Commentary

The Harbaugh Defense Salvation Shows

Jim's 49ers and John's Ravens are staging defensive revivals in this new-wave NFL

Originally Published: January 6, 2012
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

The Brothers Harbaugh did not nominate themselves to be the NFL's leading proponents of old-time football religion. It just happened by the time the axiom-smashing regular season ended Sunday with another tsunami of the yardage and points that have stood the game's establishment on its head.

Why, even Mike Ditka clamped his steam-shovel jaw tight and laid a funeral wreath on defense-first football. There's a philosophical tug-of-war going on in the NFL that, as Ditka put it, "flies in the face of everything I know." And the playoffs are only expected to underscore it. Converts piled up with each pass-happy, record-annihilating game the league spat out in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh
AP Photo/Darron CummingsJohn Harbaugh has the Ravens right where he wants them as the playoffs begin: Playing great defense with a strong running game and a first-round bye.

"You win with offense in the National Football League now," Ditka said.

The Brothers Harbaugh have heard that talk. And they smirk. They scoff. They do not agree.

Jim Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the NFC in his first year as their head coach, using the same basic formula that his brother John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, employed to finish 12-4 with the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Their teams are mirror images of each other -- and nobody else.

And yet, the Harbaughs seem to be laughing at the lemmings who believe in this Year of the Quarterback foolery or who consider them dinosaurs.

Consider this exchange that John had Monday at his first postseason news conference:

Q: "John, the top seeds in each conference have some crazy offensive numbers this year. … Your team is highly ranked on defense, with balance. I'm wondering if you think you can still win it all with primarily defense?"

"Last year's [Green Bay] team was the No. 1 defense, weren't they, that won it all?" Harbaugh shot back. "And if you look back at Pittsburgh, they won it, what two years ago, wasn't it? Weren't they the No. 1-ranked defense? The top four defenses in the league are in the tournament right now, and 38 of the 45 Super Bowl champions were in the Top 10 in defense. So, 'yes' is the answer to that -- directly."

Harbaugh's passionate addition of the word "directly" and his ready command of a half-century of pro-defense stats left some reporters in the room laughing.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh, Alex Smith
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlex Smith (No. 11) might not put up Drew Brees-type numbers, but he does everything Jim Harbaugh asks of him.

"That wasn't planned," Harbaugh added, laughing at himself now, too.

The Harbaughs' message is clear: Let them keep talking up there in New England about the low-risk/high-reward advantages of the bubble screen. Down in Baltimore, Ravens defenders will just keep on resurrecting their promises to make "snot-bubble" hits on everybody, and keep on listening to linebacker Terrell Suggs' boasts about how he "owns" Steelers archrival Ben Roethlisberger's butt.

Out in San Francisco, Jim remains convinced that his team can go all the way even if he and Alex Smith, his reclamation project at quarterback, labor in the same conference in which Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was said to be playing quarterback better than anyone in the NFL ever has -- at least until a late surge by New Orleans' Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's 1984 record of 5,084 passing yards in a season. Here's why: The Niners' defense was ranked fourth in the league and allowed only 14.3 points a game. San Francisco had 38 takeaways against a record-low 10 turnovers by its offense.

Rodgers, Brees and New England's Tom Brady have been lighting up scoreboards like pinball machines all year long. In another season, New York quarterback Eli Manning would be getting serious MVP consideration for how he dragged a flawed Giants team with the league's worst running game to the NFC East title and the playoffs. Even Pittsburgh is more of a hybrid team now. The Steelers again had the No. 1 defense, but they've morphed into more of a passing offense now with Roethlisberger. And that was true even before they lost their best running back, Rashard Mendenhall, to an ACL injury on Sunday.

Green Bay is the first NFL team with the league's worst-ranked defense to ever make the playoffs, let alone lead the league in wins. New England, the AFC's top seed, has the league's second-worst defense. More proof times have changed: In the 2010 season, the San Diego Chargers finished first on defense and failed to make the playoffs.

But don't expect the Harbaughs to flip-flop any time soon.

[+] EnlargeJim, John and Jack Harbaugh
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesCoaching runs in the family, obviously. It started with Jack Harbaugh, right, who met with his sons before the Ravens played the 49ers in November.

They're the sons of a longtime football coach, Jack Harbaugh, who took Western Kentucky to a Division I-AA title and worked seven seasons when his boys were young as an assistant coach for Michigan's Bo Schembechler, a fiery man who loved the fullback dive as much as anyone who ever walked God's green earth in cleats. John, who is 49, and Jim, who just turned 48, were born just 15 months apart, and they remain so close they could be mistaken for twins. They grew up watching men such as Schembechler with crucible jobs and gale-force tempers hew to beliefs as immovable as foothills. They are not the sort of men who jump off a cliff just because everyone else is stampeding that way.

John Harbaugh is correct that defense and running games have historically won championships. But when you look at just the past 10 years rather than the 45-year sample size he mentioned, the trend is that great quarterbacks win titles. The roll call goes like this: Brady (three rings), Roethlisberger (two) and Brees, Rodgers, the Manning boys and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson (how'd he get in there?!) at one apiece.

It's just more evidence that these upcoming playoffs should be a fascinating struggle.

Do you prefer the meat-and-potatoes football the Harbaughs play, or breathless offenses in which every snap resembles a jailbreak? Are the Ravens and Niners delusional to think they can take cap-gun passing offenses into a cannon fight? Or can you really still win it all in today's NFL with a strong running game and even stronger defense? Is the best Kryptonite for beating a great passer such as Rodgers, Brees or Brady still a ferocious pass rush like the Ravens have? Or don't the past 10 years of title winners suggest the new orthodoxy in the NFL is that you better have both?

Defending champion Green Bay led the NFL in sacks last year and had Rodgers. Pittsburgh eked out a victory in the 2010 Super Bowl in part thanks to a touchdown return by linebacker James Harrison and Roethlisberger's heroic last-second drive. The Giants beat Brady's previously unbeaten Patriots team in the 2008 Super Bowl with a boatload of sacks and some magical play from Eli Manning.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs, Alex Smith
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesGenerating a consistent pass rush without Terrell Suggs will be a major concern for Baltimore.

Neither the Ravens nor the 49ers played Green Bay or New England this season while finishing just behind them in the win-loss column. But the Harbaughs' teams did play each other on Thanksgiving Day, and the way that game unfurled for each team was a near-carbon copy, too.

San Francisco began the third quarter with a smash-mouth, 13-play drive that ate up seven and a half minutes and led to a field goal that tied the game at 6. The Ravens responded with a 76-yard, 16-play drive of their own that also lasted seven and a half minutes and produced their only touchdown. Neither quarterback (Smith for the 49ers, Joe Flacco for the Ravens) topped 170 yards passing. The difference was that the Ravens sacked Smith nine times and, as Suggs might say, nearly owned his butt a handful of other times.

It was hard-hitting, slobber-flying, hammer-and-tongs football, with very few of the fancy-pants five-receiver sets that make NFL games seem like track meets. Everyone looked like they needed a good chiropractor afterward.

But when the Harbaughs shared a postgame hug at midfield, you could tell both of them thought it was just beautiful. They even exchanged I-love-yous.

Call them dinosaurs if you want. Just don't expect them to change their teams' styles when their first-week playoff byes are over and their seasons resume next weekend.

"I don't think you change your identity," Jim told reporters Monday.

"It's tried and true," John agreed.

Can you imagine if they end up playing each other in the Super Bowl? The atmosphere inside the Indianapolis dome that's hosting the game is going to feel like a tent revival. Maybe Ditka will start speaking in tongues. Old-time football will throw down its crutches and walk the walk again.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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