How Defense Is Shifting the Balance of Power in the NFL

Ben Chodos@bchodosCorrespondent IIOctober 2, 2012

HOUSTON, TX- SEPTEMBER 30: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans and Antonio Smith #94 of the Houston Texans celebrate a fumble recovery against the Tennessee Titans defense on September 30, 2012 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. Houston Texans won 38 to 14. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Physics are a large part of football, and for every action in the NFL, there is a reaction. After last season’s offensive explosion, defenses are making a statement.

In 2011, the phrase “Year of the Quarterback” was beaten to death. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford eclipsed 5,000 yards last season, though this had previously happened just twice in the game’s history. 

Brees broke the NFL records for completion percentage, completions and passing yards, while Aaron Rodgers set a new best for passer rating.

These statistics also translated into success on the field. The Green Bay Packers tore through the NFL during the regular season behind Rodgers’ MVP-winning performance, finishing 15-1. Brees took the New Orleans Saints to a 13-3 record, while Brady propelled the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl. All three of these teams won their respective divisions despite ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in total defense.

Stafford’s prolific season resulted in a 10-6 record for the Lions, which tied the franchise’s best mark since 1995 and earned Detroit its first trip to the postseason in 12 years. The Lions defense ranked 23rd in total defense. 

But this season, the Packers and the Patriots are 2-2, while the Lions are 1-3 and the Saints have yet to win a game. It is fair to say that the Packers should be 3-1 after the replacement refs handed one of their victories to the Seattle Seahawks, but if they had won that game, Rodgers and the offense would not have received the majority of the credit.

The teams that are having success this season are doing so through tough defense. The Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals are the only three remaining undefeated teams. 

Even though Houston has serious star power on offense in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, defensive lineman J.J. Watt has turned just as many heads in 2012 and has been the NFL’s best defensive player thus far. 

The Texans defense has also been better than any other unit in the league, allowing the fewest points and yards per game. 

The Falcons, despite having a high-powered offense, have been dismantling teams on both sides of the ball. Mike Nolan—in his first season as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator—has the defense playing significantly more aggressively, and the team’s 12 takeaways rank second in the NFL.

Arizona checks in at third in that category with 10 takeaways. Both teams trail the Chicago Bears, who jumped in first after intercepting Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo five times in Week 4.

The Cardinals’ success has been one of the most surprising developments of this season, and it is owed almost entirely to their defense. While the unit had a letdown this past week against the Miami Dolphins, they were still able to cause four turnovers and hold the Fins to 21 points, which was just enough for an overtime victory.

Ultimately, the teams that have won games have not been doing so by winning shootouts, but rather by playing stout defense.

Of the 10 teams that have a 3-1 record or better through the first four weeks, only the Cincinnati Bengals do not rank in the top 10 in points allowed per game. In contrast, just four of the teams that rank in the top 10 in points scored per game have winning records.

The high-flying offenses that dominated the standings and the headlines in 2011 are struggling to find the same success on Sundays. Going forward, the teams that tighten up on the defensive side of the ball will continue to win the most games in 2012.