Commentary

Tip Sheet: Don't overlook the defenses

Originally Published: February 5, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, the defenses in Super Bowl XLIV get no respect.

Many see Sunday's New Orleans Saints-Indianapolis Colts matchup as a gridiron reenactment of the Shootout at the OK Corral.

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And just like Dangerfield, the two defenses hope to deliver a memorable punchline.

"When you play with a team that's known so much for its offense," said linebacker Clint Session, arguably the Colts' most productive player in the postseason, "you're always the stepchild, you know? You're fighting for your piece of the pie. This is a chance for us to make a statement. We're a lot better than people credit us for being.

"We want to be the difference-makers."

That's true for both defensive units. The potent offenses aside, high-profile players from both clubs acknowledge they would not be vying for an NFL championship without the contributions of their defenses.

Said New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston: "They've kind of gotten lost in the [media] shuffle, but they're good."

They're good, but not great.

Since 1970, the first season for which the NFL and AFL merged statistics, this is the first Super Bowl that didn't include at least one unit statistically ranked among the top 10 defenses during the regular season. Including Sunday's contest, there will have been 40 Super Bowl games played since the 1970 season. Nine of them featured the top-rated NFL defense from the regular season.

Nineteen of the games included franchises whose defenses were both in the top 10, most recently for Super Bowl XLII, the 2007 season.

After the 2009 regular season, Indianapolis ranked 18th defensively and New Orleans was No. 25.

Middling rankings aside, these units still could be factors at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday.

Although the Saints' defense ranked statistically in the league's bottom quadrant, New Orleans had the NFL's second-most takeaways (39). The Saints led the league in defensive touchdowns (eight) and were plus-11 in turnover/takeaway differential.

The Saints also had the most hits on the quarterback, according to team statistics, and, like the Colts, were particularly stingy in the red zone.

"The statistics don't [tell] it all," said New Orleans free safety Darren Sharper, who tied for the league lead in interceptions (nine) and returned three for touchdowns.

"They don't tell the whole story. We're better than the statistics. We're aggressive, we take the ball away, we stick the ball in the end zone. People don't go up and down the field on us."

Actually, the Saints surrendered 21.3 points per game, and only 12 teams allowed more. New Orleans allowed an average touchdown drive of 6.5 plays, but was susceptible to the big play at times, permitting 13 touchdown drives of four plays or fewer and six TDs of 50 yards or more.

The Saints' strength, as Sharper noted, is taking the ball away. They'll need that key characteristic of blitz-oriented defenses designed by coordinator Gregg Williams against the Colts. Of the 34 Super Bowl games in which a team had an advantage in turnover/takeaway differential, the club that held the edge won 31 times.

While the Saints' defensive strength is pounding on offenses, and hoping the cumulative effect of the bludgeoning forces turnovers, the Colts' strong suit is lateral quickness and the ability to get a lot of bodies to the ball.

Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice referred to the Indianapolis defense as "a blur" after their AFC divisional-round loss to the Colts.

Unlike in the past several seasons, when the Colts relied almost solely on a Cover 2 scheme some players considered too passive, first-year coordinator Larry Coyer has introduced some timely blitzes into the team's repertoire.

The Colts blitz judiciously, about 11 percent of the time compared with roughly 2 percent in 2008, but on enough occasions to accentuate their team speed. Opponents have run at the Colts, but rarely around them.

Indianapolis has eight defenders who have appeared in a previous Super Bowl. The Saints boast two: Reserve cornerback Randall Gay has appeared in two while a member of the New England Patriots, and safety Sharper -- who played for the Packers against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII.

"I think we tend to understand the importance of these [playoff] games, even if some people underestimate how important we are to the team," said Colts defensive back Kelvin Hayden, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the Colts' Super Bowl XLI victory over the Chicago Bears.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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