NFL Playoffs 2012: Report Card Grades to Every Defense on Wild Card Weekend
If defense wins championships, then only two of the eight teams that played in the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs did much to live up to that mantra.
In the following slides, I examine the performance of each of the eight teams that took the field and grade each unit on their respective effectiveness in their games.
Houston Texans (vs. Cincinnati Bengals)
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The Houston Texans boast one of the top defensive squads in the NFL playoffs this year, and they showed just why that is in their team's 31-10 Wild Card Round defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Going into this game, the Texans were allowing an average of 189 passing yards and 96 rushing yards per game.
Though they gave up 257 passing yards, they picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton three times, returning one for a touchdown and held the Cincinnati running game to just 76 yards and a single, one-yard score.
In addition, they notched 72 team tackles, eight for a loss, sacked Dalton four times and hit him five more times, harassing him throughout the game.
There were few better defensive displays in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. If the Texans hope to defeat the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday, they'll have to repeat that performance. Considering what we saw on Saturday, it's quite possible they could.
Final Grade: A+
Cincinnati Benglas (at Houston Texans)
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The Houston Texans defense gave up just 10 points to the Cincinnati Bengals offense, but the Cincinnati defensive unit didn't have close to their success in their Wild Card Round playoff loss.
The Bengals held Texans quarterback T.J. Yates to just 159 passing yards, but that's not a feat in itself considering the Texans' highly conservative, low-production aerial strategy.
They gave up a passing touchdown to Yates and didn't manage to pick him off, only sacked him twice and hit him another three times. But the area in which the Bengals defense really struggled was in stopping the run.
The Texans had 188 rushing yards in the game, led by running back Arian Foster, who had 24 carries for 153 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that marked the second of his two scores.
Cincinnati notched just 55 tackles in the game and gave up over five yards per rush and seven yards per completed pass.
Their inability to stop the Houston offense is the single-greatest reason why the team wasn't able to advance in the playoffs and proves that the team's early season success has dropped off as the year progressed.
Final Grade: C-
Detroit Lions (at New Orleans Saints)
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While it was going to be decidedly tough for the Detroit Lions defense to slow the league-leading offense of the New Orleans Saints, the Lions defense practically laid down for the team on Saturday night.
They gave up 626 total offensive yards, with quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 466 yards and three scores and the running game netting 167 yards and three more scores.
Though they forced two fumbles—both recovered by linebacker Justin Durant—and sacked Brees twice, they weren't able to pick him off and allowed the team to convert three of their four fourth-down attempts.
The Lions were supposed to have one of the league's best defenses, but one glance at their performance in this game, with a soft secondary and continuous problems making tackles, and it's clear there's no way for a team to beat the Saints with a defensive performance like that.
Final Grade: D
New Orleans Saints (vs. Detroit Lions)
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The New Orleans Saints are known more as an offensive powerhouse than a defensive-minded squad and that shows in their mediocre performance against the Detroit Lions in the teams' Wild Card Round meeting.
The Saints have the top offense in the NFL, which more than makes up for their defensive deficiencies, and that was made clear against the Lions. They gave up 380 passing yards and three touchdowns to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, but they also managed to pick him off twice.
They also held the Lions to just 53 plays (compared to 81 of their own) and they rushed for just 32 yards. While that can also be attributed to the Lions not being a running team, in general, and needing to pass while playing from behind in this game, the defense still deserves credit for holding Detroit to such a low rushing total.
The Saints didn't sack Stafford a single time, but they did hit him five times. They had a low number of tackles, at 41, but that's also augmented by the low number of plays the Lions were able to run.
All in all, it was a serviceable performance by the Saints defense. Against an offensive squad like the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots, allowing that many passing yards might become a problem.
But against teams struggling to keep up with the Saints' prodigious offensive production, the defense isn't much of a liability.
Final Grade: B-
Atlanta Falcons (at New York Giants)
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The Atlanta Falcons had one of the top run defenses in the NFL heading into their Wild Card Game against the New York Giants, the team with the fewest average rushing yards per game.
