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December 06, 2001

Defense rules again in NFL
By Dan Patrick

In the first round of the NFL playoffs, three top defenses stopped three top offenses. The Dolphins, Ravens and Saints move on and the Colts, Broncos and Rams have gone home.

Ray Lewis
The Ravens' Ray Lewis is the cornerstone of the NFL's stingiest defense.

Just a year ago, we seemed to still be in an era in which offense led the way. After watching them last year, who wouldn't have thought the Rams were on to something? But now the old theory espoused by Bill Parcells (and others) has come round again: run the ball, stop the other guys from running. Control the clock, control the game.

I recently asked John Elway about today's game and he says that a top defense is important but not as much as it used to be. The Giants' Jim Fassel, an offensive guru, though, says that defense is the key to championships.

A big-time offense is still important, though. Lamar Smith and Jamal Lewis are vital to the success of the Dolphins and Ravens. Adding backs like those to already solid defenses and you're going to be successful.

And look at the last several Super Bowl champs: Broncos, Packers, Cowboys and Niners. Solid defenses on those teams, but the memorable names are John Elway, Terrell Davis, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Steve Young and Jerry Rice. You get the picture.

And those Rams of last year? Great offense, of course. But their defense was ranked sixth in the league last year. Not bad. And the play that won it all for them was on defense, when Mike Jones stopped Kevin Dyson on the 1-yard line. The Rams slid to 23rd this year on defense and slid out of the playoffs in the first round.

To show how important a great defense has been this year, take a look at the eight remaining playoff teams:

Team Yards allowed/game Reg. season rank
Tennessee 238.3 1
Baltimore 247.9 2
N.Y. Giants 284.1 5
Miami 289.8 6
New Orleans 296.4 8
Philadelphia 301.3 10 (tied with Jets)
Oakland 328.1 17
Minnesota 356.3 28

The Raiders and Vikings almost seem out of place in the playoffs.

Now when you talk about defense this year, you have to talk about the Ravens. Baltimore set the record for points allowed with 165. But they were also the only NFL team to give up less than 1,000 rushing yards. In 16 games, they gave up 970 yards on the ground. That is impressive. Their opponents averaged only 2.7 yards per carry.

The Ravens' defense also allowed only five rushing touchdowns all year. Marshall Faulk can get that in five quarters. And this past Sunday the Ravens held the Broncos to three points, their lowest point total since Mike Shanahan took over in 1995.

Parcells was a genius with the ball-control theory. In the classic Super Bowl against Buffalo, the Giants bottled up one of the top offenses of all time.

On the other side of the ball, six of the remaining playoff teams ran for over 2,000 yards this year: the Vikings, Saints, Giants, Raiders, Titans and Ravens. OK. The Raiders and Vikings belong.

Don't forget the Eagles, either. Their defense was tremendous this weekend and they got 81 yards out of Chris Warren. I'll say it again: run and stop the run.

Now it seems a bit obvious to say that a balanced team will perform better. But the Rams went out of balance and got in trouble. This year the Titans' strengths seem pretty evenly distributed, with the No. 1 defense and Eddie George leading a pretty good running game. Don't forget the Saints, though. Even with all of their injuries, New Orleans has the 10th-best offense to go with that eighth-ranked defense.

Parcells was a genius with this ball-control theory. In the classic Super Bowl against Buffalo, the Giants bottled up one of the top offenses of all time with that no-huddle run by Jim Kelly. His defense stopped Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed by mounting an 11-minute scoring drive in the third quarter. You think Lawrence Taylor and the guys were rested? Maybe Parcells should contemplate a return to the sideline. His style is back.

But that's another story.

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