this game if they didn't have dynamic playmakers like Clay Matthews."

So naturally, we can expect this to be a low-scoring, defensive kind of game, right?

Well, that's where things have changed in the NFL and are not going back any time soon. These are indeed great defenses. But the definition of great defense has been adjusted along with the rules governing pass coverage.

Look at the New Orleans Saints, who won last year's Super Bowl. Their defense was subpar all year long. It wasn't exactly stingy in the postseason, either. But the Saints defense got hot, made some big plays and did just enough to allow its high-octane offense to win the most important games.

Same here. The Packers and Steelers have good enough offenses to compete in this era. But they are in the Super Bowl rather than the Eagles, Patriots or Colts because they also have defenses capable of creating a turnover or dropping a quarterback at just the right moment. They have defenses that combine scheme, athleticism and attitude.

A new defensive coordinator can bring the Eagles a better scheme. He can find ways to get the most from the talent available. He can instill an aggressive, winning attitude.

But a look at the Steelers and Packers suggests that the Eagles really need to work on their roster.

Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter: @SheridanScribe. Read his blog at http:// or his recent columns at


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