Doomsday for defense in the NFL?

Rams running back Steven Jackson runs 47 yards for a touchdown past Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
Rams running back Steven Jackson runs 47 yards for a touchdown past Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. (CHRIS LEE / St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Posted: September 15, 2011

Defensive Football, whose name was once chanted in NFL stadiums around the United States, died Sunday at the age of 78 after a long, debilitating battle with Offense.

Mr. Football, known simply as "D" to generations of fans, was preceded in death by his brother, Smashmouth Football.

In his heyday, Defensive Football created such colorful characters as Dick Butkus, Reggie White, and Lawrence Taylor, as well as such well-known groups as the Steel Curtain, Purple People Eaters, and the Doomsday Defense.

Before trends and NFL rules weakened him, Mr. Football produced such memorable Super Bowl champions as the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

Defensive Football is survived by Chuck Bednarik and Mike Singletary. Arrangements are pending.

Maybe it's premature to pronounce NFL defense dead. The league has always been cyclical, after all. The smothering defenses of the 1970s led to the creation of the West Coast offense, which inspired zone blitzing and other attempts to curtail the quick passing game. It is possible this latest explosion of offense - epitomized by the most prolific weekend of passing in NFL history - will bring on innovations in defense.

But 7,842, a record number of passing yards, was not the only number of significance on the NFL's opening weekend. There was also this: more than 107 million TV viewers, the most ever for an opening weekend.

Coincidence? Hardly. The NFL has been actively legislating its sport to encourage passing, scoring, and video-game action for years. There's a better chance of rotary phones making a comeback than defense-oriented football.

Twenty-five years ago, when rotary phones weren't uncommon, Buddy Ryan amused the writers covering his first Eagles training camp with this bit of wisdom: "Defense wins games, special teams wins championships and offense sells tickets."

For the record, Ryan spat the word offense with the same disdain he reserved for out-of-shape fullbacks and slow linebackers. It wasn't that Ryan was proven wrong by the evolution of the league. It's just that the men on the competition committee cared only about the "sells tickets" part of the equation. By happy accident, the explosion of offense also dovetailed with the proliferation of fantasy football players. Nothing like a 511-yard passing game from Tom Brady, who looked positively bored while shredding the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, to wreak havoc on your league's standings.

On Sunday, the Eagles gave up a 47-yard touchdown run by Steven Jackson on the Rams' first play from scrimmage. It was a four-alarm example of what everyone feared most from an inexperienced defensive coordinator, a new system, and a very young linebacking corps.

The Eagles allowed just six points the rest of the day. They played better on defense and Jackson got hurt, but those weren't the only reasons that St. Louis could not score. The main reason was that second-year Rams QB Sam Bradford, playing his first game in a new offensive system, wasn't able to sustain a drive by throwing the ball.

"That first [TD] was rough," Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said after the game. "But the NFL is about people throwing the football. That's how people score points.  Being an offensive guy, you know that as long as everybody is in their gap, most of the time, unless somebody is just whipping your butt, you're going to be able to take care of the run."

So the Eagles fielded questions about stopping Falcons running back Michael Turner this weekend in Atlanta with the appropriate boilerplate. He's a good player, tough to tackle, blah blah blah. The truth is, they know Turner can run for 120 yards and it won't matter unless quarterback Matt Ryan hurts them through the air. Turner ran for 100 yards on just 10 carries in Chicago last weekend. The Falcons scored 12 points.

Maybe all this helps explain Andy Reid's offseason maneuvers. Back when he started with the Eagles, and when defense still mattered, he hired veteran Jim Johnson to run that side of the ball. In the post-defense NFL, why not go with Castillo, who understands defensive strategy from the all-important offensive mind-set? There was a lot of talk about assistants from Green Bay and Pittsburgh, but they played a Super Bowl in which 56 points were scored.

The Steelers, one of the few winning franchises left that rely primarily on defense, gave up 35 points to the Ravens on Sunday.

Great defense now means big, offensive-style plays: interceptions, highlight-reel returns. Same with special teams. There were eight kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns on opening weekend.

Some of this may be because of ragged post-lockout play. But this has been building for years, as new rules limiting contact played into the hands of players with millions of reasons to avoid contact. Speed and athleticism were in. Bulk and strength were outdated.

The offense wins games, wins championships, and sells tickets. The defense rests. In peace.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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