Eisenberg: Can a Dominant Defense Still Rise to the Top in Today's NFL?


Shortly after the Ravens had finished dominating and demoralizing the Titans in Tennessee Sunday, the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs kicked off their prime-time game on NBC. A basketball contest of sorts broke out, with the Patriots prevailing, 43-40, thanks to some clutch free-throw shooting. (Just kidding.)

Both offenses in the latter game were something to behold, the defenses less so. Another back-and-forth game erupted in prime time Monday night, with the Green Bay Packers rallying to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 33-30.

That's how things roll in the NFL now. Teams averaged 21 points and 317 yards of offense per game two decades ago; this year, they're averaging 24 points and 365 yards, significant increases. The 4,489 points scored through Week 6 are the most in NFL history.

So … is it still a league where a team can rise to the top on the shoulders of a dominant defense?

It's a question the Ravens, ahem, might be asking.

"Defense wins championships" was a fundamental axiom for decades, supported almost annually by evidence. The Ravens certainly supported it with their first Super Bowl run.

But times have changed. Teams ranked No. 1 and No. 7 in total offense played in the Super Bowl last year. They ousted teams with the No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in the conference finals.

A year later, the Ravens appear to be developing quite a unit on the side of the ball no longer deemed sexy or cool. Through six games, Baltimore is ranked No. 1 in total defense, No. 2 in passing defense, No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 1 in sacks. Those are no-fooling-around numbers.

Yes, their offense also is humming quite nicely, as evidenced by its No. 9 ranking in total yards and No. 12 in scoring, with quarterback Joe Flacco on pace for some career-best numbers. While the defense piled up 11 sacks in Tennessee, the offense quietly controlled the game, piling up 38 minutes of ball possession.

Given the NFL's general offensive-mindedness, there'll surely be Sundays when the Ravens' offense has to bail out the defense. Hey, it could happen this Sunday when record-setting Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints visit M&T Bank Stadium.

But let's face it, if Halloween decorations are out and your defense still hasn't allowed a second-half touchdown, you need to start contemplating the possibility that your defense is something special, i.e., a defining, signature unit.

For the record, I do believe a defensive-oriented team can still go far. Offenses accustomed to putting up big numbers on weak defenses can panic when the going suddenly gets tough.

The punishing Jacksonville Jaguars had a trip to the Super Bowl in their grasp until they faltered late in the AFC title game last year. When the Seattle Seahawks were dominating a few years ago, their "Legion of Boom" defense led them.

It's still too soon to know for sure whether Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don (Wink) Martindale's aggressive unit will be consistently formidable enough. The early returns are promising, as they say in politics. But New Orleans is the first of many upcoming opponents with challenging quarterbacks. Let's talk after the game.

In the Ravens' ideal world, they'd be known for balance, for fielding both an offense and defense that can carry them. It could happen, as some teams (Chiefs, Patriots) are all about their offenses while others (Jaguars) are all about their defense, but few rank as high as the Ravens on both sides. (The undefeated Los Angeles Rams are No. 1 on offense and No. 11 on defense.)

But for what it's worth, the rest of the football world, perhaps out of habit, already sees the Ravens as being bottom-line dependent on their defense.

"I love things that are asymmetrical. The disrupters. When everyone is going one direction, who's going the other way?" said Peter Schrager of the NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" program. "The Ravens are that team. In 2018, the year of the electric offenses leading the way, their D is still their calling card."

That may be true. And I do believe it's a blueprint that can take you far, yes, even in today's fast-breaking NFL. True excellence in any form will be rewarded.

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