Defenses prevail in long run
High-powered offenses thrived in the regular season, but the playoff survivors have excelled on defense.
So much for the Year of the Offense.
Thanks to the development of some young quarterbacks and the enforcement of the rule emphasis on illegal contact, numerous offensive records and milestones were achieved this season. Yet, in a year of offense, defenses prevailed.
The Colts, Vikings and Rams -- three top-six offenses from the regular season -- lost over the weekend in the divisional playoff round. Nine of the league's top 10 offenses made the playoffs, but seven have been eliminated. The only two remaining from the top 10 are the Patriots and Eagles.
The other conference finalist, Atlanta, finished 14th in both yardage (325.4) and points (21.1) allowed. And unless the Falcons win the Super Bowl, the theory to becoming champion holds. No team since the 1983 Raiders has had a defense that ranked outside of the top 10 and won a Super Bowl.
Doesn't it figure? The NFL did everything it could to help offenses, and the strategy worked. Scoring was up. Yards per completions soared. Peyton Manning broke the single-season touchdown record. Quarterbacks had little trouble producing 3,000- and 4,000-yard seasons. A record number of 100-yard rushing games were produced.
But this is a defensive league. Already, the league is in the process of changing a dozen or more offensive coordinators. Paul Hackett resigned from the Jets on Wednesday. Terry Shea was let go by the Bears after one season. The Ravens made a playoff run, but fired Matt Cavanaugh, who subsequently went back to Pitt. New England has to replace Charlie Weis.
Conversely, defensive coaches are safe. There were 15 changes on defensive staffs last year compared to five this season.
• New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 6:30 ET, CBS: The X-Factor is Corey Dillon. He's been the X-factor for the Patriots all season.
Dillon gives the Patriots the ability to match the Steelers carry for carry in the running game. Dillon was the league's third-leading rusher with 1,635 yards and would have probably led the league had he not missed the Oct. 31 game against Pittsburgh.
Without Dillon, the Patriots got off to a terrible start. They fell behind, 21-3, in the first quarter. They were forced to throw 45 passes against an aggressive Steelers defense, and Tom Brady ended up with two interceptions.
The Patriots are one of the greatest teams in NFL history in terms of playing with the lead. Charlie Weis' offensive system and Brady's efficiency have allowed the Patriots to outscore opponents, 246-149, in the first half this season. Leading by a touchdown by halftime of most games is huge.
Having Dillon has created a new, improved Brady. Because of the option to use play action, he can go downfield more and defenses have to worry about allowing big plays. By utilizing play action more, he's added a yard per attempt (6.8 to 7.8) to his throws. His completion average has gone from 11.4 to 12.8. That's significant.
Being able to go downfield more opens up running lanes for Dillon and puts more defenses in Cover 2 or Cover 3 zones that try to prevent those long passes. The one game the Patriots didn't have Dillon, it turned into a disaster.
Brady threw 43 times and averaged 6.3 yards an attempt. He played into the hands of the Steelers defense, and Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher knows the value of play-action passing. Play action has enabled the Steelers to be an undefeated team with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
His problem of late has been scoring in the red zone. In the last seven games, the Steelers have scored only nine offensive touchdowns. They've settled for 17 field goals during that stretch.
Even though it's a defensive theme in this championship game, it still takes touchdowns to win a title. The Patriots scored 49 offensive touchdowns compared to 31 field goals.
What will be interesting to see is the type of schemes the Patriots will use against Roethlisberger. The Jets had great success using 5-3 and 4-4 schemes against the Steelers on first downs. The extra bodies at the line of scrimmage made it tougher to do the inside runs and eventually forced Roethlisberger to pass into coverages dictated by the Jets.
The Patriots know their corners don't match up in man situations against the Steelers receivers, but they also know they will be forced to do more jamming at the line of scrimmage to slow them down going into routes. Expect the Patriots to do a lot of confusing things, threatening to send players on blitzes and then sending them back into coverages.
The real key to this game is who grabs the lead. Both teams are capable of getting the lead and then wearing down the other defense with their running attack. A year ago, the Patriots couldn't do that. Now, with Dillon, they can.
Mistakes also can't be tolerated. Of the two teams, the Steelers may be more prone to make mistakes because Roethlisberger is so young. That's why the Steelers have run the ball 618 times this year and do their best to get to 40 carries to win close, low-scoring games.
• Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 3 ET, FOX: On a normal field, the Eagles should have the advantage. If it snows as expected, the edge goes even more to the Eagles. The Falcons are a dome team, and while they are the league's best running offense, they haven't had to do it in snowy conditions on bad footing.
Snow could definitely hurt the Falcons. Face it, they win because of a solid defense and Michael Vick. Vick wins unconventional games. He'll break out of the pocket, catch a defense napping and run for big yards. Sometimes, he'll stop before he gets to the line of scrimmage and heave a long completion.
For Donovan McNabb, this is a statement game. He and the Eagles can't allow Vick to become a Super Bowl quarterback first, particularly when they are at home, in favorable weather conditions and in their fourth consecutive NFC title game. For McNabb, that can't happen. He has to win or he will be labeled as a quarterback who can't win the big one.
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson faces an interesting decision. Does he pressure Vick from the inside and force him to the corners or does he rush the corners to try to keep him in the pocket? Vick is short, which means that if you keep him in the pocket it can make it difficult for him to see downfield and find passing lanes. That's why you wonder whether a 3-4-type scheme would work well against him. Teams with four linebackers tend to do a better job of containing mobile quarterbacks and keeping quarterbacks in the pocket.
How Johnson uses Kearse could determine how successful the Eagles will be in controlling Vick, who isn't great at getting the ball to the outside receivers. It's almost a given that safety Brian Dawkins will draw the assignment of taking away Vick's favorite target, tight end Alge Crumpler.
Though the Falcons love to run the ball, the Eagles shouldn't have the kind of matchup problems they normally encounter from having a light defense. The Falcons have one of the lightest offensive lines in football, so that shouldn't be an issue.
Offensively, Andy Reid will try to exploit the versatility of halfback Brian Westbrook . Westbrook is more dangerous as a route-runner than as a running back and he forces defenses to adjust to him. When he goes out as a receiver, the Eagles can force extra defenders out of the middle of the field and open up running lanes for Dorsey Levens.
They didn't have that option during last year's playoffs because Westbrook was recovering from a torn triceps and didn't play. Sure, the Eagles might have won this game big had Owens been present, but they can still challenge teams offensively because of Westbrook and their current receiving unit.
For the Eagles, the pressure is on, but the snow could make things more fun and give them a bigger edge.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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