NFL playoffs: Now it's all about offensive innovation
Today’s conference championship games will feature the pistol formation and up-tempo offensive attacks, the sort of innovation and creativity that can catch fire in a copycat league.
These are the buzzwords this postseason, whether it be in praise for the fits the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots have given opposing defenses or Jets coach Rex Ryan’s wish list for a reimagined offense.
If it seems like offenses are taking center stage, some of the league’s best defenders will go so far as to agree on this: In today’s NFL, it’s harder than ever to be a dominant defense.
"The way that the league has changed, it’s not like the Baltimore Ravens in (2000), when they won the world championship," Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said last week.
Robinson was speaking in the context of what the Falcons’ defense is up against today in the NFC Championship Game: 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who passed for 263 yards in the divisional round victory against Green Bay and ran for 181 more yards.
San Francisco incorporated the pistol formation and some read-option elements this season, part of the threat Kaepernick has become since taking over the starting job in November.
But there’s also what has been going on in Foxborough, Mass., where New England will play host to the Ravens in the AFC title game: a Patriots offense finding yet another reincarnation under quarterback Tom Brady, this time relying on hurry-up principles, some learned from former Oregon coach and newly appointed Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly.
Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis — part of that 2000 Ravens defense Robinson referenced, which gave up just 247.9 yards per game — "absolutely" sees more new offensive trends now than when his NFL career began 17 years ago.
Yes, concepts are recycled and repurposed, but Lewis believes the array of new rules that players long have said swing the pendulum to the offense (many limiting contact with offensive skill players, for starters) also encourages the development and spread of new offensive fads.
"There are so many rules that are put in now for the offense. So it helps them. It favors them a lot. So why wouldn’t they do it?" Lewis said. "You throw the ball downfield, and there is favorable pass interference. You hurry up, and you get 12 men on the field. There are so many things that favor (the offense), and it’s changed so much from earlier in my career to now."
Last weekend’s slate of divisional playoff games was the highest-scoring round in NFL postseason history, with 276 points (excluding an eight-game first round in 1982).
It’s interesting, too, that seven of the eight head coaches hired since the regular season ended have offensive backgrounds — including Kelly and his high-powered offensive reputation making the jump to the pros.
The 49ers were a good team before the Kaepernick innovations — they hosted the NFC Championship Game last year with Alex Smith as their quarterback — but the second-year pro’s skill set has put a different kind of pressure on opposing defenses.
Robinson said Kaepernick may be the fastest of all the mobile quarterbacks Atlanta has played this season, a group that includes Carolina’s Cam Newton, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
The Falcons gave up 403 yards to Newton (287 passing and 116 rushing) in a Week 14 loss, and last week let Wilson pass for 385 yards and run for 60 yards — much of which came during Seattle’s nearly successful second-half comeback.
"We’re getting very creative with the ways that we’re structuring our offense, and Colin is a big reason why we’re able to do that," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "That extra split second of hesitation (by defenses) really creates an advantage for the offense, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re having success, because we’re getting creative."
The Patriots got creative this season, too, with a warp-speed approach that rattled off a league-high 1,191 offensive plays, an average of 74.4 per game, and often caught defenses out of alignment. Picking up the pace is one way savvy offenses can "kind of steal yardage throughout the game," Lewis said.
There is, of course, a give and take. Teams look for defensive players who can run, can play sideline to sideline and are versatile enough to play the run and the pass.
But as four teams vie for two bids to the Super Bowl today, what will be on display is the way of the NFL: Offenses are setting the pace, and the pressure is on defenses to catch up.
"In any business, you have to be able to push the envelope," Staley said.
"You have to be able to always try to be innovative, and try to be creative, and not just do something that has been done 20 years in a row."