Defense wins championships. That is what we are always told; from our grandfathers to our fathers to us. What if we should tell our children something else?
The NFL is now a passing game, that trend has been well documented and is now exhausted to the point of redundancy. The new trend may be teams sacrificing defense in favor of offense.
Of the last four Super Bowl champions, none were a top-10 defense in the regular season in terms of yards allowed per play.
In fact, in the last four seasons, nearly one half (19) of the NFL’s top-10 defenses did not make the playoffs, and one-third (7) of the teams that did also had a top-10 offense. What that means is that, in the last four seasons, only 35 percent of teams with a top-10 defense but not a top-10 offense made the playoffs.
Could this be the NFL’s new market inefficiency and, if so, do teams know it? The actions of one team this offseason tell me that they do.
The Tennessee Titans were a poor team in many aspects last season, but especially so on defense. The Titans gave up the most points in the NFL and the sixth most yards. They were slightly better on a per-play basis, giving up only 5.5 yards per play, the 12th highest number in the league. They especially struggled against the pass, allowing the third most passing touchdowns in the league.
Yet, this offseason the Titans did little to address the defense. Instead, they focused on an offense that was equally as atrocious. The biggest offseason additions for the Titans were at offensive guard where they signed Andy Levitre from the Bills and selected Chance Warmack with their first round pick. Additionally, they signed tight end Delanie Walker to replace the departed Jared Cook and running back Shonn Greene to be the goal-line complement to CJ1K, Chris Johnson.
The only impactful additions on defense were at safety where the team signed veterans Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Pollard is a bruising safety who is great if you are playing the Patriots every week, but whose style of play is quickly becoming extinct in the NFL. A player like Pollard may do more than harm than good with all of the personal fouls he will rack up this season.
Wilson makes more sense as a safety that can complement Michael Huff, but he is an aging player at 32 years old who the Bills released for a reason.
The Titans have faced criticism this offseason for seemingly ignoring their defense. Why pay $10 million to Shonn Greene as a specialist when that money could have been spent on a cornerback to bolster the secondary? The Titans may view conversions on pivotal short-yardage situations more than adding another body in their secondary. Especially if that secondary would have no chance against the dynamic passing offenses in the NFL today anyways.
This is where the NFL’s growing reliance on passing leads us. Quarterbacks are getting better, receivers are getting better, and the rules are getting easier. Having a Darelle Revis or Champ Bailey is a boon to teams, there is no debating that, but what if their impact is not the same as it once was.
Offensive coaches are smarter now. Even if we assume that a top cornerback will stop the man he is lined up against on every play, that is only one receiver out of a possible five targets for the quarterback. The best coaches take advantage of defenses with that mindset.
More often than not, the third best receiver on a team is better than a team’s nickel corner. Because of more advanced passing offenses being deployed in high school and college, and because the best athletes are now being used on offense more than defense, receivers are entering the NFL better prepared than ever to succeed.
This is all a long way of saying that even the best defense in the NFL cannot stop a dynamic passing attack. The players are too good, and the rules are too supportive of the offense.
This leads us back to the Tennessee Titans. This team plays Matt Schaub (twice), Andrew Luck (twice), Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, and Peyton Manning this season. All of them are above average quarterbacks (and most have an outstanding number one receiver as well) capable of beating any pass defense. Why should the Titans have spent money on defensive players in an attempt to stop the inevitable?
Instead, the Titans are attempting to match those teams. They now will be able to walk on the field with one of the best offensive lines and best receiving corps in the NFL. Their only question mark remains at quarterback where Jake Locker is still a work in progress.
And that is the unfortunate aspect of this experiment in Tennessee. The quarterback is still the most important player in the NFL. In order to have an offense that operates on a level high enough to overcome this defense, you need a least a slightly above-average quarterback. Locker does not need to be Peyton Manning, but he does at least need to be Alex Smith.