Another look into the greatest defenses in NFL history and the coordinators that helped change the game.
In this installment of the series, we will be diving into the 1986 New York Giants with defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. We will also look at the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Since Part One of this series was released I have done a good deal more digging. This was mostly in response to people hating in my comments section.
I have found some really interesting stuff. One of the most common arguments thrown my way is that league-wide scoring has increased drastically since 2000 (I tweeted a table showing that statistically, the 2000 Ravens were the best defense in the modern 16 game era) so I figured I should have a look at that first.
Scoring, Scoring and more Scoring
If you’ve been watching the NFL for a long time you’ll be well aware that through rule changes and emphasis on protecting offensive skill players the league has made an effort to increase scoring. This is due in part to offense bringing in ratings, defensive battles aren’t appreciated like they used to be especially with the huge popularity of fantasy football these days, and in part to try and prevent injuries to quarterbacks and other skill position players. The common sense approach is that viewers are more likely to want to tune in to watch say Tom Brady rather than his backup if he’s injured. Offense gets the glory but defense wins the game.
So as I went to look into how much scoring has increased over the past 18 years since the 2000 Ravens had their incredible defensive season I expected an increase of several points at least. Turns out that teams averaged 20.7 points per game in 2000…and 21.7 points per game in 2017. One freaking point. That’s all it’s gone up in 17 years.
If you further look into the stats, you will see that points per game actually fluctuate year to year and the floor has gone up since 2000. However, the increase is nothing like you would expect. While arguing with one particularly ridiculous Seahawks fan, I offered to factor in the two points per game difference and credit the 2014 Seahawks by subtracting 32 points (two points for each regular season game played due to the two points per game scored more on average in 2014) from their season total.
They would still have given up 57 more points and 307 more yards than the 2000 Ravens. Even with this handicap, they still finish light years behind from what the Ravens did. And the Ravens had double the takeaways as well.
Not to crap on the Seahawks specifically, I am just giving you an idea of what my Twitter inbox has been filled with since this article series began. As much as it’s been ridiculous it has also led me to find out some really cool stats. If I were to ask you what year the offenses in the NFL scored the most points, I would guess most of you would say sometime within the past 10 years or so.
Well, it turns out the high mark in the offense for NFL scoring was in 2013 with an average of 23.4 points per game scored. But the next highest average point per game season was 23.1 PPG in 1965! We’re talking an era where run the ball and play defense was the name of the game and passing attacks were infrequently used. That’s about a point and a half better than 2017s offensive output. A year that includes offenses like the Rams and Patriots and Eagles doing work last season.
Before we look at the 86′ Giants and 02′ Bucs I would like to thank everyone who has read the series, participated in the polls and research. I even thank the ridiculous homers who have been trying to use mental gymnastics and skewed stats to try and make their favorite teams all-time defense somehow fit into the conversation. It has all led to some good stuff.
A Giant Defense
The 1986 New York Giants went 14-2 and beat the Denver Broncos and John Elway in the Super Bowl with the help of Lawrence Taylor and the genius defensive schemes designed by Bill Belichick. Bill has a total of seven Super Bowl rings and won his first two as defensive coordinator for the Giants.
Belichick started his Giants career as the defensive assistant and special teams coach. He worked his way up to linebackers coach and eventually defensive coordinator. Bill became a legendary defensive coordinator by morphing his defenses for each opponent in an early version of the tactics he commonly uses now on the Patriots.
There are many examples of this but two of the most famous were his switch to a zone scheme against Joe Montana in the divisional round of the 86′ playoffs that resulted in a 49-3 blowout win. Joe Montana was made to look average at best. His defensive game plan in the Giants second Super Bowl against the Bills is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The game plan resulted in a 20-19 upset win where the Giants defense held the most explosive offense in the league led by Jim Kelly to 19 points.
The 1986 version of Belichick’s defense excelled at destroying the quarterback. Lawrence Taylor had 20.5 sacks himself and the team had 59 for the season. The defense finished 2nd overall and held the opposition to 236 total points for the season. That averages only 14.7 points per game surrendered.
They also held opposing teams to 297 yards per game and had 43 takeaways on the season. Belichick has been a trailblazer in many ways throughout his NFL career, but the way he used his linebackers to rush the quarterback was truly visionary. Bill would let Lawrence Taylor blitz often on passing downs and roll coverage over from elsewhere. Taylor’s 20.5 sacks for the 86 season were incredible numbers for a linebacker. Even today’s players, like Von Miller, rarely approach numbers that high.
