Where Have All the NFL's Great Defenses Gone?November 15, 2018
The Bears have the NFL's best defense, according to Football Outsiders. It's a fine unit, though not one that will make Bears fans forget 1985 or even 2006, and it may be a little overrated coming off a Jets-Bills-Lions daisy-trampling.
Speaking of the Bills, they're No. 2, and they have to be just to survive every week, because their offense is a different kind of number two.
The Texans rank third by virtue of the health of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, followed by the Broncos and Ravens, neither of whom are drawing any comparisons to their 2015 or 2000 models.
These defenses are all OK at best. There is no Legion of Boom, no Orange Crush 2.0, not even a 2017 Jaguars worth a Duval chant.
Meanwhile, the best offenses are shattering records and redefining expectations, waving at the defenses as they sprint past.
If defense really does win championships, the league just may have to cancel the Super Bowl, because the offensive revolution is over: NFL defenses have surrendered.
Down without a fight
Examples of the defensive collapse can be found in the most unexpected places.
The Panthers waived the white flag last Thursday night against the Steelers. Already trailing 21-7 midway through the second quarter, they rushed just two defenders on 3rd-and-2. While Ben Roethlisberger scrolled through Instagram updates in the pocket, the nine Panthers coverage defenders dropped into a soft zone that somehow left a safety isolated against Antonio Brown. The result: an easy 33-yard pitch-and-catch en route to a 52-21 Steelers win.
The Panthers field a defense full of veteran Pro Bowlers. Ron Rivera is a defense-first head coach whose staff has become a pipeline for defense-first head coaches. How does a team built on smart, rugged defense call plays that are practically designed to make things as easy as possible for Roethlisberger and Brown?
A few nights later, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz ordered seven defensive backs to play exactly 15 yards deep on 3rd-and-15. The Cowboys threw a screen and sent four receivers downfield to form a makeshift flying wedge. The Cowboys gained 14 yards, setting up a 4th-and-1 attempt that was negated by a false start.
Schwartz didn't learn his lesson from that near-miss. He aligned three defenders 10 yards deep and two safeties even deeper on a 3rd-and-15 just before half. Michael Gallup caught a screen and followed a wall of blockers for a first down, which led to a too-easy touchdown on a two-minute drill.
Schwartz just helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl. He's one of the most respected defensive minds in the NFL, but he let his defense get gouged repeatedly by screens, which are the only Cowboys passing plays that consistently work.
Remember that great Jaguars defense from last year: 55 sacks, 21 interceptions, seven defensive touchdowns, the ability to single-handedly win games while Blake Bortles narrowly avoided becoming more meme than quarterback? That defense is now ordinary at best. The Jaguars allowed 30 points to the Chiefs, 40 to the Cowboys (!) and 29 to the Colts, and Bortles can't be blamed for their soft underneath pass coverage and easy-to-fool run defense.
It's as if this year's offensive explosion has fried the synapses of every defensive coach in the NFL. And this creative exhaustion and exasperation has spread across the league.
Losing the chess match and the arms race
Doug Farrar of USA Today published an in-depth breakdown of the innovation gap between NFL offenses and defenses this year. The short version: offenses are borrowing formations, packages and ideas from all eras of football history and levels of play, while defenses are still locked into the same alignments and coverages that were available in Madden for the Nintendo GameCube.
Faced with spread formations, RPOs, options, unpredictable pre-snap motion, jet sweeps and versatile offensive playmakers who can line up anywhere and do anything, most defensive coordinators have only responded with man-to-man, Cover 2/Cover 3/Quarters and other primitive stone tools. The all-too-common results: a linebacker forced to cover Travis Kelce or Eric Ebron up the seam or a cornerback getting snowplowed by blockers while Ezekiel Elliott or Todd Gurley sprints up the sideline after a screen or sweep.
Offenses around the league have promoted free thinkers like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Frank Reich and Matt Nagy over the last two years, while old-timers like Andy Reid and Norv Turner have opened their minds and their playbooks. The new/revitalized coaches inherited stockpiles of all-purpose offensive weapons: pass-catching running backs, huge receivers, tight ends who could pass for movie superheroes.
