Niyo: Super Bowl 50 provides another lesson on defense

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Somewhere amid the rubble of Super Bowl 50, buried along with Cam Newton’s celebratory mood and a thousand hot takes about race and class and sportsmanship, there was, in fact, a lesson to be learned.

And while most seemed fixated on the postgame petulance of the league MVP in the aftermath of Denver’s 24-10 dismantling of Carolina, others surely saw it for what it was: An affirmation defense still wins championships, more often than not.

Whether it’s a goal-line stand or a final-play pass breakup — like Baltimore’s blitz to clinch the Harbaugh Bowl a few years ago or Malcolm Butler making a goat of Seattle’s Pete Carroll a year ago — or a start-to-finish bludgeoning like we saw Sunday, it remains the rule rather than the exception.

One that other NFL teams — specifically the one here in Detroit that’s about to lose another iconic offensive star to retirement — should heed, even as the league keeps telling them otherwise with its own rulebook.

Just ask the architect of this newest champion, John Elway, the Hall of Fame former quarterback who took over as the Broncos general manager in 2011.

His Denver team was in a similar position two years ago, arriving at the Super Bowl with a record-setting offense, averaging nearly 38 points with Peyton Manning throwing an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes. All that quickly imploded, though, as Seattle’s Legion of Boom destroyed Denver, 43-8, that day.

“We broke all of those records that year, but we had the opportunity that offseason to get better on the defensive side,” Elway explained last week in the run-up to this Super Bowl return.

Difference begins with ‘D’

He cited the free-agent additions of rush linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart in the wake of that championship loss. Then he noted the shift in Denver’s war-room strategy, using their last five first-round picks on defensive players, including Sunday’s MVP, Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick behind Newton in 2011.

“And I think it’s all come together,” Elway said, a few days before it did exactly that, as the Broncos sacked Newton six times, hounded him into a season-worst 55.4 passer rating and left him so emotionally battered that he scrambled from the pocket too early in the postgame media session.

“I think our football team knew what we were,” said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, a former quarterback whose background is entirely on the offensive side. “We knew what our identity was all year long, how we won games — we won a lot of close football games. We played very consistent defense.”

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The playoffs only proved that point, as coordinator Wade Phillips’ crew ran the gantlet while allowing just four touchdowns in three games. Only two of those came on drives of longer than 50 yards. And though injuries certainly hampered Pittsburgh and New England, these were still three of the top four scoring offenses in the league this season. (The other, by the way, was Arizona, the team that Carolina smothered in the NFC Championship, hounding quarterback Carson Palmer into six turnovers.)

And for all the attention focused on Manning’s fond farewell Sunday night — Papa John’s and Budweiser for everyone! — Denver set an NFL record for the fewest total yards (194) by a winning team in a Super Bowl.

You can credit all the turnovers for some of that — the clinching touchdown drive by the Broncos covered 4 yards. But on a night that saw two teams combine for a Super Bowl-record 12 sacks and just four third-down conversions in 29 attempts, there was no avoiding the obvious: Defense ruled the day.

Lions must heed lesson

Which brings us back to the Lions, the only non-expansion team in the league — depending on your view of the second-generation Browns — to never reach the NFL’s biggest stage.

They’re under new management again. And with Johnson’s likely retirement announcement expected any day now, they’ve reached another awkward crossroads when it comes to building their roster.

The Lions have gone with offense first in the draft in three of the last four years, and with seven of their 11 first- and second-round picks overall since 2011. The total is 10 of 15 since 2009, when the post-Matt Millen era began. And since 2000, 14 of the Lions’ 18 first-round picks have been offensive players, a few of them in more ways than one.

That figures to change under new GM Bob Quinn, who learned from Bill Belichick in New England, where the Patriots have used just one first-round pick on an offensive player in the last decade while still maintaining arguably the league’s most efficient scoring machine.

Quinn will have to replace Johnson’s production, and the offensive line figures to be a priority in free agency. Yet with a healthy number of draft picks — 10 for now — and plenty of cap space, there’s an opportunity here for a significant personnel makeover.

And with some Pro Bowl-caliber talent to build around on defense — Ziggy Ansash, DeAndre Levy, Glover Quin and Darius Slay all are keepers — there’s a chance to make that unit a strength again, the way it was a couple years ago when it carried the Lions to the playoffs.

But only if the Lions were paying attention Sunday. They’ve been Super Bowl spectators for so long, it’s fair to wonder whether they were.

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