While the 86′ Giants did not record any shutouts during the regular season, they did shut out the Redskins in the NFC title game 17-0. During the Super Bowl that season Belichick and company were able to make the Broncos one-dimensional. While they couldn’t completely shut down John Elway, they were able to hold the Broncos to 52 rushing yards.
The resulting one-dimensional passing attack forced Elway into three sacks and one interception. Although Elway was able to pass for over 300 yards, the Broncos only found the end zone once in the first 3 quarters. The game was well in hand by the time the Broncos secured their second touchdown late in the 4th quarter. The game was never really in doubt and despite Elway’s 22 completions and 304 yards the Giants were really never threatened.
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 12-4 and beat the living crap out of the Raiders in the Super Bowl 48-21. With a dominating defense led by the legendary defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin the 02′ Bucs loved to score on defense. Before the season began, head coach Jon Gruden promised his team they’d win the Super Bowl if the defense could score seven defensive touchdowns throughout the season and in the playoffs.
Going into that season’s playoffs they had scored five defensive touchdowns during the season. They would add three more in the Super Bowl for eight total. Gruden kept his promise and the defense held up their end of the bargain as the Bucs easily dispatched the Raiders in the final game.
Despite Gruden being the most identifiable and biggest personality amongst NFL coaches, it was Monte Kiffin, the longtime and well respected defensive coordinator, who molded the Bucs defense into the unit that dominated all season. The defense that was the deciding factor in the Super Bowl.
Monte Kiffin was a defensive coordinator in the NFL for 16 years for several different teams. His most infamous work was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he modified Tony Dungees Cover 2 defense into the Tampa 2 scheme. He was an innovator in several areas including valuing speed over size and strength, preventing scores over preventing yardage, having multiple defenses available from one look and attacking to cause turnovers.
In a copycat league, it can be said Kiffin was the first to use the “bend but don’t break” mentality. His work with the Tampa 2 resulted in that style of defense being adopted by many teams throughout the league. He would use similar or the same personnel at all times, while still maintaining flexibility and not allowing the offense to adjust it’s play calls based on the alignment of the defensive players. Kiffin was also one of the first coordinators to use safeties instead of linebackers in more situations to put more speed on the field. Kiffin was a master of forcing offenses into mistakes that resulted in takeaways and defensive scores.
The 2002 Buccaneers finished as the overall number one defense for the season and allowed a league-low 196 points and 4044 yards. They let up an average of 12.2 points and 252 yards per game. They also had 38 takeaways on the season. Using Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme, they caused havoc and chaos among opposing offenses.
The defense was largely responsible for the teams 12-4 record, especially due to the offensive issues that season (they finished 18th in points per game and 24th in yards per game offensively). They recorded two shutouts and held 7 teams to single digits on offense throughout the season. They added 43 sacks on the year and by the time the playoffs rolled around they were a well oiled defensive machine.
Their Super Bowl opponent was an offensive machine during that season finishing 1st in the league in yards per game and 2nd in points per game heading into the playoffs. To slow down Rich Gannon and that efficient Raiders offense, Gruden played the part of Rich Gannon in practice the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
Being the coach of the Raiders the prior year, he used all his collected knowledge of Gannon’s habits and flaws and had the defense ready for the challenge by kickoff. The Buccaneers completely snuffed out the Raiders offense the entire first half and led 20-3 at halftime. Just as the Raiders started to claw back into the game, the Bucs responded with their first of three interception returns for touchdowns.
Every time it seemed that the Raiders were going to get back into the game, either Dwight Smith or Derrick Brooks would pick off Gannon and return it to the house. In the end, it was never close and Tampa Bay secured their first Super Bowl victory. John Lynch was miked up for the game and made a comment about how all Gannon’s reads and throws were exactly like what Gruden did and told them about in practice.
As the years go on I know I for one will never forget the 02′ Bucs defense, they were truly scary and managed to totally embarrass the leagues best offense that season in a Super Bowl for the ages.
Keep an eye out for part 4 of this series in the next few days or so where we have a look at the 2013\2014 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos with coordinators Dan Quinn and Wade Phillips.