Meanwhile, defenses still speak the language of 4-3 and 3-4 "base" fronts. So the new wave of offensive minds can score touchdowns by doing something simple like lining up three tight ends who can run like Ebron or George Kittle on one side of the formation, send them all downfield and tell the quarterback to aim for whoever outruns the slowest linebacker.
Making matters even worse: drastic roughing-the-passer rules that discourage blitzing (thereby encouraging doomed two-man rush wrinkles) and ticky-tack defensive holding and pass interference rules that turn press coverage into a flag waiting to happen (hence everyone playing deep on 3rd-and-long).
Outmanned, outmaneuvered and with the rules stacked against them, defenses are now just hoping to generate enough stops and turnovers to give their own offenses a chance to win shootouts. The results often look more like the NBA than the NFL.
Statistically, there's not a single defense in the league that can reasonably be called "dominant."
There are defenses with impressive sack totals (Packers, Vikings, Steelers), defenses that play the run well (Saints), defenses that are stingy at allowing passing yards (Ravens, Bills), defenses that force their fair share of turnovers (Bears, Browns, Redskins). But there is no defense that is so great at everything that it can be called a team that wins with defense.
Football Outsiders ranks a total of 24 NFL defenses as either 10 percent above or below the league average this year. Between the Bears and others at the top and a few awful defenses (Raiders, Lions, Buccaneers, Falcons) at the bottom is a heaping scrum of ordinariness that includes the Jaguars, Eagles, Panthers, Rams, Ravens, Vikings, Steelers, Patriots, Chiefs and Saints.
Many of these defenses would look even worse if the Bills, Jets and Cardinals offenses weren't lagging so far behind the rest of the league. Seven sacks and three turnovers against the Bills, for example, mask the fact that the Packers defense hasn't put up much of a fight against better opponents. There's a vast gap between the offensive haves and have-nots. On defense, there aren't really any "haves."
The deeper we dive into the data, the clearer it becomes that three-quarters of the NFL, including most of the best teams, are just trying not to look like wrestling jobbers waiting to get suplexed when their defense faces the likes of the Chiefs, Rams or Saints. And the problem is unlikely to be solved anytime soon.
Weekly shootouts are fun to watch and must be great for ratings. Still, it would be great to see just one team counterbalance all of this offense and crack the scoring code by inventing the next 46 Defense or Tampa 2: something that forces offenses to do more than slow down briefly like they are approaching an E-ZPass lane.
The experts in Farrar's feature offer a potential solution to the NFL's defensive burnout: match coverage, a hybrid between man and zone defense that is bubbling up through Texas high schools into the Big 12, high-scoring leagues where defensive coaches have become survivalists.
Conor Orr's Sports Illustrated feature on the future of NFL defense found teams combing the high school and small-college hinterlands in search of other ideas: more flexible packages, one-word adjustments for defenders to call on the fly and so-called "positionless defenders" whose role changes drastically from game to game and snap to snap.
New play concepts could someday give defenders a fighting chance, but the NFL's defensive woes go far beyond some fresh squiggles on the chalkboard.
Coaches need to stop thinking of safety-linebacker and safety-cornerback hybrids as "tweeners" or role players and start evolving further toward the "positionless defender" concept. The terminology of "base defense" and 3-4/4-3 must go the way of Middle English: If an NFL team has its base defense on the field these days, it usually means the offense has set it up for a mismatch.
Coaches need to stop thinking that options and jet sweeps are gimmicky fads that won't last and actually integrate solutions to stop them into their defensive philosophy.
Tackling and sacking techniques that bring ball-carriers and quarterbacks down in the open field and pocket without tacking on 15-yard penalties must be taught and reinforced.
The first defensive coach to figure out how to make the Chiefs, Rams and Saints offenses look silly is likely to win a Super Bowl (and his pick of head coaching jobs if he is a coordinator), so the incentive is there to become as creative on defense as McVay, Nagy and others have become on the other side of the ball.
But all of these innovations and philosophical shifts take time to bake, so we won't be seeing great defense in the NFL for a year or two.
Until then, defenders and their coaches need to look busy, maintain a shred of dignity and play just well enough to not get run over. That's as good as defense is going to get this year.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeTanier.