Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett crashed into San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams, who clutched the intruder with unwelcoming arms. Usually, there would be no escaping the impenetrable, 320-pound Williams, but Garrett planted hard on his right leg, clasped his hands under the tackle’s grip and tossed him out of the way.
Williams stumbled and nearly fell to the turf. Garrett, 50 pounds lighter than the man he dislodged, continued his pass rush. It wasn’t a consequential play – no sack, no forced turnover, no prolonged effect on Williams – but Garrett made his point. The Browns’ defense had come to play and live up to its historic standard. By Sunday afternoon, the 49ers were no longer undefeated.
That play signified the vibe of the NFL season so far. It was a feat of raw physicality in lieu of offensive theatrics.
For the past few seasons, there have been signs that defensive strategy was finally starting to adjust to the offensive innovation that had transformed the sport into fast-break football. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, it’s safe to assume the defenses have caught up.
Football is an actual fight again, not a fireworks show. Defenders can toss aside the perception of inferiority. Offenses must collect themselves.
It’s impossible to ignore the evidence. Through six weeks, nine teams are allowing fewer than 300 yards per game. The Browns are yielding just 200.4, which is the stingiest any defense has been through its first five games in more than a half-century.
To put the statistics in context, no defense allowed fewer than 300 yards per game last season over the full 17-game schedule. In 2021, just one team did. It seems inevitable that offenses will improve as the season progresses, but conventional wisdom is that the game slows down as winter approaches, leading to lower scores and a preference for controlling possession over racking up yards.
If that happens this time, the NFL might as well televise the games in black and white.
Week 6 proved to be a perfect storm, magnifying all the good of NFL defenses – and the bad of offenses. The 15-game slate saw just five of the 30 teams surpass 21 points. Miami (42) and Jacksonville (37) were the lone teams to score more than 26. Across the league, teams averaged 18.4 points, which represented the lowest average for any NFL week in nine years.
The Browns and New York Jets, teams with hard-hitting defenses and even harder luck, earned signature victories and handed the 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles their first losses by mucking up those games. With quarterback PJ Walker starting for the injured Deshaun Watson, the Browns overcame the backup’s two interceptions because they limited San Francisco to 215 yards and muscled their way through a gnarly game in which the 49ers lost running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Deebo Samuel to injuries. Williams hurt his ankle early, but he returned and struggled through the finish. He did it out of respect for Garrett, who is hard enough for a healthy all-pro to handle. Williams didn’t want to abandon his teammates.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” said Williams, the former Washington star. “He’s everything I thought he was going to be.”
The 49ers are the most talented, balanced and physical team on both sides of the football, and to beat them, you must account for their violent style. Cleveland didn’t just stand up to the challenge. The Browns administered pain during a 19-17 victory.
In their own way, the Jets took apart the Eagles. In a 20-14 win, their defense forced four turnovers, including three interceptions of Jalen Hurts. Coming off an MVP-caliber season that almost ended with a Super Bowl triumph, Hurts is now among the many high-profile quarterbacks who have been rendered inconsistent and inefficient this season. He ranks 20th in efficiency, but that’s still better than franchise signal callers such as Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford. Hurts is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least six interceptions.
The Jets are 3-3 despite losing Aaron Rodgers to an Achilles’ injury four plays into his New York debut. Zach Wilson is not an appreciably better quarterback. Their offense averages a miserable 18.8 points and 277 yards. But they have an elite defense that’s as complete as it gets from front to back.
During the era of high-performing quarterbacks, the Jets couldn’t be taken seriously because of their offensive limitations. Great quarterbacks couldn’t be stopped; they could barely be slowed. But if this season continues the way it has begun, there’s hope for just about every points-deficient team, except for maybe the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
“Through these first six weeks, we’ve played a [gantlet] of quarterbacks,” Jets Coach Robert Saleh said. “I know we haven’t gotten all wins, but we’ve embarrassed all of them.”
Later, he walked back the “embarrassed” line. But he didn’t really need to. Dak Prescott is the only quarterback who can say he played well against the Jets, and he had to complete 31 passes just to gain 255 yards against their defense.
The Jets epitomize the way defenses have modernized. Their system is a little simpler than others, but the loose concepts are the same: By employing more two-high-safety schemes, teams are limiting the explosive plays of every squad that doesn’t have the Miami Dolphins’ speed and forcing quarterbacks to read shifting coverages in the middle of the field. That extra time increases the impact ultra-athletic defensive linemen can have. When tasked with defending in space, a new generation of players has the agility and skills to thrive in the open field.
While these schemes and personnel adjustments make defenses more susceptible to the run, only a handful of offenses draw up effective running plays and have the patience to stick with them. Those teams are thriving. The rest seem to be pretending that no one has figured them out.
As we inch closer to midseason, 16 teams – exactly half the NFL – are averaging 21.5 points or fewer. It’s not ugly. It’s retro. Finally, there is tension on every snap.
The cat-and-mouse game is back. And the cats are getting embarrassed.