NFL offenses are steamrolling through the 2018 season. To most, it feels like the four teams averaging at least 30 points per game can't -- and won't -- be stopped.
The overall spike in production this season -- led by the New Orleans Saints (36.7 ppg), Kansas City Chiefs (35.3), Los Angeles Rams (33.5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (31) -- comes after a year when no team topped 30 points per game by season's end. (For what it's worth, the Chicago Bears fall just below the 30 ppg threshold, scoring 29.9 points per game.)
Despite what these high-powered offenses have done so far, there's no way his holds up through December.
Now is the time when defenses will start to turn the corner, contrary to popular belief. Having been a defensive player in the NFL for 15 seasons, I know first-hand that it takes time for defensive units -- even the best ones -- to work out the kinks.
There is a lot of change year over year across the league -- with team personnel and staff moves (head coaches and play-callers) -- which poses huge challenges for defenses early on. Pick-your-poison offenses, like the aforementioned units, often have the upper hand in the first two months of the season in terms of mismatches, formations and knowing which coverage the defense tends to run (man or zone).
For example, let's take a look at the Chiefs, the most intriguing offense right now. Andy Reid has a full complement of weapons -- Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Chris Conley -- on the field at all times for Patrick Mahomes to lean on. It's so difficult to contain, let alone stop, all of those guys simultaneously. And it's possible that Kansas City's young quarterback is the greatest threat, given Mahomes' Aaron Rodgers-like ability to avoid pressure and create plays when there is a breakdown.
Although the Chiefs are dynamic and unpredictable, they and most other offenses aren't going to re-invent themselves at this point of the season. Rather, offenses will now expand their systems, add wrinkles into formations or give different looks. To keep up, defenses must have above-average talent across the board -- a plethora of pass rushers, linebackers who can cover and stop the run and stellar DB play. It's not just about personnel, though, but also understanding and executing a good game plan that takes away star players.
In my experience, I've found defenses that have the best chance to succeed often mask weaknesses, show different looks, make in-game adjustments and mix up player assignments. There are weak spots in every defense, but make no mistake, there are ways to disguise the issues. If a team has a weak pass rush, the coordinator must figure out other ways to rush the passer by bringing linebackers or safeties on blitzes. Not every team can diagnose a problem and adjust in-game -- frankly, we don't see it as much as we should -- but defensive units that make and execute changes quickly usually give their teams a chance in the end. Carolina's comeback win over Philadelphia in Week 7 is a perfect example. Trailing 17-0, the Panthers looked like a completely different unit, forcing a turnover and two Philly punts to give the offense scoring opportunities.
I was part of stout New England defensive units in the early 2000s under the direction of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, as many of these components were implemented into our defense. He constantly kept quarterbacks guessing by using linebackers -- namely, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and me -- in different ways. All three of us could rush the passer or drop in coverage at the drop of a hat. Our front seven was very disciplined and featured many versatile players who weren't one-dimensional. We also thrived at communication and situational football.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what defensive units can do to reach maximum success -- I could go on forever and really get into the intricacies of NFL defenses. Right now, as we head into late November, I've identified six defenses built to slow down today's high-powered offenses and separate themselves down the stretch. Here they are (in alphabetical order):
CHICAGO BEARS: In his fourth season as defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio is getting the most out of his young unit, much like he did with the 49ers in the early 2010s. With the roster full of budding talent heading into the season, trading for Khalil Mack was the icing on the cake. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year has been dominant -- and I mean dominant -- with his new team, as he is the only player this season with at least five sacks, four forced fumbles and an INT. It hasn't been just Mack getting sacks or takeaways, though; the entire defense is relentless in getting to the football. That said, it's no surprise Chicago is fifth in sacks (30) and second in the league in takeaways (24) -- including three INTs and one fumble returned for a touchdown. It's found success not only when rushing the passer but in the run game, allowing fewer than 100 rushing yards in seven contests this season. Most importantly, the Bears have stifled offenses for most of the year and are tied for fourth in scoring defense, giving up 19.4 points per game. If they keep this up, they could find themselves back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
HOUSTON TEXANS: The Texans' front seven is finally healthy and does a great job attacking opposing offenses in different ways. With J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (my former DC in New England) is able to use versatile fronts and different looks. Watt and Clowney have a combined total of 14.5 sacks this season, tied for second-most by a team duo. Even with a banged-up secondary, this caliber of pass rush will put a ton of pressure on the quarterback, which will help the back end tremendously. Coming off a bye week, the Texans are allowing just 20.4 points per game (seventh in the NFL) heading into games against Washington and Tennessee to close out November.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: This defense can be described in one word: explosive. And that's without pass rusher Joey Bosa, who is expected to return to game action in the coming weeks. The loss of linebacker Denzel Perryman definitely hurts, but rookie Uchenna Nwosu is finding his stride and can fill in nicely. The Chargers are also enjoying the production of rookie safety Derwin James, a huge steal in April's draft who is a serious candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. With an offense that is equally explosive, the Chargers are forcing teams to become one-dimensional and, in turn, have held opponents under 20 points for five straight games (the longest active streak in the NFL).
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: The Vikings' defense has improved over the last five games, with Minnesota allowing 18.8 points per game over that span. With Everson Griffen back in the fold and the emergence of Danielle Hunter, who is second in the NFL in sacks (11.5), Minnesota has one of the best front fours in the league. With playmakers up front, head coach Mike Zimmer has the luxury of throwing zone blitzes or dropping players in coverage, knowing Griffen, Hunter, Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson can get the job done with a variety of four-man stunts. Coming off a bye week, the Vikings rank fifth in total defense and still get to add linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Andrew Sendejo back to the mix at some point.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: The Saints are coming off their best game defensively, holding the Bengals to just 14 points and shutting them out on third down. The defense has limited big plays and created turnovers of late, and after struggling in the early going, the secondary has improved in the last several weeks. Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year, is starting to play at a high level again, along with Marcus Williams, and Eli Apple is settling in with his new team. It helps that this unit has Drew Brees and Co. to control the clock and go toe-to-toe with any offense in the league.
TENNESSEE TITANS: The Titans' athleticism on all three levels allows them to matchup with most offenses, and first-year head coach Mike Vrabel, like Bill Belichick, is constantly altering player assignments and game plans. The well-rounded Titans, who sit second in the AFC South at 5-4, boast the NFL's top scoring defense, allowing a stingy 16.8 points per game. They'll find themselves in the mix down the stretch if they continue to do what they did against the Patriots in Week 10.
Two other units that could come on strong as we head into December include the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams. Both units have played well and could supplant any of the units listed above. Regardless, the teams whose defenses begin to trend upward right now are the ones we'll likely be talking about in January.
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