Monday, September 19, 2011

Bend But Try Not to Break More than Three-Four Times a Game

If you have a loved one, friend, acquaintance or total stranger tell you this week that the New England Patriots' defense is in terrible shape because of all the yards it has given up the past two weeks, pay them no nevermind.

If, alas but inevitable, you read or hear a sports reporter or commentator express the same sentiment, you should consider debookmarking them and/or changing the channel.

The Patriots defense is not terrible. I'd say it's average, not in the sense of performance so much, but as being totally representative of how defense has been and will be played in the Year of Our NFL Rules Committee 2011. The best NFL defenses will be measured not in yards allowed, or even so much in points allowed, as by how well they adjust to the fact that defense essentially has become an illegal activity.

Three decades plus of annual tweaking of football's rules to bolster offense and hamper defense has borne its fruit, a bitter fruit indeed for under bettors. We have reached the point where the very essences of defensive football are the stuff 15-yard penalties are made of.

Strong techniques for man-to-man pass defense? Almost completely illegal. Hitting the quarterback? Roger Goodell will see you at the Hague for your war crimes trial. Tackling itself, fundamental number one? Getting more illegal by the moment. In a sport built on violent collisions and instantaneous decisions and reactions, one side of the ball is being told "think hard before you hit anyone." This has had a predictable effect. Defenses suck. Or rather, defenses suck when the cost of sucking isn't prohibitive.

The NFL statistics of the first two weeks of the season, not just the Pats' but every teams' shriek of a nasty cost-benefit triage analysis by defenses. Essentially, yards surrendered don't matter, because nothing that happens between the 20 yard lines matter -- except turnovers. The standard defensive game plan has become quite simplified. Try for turnovers between the 20s. Play aggressive defense in your own red zone and hope the end line plays a great free safety for you passing downs. Rush five, six, seven men frequently when the other guys are inside their own 20 in hopes of creating catastrophic turnovers.

Three-hundred yards passing is the new 200 yards passing for quarterbacks. Statistics always showed 300 yard games were not a significant indicator of who won or lost. That's more true now. Four hundred is the new 300. Tom Brady remains the only QB to win any 400 yard passing games this season. Cam Newton's 0-2.

An increase in points allowed is an inevitable byproduct of all those yards. But remember, your side, unless its the Seahawks, will be scoring more in its turn. At the pinnacle of NFL defensive dominance in the 1970s, teams averaged about 20 points a game. For the Pats in 2011 to allow 22.5 points a game is probably BETTER than average, not worse.

Against the Chargers, the Patriots got their mitts on three turnovers and had a goal-line stand that held San Diego without a point on the possession. I suggest that come December, that will be rightly seen as just about as well as an NFL defense can play this season -- since that's about as well as defenses are allowed to play.


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