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In a Year of Offense, Defenses Win in End

Giants quarterback Eli Manning and running back Brandon Jacobs got a taste of how tough the third-ranked Eagles defense is. (AP)
Giants quarterback Eli Manning and running back Brandon Jacobs got a taste of how tough the third-ranked Eagles defense is. (AP)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The NFL's regular season was all about offense, with Drew Brees threatening the record for passing yards in a year and points being scored at a rate not seen in more than four decades. But all of that has been put aside in the games that matter most, and the postseason has been about which teams can play great defense.

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Of the four teams left in the NFL playoffs, three -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles -- had the league's highest-ranked defenses during the regular season.

When it comes to playoff-style football, at least, the new NFL, with its rule modifications designed to benefit the passing game and increase point totals, looks an awful lot like the old NFL, with its longtime motto that rugged defense wins championships.

"It's always going to be that way," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said yesterday. "Your great defenses always compete for championships. Yes, throwing the ball is essential. But stopping the run wins championships. I played for [late Hall of Fame coach] George Allen in 1974, and the formula then was run the ball, stop the run and don't make mistakes. And that's still the formula."

It didn't seem to be the formula during the regular season. An average of 44.1 points were scored per game this season, the highest since 46.1 points per game in 1965.

There was room to wonder during the regular season if good defense had been all but legislated out of the sport. In November, the NFL had its highest-scoring weekend of games in its history, with 837 points in those 16 games.

Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, had the second 5,000-yard passing season in league history, falling 15 yards shy of Dan Marino's single-season NFL record of 5,084 passing yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984.

Observers pointed not only to solid quarterback play, but also to the league's attempts to tweak the rules in recent years to promote the passing game and increase scoring. The NFL's rule-makers cracked down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defensive players against receivers before the 2004 season, making illegal contact in the secondary a point of officiating emphasis.

This season, the NFL drew complaints from players and the NFL Players Association for handing out heavy fines for hits during games deemed illegal and dangerous. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was protecting the players' well-being. Acting union chief Richard Berthelsen and several players said the fines had become excessive.

Either way, the fact that many of the fines were imposed on defensive players for hits on quarterbacks or receivers reinforced the notion among some current and former players that playing good defense was becoming increasingly difficult.

Offense sells. The NFL hasn't hidden its belief that higher scoring translates into increased fan interest, as long as games remain competitive. But as these playoffs are proving, playing good defense isn't impossible even in these quarterback-friendly times, and teams that do so still thrive.

The Steelers ranked first in the league in total defense and passing defense during the regular season and were second in rushing defense. The Ravens were second in total defense, second in passing defense and third in rushing defense. The Eagles were third in total defense, third in passing defense and fourth in rushing defense.


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