Still True: Defense Wins Championships

The Packers' historic season died on Sunday, just like the Saints' historic season died on Saturday. In reality, though, the Packers' hopes of winning back-to-back championships ended way back in July. The NFL is driven by quarterbacks, which means you have to find a way to stop them.

Carl Banks, the former New York Giants linebacking great and current Giants radio broadcaster, walked out of the Lambeau Field broadcast booth and toward the elevator leading from the seventh-floor press box to the Giants' locker room.

"Who says defense can't win championships?" Banks asked.

Maybe sometime, all of us – media and fans alike – will remember that time-tested football adage.

The New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers fielded two of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. The Packers scored 560 points, the second-most in NFL history. The Saints scored 547 points, the fourth-most in NFL history. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers set the league record for passer rating. New Orleans' Drew Brees set single-season records for passing yards and completion percentage.

Both teams had great seasons. And both failed to make it out of this weekend's divisional round.

The Packers were stunned 37-20 by the New York Giants on Sunday. Or, maybe they weren't stunned.

The Giants have a defense. The 49ers have a defense. That's why they'll be playing for the NFC Championship rather than Green Bay. In the AFC, the Ravens have a defense. Heck, the Texans almost made it to the AFC Championship Game with a third-string rookie quarterback because of their defense.

The Packers had a great defense last year, finishing second in the NFL with 15.0 points allowed per game. Their defense played anywhere from bad to awful for most of this season, their only saving grace being turnovers. But when they faced a great quarterback – yes, Eli Manning is a great quarterback – their season was dead.

And that old adage about defense and championships? Alive and well.

"Everything happened to us today," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Anything that you've seen through the regular season happened to us today – missed tackles, assignments, not getting to the quarterback. We let them throw for a whole bunch of yards. Everything that happened during the season happened today.

The obituary will say the Packers' season died on Jan. 15, 2012. In retrospect and in reality, their chances of winning back-to-back championships died on July 31, 2011. That's when Cullen Jenkins signed with the Eagles, taking his outstanding pass-rushing abilities with him to Philadelphia.

With 29 sacks, Green Bay had the worst pass rush in the NFL, with one sack for every 21.97 passing attempts. Last year, when the Packers had 47 sacks – one behind Pittsburgh's league-leading total -- they had one sack for every 11.2 passing attempts. Clay Matthews had a dynamic season but managed just six sacks. Simply put, without Jenkins, Matthews wasn't the same, nor was B.J. Raji or any of the imposters playing right outside linebacker.

That was evident at key moments early and late in the game. On the Giants' opening drive, they converted a third-and-10 when the Packers' five-man rush never got close to Eli Manning. Late in the game, when a late touchdown gave the Packers a glimmer of hope, Manning converted a third-and-5 when, again, a five-man rush spun its tires.

To be sure, the Packers' coverage was miserable for most of the season. Tramon Williams, who turned in one dominating performance after another down the stretch last season, wasn't nearly as good this year. Sam Shields, after such a promising rookie season, found himself demoted into a part-time role on Sunday.

However, it's impossible to play cornerback – especially against a top-flight quarterback – when there's no pass rush. Time and again, Williams and Shields played 7, 8, 9 yards off of their man. Why? Because that's a death sentence. No cornerback, be it Williams, Woodson or Darrelle Revis can play air-tight coverage for 4 or 5 seconds because of a feeble pass rush.

All the Packers could do was play bend-but-don't-break. That works against the Josh McCowns and Christian Ponders and Josh Freemans of the world. It wasn't going to work against a Super Bowl champion like Manning, especially when he's got the support of a Super Bowl champion defense. It wasn't going to work when try-hard guys like Charlie Peprah do foolish things like try to tackle Hakeem Nicks with a shoulder, leading to a 66-yard touchdowns. And it wasn't going to work when, even with eight guys in coverage, only Peprah in Woodson were even in the vicinity on the game-turning Hail Mary to Nicks.

This is not the "fart in the wind" Packers who lost Super Bowl XXXII. That was an aging team that missed its one chance at attaining football immortality. This is a young team with a lot of upside. It just needs a couple more playmakers on defense.

"We've got to," Woodson said. "I'm pretty sure that that would be a priority. As far as getting a couple guys in here that can get to the quarterback, we have an exceptional rusher in Clay (Matthews) but he needs somebody to help him out, so I think that'll be something that's looked at."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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