Commentary

Offense or defense -- which prevails?

Matchups feature four of NFL's best on D, but elite QBs could change equation

Originally Published: January 20, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Will defense or offense be the ticket to the Super Bowl?

Even though the NFL remains a quarterback-driven league, two primarily defensive teams -- the New York Jets and the Chicago Bears -- are within one win of the Super Bowl. Overall, the NFL's final four features four of the league's top nine defenses. It also features elite quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.

Since the mid-2000s, offense and scoring have been more important qualities for Super Bowl winners. It wasn't always this way. Until the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl capping the 2006 season, the NFL hadn't had a Super Bowl winner since 1983 that was not ranked in the top 10 for scoring defense.

The NFL is coming off its best season for passing yards and passing touchdowns, along with one of its best years for scoring. Still, many of the top offenses and top quarterbacks haven't made it to Sunday's championship round.

The playoffs this year have been a reminder about the importance of defense.

1. The return of Troy Polamalu: The Steelers wisely sat Pro Bowl safety Polamalu for their game Dec. 19 against the Jets -- and again the next week -- with hopes of making his ankle/Achilles injury better for the playoffs. Polamalu played in the season finale against the Cleveland Browns and had a decent game against the Baltimore Ravens this past Saturday. Polamalu's absence was noticeable in the Jets' 22-17 victory over the Steelers. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, according to ESPN Stats & Information, had success in the middle of the field. Sanchez completed 9 of 9 passes inside the numbers, the area Polamalu successfully patrols. With Polamalu in the lineup Sunday, Sanchez will have to keep guessing where the safety will line up and what types of plays he will take away.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Morry GashIn their last meeting, the Packers blitzed extensively against the Bears and sacked Jay Cutler six times.
2. The blitz is on for Cutler: Jay Cutler won his first playoff start this past week, thanks to an early lead, but he knows Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Packers won't be as easy. The Packers have had great success blitzing him. In the Packers' 10-3 win in the season finale, Cutler was held to a 168-yard passing day and a 43.5 quarterback rating. ESPN Stats & Information counted up more than three-quarters of the plays in which the Packers had five or more defensive backs. Green Bay also blitzed him, which led to six sacks. In the second half alone, the Packers blitzed a defensive back 16 times, according to Stats & Info. For the game, Cutler completed 7 of 16 passes and was sacked twice against that type of pressure.

3. A nose for the ball: The Jets might not be the best team in football running up the middle, but they will need a big game from Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold. He goes against Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is the anchor of the league's best run defense. In the Week 15 meeting, the Jets averaged 3.9 yards a carry running up the middle, and that helped Sanchez complete 6 of 7 play-action passes. The presence of Hampton and the return of Polamalu could shut down some of those inside runs and force Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to be more creative to get his offense moving.

4. Aaron Rodgers versus the Bears' Cover 2: Rodgers comes to cold Soldier Field with a hot hand. Will the slick field hold down his offense or negatively affect the Bears' speedy Cover 2 scheme? The past four visitors to Soldier Field averaged 30 points against the Bears' Cover 2. Chicago coach Lovie Smith is a big believer in the Cover 2, a scheme that is showing some wear and tear because of the improved play of quarterbacks and the league's effort to punish hits by defensive backs. Rodgers has the ability to put up 300 yards on any good defense, but the Bears' Cover 2 has been able to hold him to 232.6 yards a game in the six times he has faced it. The Bears have forced Rodgers into shorter passes over the years. He has completed 68.6 percent of his passes against Chicago, with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions.

5. Another flag day? The Packers drew 18 penalties compared with the Bears' five in their Week 3 meeting in Soldier Field, won by the Bears, 20-17. The referee that day was Terry McAuley. He draws the assignment for this championship game, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy has tried to preach proper techniques for his team this week. The Packers were penalized for 152 yards in that first meeting. The Packers had plenty of early-season problems with penalties, and McCarthy and his staff have tried to clean up those woes. He knows this could be a tightly called game.

[+] EnlargeBrian Schottenheimer
Rich Kane/Icon SMIJets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer simplified things for Mark Sanchez the last time he faced the Steelers.
6. Being simple or complex: The Jets learned in their Week 15 victory over the Steelers that a simpler offense worked better for Sanchez. Against the Steelers, Schottenheimer called for shorter passes. Sanchez completed 65.5 percent of his passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information, when he kept his throws to 14 yards or shorter. He didn't try many deep passes, and his play-action throws were more intermediate than deep. Those safer throws prevented him from having an interception. For the game, he was 19-of-29 for 170 yards.

7. Mike Wallace versus Antonio Cromartie: In the Jets' last meeting with the Steelers, New York coach Rex Ryan put cornerback Darrelle Revis on wide receiver Hines Ward, and he held Ward to two catches for 34 yards. It's not out of the question for Revis to slide over to cover Steelers wide receiver Wallace, but Ward might have a big day against Jets cornerback Cromartie if that happens. Cromartie is a tall, angular cornerback who doesn't do as well against double moves and slot receivers, so it's more likely Cromartie will draw Wallace. Wallace averaged 21 yards a catch and had 10 touchdown receptions this season, replacing Santonio Holmes, who was traded to the Jets. Cromartie was beaten for seven of the 24 touchdown passes the Jets gave up in the regular season. He has the ability to shut down any top receiver in man coverage, but he also can have days when he can be beaten.

8. Stay off the corners: Packers cornerback Tramon Williams has emerged as one of the best corners in the NFC, particularly after a six-interception season and two interceptions in this past week's playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons. The combination of Williams and Charles Woodson is tough to beat, so the vulnerability is in the middle of the field against the Packers' safeties. Bears tight end Greg Olsen has had two five-catch days against the Packers' secondary this season. There have been six games in which opposing tight ends have caught six or more passes against them. Throwing against the Green Bay corners is doubly dangerous because of interceptions and because Williams and Woodson are two of the better defenders at stripping the football. It's safer to throw in the middle.

9. Blitzing in Blitzburgh: The Steelers are well-known for the zone blitzes designed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Jets are blitz-crazy under Ryan. In the regular season, the Jets blitzed on a league-high 52.4 percent of opponents' pass plays, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In the playoffs, the Jets have had success getting pressure, even though they've dropped more defenders into coverage. Stats & Info has the Jets with four or fewer defenders rushing 87 percent of the pass plays. Surprisingly, the sacks have increased. The challenge in this game is getting to Roethlisberger and getting him to the ground.

10. Avoiding defeat with the feet: Next to Michael Vick, Rodgers is the NFL's most dangerous quarterback running out of the pocket. He was the Packers' second-leading rusher with 356 yards and four touchdowns. Since the bye week in the middle of the season, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has designed more scrambles for Cutler, and the strategy worked. Including the playoffs, Cutler has had 33 scrambles, an 8.7-yard average and two touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Info. On pure scramble plays, Rodgers averages 8.4 yards per attempt.

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

John Clayton

NFL senior writer