Robinson: NFL’s offensive emphasis has LeBeau rethinking defensive goals
Here’s one of the stunners of an increasingly surprising Steelers season: Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau got a kick out of that 51-34 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
“It was kind of fun. I enjoyed that, as much as a defensive guy could enjoy 34,” LeBeau said.
He’s not alone. Everybody seems to love this age of instant offense, when no lead is safe (see the Cleveland Browns’ two miraculous comebacks), and neither is the job security of any cornerback. (The Baltimore Ravens cut two of their top three corners after giving up six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger.)
Baseball went through the Dead Ball Era, when a walk, sacrifice bunt and single represented a big rally. Hockey experienced the Dead Puck Era in the early 2000s, when three goals translated into a win most nights.
But in a sport in which talented, physical and game-changing defenses traditionally have possessed as many catchy nicknames as offenses — the Steel Curtain and Purple People Eaters among them — the NFL is going through the Lively Arm Era. And it’s radically changing the sport.
The latest evidence is Roethlisberger’s 12 touchdown passes in two games, a league record and five more than he’d thrown in a two-game span. If Roethlisberger can throw three Sunday against the New York Jets, he’ll equal Peyton Manning’s all-time mark of 15 touchdown passes in three games in 2004.
But what’s going on is more than Roethlisberger, Manning and Tom Brady. It’s also Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Brian Hoyer, and everybody else who lines up in the shotgun formation.
Credit the sophistication of offenses, wealth of talented position players and stricter enforcement of rules designed to aid receivers, but teams are throwing for far more yards and touchdowns than ever. And even from just a few seasons ago.
Check out these numbers: In the past six years, combined passing yardage has increased from 422.6 yards per game to 487.8 yards. Touchdown passes jumped from 646 in 2008 — the Steelers’ last Super Bowl-winning season — to 804 last season. This season is on pace for 877: a remarkable 25 percent increase in six years.
Last year was the first the NFL surpassed 120,000 passing yards. This year, the 32 teams are on pace to pass for almost 125,000 yards. That would represent a jump of more than 26,000 yards just since 1998.
“I’m not surprised at all — maybe that it’s that dramatic — and it might (go even higher) this year yet,” said LeBeau, an NFL player or coach since 1959. “I know one thing: Ever since I’ve been in the game as a player or a coach, it’s only trended in one direction, and that’s more passing and more yardage.”
As might be expected, there is a comparable drop-off in rushing attempts, from 74.7 per game in 1977 to an all-time low 53.6 this season.
“I don’t know why (offenses) ever run it with all the good things that can happen now when you throw it,” LeBeau said.
So what’s a cornerback to do besides hold, grab, shove and tie up, all of which are being restricted more than a year ago?
“It’s always been a tremendous challenge because it’s always a stimulus-response situation. We’re always responding to them,” LeBeau said. “But defenders like that. That’s why we’re called defenders. We’re going to defend every blade of grass.”
Still, this quantum leap in offense is forcing LeBeau to perform one alteration he rarely makes. Every game, every season, he outlines specific goals to his players in terms of yards and points and defensive milestones.
“Amazingly so, I have not had to change them dramatically for 20 years,” he said.
That will change in 2015. Yes, even with all this fan-satisfying, TV ratings-driving offense, LeBeau already is planning for what would be his 57th NFL season.
“(The goals) will change next year,” LeBeau said. “The last thing a coach wants to be is unrealistic.”