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Defense, offense seek perfect match

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was screaming so loudly and consistently during one training camp practice last month, he was almost a substitute for piped-in crowd noise.

Every time the ball hit the ground, be it a fumble or an incomplete pass, Williams started ranting – creating an almost Pavlovian response from his defensive players.

"Pick it up! Run it back! Pick it up! Run it back!" Williams screamed again and again.

While this rudimentary idea of becoming turnover-conscious seems elementary, it's symbolic of what the Saints and other teams have focused on going into the season: Find a way to match the defense with the offense.

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The Saints under Payton have lost the turnover battle the past three seasons.
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It seems simple enough. The point of offense is to score. The point of defense is to stop the other team from scoring. But in the NFL, the ideas get more complex, impacted by factors from whether the offense has a great running game that can eat clock to whether the defense has a great front seven or perhaps a better secondary.

"It's an important study because we talk about playing a complementary game to each other," New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said. "What fits our offense? What fits the defense? I think some of Gregg's game plans from going against him [in the past] were some seven-man coverage looks where it became tough for us to attack them. But I think each game we'll talk a lot about how we want to play this given game. That can change from week to week."

While that's somewhat true, there's still the idea of an overall plan. Furthermore, in this age when head coaches often run one side of the ball and have a coordinator run the other side, making sure the philosophies match up is often difficult.

"I have a real problem with that idea that you have one coach for one side of the ball and another coach for the other side and they just go their separate ways," said Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, whose team changed defensive coordinators and its philosophy this offseason. "People may think I'm an offensive guy because of my background, but I have to know what the defense is doing, how they're going to play in a certain situation and what that means for the offense."

The marriage of offense and defense is clearly defined for many NFL teams. The defensive-oriented Baltimore Ravens consistently have a strong running game capable of eating clock and protecting small leads. The Pittsburgh Steelers are much the same. As the New England Patriots shifted toward throwing the ball more, it put a greater emphasis on the pass rush, and used that combination to nearly go undefeated in 2007. New England set an NFL record with 589 points and was second in the league with 47 sacks.

By contrast, one of the classic examples of mismatched philosophies came in the early 1990s in Miami, when the Dolphins were leaning on the passing skills of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. The Dolphins had an explosive passing game, a sub-par running game and a defense that was based on a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. The result was many games where the Dolphins struggled with time of possession, didn't maximize Marino's ability because they didn't force more turnovers and, ultimately, had a worn-out defense by the end of the season.

"If you have a guy like Dan and that passing game, you should be blitzing more to force action, force turnovers," said New York Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff, who was with Miami at the time. "Yeah, you might take some chances and give up some scores. But if you can get the ball an extra two or three times a game, think what a guy like Marino could do with that.

"Plus, you had so many times when our offense might only hold the ball for 30 or 40 seconds and then the defense goes out there for five or six minutes. It wore us out."

By contrast, the St. Louis Rams of the last 1990s and early 2000s played fast and furious on both sides of the ball, even though coach Mike Martz wasn't always paying much attention to the defense.

"Mike wouldn't even really come into the defensive meetings at all," former Rams defensive lineman Jeff Zgonina(notes) said. "Sometimes we wouldn't even see him all week, except on the practice field. He'd just say to us, 'Get the ball back.' He wanted it back as fast as possible, so that's what we focused on."

Fast-forward to 2009, when the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees(notes) have recreated the Marino-era Dolphins, but want to get closer to what St. Louis did in its heyday. Last year, Brees joined Marino as the only quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, coming within 15 yards of Marino's record of 5,084 yards.

But where the Saints have come up short since the pass-happy Payton took over in 2006 is in the turnover category. New Orleans has lost the turnover battle in each of Payton's three seasons, depriving the high-octane offense of those extra possessions that could prove vital.

Enter Williams, a guy who has devised numerous combinations of blitzes and coverages to earn league-wide respect as a defensive coordinator.

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The Cardinals' Whisenhunt hopes his defense can improve to complement his 4th-ranked offense from 2008.
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

"Sean is right that it usually depends on what type of game you're playing," Williams said. "But what we've always talked about is not worrying about giving up that big play. No matter what happens, if you give up a big completion, do whatever you can to chase it down so we can line up for the next play. Let's see if we can make something happen with a turnover or a stop or something.

"We're going to play with some risk, depending on the situation. We just have to make that work."

Likewise, the Packers made a switch in order to get more pass rush out of their defense. Last year, Green Bay won the turnover battle for the season with seven more turnovers than its offense gave up. But the Packers did that despite a pass rush that produced only 27 sacks, which was ranked No. 25. Enter defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the 3-4 defense, a system that puts a higher priority on blitzing and putting pressure on the quarterback.

"If we can get more pressure, that's going to help us in a lot of ways," McCarthy said. "You're talking about not just turnovers, but getting off the field on third down, everything."

By contrast, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said the priority for his defense after his offense led the way to the team's first Super Bowl appearance last season is to simply get better.

"The foundation of what we do has to be better first," said Whisenhunt, whose team allowed 426 points last season. The Cardinals were the first team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl after allowing more than 400 points.

"You can talk about playing at a higher pace or blitzing or whatever, but you have to get some basic things down first and that's the approach we're taking right now."

It's hard to argue with that philosophy.

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