You know what they say. Defense wins championships. That’s been the mantra for teams who fight their way into the playoffs without a premier playmaker on offense. You’ll hear allusions to the 2000 Ravens, when Ray Lewis and one of the greatest defenses of all time won a Super Bowl despite Trent Dilfer only completing 12 passes. Or Super Bowl XXXVII, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored more points on defense than the NFL MVP, Rich Gannon.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks wrote the latest chapter in that book last February when they won Super Bowl XLVIII. The Denver Broncos entered that game as the highest scoring offense in NFL history, breaking the 2007 Patriots’ record of 589 points by 17 points. The Broncos had five offensive players who scored at least ten touchdowns, breaking the previous record of three players, thanks to Peyton Manning’s historic season in which he threw for 55 touchdowns, shattering Tom Brady’s 2007 record of 50. And yet, the Seattle Seahawks with their number one offense held the Broncos to just eight points. The Broncos scored just once in the entire game, after a season in which they scored more than any team in league history.
This seemingly solidified the adage of defense winning rings. Seattle’s defensive scheme, with its roaming deep safety and oversized cornerbacks, spawned a defensive arms race. The New Orleans Saints burned a second round pick on Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, buying into the hype of Jean-Baptiste’s stature (he was considered to be a physical copy of Richard Sherman’s build) and ignoring how raw and unpolished his skillset was. Brandon Browner became one of the hottest free agents on the market, despite a four-game suspension that would be enforced once he was under contract with his new team. Denver went out and signed three Pro Bowl defensive players.
Amidst all the offensive firepower in the league, teams were valuing defensive play as the key in reaching football’s final stage. But the NFL Competition Committee had different thoughts about Seattle’s surging secondary. While they didn’t quite create a new rule, they heavily emphasized two existing fouls going into the 2014 season. NFL game officials would now look very carefully at illegal contact between a defender and a receiver after five yards. They would also be increasingly mindful of illegal hands to the face, especially in regards to defenders trying to shed blockers. These penalties have had a profound effect on how defenses play. Both of these penalties result in automatic first downs, meaning that offenses can stay on the field for longer, and can specifically target routes that will force the defenders to make contact or fall behind. In 2014, there are five teams with higher third down conversion percentages than last year’s Denver Broncos. Also, earlier this year the Packers-Bears game was just the second in NFL history to not feature a single punt. And just a month later, it happened again as the Saints and Packers faced off this past Sunday night while the punters warmed the bench.
While it’s difficult to fully attribute any sort of change to the renewed emphasis of two rules, the offseason tweaks by the NFL Competition Committee may have set the pace for last Sunday’s unprecedented league-wide air display. The NFL’s Week 8 saw a flurry of milestones, records, and career performances by quarterbacks across the league.
In a day characterized by ruthless passing efficiency, it’s fitting that it was the first time in the NFL that four separate players threw for over 400 yards. Nick Foles set an Eagles franchise record for the most completions in a single game with 36 completions for 411 yards. Matt Stafford broke Bobby Layne’s 58 year old Lions franchise record for the most all-time touchdowns, throwing for his 119th touchdown at just 26 years old. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it without wide receiver Calvin Johnson, his leading receiving back, and his top three tight ends. Andrew Luck became the first quarterback in NFL history to start with six consecutive 300-yard passing games, and he’s on pace to come very close to Peyton Manning’s NFL single-season yardage record. Aaron Rodgers set a career record for yards in a single quarter by putting up 203 passing yards against the Saints in the first quarter. Drew Brees, meanwhile, became the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage by boosting his career completion number to 66.1 percent. And Tom Brady is building on his monster season. Since an embarrassing primetime loss to the Chiefs in Week 4, Brady has thrown for 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. Against the Bears last Sunday, he threw for five touchdowns and 354 yards while completing 30 of 35 passes. He is the first quarterback ever (since ESPN started tracking the stat in 2006) to go an entire game without a single off-target throw. His five incompletions were due to three drops, one throwaway, and one on-target pass defended.
When gaudy passing stats are mentioned, it’s usually Brady, Brees, Rodgers, or Manning that’s brought up. This season’s biggest performance, though, came from the arm of Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns on 40 completions to nine different receivers, two of which went over 100 receiving yards. Statistics can be misleading, but Big Ben was every bit as perfect as the numbers suggest. His 522 yards were the fourth-most in NFL history, and his completion and touchdown totals are both franchise records, beating out Hall of Famers Bobby Layne and Terry Bradshaw. But more importantly, his completion percentage of 81.6 is the all-time second-highest in games in which quarterbacks threw a minimum of 45 passes. His passer rating was also the highest ever for a quarterback attempting more than 40 passes. What’s scary is the fact that Roethlisberger could have probably achieved a perfect passer rating and broken even more single game records, including the single game yardage record, if the Steelers had not stopped throwing the ball out of sportsmanship (or if Roethlisberger’s receivers had not dropped three passes). In one of the greatest games by a quarterback in NFL history, Big Ben became the first quarterback to ever throw for multiple 500 yard games.
Now that the season is halfway over, it appears that this case of reactionary rule emphasis is having a much more significant impact than the NFL intended. Milestones and records are dropping by the week, and one of the greatest passing games in league history was accomplished by a team that was thought to have just one receiver of starting caliber. The Legion of Boom has been sanctioned, and air superiority is the name of the game once again. It might not be long before the record books become cluttered with the year 2014 appearing in black ink on every page.