Things I learned from the Super Bowl:
1) You’ll Only Go as Far as Your QB Will Take You: As Steelers fans we’re accustomed to pounding the rock. That is, playing physical run first football that will allow us to dictate the type of game (re. physical) that we’re willing to play. This was especially true under Cowher, a man that never saw a game that couldn’t be made better with a couple of more 3 yard carries up the middle.
However, we quickly forget that Cowher never won anything (i.e. Super Bowl) until he finally had a QB. We also forget that despite a truly great D and really good running game, the last two Super Bowl’s the 70’s Steelers won featured great passing attacks with TWO hall of fame WR’s and a hall of fame QB. The lesson here? That it’s next to impossible to win consistently, and against elite teams especially, without a franchise QB and a (at least) good passing game.
It’s no longer enough to run the ball well, win the time of possession battle, and play tough as nails defense. Now you must be able to chuck the ball and put up points as well. It’s possible to win a lot of games with a really good D and running game, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to sustain that success year to year (See the Ravens up and down teams in the last decade) and even more unlikely you’ll be able to win a SB. This is perhaps especially true in our current era of the NFL, which will someday be known as the golden age of the QB. Seriously, people don’t appreciate how many great QB’s are playing now (P. Manning, Brady, Big Ben, Warner, Rivers, Brees, Favre) and how many good and maybe someday great QB’s are up and coming (Rogers, Ryan, E. Manning, and Schaub in particular). If you have a great QB you can win and compete year after year. If you don’t, you better play great D, run the ball effectively, and hope that you can get lucky in some big games (J-E-T-S). And then you better trade your scrubs to Eric Mangini to move up and get your QB.
In other words, it’s no mistake that three of the last four QB’s in the playoffs (Manning, Favre, Brees) might all one day be in Canton.
2) Pass Defense is MORE Important than Run Defense: This is a pass-first league. Shut down the Saints run game (the Colts undersized defensive front did). Make them one dimensional. And then watch Brees go 32-39 for 2 TD’s and no interceptions. Many of the QB’s in the NFL are so good now that it hardly matters if you keep their teams from running the ball effectively. The Colts were the worst running team in the NFL this year, the Chargers the second worst. AND they both went to the playoffs. And one almost won a Super Bowl.
That is, a lot of offenses are designed to be more or less one dimensional now. The goal isn’t to run to set up the pass, but pass short to set up the long pass and supplement the passing game with a few running plays to make 3rd down a bit shorter (and therefore to keep your QB from getting killed.). Take away the run from these teams and they will shrug and kill you with the pass. You must be able to both build a D around covering the pass AND rushing the passer effectively in order to defend these teams.
This is why LB’s like Larry Foote are quickly becoming obsolete (I mean, the Lions are cutting him for crying out loud) - if you can’t cover an RB or TE, then teams will keep throwing to that match up all day. Lighter, slightly smaller, much more athletic LB’s like Timmons are the future.
3) Coaches Willing to Take Chances Will Win More Big Games than They Lose: Tomlin took a lot of flack for calling an onside kick in the GB game earlier this year. Bellichick took a lot of flack for going for it on 4-and-2 against the Colts earlier this year. Sean Payton got praise out the wazoo for starting the second half of the game with an onside kick AND going for it on 4-and-1 at the goal line last night. The thing is, these were all right calls from coaches that have all won Super Bowls. In a hyper competitive league in which ever facet of your game and your opponents game is dissected every week, you’re sometimes going to have to take a chance in order to gain a real competitive advantage. Sometimes the decision is situational - like not trust your D to close out a game against a superb QB like Manning or Rogers.
It is true that sometimes gunslingers get shot and likewise sometimes gamblers lose their shirt, but NFL coaches have been so risk adverse in the past that even statistically sound decisions (like going for it on 4th and short OR using a surprise onside kick - which has a 60% of success by the way) somehow seem foolhardy to them. With so many great teams getting great QB play, however, a coach that’s willing to do something unconventional will win more often than he loses. Manning and Caldwell played it safe last night, Payton and Brees didn’t. The result of the game was due in large part to Payton’s willingness to buck convention and try something unexpected. He’ll have a bright and shiny new ring to show for it in a few months.
Fortune favors the bold my friends. Or, to put it in a slightly different manner, while establishing yourself as an unconventional thinker who sometimes will go for it on 4th and short or onside kick might not always work out in the short term (sometimes your attempts will fail), it will give you the reputation as a risk taker and it will make teams spend time preparing for things that they wouldn’t always prepare for. This will give you a competitive advantage. And more often than not you’re “unconventional” coaching decisions will work out more often than not.
4) The Effectiveness of a Ground Game Should be Measured by Situational Utility, NOT by Overall Numbers: As I’ve said earlier, the most important thing and NFL team can have to ensure continued success is a franchise QB. However, running the ball still has an important place in the game - that is, it allows you to avoid red zone interceptions (we know something about this), to convert short yardage downs, and to supplement a high risk passing game with a low risk change of pace attack. It’s nice to be able to produce gaudy rushing numbers, but it’s much sound and fury signifying nothing if you can’t convert a third and short or kill the clock in the last 4 minutes.
Obviously it didn’t bother the Saints much that they couldn’t run the ball the entire game (and it didn’t help the Colts that they were able to run it effectively), EXCEPT when they couldn’t punch it in at the end of the first half AND when they couldn‘t convert in certain short yardage situations earlier. The passing windows are so small and the defensive packages so complex in the red zone that the ability to run effectively will save you a lot of potential game changing interceptions inside the 20 - just ask Kurt Warner. It is precisely in these types of situations that a good running game comes in handy. You’re not going to win a whole lot of big games on the run alone, but you’re not going to win a whole lot of big games without being able to run when you really need to. On this particular point, the Saints got lucky last night. Their lack of a good situational running game was offset by Payton’s daring call at the beginning of the second half as well as by the Colt’s equal ineptitude to convert a short yardage down.
The play action is an aspect of the passing game most helped by an effective ground attack, although we didn’t see much of it last night. This is for two reasons: 1) The Saints couldn’t run it all night and knew that any play action attempt would get sniffed out pretty quickly, and 2) The Saints played a base nickel defense against the Colts and therefore more or less let the Colts run the ball on them with only three down linemen playing most of the time. Thus the Saints defenders wouldn’t have been suckered in by a play action fake because they were looking pass the whole game. It turned out to be a smart strategy.
The Saints more or less let the Colts run the ball when they wanted to, but the Colts are not a team that’s going to be satisfied running the ball 30 times a game and trying to win a field position battle. And they shouldn’t be, not against the Saints at least. Drew Brees is going to chew up any defense - the only way to beat him is going to be to: 1) Force turnovers/bad throws with pressure, or 2) Force him into turnovers/bad throws by continually being able to score points to keep him continually playing from behind. Without Freeney they simply couldn’t put pressure on Brees, so they had to go the latter route.
But, back to my point, even though Addai put up good numbers (13 runs for 77 yards and a touchdown…that’s a 5.9 average folks) when it came down to converting a third and short near the end of the first half he couldn’t do it. While the Colts put up reasonably good rushing numbers (especially for them) they failed to run when they really needed to and that, in part, cost them the game. Make no mistake, a run first offense wouldn’t have won this game, but neither was an offense that couldn’t run well in key situations. Addai’s stats are nice, but they certainly don’t tell the true story about the Colt’s rushing attack.