For the first time since turbo-charged offenses became an NFL fad, the Super Bowl will highlight two stellar defenses. Despite all the discussion of Cam Newton’s fancy pants and Peyton Manning’s possible Swan Bowl, the quarterbacks are luxury complements to the nonconforming styles of play that brought their teams this far.
Some have emphasized that Super Bowl 50 is only the second ever to pit the league’s top scoring offense (the Carolina Panthers averaged 31.3 points per game this season) against its No. 1 team in total defense (the Denver Broncos gave up only 283.1 yards per game). But that statistic ignores the potency of Carolina’s defense (No. 6 overall), which forced seven turnovers in the NFC title game and specializes in turning quarterbacks into inefficient dunces. This game should be known as the first featuring two top-10 defenses in five years and the only such matchup since offense took over the NFL.
On Feb. 6, 2011, during Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay beat Pittsburgh, 31-25, in a battle of two of the league’s five best defenses. Since then, offenses have gone crazy. Spread concepts popularized in college have been introduced to the pros. Teams play at faster tempos and employ less patience with the run. Tackling fundamentals have declined, and the game is legislated to promote scoring and offensive fireworks over intense physical play. And, of course, talent and athleticism continue to evolve and make the game more entertaining. All of these things are advantageous for offenses.
In the five seasons since Super Bowl XLV, quarterbacks have posted 12 of the top 14 single-season passing yard totals in NFL history. Even first-year quarterbacks are entering the NFL and thriving. In 2011, Newton became the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to throw for 4,000 yards. Then Andrew Luck accomplished it the next season, and Jameis Winston did it in 2015.
This season, 12 quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards. Kirk Cousins set a Washington franchise record with 4,166 yards, but he ranked only 10th in the NFL. We’re in an era in which a quarterback can put up video-game numbers — and still leave something to be desired.
It’s an era in which 17 teams averaged more than 350 yards per game this season, an era in which an awful New Orleans defense allowed a preposterous 45 passing touchdowns. Yet, on Sunday, the Super Bowl champion should flex its defensive muscles. By the end of the night, it’s as likely that either Newton or Manning will be forced into a miserable performance as it is that one of them will enjoy a legend-enhancing effort.
So, no, this isn’t like Super Bowl XLVIII, the other matchup of No. 1 defense and No. 1 offense, when the Seattle Seahawks smashed Denver, 43-8, and ran off reminding everyone of the cliche that defense wins championships. These teams already believe that.
After failing to win a title with Manning, Denver has adjusted its approach under a new coach, Gary Kubiak, to focus on running the ball more and playing off its defense. After being lost in Seattle’s shadow the past few seasons, Carolina emerged as the NFC’s latest throwback defensive team.
It’s too soon to declare this Super Bowl evidence of a shift back to football dominated by defense. But it’s clear that defenses are figuring out how to thrive once more.
That’s how this game goes. Offensive innovation races ahead; defensive determination catches up. Strategies change, but the high-speed chase continues. After five seasons, teams should have, at least, a deep understanding of how offenses are attacking. There also have been some standout defenses to copy: the San Francisco 49ers of the Jim Harbaugh era, Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks, this year’s Super Bowl participants.
Other defenses have done some nice things, too: Houston, Arizona, Cincinnati, the New York Jets. But the defenses listed above them have all brought their styles to the Super Bowl stage. Although each defense is different, there are patterns to how they’ve limited high-tech offenses.
They’re all multiple defenses that transcend their 3-4 or 4-3 base alignments. They’re defenses that attack without allowing a ton of explosive plays. They have placed an emphasis on speed, on athletes who can play in space, without sacrificing toughness in the trenches. They have gifted pass rushers, extraordinarily versatile linebackers and star talent in the secondary, which is a must in this era. And for the most part, they have been built organically — through the draft or by finding young, underrated free agents who hadn’t made their mark.
If you’re a fan of the Washington Redskins and looking at this game through the prism of the home team, you should be encouraged that General Manager Scot McCloughan’s approach matches the methods that these great defensive teams have used. McCloughan has been at the forefront of this movement, actually. He was the general manager who built the core of the 49ers and the senior personnel executive who assisted with the construction of Seattle’s defense.
After ranking No. 28 in total defense in 2015, Washington has left McCloughan with plenty of work to do. The defensive line must get younger and more athletic. The linebackers must be more dynamic. The secondary has some intriguing young cornerbacks who need to keep developing and some aging safeties who soon will need to be replaced. Depth is an issue, too. But in NFL roster building, the general belief is that a team can put together a quality defense faster than a potent offense.
For McCloughan, the commitment is there. The organization has been transparent in discussing what it wants to be: a physical, defensive-minded, ground-and-pound squad. It made the playoffs on Cousins’s arm and on the hunger and the new energy of this rebuilding. But to make progress in going against the current NFL norm, to create their own throwback, the Redskins will have to be as diligent and consistent as the teams that have succeeded before them. Perhaps Washington will be the test case of whether times are truly changing.
Two great defensive teams have made it to Super Bowl 50. When the game ends, two of the past three champions will be known for defense despite all the offensive theatrics. And the third team in this cluster, New England, only happens to be coached by one of the greatest defensive minds in modern history, Bill Belichick, and only happened to win last year after cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass at the 1-yard line, one of the greatest defensive plays in Super Bowl history.
Defense still wins championships. Soon, it might win back its popularity, too.