As football fans, we often like to break things down into their simplest components. We declare QBs good based solely on wins and losses or post-season success. We recognize corners by the number of interceptions they pull down. Linebackers by their number of tackles and so on and so forth. But few statistics fire up the emotions more than sacks.
We define certain defensive players by the number of sacks they can put together. Double-digit sacks per year? You're looking at an upper-echelon player. Only getting 4 to 6? At best, he's average.
Here's the rub: while sacks are important, they cannot be the only statistic to measure a defense by. And often, it can be a misleading statistic - and building around that one stat can send you down a treacherous path. Just look at two teams known for having "stout" defensive lines: Buffalo and the Giants. Buffalo landed the free agent all Falcons fans were clamoring for last off-season in Mario Williams. They were 19th in sacks. The Giants have one of the most intimidating front fours in football. They were 22nd in sacks. Both defenses were below-average or worse.
So, if not sacks, what DOES make for a good defense? How can you put together the kind of D that will "win you a championship?" Here are four observations on what is far more complex than people realize.
1. Stop the Run
It seems simple enough, but this aspect of defensive play is often under-valued. The Falcons certainly struggled with this last year, but often found moments of success when employing a 3 tackle alignment.
Here's the thing: while the league may be a "passing" league, the running game is still important. Teams use it to set the pace as well as to sell the play action. The running game takes some pressure off of the QB, while also giving you a solid way to burn the clock. Take all of that away, and you instantly make the other team's offense one-dimensional.
If you can stop the run consistently, and force the offense into 2nd and long and 3rd and long, your defense stands a much better chance of forcing three and outs. It also increases the likelihood of getting sacks, as you can begin structuring your defense to attack the QB.
Yes - it's a simple concept, but it gets lost in the bluster of finding "pass rushers." If you can't stop the run, your D may never get the opportunities to even TRY to go after the QB.
2. Good Secondary Play
What's the difference between 3.5 seconds and 4 seconds? Well, it could be a sack versus a completion. What gets you that extra half second? Coverage.
We hear it all the time, and like stopping the run, it's often under-valued. We call them "coverage sacks." The sack that takes place because the QB can't find an open receiver. We use this term for obvious instances - when the QB is sacked after holding the ball for what seems like an eternity. But what we often miss is that just a fraction of a second can be the difference between a sack and a big completion.
The truth is this: most sacks are coverage sacks.
If your secondary has gaping holes, your ends will never get to the QB in time.
Just look at the top 3 teams in QB rating: Cardinals, Bears and Seahawks. All 3 were considered top-tier defenses and all 3 have very good secondaries. However, only one of those 3 teams was in the top 10 in sacks - the Bears, at #8. So, how did their excellent coverage help them if they weren't necessarily getting sacks? All 3 teams were in the top 10 in turnovers as well. That indicates that QBs were making poor throws (avoiding sacks) or were getting pressured while throwing.
Where did the Falcons rank last year? They were #5 in QB rating against and #5 in interceptions.
3. A Powerhouse Offense
Here's a reality check for all football fans: it's easier to talk about building an elite defense than it is to actually assemble one. Elite defensive ends are hard to come by and are normally very expensive (see: Mario Williams). Likewise, shutdown corners are also a rarity and cost a pretty penny as well (see: Revis). And with the salary cap, there is only so much money to go around. If you build a truly elite defense, chances are that you'll struggle to put a competent offense together.
Here's something to consider: Of the top 10 defensive teams (by scoring), 7 made the playoffs. Of the top 10 offensive teams, 8 made the playoffs. So yes - having a powerhouse offense can get you into the playoffs just as well as having a top 10 defense.
One quick note: The Ravens defense ranked 13th in scoring and 16th in sacks. Not necessarily a top-notch defense by those metrics. So even the champs are not fielding a top-10 defense.
Having a powerhouse offense can do wonders for your defense. For starters, jumping out to a lead forces their offense to become one-dimensional and abandon the run. It also keeps their defense on the field, while giving yours valuable rest. It's harder to expose defensive weaknesses when the defense is rarely on the field.
For evidence, look at some of our recent Super Bowl champs. The Packers and Saints both fielded opportunistic defenses that fed off of their offensive firepower. And while it's not the only way to win a championship, it is a legitimate way to win one.
4. Effective Scheming
The days of seeing a base defense on the field for every snap are effectively over. Teams are quickly adjusting to using sub-packages more often than their base D. The nickel corner, though not an official starter, will often play more than 50% of the snaps - sometimes more than one of your starting linebackers.
As NFL offenses evolve, it's becoming far more important to tailor your defense for the offense you are facing. Case in point: Mike Nolan began running the 3 tackle formation against run-heavy teams to shut down that aspect of their game, and it worked. We began limiting the damage running backs were doing later in the season. When facing more traditional pocket passers, our scheme morphed into the "amoeba" look to confuse the passers/offensive line. And in that case, we registered 10 INTs in 4 games against the Manning brothers and Drew Brees.
The newest wrinkle is defending the read-option - a relatively new development in the NFL. Given a full off-season and plenty of tape to study, you can be sure that defensive coordinators are on-top of that this off-season.
So, while players are critical, the schemes they play in can make a huge difference in their success.
While I want the Falcons to improve their poor pass rush, I've also realized that it is not the end all, be all. The truth is that we played pretty good defense all year, but our biggest weakness - running QBs - was what we had to face twice in the post-season. The recency of those struggles may cloud the overall assessment of where our defense truly stands in the off-season. And you can be sure that our front-office and coaching staff aren't resting on the success of last year. They understand that building a good defense is far more complicated than simply adding one player or two.