Defense matters in high-scoring NFL

Matt Ryan, Terrell Suggs
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tries to break free of Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs’ grasp as he looks for a receiver in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Calling it a resurgence would be an exaggeration.
Dubbing it a trend would be hyperbole.
Still, the way some NFL teams are ramping up their defenses, maybe the NFL isn’t all about offense after all.
If balance is going to be the key to contending for a championship once the temperature dips, the winds begin to blow and the wet stuff starts to fall, several teams have gotten a head start on such symmetry.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Indianapolis. The Colts, even without their best defender — end Robert Mathis is out for the season — come off a 27-0 blanking of Cincinnati. It was the Colts’ first shutout since 2008, and there are signs that the unit coach Chuck Pagano has waited for is rounding into fearsome shape.
“I can’t remember off the top of my head, but they’re hard to come by when you have a defensive performance like that,” Pagano said when asked the last time he was associated with such a showing. It probably came when he was an assistant with the Ravens.
“Again, we’re just starting to get a glimpse of what we envisioned when we got together a couple years ago, what we wanted to build when we first got here. Looks like that monster is starting to rear its head a little bit.”
The Colts already ranked atop the NFL in offense heading into Week 7, led by the marksmanship of Andrew Luck, the receiving of T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne, the running of Ahmad Bradshaw, and an offensive line that affords Luck enough protection.
Throw in a dangerous defense and …
“I know Indy is known for their offense all the time,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. “We have a great offense here and I’m blessed to be at a place like this with the offense. But we definitely want everybody to know that we do have a defense and we’re going to be up for any challenge.”
The challenges for defenses are many in the current NFL. For years, the rules makers have made changes to benefit the other side of the ball. Many of them have been in the name of safety and are warranted. But the effect remains: scoring keeps rising.
Yet, as the Seahawks displayed last season against the mighty Broncos attack, defense usually still rules when a title is on the line.
They have rapidly realized just that in Green Bay, Baltimore and Arizona, too.
All three of those teams, plus the Colts, will be well-positioned come January if their defenses stay healthy and as stingy as is possible in the high-octane NFL.
No, none of those clubs has a wrecking crew along the lines of the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens or any versions of the Steel Curtain.
But the Packers are a threat if they come up with just enough defense to complement an Aaron Rodgers-led offense. Ditto the Ravens, who have an experienced and clutch bunch led by Joe Flacco.
So are the Cardinals, who have the best-coached units thus far in 2014 under Bruce Arians and his coordinators.
“I think we’ve just been building,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I think we have been putting one brick on top of the other and going through a process and trying to get better every single day.
“When you can do that, you can move down the road and improve, and our guys take it seriously. They come to work every day. They bring their lunch box, they bring their blue shirts and they go to work, and that’s how you become a good football team.”
Or perhaps a great one.
Detroit has had the best defense in the NFC North so far, but the Packers (5-2) are the team to keep a close eye on.
Rodgers and Jordy Nelson have been as productive as any passing combo, and they don’t usually slow down as the season wears on. Last year’s top offensive rookie, Eddie Lacy, complements the passing game.
And now, perhaps, the Pack is back on D. Green Bay completely shut down Carolina when it mattered Sunday, and after a slow start has looked vastly upgraded from 2013, when it ranked 25th overall.
“We’re better a defense now than we were last year,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said, “and hopefully we’re better as a defense now than we were a week ago. Got to find a way to keep getting better. We haven’t, as a team, definitely played our best football yet, so that’s encouraging.”
And discouraging to the offenses an ever-improving defense will face.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed to this story.
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