Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett slammed into San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams, who clutched the intruder with unwelcome arms. Normally there would be no escape from the impenetrable, 320-pound Williams, but Garrett sat hard on his right leg, folded his hands under the tackle’s grip and threw him out of the way.
Williams stumbled and almost fell to the ground. Garrett, 50 pounds lighter than the man he displaced, continued his pass rush. It wasn’t a consistent play — no sack, no forced turnover, no prolonged impact on Williams — but Garrett made his point. The Browns defense came to play and live up to their historic standard. As of Sunday afternoon, the 49ers were no longer undefeated.
This game shaped the mood of the NFL season so far. It was a performance of raw physicality rather than offensive theatrics.
In recent seasons there have been signs that defensive strategy was finally beginning to adapt to the offensive innovations that had transformed the sport into fast-paced football. Now, for the first time in nearly a decade, you can expect the defense to have caught up.
Football is again a real fight, not fireworks. Defenders can throw the feeling of inferiority overboard. Crimes must collect themselves.
It’s impossible to ignore the evidence. In a six-week span, nine teams allow fewer than 300 yards per game. The Browns are yielding just 200.4, the stingiest mark a defense has achieved through its first five games in more than half a century.
To put the stats in context, no defense allowed fewer than 300 yards per game across the entire 17-game schedule last season. In 2021, only one team made it. It seems inevitable that offenses will improve as the season progresses, but the conventional wisdom is that as winter approaches the game will slow down, leading to lower scores and a preference for controlling possession over piling 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 that clearly highlighted the good of the NFL defense – and the bad of the offense. In the 15-game slate, only five of the 30 teams scored more than 21 points. Miami (42) and Jacksonville (37) were the only teams to score more than 26 points. Across the league, teams averaged 18.4 points, which was the lowest average of any NFL week in nine years.
The Browns and New York Jets, teams with stout defenses and even luckier ones, won outstanding victories and handed the 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles their first losses by blowing those games. With quarterback PJ Walker starting for the injured Deshaun Watson, the Browns overcame the backup’s two interceptions by limiting San Francisco to 215 yards and fought through a difficult game in which 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Deebo Samuel were sidelined by injuries lost . Williams injured his ankle early but came back and fought his way to the finish. He did it out of respect for Garrett, who is tough enough to be a healthy All-Pro. Williams didn’t want to let his teammates down.
“He’s one of the best in the world,” said Williams, the former Washington star. “He’s exactly what I imagined.”
The 49ers are the most talented, balanced and physical team on both sides of the football, and beating them requires dealing with their violent style. Cleveland didn’t just rise to the challenge. The Browns inflicted pain in a 19-17 win.
In their own way, the Jets picked apart the Eagles. In a 20-14 win, their defense forced four turnovers, including three interceptions by Jalen Hurts. After an MVP season that nearly ended in a Super Bowl triumph, Hurts is now one of many high-profile quarterbacks who have become inconsistent and ineffective this season. He ranks 20th in efficiency, but that’s still better than franchise signal-callers like Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford. Hurts is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least six interceptions.
The Jets are 3-3 despite Aaron Rodgers missing four games after his debut in New York with an Achilles tendon injury. Zach Wilson is not a significantly better quarterback. Their offensive average is a miserable 18.8 points and 277 yards. But they have an elite defense that is as comprehensive as it gets from front to back.
In the era of powerful quarterbacks, the Jets could not be taken seriously because of their offensive limitations. Great quarterbacks couldn’t be stopped; They could hardly be stopped. But if this season continues the way it started, there’s hope for almost every point-deprived team, except perhaps the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
“We played one in the first six weeks [gantlet] of quarterbacks,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh. “I know we didn’t get all the victories, but we embarrassed them all.”
He later walked back the “embarrassed” line. But that wasn’t really necessary. Dak Prescott is the only quarterback who can say he played well against the Jets, and he had to complete 31 passes to gain 255 yards against their defense.
The Jets embody the way the defense has modernized. Their system is a little simpler than others, but the basic concepts are the same: By using more two-high safety systems, teams limit the explosive plays of any team that doesn’t have the speed of the Miami Dolphins and force quarterbacks to make reads They change coverage in the middle of the field. This extra time increases the impact that ultra-athletic defensive linemen can have. 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 vulnerable to the run, few offenses develop effective running plays and have the patience to sustain them. These teams are thriving. The rest seem to act like no one has figured them out.
As we approach the midway point of the season, 16 teams – exactly half the NFL – are averaging 21.5 points or fewer. It’s not ugly. It’s retro. After all, there is tension in every snapshot.
The cat and mouse game is back. And the cats get embarrassed.