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The Best Offense is a Good Defense
by Bryan Leonard - 01/07/2011
There has been a lot of focus on offense the last few years in NFL. Last season the Saints and Colts were dynamite offensive teams with below average defenses and met in the Super Bowl. Many shrugged off the importance of defense, but that was more of an aberration: Don’t understate the importance of defense this time of the NFL season with so much at stake.
Teams in playoff races like the Packers, Chargers, Giants, Jets, Steelers, Bears, Saints and Ravens are all in the Top 10 in total defense. Four of the six teams at the bottom of the list (Cardinals, Texans, Broncos, Redskins) have long been out of the playoff hunt and one (Seahawks) is terrible defensive but only fighting for a division title because the division is so awful. If Seattle makes the postseason, they won’t be going anywhere with this defense.
Bad defense the last two months is the biggest reason the Raiders and Jaguars have seen their playoff chances slide significantly. It is the fourth time in the last seven years the Jaguars have lost control of their playoff destiny late in the season. They were 8-6 in 2004 when a Week 17 loss to Houston cost the Jaguars a playoff spot. In 2006, they were 8-5 and lost their last three. Last season, they were 7-5 and lost their last four.
Another reason to play starters down the stretch is to keep them sharp for the postseason. The Colts sat their starters late in 2006 to have them rested for the playoffs. There were many people that split on the answer, but I think we'd all aggress what the correct answer is: Play 'em! Or at least, rest any injured players, but don't bench the majority of starters the last two weeks of the regular season, even if everything is sewed up.
That was the position the Colts found themselves in after that 13-0 start. They had clinched everything: The division title, the bye week, home field for the postseason, the No. 1 spot. However, anyone who watched the loss to the Steelers saw an Indy team that was rusty for most of the game. Very rusty.
The Colts were out of sync most of the way in their 21-18 loss to the Steelers. Overall, having a bye week gives a team enough time, two weeks, to rest and prepare. It takes time and practice to get a team in sync because there are so many players that need to work together in unison: Blocking patterns, running backs hitting the proper holes, lineman pulling, receivers running patterns, quarterbacks getting the football to them on timing routes, etc.
That same season in the final regular season game for the Denver Broncos, they were 12-point dog at San Diego in a meaningless game. They had everything sewed up and needed only to stay healthy. Instead, Mike Shanahan had several starters play significant first half minutes. They also played inspired football, dominating the Chargers in an impressive performance.
I think back to the regular season finale in 2004 when the Patriots hosted the terrible 49ers at home in a meaningless game, yet Bill Belichick played the starters for three quarters. The reason was a little different, as the Patriots played a sluggish first half, tied 3-3, as a big favorite. Belichick didn't like the performance and sent the starters back out for the second half, injuries be damned! They followed the next few weeks with dominating performances on the way to winning another Super Bowl title.
Stuffing the run is a huge key to building a championship defense. Yes, the fancy offensive teams get most of the attention and Sports Center highlights, but don’t be surprised if the better defensive teams find their way into the postseason and advance.