Does Defense Still Win Championships?

To win a game of any kind, you need to score more points than the opposition.

Seems simple, right?

It’s a lot more complicated than that. This Super Bowl, between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks is more than a clash of opponents: it’s a war of ideologies.

Imagine two boxers, circling one another in the ring. It’s Mike Tyson, fists of fury, blazing on the offensive against Muhammed Ali, who’s letting him pound on his forearms, which shield his face. While Denver attempts to scorch Seattle, the Seahawks will attempt a rope-a-dope strategy, hoping to contain them on the defensive long enough to quash dreams with a fiery offensive.

Going into this game, there’s one question that needs answering: has your Grandpa’s mantra that “defense wins championships” held up over time or has it gone the way of the rotary telephone?

To first examine this quandary, there’s one simple analytic: win-loss records against top-rated teams on both sides of the ball in the Big Game. The best defense in the league has trumped the best offense three of the four times.

Those results are skewed, however, because the league has become much more pass-oriented, rather offense-oriented, with rule changes in the past decade. Regardless, the one rule that hasn’t changed is that the team that scores the most points wins. Denver has the offensive firepower to put up Techmo Bowl numbers, and Seattle needs to learn from New England’s futility last week.

New England struggled at getting Peyton Manning off the field. In fact, only two of the eight drives the Broncos had ended without points – a punt on the first drive and a victory kneel-down on the final.  Peyton and the Broncos controlled the game from the outset. The key to beating Peyton for Seattle is keeping him on the sideline and out of the game. For Denver’s defense, they need to clog running lanes because Marshawn Lynch and the fourth-ranked Seahawks rush offense will chew clock and make Manning pass – Seattle’s defensive focal point.

Each team enters with a larger piece of stone than chips on their shoulder. For Denver, it’s the debilitated defense. Rahim Moore, Safety, has a blood disorder and most likely won’t play; Brian Vickerson, Defensive Tackle and best Denver pass rusher, was sent down for the year with a hip; Derek Wolfe, top Denver D-Lineman, was forced off the field by repeated seizures. All-Pro Linebacker Von Miller tore his ACL and their best Corner, Chris Harris, did the same. The defense looks like a patchwork quilt while the first team is at the hospital. (A hospital! What is it?!) For Seattle, it’s that their defense hasn’t played a tougher team than one-dimensional New Orleans (at home) all year and the average ranking of their opponents pass game is 23rd.

The game boils down to who will control the ball (and therefore the game) entering Sunday. There are three ways for each side to control the ball from a defensive standpoint.

First, there is forcing a team off the field on third down. Getting the defense off the field keeps them rested, gives the offense more touches – therefore, more opportunities to score – and will turn a Touchdown into a Field Goal. In a game where each point matters a great deal, that four-point swing turns out to be huge. Seattle’s offense and Denver’s defense are just about equal on conversion rates. Denver’s juggernaut offense, however, gets a fresh set of downs about 46.3% of the time – second-best in the league. Seattle forces a 4th down 35.5% of the time – tenth in the league. This makes for an interesting matchup.

This actually brings up a point I found interesting that debated about with a friend. It was suggested that there may be a correlation between third-down efficiency and Super Bowl titles. In fact, there is – just not the way one would suspect. Seven of the last eleven champions have been worse than their counterparts at defending the third down play. That includes the 29-17 romp in 2007 by the Indianapolis Colts (the second-worst team at 3rd-down) against the Chicago Bears (the second-best). That doesn’t necessarily contradict the thesis that defense doesn’t win championships, just third down defense clearly does not.

Third Down Efficiency

Sometimes failing to convert on third down isn’t a killer – especially if the drive has taken upwards of five minutes and chewed 50 yards or so. That’s the thing – holding onto the ball. Time of possession is critical in winning. The Denver Broncos seemed to suffocate the Patriots offense last week, clearly removing Hall of Fame-lock Tom Brady from his rhythm. It seems the offense controls the time, but not so: what the defense does to get them off the field is what really matters. The Broncos held the ball for 35:44, or ten minutes longer than the Patriots. That bodes well for Denver as winners of the Super Bowl have had an average of 4:51 advantage in time of possession since 2000, and are 10-3 in those games. Therefore, it’s up to the defense to get the offense off the field, by any means possible.

One of those means could be the takeaway. Manning is famous for taking care of the ball and reading defenses, so this means a chess match could turn into a full-blown Mensa brawl when these two teams meet up on Sunday. Can Seattle’s defense with the big bad Secondary, which nicknamed itself “Legion of Boom,” take it away from Manning? He threw 15 INTs this year (nearly one per game) and the Seahawks had 28 interceptions this season. The Seahawks giveaway-takeaway margin is the highest in the league at 20 – the Denver Broncos? Even. If the Seahawks defense can force one turnover, they have proven that they can take care of the ball well enough to win the possession battle and grind-out a win.

The win, no matter which side captures the victory, will be ground it. It will be hard fought and won in the trenches. With the physicality of the Seattle secondary, many wonder if they will be penalized downfield for a Pass Interference call, which would give Denver a free, huge chunk of yardage. Not to fear, Space Needle! 8 of the past 12 Super Bowl winners have been flagged for more penalty yards than their opponents, which bodes well for the Seahawks.

An interesting stat: According to ESPN, since 2006, Super Bowl offenses that faced a loaded box (7 or more men) on 20% or more snaps are 5-1. So this means neither team wants to rush too many men, leaving them vulnerable in the passing lanes. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated wrote a great column on the Seattle defense matching up with Peyton. He said, “Often used in concert with blitzes, man coverage is also the best antidote for a spread offense, and because it requires no pre-snap organizing, it’s the optimal way to stop the hurry-up” – which Denver loves to do.

As far as Denver’s ailing defense goes, it appears they won’t be tested too strenuously. Four of the five Seattle Wideouts were undrafted coming into the league. The only one that wasn’t? Percy Harvin, who played 17 snaps this year, dealing with injury. No Wide receiver caught more than 64 balls and, as a unit, they had 141 catches. Five INDIVIDUALS had 100+ this season. They just do not throw the ball, which leaves Denver to concentrate on stuffing Marshawn Lynch.

So when it comes down to kickoff for the two brilliant coaches – Mensa Mania Mayhem (coining that now) – it’ll be up to the Defensive Coordinators to control the flow and set their offense up in the best position to win.

Because ladies and gentleman, some things haven’t changed since your Grandpa’s heyday, defense still wins championships.

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