Big-Play Defense Once Again Vital to Championship Aspirations

Pats defense

Defense is back in the NFL.

The gameplan for winning in the NFL has changed dramatically in Roger Goodell’s world, just a few seasons after it seemed the concept of defense had been abandoned in favored of high-powered, passing offenses that didn’t care about the running game or playing nasty, hard-hitting defense.

There are examples of the return of defense all over the league, with the most extreme coming in Seattle, New England, Chicago, and Minnesota.

Before we go into the details of the current state of the NFL, let’s go back to the 2011 season. Just four years ago, the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and New England Patriots dominated the regular season. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady were simply unstoppable as each team scored more than 500 points during the regular season.

The Saints and Patriots were 13-3 during the regular season and the Packers were a remarkable 15-1 coming off a Super Bowl victory the season before. It was widely assumed by many of the league’s most knowledgeable chroniclers that one of those three teams would win the Super Bowl after that season, and that they had defined the new NFL.

The new NFL being one that required a brilliant quarterback who could light up the scoreboard along with a big-play wide receivers. Defense was no longer a necessity and seemed quite optional.

A funny thing happened on the way to glory that year, because none of those teams came away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The upstart New York Giants, who had won the NFC East with a 9-7 record and were just the fourth seed in the NFC playoffs, got hot at the right time and swept four postseason games to win the title. They capped their run by beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Eli Manning certainly made some clutch plays in that Super Bowl – including a late fourth-quarter pass to Mario Manningham – but it was largely the defense that shut Brady down when the game was on the line.

The Super Bowl XLVI triumph is still having an impact around the league. Defense made a comeback in that game, and slowly but surely, defense has returned as perhaps the most important concept in playing championship football.

The Seahawks won the Super Bowl a year ago because they had a brilliant defense with Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, and Earl Thomas all manning key roles.

The Patriots returned to the Super Bowl this year and won it when the defense stepped up when the game was on the line and undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler made the last-second interception that gave New England its first Super Bowl title in 10 years.

Bill Belichick may not say much to the media, but it’s clear that he has been intent on rebuilding his defense since the 2011 season. Players like Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, and Darrelle Revis, have turned defense into nearly as much a priority in New England as it is in Seattle.

But it goes far beyond the Super Bowl participants.

Look at the miserable Chicago Bears, who blew out head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery after the team finished in last place in the NFC North with a 5-11 record this season.

The Bears started the season with full confidence and talked about beating out the Packers and Rodgers for the division title because they had a high-scoring offense featuring Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and enigmatic quarterback Jay Cutler.

While the offense had been impressive in 2013, it fell apart last season. Defense , once the hallmark for the Bears franchise, was completely ignored and the team that George Halas founded was the laughingstock of the NFL.

Halas’s grandson George McCaskey could not abide it, and the Bears brought in veteran defensive-minded coach John Fox to turn things around.

Chicago may not be a lot better next year in terms of record, but opponents will pay a price when they play the Bears because Fox will put together an attacking, hard-hitting defense.

That’s what the Minnesota Vikings did last season after a particularly soft 5-10-1 season in 2013 that saw them give up 480 points. They brought in fiery defensive wizard Mike Zimmer as their head coach in 2014. Even though the team had a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and lost Adrian Peterson – the top running back in football – the Vikings improved to 7-9-0 and allowed just 343 points.

The Vikings are now a team on the rise and they could be a playoff team in 2015 because Zimmer is one of the top defensive coaches in the game.

It takes balance to win in the NFL, and that’s a concept that was lost in 2011. The Seahawks and Patriots are the two most obvious beneficiaries of outstanding defensive play, but every team that had embraced big-play offense as the way to play no longer believes that.

They have altered their gameplans dramatically.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.