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|Nine of the past 12 Super Bowl champions have boasted a defense ranked in the top 10, including the 2000 Ravens.|
Note: The following story can be found in the Super Bowl XLIII official game program.
Brian Billick's roots are deep in the lush soil of the West Coast offense. He broke into the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers during the glory days of Bill Walsh.
When he became a coordinator in Minnesota, he built an offense that set an NFL record by scoring 556 points during the 1998 season. Billick loved the big play and the big score.
Then he became head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and suddenly his world turned upside down. He had no passing game. His offense couldn't find the end zone if it had MapQuest. His team went five consecutive weeks during the 2000 season without scoring a single touchdown. Yet the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
They did it the old-school way -- with defense.
"For me, it was like going over to the dark side," says Billick, "because it went contrary to my overall beliefs about what it takes to win a championship. Coming out of BYU (where he was a tight end) and being around the 49ers, I was a firm believer in throwing the football. We certainly did that in Minnesota.
"But in Baltimore, I recognized what we had. Our strength was our defense, so I had to change my mindset. It was agonizing in a way because I kept thinking, 'This can't be right. We have to do more offensively.'
"Finally, I came to the realization that we could win a championship playing that way, so I bought into it."
The Ravens' defense dominated the league that year, setting a record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165). They recorded 49 takeaways, posted four shutouts, and allowed their opponents an average of just 10.3 points per game. Their leader was All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV when the Ravens crushed the Giants, 34-7.
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis built his scheme around Ray Lewis, with wide-bodied tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams occupying the interior blockers and outside linebackers Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware closing off the edges. The idea was to funnel everything to the middle -- where Lewis was waiting to drop the hammer.
"There is no way you could prepare for our defense just by watching film. It's a whole different story on the field. We'd come at teams with our speed and our physicality, and they'd be in shock.
"When our offense was struggling, we (the defense) told them, 'Don't worry, kick a couple field goals, we'll take care of the rest.' Look what we accomplished. This was the best defense in NFL history. There isn't anyone who should be disputing that."
Whether the 2000 Ravens are, in fact, the best defense ever is open to debate. What is not debatable is the bottom line: Defense wins in the NFL. Nine of the last 12 Super Bowl winners had a defense that ranked in the top 10 that season. By contrast, only six of the past 12 Super Bowl winners fielded a top 10 offense.
In the same period, four of the defenses that ranked first in points allowed per game won the Super Bowl: the 1996 Green Bay Packers, the 2000 Ravens, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the 2003 New England Patriots. Just two of the top scoring offenses won it all: the 1997 Denver Broncos and the 1999 St. Louis Rams.
So while it may be the dark side, it has proven to be the winning side.
Pro football's only perfect team, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, won Super Bowl VII with defense. They defeated Washington, 14-7, and the Redskins' one touchdown didn't come on a pass or a run, but on a slapstick fumble by Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian. Miami's defense didn't allow a point, thanks in part to free safety Jake Scott, who earned the MVP Award after intercepting two passes.
Last year, the Patriots came to Super Bowl XLII hoping to complete their own perfect season. They possessed the highest scoring offense in league history and had the prolific passing combination of quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss. Yet they were smothered by a relentless New York Giants defense that sacked Brady five times en route to a 17-14 victory.
"The game of football is all about defense," says 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, the middle linebacker of the 1985 Chicago Bears, a defense that ranks as one of the best ever. "If the other team can't score, it can't win. It's blood and sweat and mud and all that stuff. That's what it's all about. If it's not about that, then you're not talking about defense. You're talking about offense."
It is one of football's fundamental truths: It is easier to be consistent on defense than on offense. Most modern offenses are high-tech mechanisms that run with precision and timing. If things are a little off -- the quarterback has a bad day, the receivers can't get their footing on a frozen field -- the machine breaks down. But a great defense is the same voracious beast every week. The Bears were proof of that.
From 1984 through 1988, the Chicago defense had 10 Pro Bowlers, among them future Hall of Famers Mike Singletary and end Dan Hampton. They were at their peak in 1985, playing the scheme known as the 46 defense devised by coordinator Buddy Ryan. It stacked eight or more players at the line of scrimmage, so on pass plays Ryan had more rushers than the offense had blockers. The result was a lot of battered and bewildered quarterbacks.
