The most pessimistic person on the planet probably could not have foreseen how much of a bore Super Bowl LIII was going to be. From the first half – to the half time show – back to the second half; there was virtually nothing to get excited about. Unless, of course, you’re a Patriots fans and could gleefully celebrate your sixth Super Bowl since the turn of the century.
On paper, this was a battle of high-flying offenses. The Rams finished the season second in both points per game (32.9) and yards per game (421.1) – behind only the Chiefs who had a historically fantastic offense this year. They have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions and the treasured Sean McVay calling their plays. The Patriots – despite all the talk of Tom Brady falling off a cliff – still finished fourth in total offense (393.4) and fourth in points per game (27.9), and only a fool would count out Josh McDaniels and this group at this point.
But while all the talk heading into this matchup was about the high-powered offenses, Tom Brady and Jared Goff, the Todd Gurley’s, Brandin Cooks’s and Julian Edelman’s; what made these two teams the best in the NFL was their ability to control the line of scrimmage. And that’s what we saw on Sunday night – a group of 300+ pound men battling for NFL supremacy.
Los Angeles’s offensive line has been a critical piece to their success. Led by studs like Andrew Whitworth and Rodger Saffold, this was possibly the most consistent unit the entire season. They were vital in opening up holes for Todd Gurley, which set up the Rams deadly play action, creating the most balanced offense in the NFL. And on the opposite side, few teams have a defensive line that strikes fear into their opponents like Los Angeles.
Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in all of football and may be the best all-around football player we have today. He’s a freak of nature that nobody has been able to stop all season, recording 20.5 sacks and 41 quarterback hits. His partner in crime, Ndamukong Suh, is no slouch either. Then there are unheralded guys like Michael Brockers and Matt Longacre solidifying the group.
In New England, there often is not a lot of individual credit to go around, especially on the offensive line – but they were perhaps the most dominant positional group of the entire playoffs. It took until the Super Bowl for Brady to finally be sacked in the postseason, and even then, it only happened one time. The Patriots offensive line was able to completely take Aaron Donald out of the game with constant double teams, and Brady only faced five pressures the entire night to Goff’s sixteen. It was a work of art, whose performance could only be compared to that of New England’s defensive line.
Unlike the Rams, the name recognition may not be there. But like every Bill Belichick coached the team, the Patriots defensive line does all the little things right, and they dominated the Rams at the point of attack from the opening whistle. The Rams ran the ball 18 times for a pitiful 64 yards. And as I already mentioned, they were able to continually keep the pressure on Jared Goff, while their defensive backs stayed glued to their assignments. Players like Gilmore and McCourty played spectacularly, but that’s much easier to do when the opposing quarterback has no time to push the ball downfield.
Every year the owners down to the fans fall in love with the idea of offense, and it has been more evident this season than ever. Nearly all the new head coaching hires were an attempt to find the next Sean McVay. Everyone was confident that nobody would be able to stop the likes of the Chiefs and Rams. But this game – this snoozefest of a Super Bowl – should serve as a powerful reminder that defense is always going to be responsible for winning championships.
Even in the offense-first world that we have lived in for the last decade, it’s no coincidence the top defenses have dominated the Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots did not have the most intimidating defense, but they came together as the season went on and were far-and-away the best defense standing among the final four teams. Last year’s Eagles team was loaded on the defensive side of the ball, particularly across the defensive line where they were constantly rotating guys in and creating pressure. In 2016, the best defensive team in football (The Patriots) topped the best offensive team in football (The Falcons). In 2015, Denver’s suffocating defense took home the Lombardi despite playing with a 40-year old Peyton Manning that could barely throw the ball 30 yards. You have to go back to 2012 – when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl – to find a team that finished outside the top ten in points allowed that won the championship. And the Ravens – by the way – finished 12th in that category and were an outstanding defensive team by the time the playoffs rolled around.
It’s simple, even in today’s game where everything is about offense, defense remains supreme.
So how will the Falcons return to the Super Bowl in 2019?
By focusing on making their defense one of the most feared in the league. Ever since Atlanta drafted Matt Ryan, the priority has been offense. Let’s get Ryan another weapon, let’s bring in another running back, let’s find him some protection. All of that is fantastic during the regular season, but it has yet to turn into a Super Bowl trophy. The Falcons have to zero in on their defense this offseason, and specifically, their defensive line, which was among the worst in the entire league last season.
It won’t be an easy fix, but it also should not be too complicated to figure out. Atlanta has cap space and more than their full allotment of draft picks. They have a fantastic core group of defensive pieces; Deion Jones is a top-of-the-line middle linebacker; the secondary has many of the necessary parts; Grady Jarrett is even an elite defensive tackle, but he needs help around him.
Atlanta must invest money and multiple picks on finding that right combination of players that can control the line of scrimmage. It will help their linebackers against the run, it will help their secondary against the pass, and it will even help their offense by creating more turnovers and possessions for the team. It’s frankly an obvious fix and one that I have no idea how the Falcons ignored coming into the 2018 season.
But as Keanu Neal reminded us following the Super Bowl, it’s a new year, and every team is officially 0-0.
Officially a new year. Every team 0-0 !
— Keanu Neal (@Keanu_Neal) February 4, 2019
If the Falcons make their defensive line a priority, it will pay major dividends for them – especially when it matters – during the 2019 season.