In Defense Of The Prevent

Something's getting prevented here, that's for sure. Getty Images

John Madden once famously quipped that "the only thing the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning." But it's high time commentators, fans and even players showed some love for this much-maligned scheme. It works—and we can prove it.

If a team is ahead by more than a field goal but fewer than seven and the clock is winding down, the only thing that can kill them is a big play for a quick score. Well, big plays are usually as much a product of a huge defensive mistake as offensive execution: a late-developing blitz that backfires and leaves a tight end wide-open, a corner stuck on an island in man coverage. A prevent scheme with, say, three down linemen and eight defensive backs eliminates nearly all of those risk factors. "Everyone wants to romanticize the gunslinging coach who blitzes no matter what—until that guy gives up an 80-yard bomb with a minute to play and loses the game," says Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. (Now the Lions head coach.) "Sometimes it pays to be boring."

Especially when you have time on your side. Let's say an offense is down five with two minutes to go, and has to drive 80 yards for the winning score. Facing a prevent defense, only short, quick tosses between the numbers are surefire completions. But even those take 20 seconds off the clock. If that offense doesn't have a timeout, they can afford to throw six of those passes in 120 seconds. That means they need to average around 12 yards per attempt to hit pay dirt in time. That's nearly impossible to do by dinking and dunking. In fact, during the playoffs from 2005 to 2007, teams facing the prevent averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt. "An offense is fighting yardage," says Browns coach Eric Mangini. "And they're fighting time. You want to make sure you take away both."
Easily said—and easily done.