Three times in my NFL career along the pathway to the Super Bowl, I ran into a defensive buzzsaw. The first was in 2000 against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. The Ravens were a great defensive team, led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis along with a dominating front seven and a playmaking safety in Ed Reed. When watching the game film, it was obvious they were fast, relentless to the football and rarely missed an open-field tackle. There were no free yards. When watching them live and in person, they were faster than the tape indicated and held our Raiders to three points and won the Super Bowl allowing only 23 points in the four playoff games.
After that game, I promised myself that the next time the Raiders faced a fast explosive defensive, I would see them play live before the game to accurately judge their team speed. Only viewing the game film can slightly slow down the speed. Two years later, I watched the Tampa Bay Bucs live and in person and understood their speed, their open-field tackling talent, and their dominating front seven but felt our team could compete and move the ball — and most of all protect the football. Fooled again. We turned the ball over five times and were soundly beaten in the Super Bowl.
Then in 2014, observing the Seattle Legion of Doom defense before Super Bowl 49 with the Patriots, my first thought was: not again. Another fast, explosive, athletic, great tackling defense is going to keep my fingers from wearing another ring. Well, thankfully for Tom Brady and others, we prevailed — barely.
All season, and again Monday night, the 49ers defense has reminded me of those prior three teams. Extremely fast, great tacklers, impossible to consistently find positive plays against in the run game and hard to pass block. The strengths of their defense are their speed and open-field tackling, there are no free yards off a missed tackle. The play ends when the tackler arrives — which is the key to being a great defense. They play with a relentless passion, like those three teams mentioned earlier and they have a simple but slightly diverse scheme, with a great play caller in DeMeco Ryans. The slight evolution of their scheme, directed by Ryans, is the key. He is simple in terms of his alignments in the front, and coverages, yet offers a more diverse package than former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, now the head coach of the Jets. Ryans will blitz more with different combinations and attack the protections, thus allowing a free runner to the quarterback. When a team has a great defensive front, with four elite, well-coordinated pass rushers, the best thing they can do on passing downs is rush five, forcing each of the offensive linemen to win an individual matchup, and most often they can’t. The 49ers’ front is relentless on the way to the passer, and like all truly great defenses, can shut down the run and make teams play one-dimensional.
Ryans understands his strengths, adjusts in game and allows his best players to always play fast. Their secondary play is significantly better with safety Talanoa Hufanga making everyone think he is the second coming of Troy Polamalu. And it’s not because of his hairdo, rather his explosive playmaking talent. After only four weeks of the season, no offensive coach wants to play the 49ers, and if they stay healthy, they will be discussed as one of the best defensive teams along the same lines as those Ravens, Bucs and Seahawks defenses mentioned earlier.
We all love offense, and we love to bet teams with great offensive firepower to win the Super Bowl. But as I have learned and accepted over my career, no matter how much they change the rules to favor the offense, no matter how pretty a quarterback looks and throws, when they face a fast, explosive defense, with great tackling talent, it will be a hard game to win. In my upcoming book, “Football Done Right: Setting the Record Straight in the Coaches, Players and History of the NFL,” due out in August of 2023, I discuss all the great defensive fronts that were so dominating they earned nicknames from the Fearsome Foursome to the Steel Curtain to the Purple People Eaters and others. My journey through the history of the great players and teams makes it clear: great defense will always trump offense. It ruled when the game was all run, it rules now with the game being all passing.
Even though you might not love the 49ers offense with Jimmy Garoppolo, this team has all the qualities of an eventual Super Bowl team. The 49ers are better with Jimmy G at quarterback over Trey Lance. That is not being negative or insensitive to Lance as he rehabs his broken ankle, rather a true statement of where their team is and what they need from their offense. If Garoppolo protects the ball, makes the right reads and the 49ers play from in front, they can beat anyone anywhere. As good as Philadelphia has looked being undefeated, the 49ers are one of few teams that could slow down the Eagles’ running attack and make Jalen Hurts beat them. Last season the 49ers were a dropped interception away from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Two things are in play for the 49ers. The Under totals of their games will always be tilted low, and their odds of winning the NFC will continue to trickle downward. Grab them now because unless injuries mount in San Francisco, they have that defensive feel that has caused me so much consternation in my career.
In a summer column, I went over the last five years of teams having great Septembers and proving that September does matter. The 2018 Patriots were the only .500 team in September that went to the Super Bowl and won. With only one undefeated team, the Eagles, and seven 3-1 teams, the Bills, Dolphins, Chiefs, Cowboys, Giants, Packers and Vikings, our pool of Super Bowl candidates seems low. The Giants might be 3-1, but they are no Super Bowl team, and neither are the Vikings. The NFC has only six legitimate Super Bowl contenders: Philadelphia, Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, the Rams and 49ers. Even though seven teams will make the tournament, there are not seven great teams, much like the Steelers entered last season’s playoffs with no chance of advancing. For me, it looks like a 49ers-Eagles NFC championship game in Philadelphia after four weeks.
Bet the passer
Can you believe the Falcons won their game against the Browns with only seven completed passes? The Bears and Giants had only 20 completed passes in their entire game. High school teams complete more passes. The Panthers’ Baker Mayfield has only 64 completed passes in four games. For those bad at math, that comes out to just 16 per game. The Bears’ Justin Fields has 67. The Seahawks’ Geno Smith has 102 completions in four games. And everyone was doom and gloom when Cooper Rush took over for the Cowboys? Rush has 62 completions in three games — and has played better than Fields, Mayfield, Carson Wentz and others. Correctly betting NFL games always and will forever start with adequately evaluating the quarterback and not buying into the perception from their draft status to their media campaign. When Patriots QB Mac Jones got injured and the line moved toward Green Bay from 5.5 to 9.5, the book was telling us that Brian Hoyer was bad. Well, Hoyer might be bad, but so was Jones, and the four-point adjustment was way too much. If the starter is playing bad, why is the line moving that much?
As an example, if Carolina coach Matt Rhule decides to bench Mayfield and inserts P.J. Walker, the line will move from 5.5 or 6 in some shops to maybe 11 or 12. And the question we must ask as bettors is how much worse can Walker play than Mayfield? If Mayfield was graded solely on his play and wasn’t perceived as a starter because he was a No. 1 overall pick, the line wouldn’t move depending on who played. The lesson to learn and something I do every week is to adjust your quarterback grades and watch how they play, not how they grade based on QBR or any other service.
Make sure you check back on Friday for my Lombardi Lookahead column.