The NFL is changing.
It’s about high scoring, high octane offenses. The game has evolved to benefit the passing attack. It’s not about stopping your opponent, it’s about simply outscoring them.
Until it’s not.
The Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs were under the bright lights of Monday Night Football in week eleven, where the Rams won 54-51. All we heard after that was “this is the new NFL.” That the NFL was now a game where defense was irrelevant and it was about points, points, and more points. It was about quarterbacks and receviers gaining yards at a record clip. The running back position was being replaced by platoons and teams that drafted running backs in the top ten were criticized because they’re “a dime a dozen” and “you can always find those guys in the later rounds.”
Funny. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Offense wins games, sells tickets, sells jerseys, has catapulted fantasy football into a multi-billion dollar industry that those have been playing for any length of time never would have imagined. Defense, however, wins championships.
A 13-3 victory for the New England Patriots - their largest margin of victory in their sixth championship despite it being the lowest scoring Super Bowl history - happened on the back of a defense that stifled one of the league’s most prolific offenses as well as their dedication to the run game.
Was it an outlier? Was it an anomoly? No, not really.
Super Bowl LII featured the Eagles and Patriots who had the fourth and fifth ranked scoring defenses. Super Bowl LI featured the Patriots and Falcons who had the first and twenty-seventh ranked scoring defenses (no surprise the twenty-seventh ranked defense blew a 28-3 lead, right?). Super Bowl L featured the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers which had the fourth and sixth ranked scoring defenses. Super Bowl XLIX? The Patriots and Seahawks, The first and eighth ranked scoring defenses.
See a pattern here? Including Super Bowl LIII, the past five Super Bowls have featured just two teams - the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams - who had defenses ranked outside of the top ten. Those two teams? Well, they both lost. In fact, the team in the last five years with the higher ranked scoring defense, not offense, but higher ranked scoring defense has gone on to win the Lombardi.
In fact, the only team of those past five Super Bowls to win the Lombardi when averaging more points per game than their opponent was the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Even then, they don’t win if Russell Wilson hands the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the two yard line rather than throwing the ball and getting picked off by Malcom Butler.
That brings me to my next point - running the ball. Both the Rams and the Patriots finished in the top five in the NFL in rushing in 2018. One team rode that to victory throughout the postseason with rookie Sony Michel. The Rams? Well, despite having the best running back in the NFL, they got away from the run game after defeating the Cowboys and their offense never found its rhythm again.
Of those Super Bowls that I mentioned, only two teams made it to the big game when finishing outside the top ten in rushing - the Denver Broncos (SB L) and the Patriots (SB XLIX).
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s great that the Buccaneers have been putting up offense numbers at a record clip. Some pointed to that as a reason to keep Dirk Koetter following the season. At the end of the day, the Buccaneers failed in two vital categories - rushing, where they ranked twenty-ninth in 2018 and scoring defense, where they finished thirty-first only beating out Oakland by .2 points per game.
These are the glaring issues. You can point the finger at Jameis Winston all you want, but he does enough to make the team competitive. The Bucs put up plenty of points over the past three seasons, but only once were they in contention for a postseason berth. That was 2016 when they finished 9-7 and had the fifteenth ranked scoring defense.
Imagine that - they had a defense that was still allowing 23.1 points per game, but had a winning record because the offense, sans run game, does just fine.
When Bruce Arians was hired, Bucs fans were beyond thrilled. A coach with a pedigree that could come in and get this team where it needed to be. That could elevate Jameis Winston to be the quarterback many expected him to be.
But that should be the least of the worries for Bucs fans.
It’s about the acquisitions they make on the defensive side of the ball and pounding the rock. The most important hire that was made after Arians was Todd Bowles. Without Arians, there is no Bowles, and that’s a guy that can get the defense to the level they need to be to compete in the postseason.
Are we asking Bowles to have the number one defense in football? Absolutely not. It would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but not necessary. Just get the Bucs into the top third of the league. That’s all they need. The offense puts up enough points to win games, they just get beat by their own defense being a sieve.
It’s about who is going to be the ball carrier and the line in front of him to create space. The Bucs will have to address the offensive line and running back positions through free agency and the draft. Again, not looking for the number one rushing attack - just get them in the top half.
This team, as it’s constructed now, is not that far away. It really isn’t. Two 5-11 finishes in a row may say otherwise, but the team has talent. It has playmakers. What it didn’t have was leadership from the staff. What it didn’t have was a system or scheme it could succeed in. This isn’t a rebuilding project. This is plug in the coaches, a few players, and a scheme to maximize the players’ strengths and this team contends.
But it all starts with defense.