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Super Bowl Edge: Defense

   by Bryan Leonard - 02/06/2011

So who's going to win the Super Bowl? Better yet, who's going to cover? There are a lot of factors to examine carefully when trying to determine who has the edge. One of the simplest to examine, and very revealing, is defense. Defense wins championships, of course, and when we look at the defensive merits of the Steelers and Packers you'll find that both are in the Top 10 in total defense. In an attempt to look forward towards Sunday's big game, let's take a look backward. Backward at defense, that is.
Last year was a bit of an oddity, as both the Colts and Saints were dynamite offensively but had poor overall defensive stats. That's not the norm. Seven years ago the Patriots were 7th in total defense and the Carolina Panthers were 8th. In addition, run defense is a bit more important statistically than pass defense, because it's essential to be able to stop the run first. If the opposition can run successfully, especially on third down and short situations, there is less of a need to pass. Also, a successful running attack makes the passing game much more effective, with play-actions drawing the safeties forward and defenses having to bring more linebackers and defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. This can create mismatches and single coverage downfield, which is why offensive coordinators love balanced offenses. In that Super Bowl, the Patriots were 3rd against the run, the Panthers 11th. The Patriots won 32-29.
Eight years ago, the Raiders had the No. 1 offense in the NFL but the ‘D' was 11th overall and a poor 23rd against the run. Tampa Bay was No. 1 in total defense and No. 6 against the run. The result? A huge win for the defense, as the underdog Bucs trashed the Raiders 48-21. Chalk up a big “W” for defense!
Nine years ago the Patriots were 24th in total ‘D' and 18th against the run. The 14-point favorite Rams were No. 2 in total ‘D' and 3rd against the run. That partly explains why the Patriots 20-17 upset win was one of the biggest surprises in Super Bowl history. Although there's no denying that the Pats were better defensively than the stats might suggest with Bill Belichick in charge. The Pats ‘D' had also played exceptionally well the final ten games of that season. And in 2008 the defense of the Giants knocked off the No. 1 offense, 17-14, as a +12 Super Bowl dog over the Pats.
Ten years ago the Ravens were No. 2 in total defense and No. 1 against the rush. The Giants were No. 5 in total ‘D' and No. 2 against the rush. Chalk another one up for defense as the Ravens dominated in a 34-7 rout.
11 years ago the Rams had an explosive offense behind MVP Kurt Warner, No. 1 in total offense. But don't forget that St. Louis team was also No. 6 in total defense and No. 1 against the run! Their opponent, Tennessee, was 17th in total ‘D' and 10th against the run. Chalk about another win for the better Super Bowl defense in the Rams' 23-16 victory.
Want to go back further? The Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowl titles behind QB John Elway and an explosive offense. But lost in the shuffle of the strong offense was that Denver's defense ranked 5th and 11th in those years, when they beat Atlanta and Green Bay. The Falcons had a slightly better overall defense (8th) but Denver was statistically better than the 1997 Packers, who were a poor 20th against the run. Green Bay was a big favorite in that Super Bowl, but Terrell Davis exploited that weak run ‘D' in Denver's victory as a big dog.
So, yes, defense is more important to have than offense on Super Sunday. And this season? The Packers are 9th in total defense, the Steelers No. 2, with the No. 1 run defense, just 62.8 yards rushing per game. That's not only great, it's historic: It is the third best rush defense since 1970! The Steelers and Packers are ranked No. 1 and 2 in the NFL in points allowed, so no matter who wins it will be by a great defense -- again.

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