Scoring D the key in Super Bowl success
The salary cap opened the door in the NFL for imperfection.
It leveled the playing field financially. Those who succeed would have to pay a price. But the salary cap prevented teams from paying all of their starters and stars. There is only so much money to go around, so they had to make tough choices. Whom do you keep? Whom do you let go?
Prior to the debut of the salary cap in 1994, nine Super Bowl champions ranked in the Top 5 in both offense and defense. The 1972 Miami Dolphins and 1977 Dallas Cowboys were the only two champions who finished first in both offense and defense. The 1969 Chiefs, 1971 Cowboys, 1979 Steelers, 1988 and ’89 49ers, 1991 Redskins and 1992 Cowboys were the others who ranked in the Top 5 in both offense and defense on the way to Lombardi Trophies.
The more complete a team you could field, the better your chances for a championship.
But there have been only two champions in the 26 seasons since then that have finished in the Top 5 in both offense and defense – and none since the 1997 Denver Broncos. That’s a 22-year drought. Flawed teams are now hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The 2013 Seahawks won the league title with the 26th ranked passing offense – the lowest statistical ranking by any of the 54 Super Bowl champions. The 2014 Patriots won with the 18th ranked rushing offense and the 2015 Broncos with the 19th ranked scoring offense. The 2017 Eagles prevailed despite the 17th ranked pass defense, the 2018 Patriots won with the 21st ranked defense and the 2019 Chiefs won with the 23rd ranked rushing attack.
But there is one statistic common to every champion since 2013 – a stinginess on defense. All ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense. They did not allow points. That’s been the one statistic universal to the success of all Super Bowl champions – 47 of the 54 winners ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense. Of the 108 teams that have reached the Super Bowl, 89 of them ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense.
Sixteen of the Super Bowl champions led the NFL in scoring defense, another 18 finished in the Top 5 and 13 more finished in the Top 10. So the secret to NFL success isn’t how often an offense puts the ball in the end zone – it’s how well a defense keeps the ball out of its own end zone.
So who has the edge in 2020? The Top 10 returning scoring defenses from 2019 are New England (225 points), Buffalo (259), Baltimore (282), Chicago (298), Minnesota (303), Pittsburgh (303), Kansas City (308), San Francisco (310), Green Bay (313) and Denver (316).
The Patriots took some huge hits on defense this offseason. The starting linebacking corps of Don’t’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins was wiped out. Van Noy and Collins left in free agency and Hightower opted out of the season because of the COVID concerns. Starting nose tackle Danny Shelton also left in free agency and safety Patrick Chung joined Hightower in opting out of the season. That’s almost half of Bill Belichick’s starting defense. That’s a lot to replace.
The Bills did not take those same hits and added a couple top-shelf pass rushers to a 44-sack defense of a year ago. Buffalo signed Mario Addison in free agency and used a first-round draft pick on Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa. Addison collected 9 ½ sacks for Carolina and Epenesa 11 ½ for the Hawkeyes last season.
Baltimore also made some upgrades, trading for end Calais Campbell and drafting LSU linebacker Patrick Queen in the first round. Campbell was named to the 2010 NFL all-decade team and brings 88 career sacks to the Ravens. Queen was the defensive MVP of the national championship game against Clemson with his eight tackles and a sack.
Like the Patriots, the Bears lost five starts off their defense this offseason, including their second (Nick Williams), third (Leonard Floyd) and fourth (Nick Kwiatkoski) leading sackers. But Chicago did sign end Robert Quinn in free agency. He brings 11 ½ sacks over from the Cowboys. The Steelers took one hit, losing nose tackle Javon Hargrove in free agency, The Vikings also lost their starting nose tackle (Linval Joseph) plus both starting cornerbacks this offseason, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
The Chiefs lost one Super Bowl starter, linebacker Reggie Ragland, and the NFC champion 49ers traded away their Pro Bowl end DeForest Buckner. But San Francisco replaces his bulk up front with first-round draft pick Javon Kinlaw, a first-team All-America last season at South Carolina.
The Packers lost leading tackler Blake Martinez in free agency while the Broncos traded for veteran Pro Bowlers DT Jurrell Casey and CB A.J. Bouye.
The Dallas Cowboys finished 11th in scoring defense but lost four starters in the offseason, including Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones and their leading sacker Quinn. They did, however, sign Pro Bowl pass rusher Everson Griffen away from the Vikings.
The Tennessee Titans finished 12th in scoring defense but traded away Casey to the Broncos. The Saints finished 13th and swapped out safeties, losing Vonn Bell in free agency but bringing Malcolm Jenkins back from Philadelphia.
The other defenses with key – read that expensive -- additions were Philadelphia (CB Darius Slay), Miami (CB Byron Jones) and Cincinnati (DT D.J. Reader and CB Trae Waynes). The Carolina Panthers suffered the biggest loss of the offseason with the retirement of linebacker Luke Kuechly.
So who will be the Top 10 scoring defenses in 2020? We’ll probably be able to identify two of them next February.