So it seemed likely that the Giants wouldn't focus on running the ball and would instead try to attack the Falcons' relatively weak secondary.
That wasn't the case, however. The Giants managed to run for 172 yards, and though it produced no touchdowns, it set up quarterback Eli Manning to throw for 277 yards and three scores of his own.
The Falcons defense scored the only points for their team, putting significant pressure on Manning in his own end zone and forcing him to intentionally ground the ball, causing a safety. But if it weren't for that rather flukey play, Atlanta would have likely been shut out.
Atlanta forced no turnovers and notched a single sack on the day. For a squad that was quite strong in the regular season, it was their embarrassing playoff appearance that helped cost their team the elusive postseason win.
Final Grade: D
New York Giants (vs. Atlanta Falcons)
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The New York Giants defense has been up and down throughout the regular season and it wasn't clear which iteration of the squad we'd see in their wild-card matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
Ultimately, it was a combination of the Giants defense performing well and Atlanta's offense appearing out of sync that cost Atlanta a playoff win.
The Giants defense held the Falcons to just 247 total yards and zero offensive points. They allowed Atlanta to convert just four of their 14 third-down attempts and none of their three fourth-down tries.
They put pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan throughout the game, sacking him twice and hitting him seven times.
Though they forced no turnovers, that pressure on Ryan combined with holding star Falcons running back Michael Turner to just 41 yards on 15 carries made all the difference for a Giants team not expected to accomplish much this postseason.
They'll have to turn it up, however, if they are to challenge the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Against such a powerful offense, the Giants defense will need to bring significantly more pressure and force turnovers to win.
Final Grade: B
Pittsburgh Steelers (at Denver Broncos)
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Going into their wild-card matchup against the Denver Broncos, the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted the top-ranked pass defense in the league and no quarterback had thrown for 300 yards against them all season.
With Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow struggling to complete passes in recent weeks, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the strong and playoff-experienced Steelers defense would have their way with Tebow and his teammates.
However, such was not the case. With safety Ryan Clark inactive with a sickle-cell blood trait that could have threatened his life were he to take the field, the Steelers were already down one of the top players in the secondary.
Then nose tackle Casey Hampton went down with a knee injury and defensive end Brett Keisel left the game with a groin injury, and the Steelers began to crumble.
Though Tebow completed less than 50 percent of his passes on Sunday, he made those completions count. In 10 passes, he gained 316 yards and threw two touchdowns and he was able to do something he's never done before in the NFL—beat a defense deep, throw after throw.
Denver also rushed for 131 yards, well above the 99.8 the Steelers were averaging coming into the game, and they gave up a score on the ground to Tebow in the second quarter.
Though the Steelers defense had a few convincing goal-line stands, holding Denver to three field goals when they could have scored touchdowns, it's still nothing for the perennial defensive powerhouses to be proud of.
It was a surprising showing by the Broncos offense and a disappointing outing for the Steelers defense. Despite all of the injuries, they still get a poor grade this week.
Final Grade: D
Denver Broncos (vs. Pittsburgh Steelers)
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The Denver Broncos defense was able to put significant pressure on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in their wild-card playoff meeting but managed little else.
The five sacks and six hits on Roethlisberger made a difference in the game, to be sure, but they still gave up 289 passing yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and 156 rushing yards.
They did pick off Roethlisberger once, after he tweaked his already injured left ankle, and had great coverage on the team's cadre of fast, sure-handed receivers, which limited the Steelers' playmaking abilities.
The Broncos defense did just enough to contribute to their team's overall winning effort on Sunday, but they will need to step things up considerably to threaten the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on Saturday night.
Without a strong defense, the Broncos have little chance to best the AFC's top team. Though their showing against the Steelers puts them off to a good start, they'll need to look even better on Saturday if they want to make it to the AFC championship game.
Final Grade: C+