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September Football: QBs and Defense
by Scott Spreitzer - 09/05/2008
As the NFL season opens, let's get back to some basics when it comes to handicapping football: You win (and cover) with quarterbacks and defense. There's really no truer adage in football. Betting lines take these factors into account, and you can understand why. The offense revolves around the play of the quarterback, the only player on offense who touches the ball every play.
Quarterbacks need touch and accurate, split-second decision making all the time to keep the offense moving. They also require leadership skills, clutch ability on third and fourth downs, and even are asked to call plays or change calls instantly at the line of scrimmage based on what they see the defense doing.
A quarterback needs to know the system thoroughly and the team needs confidence in his abilities. I recall the opener from two seasonâ€™s ago when the Steelers hosted the Dolphins. The line movement on that game was incredible, with Pittsburgh opening as a 6-point home favorite in the summer and going down to a pick 'em. The reason for the drop was the injury to QB Ben Roethlisberger.
However, this is where a good handicapper needs to use patience and intuitive abilities. While Big Ben is an important part of the Steelers, he's not EVERYTHING. Pittsburgh is, first off, a running team. Backup QB Charlie Batch, while not a great QB, is a reliable veteran. He also knows the system and the team went 2-0 in 2 starts in 2005 when Big Ben was hurt. Some QBs are asked to carry the team, but most are asked to be a manager.
In my analysis before that game I wrote, â€œBut is the loss of Roethlisberger really worth 6 whole points? No. He isn't a quarterback that's put into position to win the game, only to manage it. In fact, that's the way all QBs play in this system. The Steelers won 15 of their last 18 home games and they are completely undervalued by the public going into this game.â€쳌
In the past it was profitable to go against the Super Bowl winner in their opener but that hasn't been the case of late. Pittsburgh won the game and covered over Miami and last year the Colts destroyed the Saints, which put the defending champs at 6-0-1 ATS the last seven seasons.
Part II is an old NFL staple: Defense! Look at the history of the Super Bowl and you find teams with great defense usually winning it all. Those Bronco teams with John Elway were strong defensively, as were the Rams in 1999 (look it up, they were not all offense). Defense was the cornerstone of the Patriots three recent titles. The No. 1 defense of Tampa Bay rolled over the Raiders and their No. 1 offense, 48-21, in the Super Bowl (as a dog, no less), and the Steelers zone-blitz and aggressive defense keyed the way to their title two years ago. In fact, Roethlisberger played poorly in the Super Bowl, but their great defense kept them in it.
The Colts in 2006 were strange, in that their run defense was horrible all season, then they morphed into a devastating stop unit in the postseason. Recently some of the Indy coaches were asked why that happened and they said they didnâ€™t know. Part of it was that DT Anthony McFarland, a mid-season pickup, finally got comfortable in their system and part of it was the return of aggressive safety Bob Sanders. And last yearâ€™s champion Giants did it with a dominating defensive front and pass rush.
You can make a list of several teams that have a good quarterback play and no defense the last few years (Bengals, Rams, Saints), and teams that have had suspect quarterback but good defenses (Raiders, Bears, Redskins, Ravens, Dolphins, Vikings).
But having both is a huge edge. Think about these things when examining September NFL games. Overall balance and good coaching are keys, but reliable quarterback play and strong defenses are at the top of the list of NFL success, often straight up AND against the number!