Are you looking to read more about Peyton Manning? Don’t lie, it’s hard to resist the Manning missives, vitriolic and apologetic alike. Eh, maybe next time. How about something excoriating the inexcusably underprepared John Fox? Nope. The major takeaway from the coaches in SB XLVIII is that Pete Carroll was superior and we can no longer make fun of him. The ballad of Richard Sherman? It’s been harmonized profusely, but maybe there’s something the Seattle defense showed us on a higher, yet elementary level, that’s worth talking about.
The mantra of “run the ball, stop the run” as the magical blueprint for winning games in the NFL hasn’t been relevant since OJ Simpson had a budding movie career. The sporting universe’s fixation on ranking the greatest quarterbacks heavily implies that the league is most affected by the passing game. If you take a look at how the league has evolved over the past 10 years, that’s a pretty fair assessment.
However, what the Seattle defense proved yet again on Sunday is that in a passing league where offensive video game-like numbers are glorified, stopping the pass reigns supreme. Find a way to unplug the console and it’s game over.
Quarterbacks are still the most valuable commodities in the league, no question. Without at least a game manager of a quarterback, a great defensive team can flounder. Put Brandon Weeden on this Seahawks team and it’s a much closer contest. The ability of an entire defensive unit to stop elite quarterbacks is the ultimate trump card, however, and the way to do that most effectively is rooted in the defensive line’s ability to throw a great quarterback off his game.
This is pretty obvious stuff. Like, it’s one of the first things you’d include in an explanation of the game to someone who’s never watched the sport before. It’s not even Football 101 because it’s more of a prerequisite. Still, the defensive line’s impact gets overlooked often enough by analysts, fans, coaches, and gamblers that it’s necessary to reacquaint ourselves after a game like Sunday’s.
Take a look at the most recent Super Bowls involving Tom Brady and Manning, clearly the two best quarterbacks of their generation. Both are AFC pocket passers who were beaten by NFC teams that knew how to rattle them. Here’s the evidence:
–Super Bowl XLII: The undefeated Patriots are beaten by a Giants team that showed it was undisputedly better, primarily because of its defensive line. The Giants, led by Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora, sacked Brady five times. Brady, who had been sacked only 21 times all season, was overwhelmed all game, unable to find a rhythm with the Giants in his face mask for most of the evening.
–Super Bowl XLIV: The NFL best 14-2 Colts lost to a hungry, talented Saints team. The seminal play came in the 4th quarter, when Manning threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. There’s no one directly in his face, but New Orleans was blitzing on the play. In fact, Phil Simms (who’s a dope for many reasons but actually gets points here for having an opinion and owning it) said right before the play that the Saints shouldn’t blitz, and then, when analyzing the replay, credits the Saints for bringing the house and causing the turnover with pressure.
–Super Bowl XLVI: Giants over Patriots again, virtually the same exact story. Only two sacks this time, but the combination up front of Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul gave Brady fits, even forcing him into a safety on New England’s first play from scrimmage. Yet again, pressure from New York’s defensive front ruined Brady’s chances at picking apart the secondary.
–Super Bowl XLVIII: We know the story. Cliff Avril and company make life hell for Manning at the line. Kam Chancellor and company make life hell for Manning in the secondary. The Broncos complete a ton of passes, but they’re mostly meaningless. They turn the ball over repeatedly, including two Manning interceptions, and only score eight points.
Again, this sample details how the two contemporary titans of the league have fared in their last two Super Bowl appearances each. Those four failures included relative no-shows from the two most prolific passing attacks in league history, largely due to heavy pressure from the defensive line. It didn’t matter that the offensive lines in question were perceived as above average units because they were so thoroughly overwhelmed each time.
We’ve seen high powered attacks shut down in other recent playoff games as well. Seattle was able to shut down Drew Brees for most of their playoff game this year before Brees started airing it out in the second half, with varying degrees of success. The ’07 Giants overcame prolific aerial attacks led by Tony Romo and Brett Favre en route to thwarting Brady.
Given recent history, the basic defensive concept of getting pressure with four down linemen takes on the utmost importance. Even though the defensive backs are the guys actually covering the pass catchers, the defensive linemen might be more important when it comes to stopping a vaunted passing attack. Basic math tells us that if you get pressure with four, you can drop more guys into coverage. It didn’t matter that those Giants teams had mediocre secondaries because their front four was in Brady’s face for 60 minutes, disrupting his rhythm.
This doesn’t discount the importance of lock down corners like Sherman or ball hawking safeties like Chancellor. Even without a strong line, defensive backs who get physical, disrupt routes, and cover the entire field can lessen the impact of the passing game. But in the absence of a superior secondary, the front four can still control the game.
One reason America collectively forgot this nugget of wisdom last week lies in the previous performances of the Seattle pass rushers. Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons were hit or miss towards the end of the season. None of the Seahawks had played in a Super Bowl before and we weren’t sure if they’d have jitters. Something tells me that if the public knew how dominant the Seattle defensive front would be in its relentless pursuit of Manning, Vegas wouldn’t have won as much as it did. It’s tough to predict exactly when a semi-dormant defensive line will wake up and take over the Super Bowl, but from now on, let’s all agree to be a little more keen on the issue. Between Brady and Manning’s hellish experiences, we’ve seen it enough times now.
Keep running and stopping the run. Build an offense around highly skilled guys and staunch offensive linemen. Draft linebackers who can rush and cover. Trade for shut down corners. These are all important and no asset should go to waste.
But if you find yourself with the chance to acquire a ferocious pass rusher, go for it. Draft Jadeveon Clowney over Sammy Watkins. When push comes to shove, Clowney will have made a play on the quarterback a couple seconds before Watkins turns his head and looks up for a ball that isn’t coming.