By Norm Elrod
The NFL’s high-flying offenses, like the Chiefs and Rams, generate the highlights. But the Bears and the Ravens are showing the importance of defense as playoff races heat up. The Bears limited the Rams to just six points in Week 14, and the Ravens came very close to knocking off the Chiefs. Both teams, oriented around defense, find themselves contending for division titles with just three games left in the season.
The Bears can lock up the NFC North this week, and the Ravens could pull ahead in the AFC North. And according to Inside the NFL analyst Ray Lewis, both of these teams can go deep in the playoffs should they get the right matchups. We caught up with Ray to talk defense and more as he prepared for the show. You can catch him alongside Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, guest analyst Ed Reed and host James Brown tonight on Showtime at 9 p.m. ET.
What are the keys to slowing down the NFL’s elite offenses, like the Chiefs, Rams and Saints?
It’s never changed. We get so caught up in and enamored of the high scoring and the long passes. But the bottom line is whoever your dominant front seven is, that’s who’s going to dominate the game. Like you saw many times on Sunday, with the Bears and the Ravens, you saw both [opposing] quarterbacks, from those high-powered offenses, running. Once you can establish your dominance in that front seven, you control 90 percent of the game.
One of the biggest plays was made in that Kansas City game on a fourth and eight. You cannot let Patrick Mahomes out of the pocket. If you let him out of the pocket, he has the ability to throw anybody open. And that’s when he becomes deadly.
We’re going to start to see the best run games and the best defenses in football. Those teams will surprise people.
Offense has been the focus this season. But the Bears and Ravens are contending for playoff spots on the strength of their defenses. How far can defense carry these teams in the playoffs?
It’s all matchups. Who do the Bears get and where? The Bears and the Saints in New Orleans… that’s a tough one. If the Bears are at home, they’re a different ball club. If the Ravens get somebody at home…
The Ravens have a real chance right now. If Pittsburgh drops this one this week, and they beat the Bucs this week, the Ravens move into first place in the AFC North. That’s huge for them. Either way the Ravens win this week, because Pittsburgh and the Patriots can’t take a loss. The Ravens are right on their heals.
I just think it’s going to come down to the matchups. The Patriots don’t want to play the Ravens. Nobody in the AFC wants to play the Ravens right now. They’re running the ball like no other.
When Joe Flacco comes in, the run game is gone. That dynamic, what Lamar Jackson brings, it stops there. Now you’re not playing to your defense. Now you’re playing Joe Flacco football. It’s a tricky dynamic.
When I was playing, we always looked at matchups. What if we saw this team? What if we saw that team? But if we got the right team, they didn’t have a chance.
And that’s what the Bears said to the Rams. Jared Goff’s success rides on Todd Gurley’s shoulders. They took Todd Gurley out of that game, you saw the real Jared Goff. That’s a different team. If you’re a defensive coordinator, and you go into that game with the mentality that we’re going eight in the box to stop Gurley. Second down and long, third down and long and make Goff beat you. That’s how I’m playing the Rams.
How am I playing Kansas City? Kareem Hunt is gone, so they’re not as dominant. I’m going to rush four men, and tell [Mahomes] to beat me.
How does this Ravens defense compare to some of legendary Ravens defenses that you and Ed Reed [this week’s Inside the NFL guest analyst] led?
I would never compare those. What I’m proud of is that the tradition carries on. You set a standard. To have that culture, it’s players, it’s sizzle, making that culture live. When you think of the Ravens, you think of defense.
The AFC North is basically a tossup. What do the Steelers and Ravens each have to do to win the division and avoid the wild card or even missing the playoffs?
You’re now starting to see the effect. You lose Conner and the run game. They have to get that run game going. They can’t expose their defense. Their defense from the secondary side isn’t as good as people think. Even from the linebacking core. The Steelers are known for defense, but you saw what happened last week against the Raiders. It’s going to be tough this week to beat Brady in Pittsburgh. But whoever loses this game, it changes their whole season. This is a big one for both.