“Defense wins championships”. It was nice bit of sports wisdom, which became a saying. Then it became a truism, and then trite, and then a cliché. It’s been said so often, it’s not even a cliché anymore; it’s seared into the mind of every sports fan. Listen to NFL analysis long enough, and you’ll start to hear it in your dreams. Follow football blogs and forums long enough, and you’ll read it so often you’ll see it with your eyes closed. I wouldn’t be surprised if “defense wins championships” is encoded somewhere in our DNA.
We certainly found out what happens when you have no defense: the 2008 Lions were one of the worst defenses ever to take the field, and, well, 0-16. I’ve often said that last season, the Lions fielded a 6- or 7-win offense, and a –10 win defense. It makes sense; the Lions had the most physically dominant wide receiver in football, and a workhorse rookie running back. With some credible coaching and a similar defense, the Lions well might have had six or seven wins. Over the offseason, though, the Lions have drastically improved that offense. They’ve drafted a franchise quarterback, added veteran #2 and #3 wideouts, drafted the most impressive 2-way tight end prospect in years, and added a veteran third-down back to take pressure off the second-year running back. They’ve added, almost literally, a ton of veteran size and depth along the offensive line. This 6- or 7-win offense should be more like a 9- or 10-win offense now. So how come the defense looks better?
That’s right; the early word from training camp is that the defense looks better than the offense. Early Monday morning, FOXSports.com’s Alex Marvez tweeted that the defense “dominated the offense in pass drills”. Tom Kowalski confirmed this with an article that went a little bit more in-depth. On Tuesday, the story was no different—again, Killer provided us with a first-hand account of the defense having the upper hand in red zone 7-on-7 work. In the same breath, though, Kowalski cautions us not to read to much into this; the defense is attacking and blitzing as they plan to do during the season, and the offense is still being put together. It takes a lot fewer reps to for a defense to successfully blitz a linebacker than it does for an offense to seamlessly pick him up.
However, I do think there’s significance to this. The offense is going to be the strength of the team this year—there’s too much more talent and youth for it not to be true. That offense is going to go up against some very stout, aggressive defenses right away: Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago. Don’t forget New Orleans, with new DC Gregg Williams, and the Packers under new DC Dom Capers. This offense needs to get used to feeling the heat from all spots on the field. They’ll see overloads, jailbreaks, zone blitzes, safety blitzes, 3-4s, and 4-3s. The earlier, and oftener, the offense is tested with these aggressive looks, the more quickly they’ll adapt and grow.
Most folks’ objection to the Lions starting Matthew Stafford from day one stems from concerns about the offensive line. Why? If the line can’t protect Stafford, he’ll spend more time running for his life than running the offense. Nobody wants to see Matt Stafford become the next David Carr; a can’t-miss prospect who can’t drink water, because it just drains out of all the cleat holes in his torso. But part of avoiding the blitz is on the quarterback—there’s only so much an offensive line can do!
Matt Stafford has to learn to protect himself with quick reads, quick decisions, and a willingness to throw the ball away if the play’s not there. We saw Ben Roethlisberger do that in Pittsburgh last season; the Steelers’ offensive line was regarded as below average at best--yet Big Ben stayed upright and made plays all year. How? He made great reads, made great decisions, and had great pocket awareness. The only way the game will slow down for Matt Stafford like that is if he gets a lot of reps under pressure from day one.