|Ben Liebenberg / NFL.com|
|Like many teams in recent Super Bowl history, the New York Giants used a stingy defense to earn their rings.|
The National Football League has hurdled past the slogan, "Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships."
The twist: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
Offense has a prime place.
Its continued emphasis -- from the league's headquarters on to some of its teams' single-minded offensive focus on to the TV networks' and fans' offensive fancy -- has resulted in more tingling, big plays. That has helped fuel the identity and popularity of the NFL.
And no denying that a superior offense can take any team a long way.
Just not all the way.
In this decade, that picture is magnified.
The St. Louis Rams reached the big game in 2000 with a record-setting offense but needed a game-ending tackle at their 1-yard line by linebacker Mike Jones to seal it. The following year the Baltimore Ravens let their defense do the talking en route to the title. Next, the New England Patriots won their first of three championships by choking the Rams' prolific offense. Then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed that with a Cover-2, championship defensive attack that made offenses shiver. In 2007, after several snappy offensive seasons, the Colts grabbed what had been a frustrating and elusive title as much with their Bob Sanders-led defense as with their Peyton Manning-led offense.
This has led to more teams viewing their quarterback as a manager of the offense rather than the primary producer on offense.
It is a trend that former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer insists we will see employed further in the 2008 season.
"I've always believed that nobody greater impacts NFL games than the quarterback," Schotteheimer said. "He gets a lot of attention and blame, as he should, but not enough of that considers that if the other 10 people around him don't do what they are supposed to do, it is the quarterback who is most adversely affected. Too often he can't do what he is supposed to do because the people around him aren't.
"Now, where quarterback issues really come into play is when you have practiced all week for a certain way the game will be played and practiced what to expect from a defense and you get in the game and they are giving you totally different looks. Now what? Very few quarterbacks in the league, only a handful, can adjust, adapt and execute an on-the-fly game plan. So, how does a coach protect himself and his team? He has the quarterback simply manage the offense."
And expect the defense to win it. And, in the end, win it all.
The Giant plan
That was the Giants' plan last season.
The Giants will always balance emphasis on offense, defense and special teams as long as Tom Coughlin is coach. In fact, if there is an element to hammer home most, it is special teams with Coughlin. He toils with the special teams in practices, in part, for show. He wants his players to see what it means to him. What it had better mean to them.
His special teams were sound and his offense drove for the winning, late score in Super Bowl XLII vs. New England.
But Coughlin realizes that his defense grabbed everyone's attention during the Giants' entire championship roll. That his defense is a definitive link between what the Giants have accomplished and for what lies ahead -- even without star end Osi Umenyiora, out for the season due to his knee injury.
"A lot of great things happened for us late on offense in that game, but you'd have to say that we don't have a chance in the fourth quarter if we hadn't taken a team that had a prolific scoring offense and kept them from lighting up the board," Coughlin said. "You can talk about stats and all the other stuff, but in the end, it was all about keeping New England to 14 points. That gave us a chance."
Giants general manger Jerry Reese has heard it.
"The 14 points allowed, that was not a fluke," Reese said. "You can stop right there if you want to."
The Giants' defense in the final three games of its championship run faced the leagues No. 1 (New England), No. 2 (Green Bay) and No. 3 (Dallas) offenses. New England averaged 36.8 points per game -- but scored 14 against the Giants. Green Bay average 27.2 points per game -- but scored 20 against the Giants. And Dallas averaged 28.4 points per game -- but scored 17 against the Giants.
End Michael Strahan retired, safety Gibril Wilson bolted to Oakland and linebacker Kawika Mitchell went to Buffalo. With Umenyiora now out, that makes four defensive starting spots to fill. Seven starters return along with the group's inspirational and clever leader, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The Giants' defensive plan starts with scoring defense. It has a premium on rushing the passer and stopping the run. It focuses on athleticism more than on brute force in its line play. It is based heavily on assignment, alignment and tackling. It wants to create confusion, chaos. Attack. Bump-and-run coverage, linebackers bullying downhill. Re-route receivers. Blitz from every angle. Hit the quarterback. Hit him some more. An evolving, layered defense. One with sharp detail. One where the best competition and challenge comes first from within the unit.
All of that spurred the Giants to a championship.
The Giants want more.
The Giants think attack. They want to create the order of games and wreak havoc. They want teams to react to what they are doing on defense. They want to force offenses to play at this defense's level.
Giants rookie cornerback Terrell Thomas is learning the Giants defense and finding an "information overload." He said he knew his USC defense "like the back of my hand," but this one has so many variations and calls and nuances. That is because the defense is a vast collection of several defensive tactics and elements.
"I saw the Super Bowl," Thomas said. "New England couldn't get the ball off. Receivers were open on some plays. It didn't matter. Every defense has players who are gifted. Some have players who are smart. This one has a lot who have both traits."
And that is required, says new Giants safety Sammy Knight. He has played for New Orleans, Kansas City, Miami and Jacksonville.
"Nobody I've played for has had a defense like this that is ever-evolving, that takes you on a journey," Knight said. "One door of it opens to another door of possibilities. It has variety in blitzes and variety in everything it does. It's a press, it's a zone blitz, it's a man attack, with all principles in one. It's like a germ that spreads. It can be what we want it to be. We can take it again to a great place."
Giants veteran cornerback R.W. McQuarters said he had not seen a Super Bowl-winning defense like the ones the Giants featured last season since Tampa Bay's championship defense. That defense, said McQuarters, gave quarterbacks on average three seconds to throw the ball. Three seconds, he said, and then your quarterback would be hit. Oftentimes, the Giants duplicated that last season in their defensive result.
"It is a defense that relies on technique, much like the entire game of football relies on it," McQuarters said. "If your technique is right, you can play defense in this league for a long time."
The 2008 edition cannot rely on the 2007 accomplishments, Giants veteran cornerback Sam Madison warns. He reminds all that the Giants began last season allowing 45 points to Dallas in the season opener and then 35 to Green Bay in the Giants' 0-2 start.
"We are crisper now than we were at this time last year," Madison said. "We're in the second year with our defensive coaches and with this system. But this year's Giants defense is really up in the air. Everybody is speculating right now. For many of our young guys, this is their time. I don't know how good we are going to be or what we are going to do. But I know we won't be sitting back in trying to find out. We'll be on the attack."
Selling titles, not tickets
Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.
And look for NFL defenses to rely more on interchanging, flexible parts -- moving safeties to linebacker and cornerbacks to safeties and linemen into pass defense. Defenses will keep building on the concept that being more flexible in its personnel assignments often creates more confusion for offenses.
And look for more quarterbacks to "manage" their offenses.
Coughlin was an assistant coach on the Giants' 1990 Super Bowl title team, thus, he has been around past Giants outstanding defensive teams other than his own. Reese joined the Giants as a scout in 1994. He understands the Giants' rich defensive history from Steve Owen in the 1920s to Emlen Tunnell in the '40s to Sam Huff in the '50s to Andy Robustelli in the '60s on to recent stars Lawrence Taylor and Strahan.
"We've had a lot of teams in the past that were not very sexy on offense and you can find those now in this league," Reese said. "But the Giants have always put a premium on defense. Now, we held the ball on offense for 10 minutes on the opening drive in the Super Bowl against the Patriots. That was at least two offensive possessions for them that they didn't get. If that had not happened, who knows what would have happened? It did, though, and our defense throughout the game dictated the game. That's what it takes to win that last game."