Super Bowl  

 

XLV dreamers have to get past these defensive nightmares first

Print
NFL.com illustration
Troy Polamalu, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Darrelle Revis will play starring roles on Sunday.


As individuals, they are playmakers worthy of singular honors and league-wide respect. Together, they are elite difference-makers -- guys who influence both sides of the ball because of their presence.

Darrelle Revis, Clay Matthews, Troy Polamalu and Julius Peppers will all be on the field in Sunday's conference championship games, one step away from the Super Bowl. You know, in some way, each will have a hand in the outcome.

Until then, opposing teams will spend hours game-planning specifically for them. Of course, they are a part of the sum, but in conversations with players, coaches and scouts, those parts occupy more than some of the sum when it comes to figuring out the best way to minimize their potential for making game-changing plays.

Jim Prisching / Associated Press
Clay Matthews has helped the Packers limit their last 11 opponents to an average of 12.8 points per game.
Regular-season defensive rankings
Team
YPG
PPG
INT
Sacks
Pittsburgh
276.8 (2nd)
14.5 (1st)
21 (5th)
48 (1st)
N.Y. Jets
291.5 (3rd)
19.0 (6th)
12 (25th)
40 (8th)
Green Bay
309.1 (5th)
15.0 (2nd)
24 (2nd)
47 (2nd)
Chicago
314.3 (9th)
17.9 (4th)
21 (5th)
34 (17th)

"Troy, he gets it done all over the field, in the run game, the play-action game," said tackle Andrew Whitworth, whose Bengals always single out Polamalu in film study to figure out protections and coverages. "He affects them all. When he does come (on a blitz), he's such a good rusher you have to have a plan for it.

"A lot of the time, he's just baiting you to follow him and then he drops into coverage, gets a big hit or an interception."

The same things are said, in different degrees, about Revis, the New York Jets' shutdown corner; Peppers, Chicago's defensive end; and Green Bay's Matthews, a problematic pass rusher -- and the only member of this group making his first appearance in a conference title game.

On Sunday, Chicago plays host to NFC North rival Green Bay, while the Jets -- like the Packers a No. 6 playoff seed -- travel to Pittsburgh.

Besides great players, these four teams have dominant defenses, bolstering the cliché about you-know-what wins championships. They each finished the regular season among the top six scoring defenses in the league, none allowing more than 19 points per game.

Green Bay has allowed an average of just 12.8 points over its last 11 games, including playoff victories over Philadelphia and Atlanta, making it the stingiest defense in that span. Although it allowed 21 points in its dismantling of the Falcons in the divisional round on Saturday, one touchdown was scored on a kickoff return.

Matthews, in his second season, has been the catalyst for the Packers. He registered 8.5 of his 13.5 regular-season sacks in the first five games, so it appears he tapered off as the season progressed. The reality is teams started paying him more attention. It's no coincidence that when Matthews' numbers started to go down that players like inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, nose tackle B.J. Raji and cornerback Tramon Williams began to emerge.

As they ramped up their games, Matthews was schemed to find other ways to become even more of a force. He not only played both right and left outside linebacker, he was lined up inside at times or flexed wide in coordinator Dom Capers' multifaceted 3-4 scheme. Using his speed, strength and relentlessness, Matthews has been more disruptive than ever. He has three postseason sacks, but more importantly, his pressures and near misses have forced errant throws by opposing quarterbacks.

"He isn't necessarily a great pass rusher but he gets there because of his effort and because he finds ways," said an NFC coach, who faced the Packers this season.

Matthews was recently named Sporting News Defensive Player of the Year, an award voted on this year by 609 coaches, players and NFL executives (Polamalu finished second and Peppers fifth).

"He comes off the edge but he also rushes from up the middle -- all different places," said Hawk. "That's what's big for him. Teams don't know where he's going to be. Even when they know where he is coming from they have to stop him."

Some teams, like the Falcons on Saturday, tried to run at him to see if he could handle the physicality of the straight-ahead game. He can, as Atlanta discovered the hard way.

The Steelers led the NFL in scoring defense in the regular season, allowing just 14.5 points per game. They did it without Polamalu for two full games and part of another, which is a testament to the overall unit. As we have seen, it is a much more dangerous team with him than without. Though Polamalu didn't play a complete season, he still had seven interceptions and 63 tackles and stands a good chance at winning defensive player of the year honors awarded by The Associated Press.

"Ed Reed is a great safety but a lot of the things he does he does in coverage," Whitworth said about the Ravens all-pro defender. "Troy freelances a lot. He's so fast and incredible, he makes plays and does things you can't account or prepare for."

Teams find out on a weekly basis, Polamalu's presence changes things. One player said that even though Polamalu didn't play that well against the Ravens on Saturday (two tackles), he was partly resposnible for the success of teammate James Harrison (seven tackles, three sacks), occasionally diverting attention away from the outside linebacker.

"He does such a great job making teams worry about him all the time, those two great outside linebackers (Harrison and LaMarr Woodley) get great matchups and end up making plays," said Whitworth, who routinely draws the task of wrangling with Harrison when the Steelers and Bengals get together twice a year.

On the opposite side of the field in Sunday's AFC Championship Game will be the Jets' Revis, the player many feel is the best defensive back in the NFL. Unlike Polamalu, Revis' impact is often made with little impact.

"Teams just stay away from him," said one player. Yes they do. Peyton Manning respected Revis so much in the wild-card round that he only targeted his top receiver, Reggie Wayne, just once. Wayne caught it for a 1-yard gain. It was that performance that prompted Jets coach Rex Ryan to call Revis the best player in the game.

"I know he's probably not going to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, but the impact he has is amazing," said Ryan.

A year after finishing with six interceptions, Revis went without a pick in 2010. But he is Nnamdi Asomugha 2.0 -- players so good at what they do, they end up as lonely as the Maytag Man.

By turning the game into a 10-on-10, Revis not only shuts out a scoring threat, he also removes a section of the field. With football becoming a game of space and geometry, coaches say that influence is huge. Revis' excellence also is important to the rest of the defense.

Unlike Matthews and Peppers, players whose pressure on the quarterback can force errant throws, the Jets don't have a dominant pass rusher. As was the case at times in New York's upset of the Patriots on Sunday, smothering coverage forced Tom Brady to hold on to the ball longer than he wanted and gave pass rushers time to harass Brady into 15 incompletions and an interception.

With Revis and Polamalu patrolling the secondary and Matthews dominating at linebacker, Peppers represents the importance a down lineman can play -- especially one as versatile as he is.

Peppers cost the Bears $91 million (over six years) in free agency but he's been every bit worth the money since being lured from Carolina. He finished the season with eight sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

He flips from left end to right end at times and draws constant double teams, which has opened the door for linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher to feast. Peppers also is equally as strong against the run as he is as a pass rusher.

The change of scenery from Charlotte to Chicago seems to have reinvigorated him.

"Chicago seems to run a simpler scheme than what they did in Carolina and he has a little more free reign to move around and hunt," an NFC scout said. "In Carolina, there were times where he could rush but he had other responsibilities which didn't let him pin his ears back go get it."

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop