The Best Defense is a Good Offense


The ‘best defense is a good offense’ is a common expression that refers to hiding defensive weaknesses within a barrage of offensive attacks.

The statement represents an axiom of warfare that was first espoused by legendary military strategists such as Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Mao Zedong. Once relegated only to rules of engagement in warfare, the precept now extends to corporate environments and even NFL Locker Rooms.

Peyton Manning has masterfully used the ‘No-Huddle Offense’ to keep opposing defenses off-balance and at times, extended offensive drives which protected some of the questionable defenses he played with early in his career.

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In 2015, Lions fans are hopeful a resurgent offense will help offset some of the losses the team sustained on defense this off-season. The question we’ll examine today is whether the Lions offense can in fact help the team’s defense.

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For much of the 2014 season, the Detroit Lions proudly held the distinction of possessing the NFL’s #1 defense. Injuries to key defensive personnel such as Stephen Tulloch, Nick Fairley and virtually every player who lined up at Nickel Corner eventually took their toll, yet the Lions still managed to end the season as the 2nd best defense in the League.

What’s more impressive is 2014 Detroit Lions finished the season allowing a paltry 69.3 rushing yards per contest. That was good enough to not only finish the season as the League’s best run defense, it actually ranked the Lions as one of the ten best run defenses in NFL History.

Even when the losses sustained in free agency are factored in, the 2015 Lions retain an immensely talented core of defensive players who are led by one of the most brilliant defensive coordinators in the League.

As alluded to above, the Lions do not require a great deal of help on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, the most pressing area of need relates to keeping the defensive unit fresh rather than adding. In 2014 the Lions had four players (Levy, Quin, Mathis and Slay) who logged over 1000 defensive snaps. What’s more, 2014 was the 2nd consecutive season in which Levy and Quin played greater than 1000 defensive snaps.

In comparison, the #1 ranked Seattle Seahawks Defense didn’t have a single player who logged 1000 snaps; although in fairness Sherman and Thomas were close. The most plausible reason for the disparity of snaps between the Lions and Seahawks is difference in each team’s ability to run the football.

The Lions 28th ranked rushing attack only managed to produce 88.9 yards of rushing offense per game, however the Seahawks led the NFL in that category rushing for 172.6 yards per contest.

While the 2014 Detroit Lions defense posted historically good results, the offense floundered. Gone was an overreliance on the passing attack and with it and the unique two-man spectacle of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford freelancing to thwart defensive constructs aimed at containing them. In its stead was the emergence of an offensive philosophy aimed at managing games in support of the team’s defense.

Justin Rogers of captures Caldwell thoughts on the matter as thus:

"“We can play defense, you understand,” Caldwell said. “We’re a good defensive team. And when you do that, you play complementary football.”"

The previous quote begs the question, what exactly is this complementary brand of football to which Caldwell makes reference? Upon researching the offenses that accompanied some of the best defenses in NFL History the answer became clear. While passing offenses often varied, elite defenses were almost always buoyed by an offensive rushing attack that produced 2000 yards or better. Below is a table that graphically depicts the yardage output of this writer’s Top 5 defensives in NFL history.

As represented above, the Top 5 defenses in NFL history were always ‘complimented’ (to use Caldwell’s term) by offenses that ran the ball with efficiency and authority. Consistent with the plan of building an offense that better supported its defense the Lions opted NOT to draft a wide receiver for the 1st time in Mayhew’s 7-year tenure as the team’s general manager.

Instead of acquiring a shiny new weapon for the passing offense, the Lions spent heavily in improving the worst rushing attack the team’s fielded during the Mayhew Administration. The acquisition of massive road-grading offensive guard Laken Tomlinson in round one, followed by selecting elusive running back Ameer Abdullah in round two and PFF’s highest graded fullback against ‘Power 5 Opposition’ Michael Burton in round five suffices as evidence the Lions are fully invested in crafting a rushing attack that will better support the team’s defense.

Thus far, we’ve defined a ‘complementary offense’ as one that can approach or exceed 2000 rushing yards. The question to answer now is whether the Lions are built to reach this plateau. In 2014 Lions only managed 1422 rushing yards which was the worst rushing output the team has generated since the infamous winless season of 2008.

While that last statement may seem foreboding the news isn’t all bad. Research shows teams reached the 2000-yard threshold in multiple ways. For example, the 1976 Steelers attained 2000+ rushing yards by having two separate running backs (Franco Harris & Rocky Bleier) rush for over 1000 yards. Other teams like the 2000 Ravens, 2013 Seahawks and 1985 Bears relied upon the singular talents of elite rushers such as Jamal Lewis, Marshawn Lynch and Walter Payton to amass over 2000 yards rushing. The 1990 New York Giants took a running back by committee approach, utilizing a plethora of players to achieve the mark.

Nov 16, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Detroit Lions running back

Joique Bell

(35) jumps over Arizona Cardinals free safety

Rashad Johnson

(26) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals won 14-6. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What this means for the Lions is there are multiple options available to hit the coveted 2000-yard rushing mark. Joique Bell, for example thinks he can rush for 1200 yards in 2015 despite never eclipsing 100 yards in a single game thus far in his career. Should he reach his goal the Lions will have a great chance of reaching 2000 yards on the season.

It’s also possible both Bell and Abdullah could eclipse 1000 rushing yards each. However the approach that should hold the most intrigue for Lions fans is that taken by 1990 New York Giants. There was no dominant rusher on that 1990 Giants team. Instead, the Giants reached 2000+ rushing yards with the team’s leading rusher, Otis Anderson accruing a mere 784 total yards with a 3.5 yard per carry average and his longest run only covering 28 yards. Like the 1990 Giants, the 2015 Lions enter the season without a dominant runner. In fact, Joique Bell’s production in 2014 was very similar to Anderson’s in 1990 as Bell rushed for 860 yards with a 3.9 yard per carry average and a season long run of 57 yards.

Without a dominant runner, the Giants Head Coach Bill Parcells commissioned his Offensive Coordinator Ron Erhardt to find production from players buried deep within the team’s depth chart. Then rookie Rodney Hampton became the Giants’ 2nd leading rusher accruing 455 yards on the season. In like manner, the Lions enter the 2015 season fully expectant of rookie Ameer Abdullah emerging as the team’s 2nd most productive rusher.

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The Giants managed to manufacture 2049 total team rushing yards without much talent at the running back position by gaining 100+ yards of contribution from six different players. Possibly unbeknownst to him at the time, in tapping six different runners to breach the 2000-yard milestone Bill Parcells planted a seed for a running back by committee approach that would blossom into a fixture in the modern NFL landscape.

Ironically, it was one of Bill Parcell’s protégés – Sean Payton who would be at the forefront of refining the construct Parcells and Erhardt built. Though he had somewhat of a rocky start during his first year as offensive coordinator in Detroit, the Lions’ own Joe Lombardi is protégé of Sean Payton and has adopted the specialized running back by committee approach that has become the trademark of his mentor.

Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In Payton’s offense, there was no longer a need for a singularly dominant talent at running back like Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. Instead, runners needed to be specialists who could consistently provide the offense with a specific style of running. This was on display most prominently during the Saints’ Superbowl run. Pierre Thomas served as the team’s leading rusher.

While a somewhat pedestrian athlete by running back standards, Thomas possessed a well-rounded skill set in that he was able to grind out tough yards between the tackles, get to the edge on off-tackle runs and was a good receiver out of the backfield.

In 2009, Thomas led the Saints in rushing with 793 yards. Payton’s rushing attack called for a powerful, between the tackles runner who specialized in making plays in traffic. At 6’ tall and 225lbs Michael Bell was the perfect fit for that role. In 2009, Bell was the 2nd leading rusher for the Saints, finishing the season with 654 yards. Finally, Payton’s offense called for a speed/all-purpose yardage back. In 2009, Reggie Bush (who later became a Lion) served in that role rushing for 390 yards, receiving for 335 more all while contributing another 130 yards as a punt returner.

When most think of the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton’s offense, it typically conjures images of Drew Brees shredding opposing defenses with pinpoint accurate passes thrown to a variety of offensive targets. While that is certainly part of the lore that made Saints fans proud, what’s often lost is the Saints possessed an extremely physical and effective rushing offense. It may surprise some to learn the Saints amassed 2106 rushing yards en route to winning a Superbowl.

That Saints team was constructed with a ‘wedge’ in the middle of the offensive line in the form of Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks at guard with Jonathan Godwin at Center. This combination of players formed the only unit I’ve ever seen have consistent success single-blocking Ndamukong Suh.

Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015 the Lions will have their own version of a ‘wedge’ in the form of Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford flanking Travis Swanson at center. While it’s yet to be determined whether Tomlinson, Warford or Swanson play well enough to gain pro bowl nods as did their Saints counterparts I suspect the above combination is better than any that would’ve included Sims and/or Raiola.

The team’s runners are now much more specialized in their roles thanks to Lombardi’s influence on the roster. At 5’11, 229lbs Joique Bell is almost a mirror image of Mike Bell and is a natural fit as the team’s power runner. Ameer Abdullah was seemingly drafted for the precise purpose of replacing Reggie Bush who was let go early this off-season. Abdullah’s role in Detroit will likely emulate Bush’s role in New Orleans as we can probably expect Ameer to be utilized as a change of pace runner, receiver and kick/punt returner.

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  • This off-season the Lions have upgraded their offensive line and increased the level of talent and depth at fullback and running back. The offense is clearly moving into 2015 with the intent of relying more heavily upon the rushing attack. Martin Mayhew and his staff are to be commended for the overhaul that’s been made to accommodate the offensive philosophy of the new coaching staff.

    There remains but one glaring weakness on the roster – the need for a lead rusher. As fortune would have it, there is a talented player available who would be affordable, effective and is eager to redeem himself both on and off the field. In my next piece, I unveil who this player and why I think the Lions MUST sign him.

    Next: Meet the 2015 Detroit Lions Coaching Staff

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