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September Defenses Can Be In Mid-Season Form

   by Bryan Leonard - 09/09/2008

The opening game of the NFL season spoke volumes about successful football and what often stands out in September. The Giants defense was outstanding, shutting down the new-look Redskins offense. The NY offense wasn’t in midseason form, and the game went way under the total.

Have we seen this before? Let’s see, a year ago in the NFL opener, the Colts defense was outstanding, shutting out the Saints offense in the second half of a 41-10 win. New Orleans was No. 1 in total offense the previous year. Most significant was that the Colts runs defense appeared to pick up where it left off during the postseason.

Saints RBs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush had just 38 yards rushing apiece, for 3.2 and 3.8 yards per carry. It wasn’t like the Saints fell way behind and abandoned the run: It was 10-10 at the half. The Colts held the Saints offense to 293 total yards, and no touchdowns. Their only TD was a fumble return by the defense. That game also sailed under the total.

'Our defense should be better than last year,' said defensive tackle Raheem Brock after that game. 'We're good now, but we still have a long way to go. The young guys did a great job stepping up. We were just flying around and having fun.' They held one of the league's most potent offenses to 293 yards.

The game squeezed under the total, something to keep in mind during September: defenses are often ahead of the offenses. Here’s another winning formula to keep in mind, both straight up and against the number, in football: The ability (or inability) to stop the run.

Simply put, if a team has success running the football, they won't need to pass much. Taken a step further, a successful running game makes the passing game that much more effective. In addition, a run of 3 or 4 yards on first down creates a better success ratio on offense with numerous second-and-sixes, as opposed to too many second-and-9 or 10s.

Three years ago the worst run defenses in the NFL: The Texans, Bills, Browns, Jets, Rams, Saints, Falcons, Raiders, Lions, Packers and Titans. None made the playoffs or had a winning record. Houston, the worst team against the run, also had the worst record in the league (2-14), and a losing spread mark.

In addition, only ONE of those teams had a winning record against the spread! Several of those teams had some of the most abysmal spread marks in 2005, like the Jets (6-10 ATS), the Rams (5-11 ATS), the Saints (5-9-2 ATS), the Raiders (5-11 ATS), the Packers (5-10-1 ATS) and the Titans (6-10 ATS).

The bottom two teams, the Bills and Texans, allowed a whopping 4.5 yards per carry, while two others (Falcons and Rams) allowed 4.7 yards per attempt! That is some poor tackling! Two years ago the two worst teams in the league were the Raiders and Lions. A lot was made of Oakland’s improving defense, which ranked 7th overall. However, that was a bit misleading as the run defense was 26th. The Lions had the No. 24 rated run defense.

It's also an important element in the college game. I recall giving out a play on Rutgers a few years ago, a team playing at home against Illinois. One reason for this was run defense, or lack thereof, from Illinois and coach Ron Zook. I noted in my pregame analysis, â€쳌Illinois was outscored on average 40-17 last fall. Illinois allowed 5.5 yards per carry last year, the worst mark in all of division 1-A football. Good old number 119 out of 119. We don't see a whole lot of improvement. The previous game Rutgers ran all over a North Carolina defense that permitted a full 2 yards less that Illinois per attempt on the ground a year ago.

“The Scarlet Knights completely dominated the line when they had the ball. Out of all the games we watched last week we came away more impressed with Rutgers than any other. A great running game with Raymell Rice could make the Scarlet Knights a play on team. If you have one team that can't stop the run and another that excels at it we have what you refer to as a mismatch.â€쳌

So what happened? Rutgers had close to a 3-to-1 edge in total yards and an edge in rushing 166-60. Rice ran for 107 yards averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Oh, and the Scarlet Knights easily got the money in a 33-0 rout. Looking for mismatches is a key way to identify spread covers and examining run defense is one way to find them, in both colleges and the pros.

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