Shortly after Kansas City had beaten the Buffalo Bills, 42-36, in overtime of an AFC divisional round playoff game Sunday, the complaints started to surface about the NFL playoff system and how it should be changed.
It’s the usual stuff, especially from the losing side, which criticizes the professional game for not being like the college one where every team gets an offensive possession in the extra period instead of ending the contest after a touchdown is scored.
But the NFL doesn’t need to change its overtime policy. The bigger question is this: Will we ever see dominating defenses again like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
“Good, yes,” said Marvin Lewis, the architect of the 2000 Ravens record-setting defense who now serves as a special advisor to head coach Herm Edwards at Arizona State. “Great? Hmm. I don’t know about that one.”
Those days are over.
The NFL owners and officials have long wanted to emphasize entertainment, so they put more emphasis on offense and scoring. That proved to be the case Sunday when Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his Bills’ counterpart, Josh Allen, combined for 707 yards and seven touchdowns, including scoring 25 points in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter — the most ever.
This was a Madden video game-like performance. Both quarterbacks were sensational. The speed of the top stars was unbelievable, only surpassed by the play-making abilities of receivers like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce of Kansas City and the Bills’ Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis.
But as both offenses were rolling up and down the field, what happened to the defenses? Couldn’t any of the players on either side make plays, just one to end this offensive marathon?
The answer is no, which is kind of sad. But that’s what the NFL wanted.
“It’s an offensive-driven league and the league rules and how the game is officiated plays so much into the offense,” said Lewis. “You’ve got a defensive back running down the field for his life trying to cover this dude and he gets a little nudge by the receiver. People don’t realize how much that changes him in trying to defend. If it’s the same call on the other side, three flags are flown.”
“You coach defensive backs to run, stay on the top edge, use your athleticism and win the play,” said Lewis. “They’ve got to be able to run and jump, turn on them which is what [cornerbacks] Duane [Starks] and Chris [McAlister] did so well in our day. But they’ve got rules where you can’t put your hands on a receiver after a particular number of yards. They have penalties on roughing the passer, which has also changed the dynamics within a game.”
There are other factors that have contributed to this trend.
More teams have running quarterbacks like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson with Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts proving they can burn defenses that get too aggressive with their legs.
“The quarterback is the catalyst, there is no question,” said Lewis. “When you think of the quarterback run game, now it is 11-on-11 football, which has made a huge impact and the ability to stop it.”
The game itself has become more of a “cat and mouse” battle between opposing coordinators. Because of rules changes, more teams are running three-receiver sets or formations which look like four are involved.
Once that started, defensive coordinators shifted more toward leaner, lighter linebackers who could run sideline to sideline and engage in pass coverage. They started using more defensive backs in nickel and dime coverage. Defenses got stretched out.
But then offensive coordinators countered by going with a no-huddle offense, which doesn’t allow defenses to get their sub packages on the field. They also started putting more emphasis on tight end play. Today’s tight ends like Kelce and the 49ers’ George Kittle and the Raiders’ Darren Waller are really receivers with the same athleticism, but with bigger frames. With the no-huddle approach, a defense could get stuck with a base unit on the field instead of one with three or four defensive backs in passing situations.
“Seventy percent of what you are preparing for is against three wides [receivers],” said Lewis. “So, they changed the looks of the linebackers, guys who were smaller but faster and could cover. There was a need for guys who could play in substitute situations. There aren’t as many who can play every down like Micah Parsons in Dallas.
“If you look at teams defensively up front now, they have a wave of guys who can play. Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, they have guys who bring it. You may have to hold onto your butt on first and second down, but on third downs they are going to get after it. But it gets harder when you can’t substitute.”
And then there is the problem of tackling. It’s universal and according to Lewis, some of the highly paid cornerbacks don’t want to risk their careers because of injury.
They’d rather duck and survive than get hurt and miss time. And worse yet, miss paychecks.
“The tackling, it’s a different game now,” said Lewis. “First of all, it is not being done on the fundamental level. You see in high school where all summer all they do is play in 7-on-7 leagues. They don’t teach tackling there. Colleges have just become almost a pass-through where they don’t feel they have the time to teach it. So, you’re having a lot of guys who don’t know how to wrap up and perform the proper technique. Money has gotten so big that these guys are afraid of getting hurt, these [defensive back’s] don’t want to tackle and nothing hurts more than when a defensive back doesn’t tackle.”
You saw that Sunday in both games. You saw that a lot during the regular season, where the Ravens couldn’t get off the field in trying to stop game-winning drives. At least the problem isn’t only in Baltimore.
Maybe the NFL owners didn’t think it was going to be like this, but they wanted more offense and entertainment.