INDIANAPOLIS -- In a time when defenses believe that the rulebook and the league's decision-makers are stacked against them, defense has increasingly become a numbers game.
Or perhaps just a single number game. As in just one number. As in the number four.
In a pass-happy world gone mad, where Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led an offense that shattered the league's single-season scoring record with 606 points and tossed a never-before-seen 55 touchdowns, the best defense is as easy as 1-2-3 and, yes, 4.
"I think it's been proven, the best defenses can rush four and get to the quarterback," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "They don't always have to be the same four from the same spots, but the best defenses can do more things to inhibit offenses in a time when it's difficult, when they can consistently make a pass rush with four [players]. It might be more important than ever."
And certainly Fox, Manning, the Broncos and the rest of the league saw just how important it can be earlier this month in a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. In that game the Seahawks essentially dismantled history as they stifled the Broncos' record-setting offense, repeatedly unsettled Manning in the pocket, sacked Manning once, intercepted him twice and returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown.
So dominant was the Seahawks' performance that even South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney got into the act. Clowney was asked at the scouting combine this past weekend why he should be the No. 1 pick of the May draft.
"The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out," Clowney said. "It takes defense to win championships, hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."
And with offenses trotting out more and more wide-open sets all the time, quarterbacks in the shotgun picking away at defensive formations with five, six or seven defensive backs in them, the defenses that are surviving enough to flourish are those with the best four-man rushes. The Seahawks, for example, sent an extra rusher at Manning on just six snaps in the title game.
The St. Louis Rams, not considered a blitz-heavy team -- as coach Jeff Fisher said, "we like to get there with four" -- have generated 105 sacks in Fisher's two seasons as head coach. And although disruptive players on the interior of a defensive line are certainly still coveted, rushing with four will push the draft's best edge rushers up the board. They may be drafted even higher than their actual grades -- and perhaps even into the No. 1 spot overall if the Houston Texans take the plunge.
Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Auburn's Dee Ford are among the best pass-rushers on this year's draft board. Of that top group, Clowney, who weighed in at 266 pounds at the combine and will get some attention as a possible No. 1, is both the biggest and the fastest, having run an official 4.53 clocking in the 40-yard dash Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Barr, Mack and Ford, all between 251 and 255 pounds, are slightly smaller than Clowney and may get at least some looks from 3-4 defenses looking for outside linebackers. Mack is still the riser of the group.
Mack had 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions this past season. In the season opener against Ohio State, he had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown.
"It helped with the stage, I feel like there was a lot of people watching that game," Mack said. "It helped me tremendously."
Because of Mack's play speed and power, much like the Broncos' Von Miller showed during an 18.5-sack season in 2012, some teams think Mack may fit more of the league's defensive schemes than any of the other top prospects at the position.
But there are players to complement that speed-first crowd, as well. Oregon State's Scott Crichton and Missouri's Kony Ealy may not have tested as well at the combine as some of the others but are productive players who have given scouts plenty to look at in their games. So much so, Ealy, a teammate of SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam, is expected to be selected long before Sam.
Ealy has plenty of athleticism in his game, has a natural dip to his shoulder in his outside move and has plenty of upside. A player like Crichton, who is considered raw, plays with power and high effort to go with 10 forced fumbles in his career.
"You've just got to get off the ball and attack, attack the opposing player, and you've got to just play on their side of the ball," Crichton said. "Coaches always told me, whatever you do, no matter if you are wrong, you've got to play on their side of the ball, and that's what I really took pride in this year and it's worked out for me."
Nine quarterbacks topped 4,000 yards in 2013 -- Manning and Drew Brees had more than 5,000 yards -- and 10 quarterbacks had more than 4,000 yards in 2012 and 10 others in 2011. The need for help across the defensive front isn't set to decrease anytime soon.
Or as Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has put it:
"If you can't get to the quarterback, I don't care who you have covering back there, it won't matter," Bailey said. "They want passing in this league, they want points, and with the way these quarterbacks are now, how they get the ball out, how accurate they are, if you're blitzing them all the time, they'll throw it all over you. You have to rush four and you have to get there, it's the best formula, maybe the only one now."