In 1985, the Bears allowed the league's fewest points (198) and fewest yards (4,135) while ranking first in interceptions (34) and sacks (64). They became the first team to shut out both of its playoff opponents, defeating the Giants, 21-0, and the Los Angeles Rams, 24-0.
|The official Super Bowl XLIII game program is on sale now at NFLShop.com.|
"I don't like the word 'bullies,' but I guess that would be one of the adjectives you could use to describe us," admits Singletary. "I remember playing the Raiders. Marc Wilson was their quarterback and we were pounding him. The poor guy was bleeding from the nose and the mouth. He looked awful.
"We're in the huddle and (linebacker) Wilber Marshall is saying, 'Man, I'm gonna get him.' Otis (Wilson, linebacker) is saying, 'No, I'm gonna get there first.' (Defensive end) Richard Dent and Hampton start saying, 'I'm gonna get there first.' I said, 'C'mon, you don't have to kill the guy.' Wilbur says, 'That's what we do. We're gonna get him.'
"Those guys were ferocious," Singletary says. "They were like sharks. There was no mercy and the teams we played knew it.
The Patriots certainly knew it when they met the Bears in Super Bowl XX. Chicago's defense set a Super Bowl record with seven sacks while limiting the Patriots to just seven yards rushing in a 46-10 rout. Dent was voted the game's MVP -- he had 1.5 sacks, forced two fumbles, and blocked a pass -- but the award could have been shared by the entire defense. New England quarterback Tony Eason failed to complete a pass before being lifted in the second quarter.
"There is something about the eyes that says everything," explains Singletary. "You can look at a player and know if he's ready to play. You can also tell if he's afraid. When Eason came on the field and I saw his eyes, I told our team: 'It's on, guys. Let's go.'"
As dominant as the Ravens and Bears were on defense, they each won only one Super Bowl. That is why the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense -- the legendary Steel Curtain -- occupies a special place in NFL history. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in a six-year period and sent four defenders to the Hall of Fame: tackle "Mean" Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, and cornerback Mel Blount.
There were times during that run when the Steelers put a defense on the field with 10 Pro Bowlers. The only one who didn't have those credentials was tackle Ernie Holmes, and while Holmes wasn't Greene's equal, he wasn't far off. Ends Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood completed an intimidating front four that once graced the cover of Time magazine.
"The four of us together were something else," reminisced Holmes, who passed away last January. "I don't think there ever was a team like us or any who could beat us. We had a sense about where we were, what we did, how we could run plays with just a nod of the head."
When the Steelers went to their first Super Bowl, it was on the strength of their defense. Coach Chuck Noll started three quarterbacks during the 1974 season ... and none inspired confidence. Terry Bradshaw later developed into a Hall of Famer, but that year Pittsburgh won games because of running back Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain.
During the season, defensive coordinator Bud Carson came up with a front called the Stunt 4-3. He lined up Greene at a 45-degree angle to the center. When the ball was snapped, Greene would collapse the center, allowing Holmes to loop behind him and Lambert to shoot through the gap unblocked. Offenses had no answers for it because there were no centers with the size or strength to handle the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Greene.
|Ferd Kaufman / Associated Press|
|'Mean" Joe Greene won four Super Bowls as a defensive tackle on Pittsburgh's vaunted "Steel Curtain" defense between 1975 and 1980.|
The Steelers also had a physical secondary, led by the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Blount who used his muscle to jam receivers. "One thing I always wanted to do," Blount says, "was let people know, 'This is my territory. If you come in here, you're gonna pay.' That wasn't just me; it was everybody on our defense."
In Super Bowl IX, the Steel Curtain slammed shut on Minnesota. The Vikings managed just 17 yards rushing, quarterback Fran Tarkenton was hurried into three interceptions, and the Steelers won, 16-6 -- with the Vikings' lone TD coming on a blocked punt.
"The Vikings' coach was Bud Grant and he believed in the adage 'Attack their strength,' so he attacked Joe Greene," says linebacker Andy Russell. "Big mistake. The Vikings wasted a lot of downs trying to run the ball and beat us physically. Nobody beat Joe Greene physically."
Pittsburgh's defense was so good that the league feared it was hurting the game by cutting down on scoring. In 1978, new rules were passed allowing pass blockers to extend their arms, making it harder to rush the quarterback. They also put in rules limiting bump and run coverage. In Pittsburgh, they called it "the Blount Rule."
"We didn't play fancy-dan football," says Greene. "We were right in your face. When you played us, you knew it was going to be a physical day. Chuck (Noll) always stressed, 'Win the battle of the hitting.' They can change the rules all they want, but when you get down to it, football is still a hitting game.
"If you're going to be a great defense, you have to bring it every week. We did just that."
Ray Didinger is a senior producer for NFL Films. He is the author of nine books, including The Eagles Encyclopedia and One Last Read, both published by Temple University Press.