Most defensive coaches and players are fighting a losing battle against offenses and the NFL in general. Each offseason, they operate under labor rules promoting what is most important to offenses (timing) and limiting what is most important to defenses (physical play). Then, when the season gets going, defenses live by playing rules increasingly shaded to protect quarterbacks and receivers. Meanwhile, colleges keep turning out quarterbacks with the skills to succeed in the pro game.
That context explains why multiple passing records have fallen during the first two weeks of the 2013 regular season, including the single-game TD passing record, which Peyton Manning tied by tossing seven scores in Week 1.
So what is a defense to do when facing the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falconsor New Orleans Saints? ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Matt Williamson search for answers to stop each of these offenses in their Week 3 conversation.
Sando: We excluded New England from this conversation because the Patriots have serious issues on offense right now. They rank 28th, one spot lower than the New York Jets, in yards per pass drop-back. Meanwhile, their former top receiver, Wes Welker, has three touchdown receptions in his first two games with the Broncos. But there is at least one potential problem, as the Broncos just lost left tackle Ryan Clady for the season. Is that a big deal?
Williamson: The deep-passing game requires offensive linemen to hold up longer, but at this stage, that isn't a big part of Manning's game. While we're looking for weaknesses, I'd say where Manning is worst is arm-strength throws. I don't think Peyton throws the ball well at this point in his career. If he has to drive deep outs or deep digs over the middle, or comebacks where you fit it into a tough spot -- or late in the year in Denver when the wind is kicking up -- that is a trouble spot.
Sando: We interrupt this discussion to note that Manning has nine touchdown passes with no interceptions through two games. He leads the NFL in passer rating (131.0) and Total QBR (86.8). He seems to be doing OK despite that supposed wet noodle dangling from his right shoulder. His ball placement is phenomenal. He's a wide receiver's best friend that way.
Williamson: The Broncos' receivers are really good after the catch, too. Demaryius Thomas is phenomenal and Welker is very good. You have to crowd the line of scrimmage. You need linebackers hitting Welker or Thomas on those drag routes. You need gang tackles and a lot of people closer to the ball. If that means getting beat over the top once in a while, so be it.
Sando: Manning has completed one out of five attempts on passes traveling at least 25 yards past the line of scrimmage, including a beautiful ball delivered from the left hash to Andre Caldwell against the Giants' double coverage along the left sideline Sunday. These are long-distance throws and that 1-for-5 stat mirrors the NFL average for 33 qualifying quarterbacks. It's not much of a sample size. But the Packers' Aaron Rodgers has completed 4-of-6. Manning does lead the NFL in scoring passes (four) on throws traveling between 15 and 24 yards down the field. He has completed 8-of-15 throws in that category.
Williamson: That's why defenses need to clog the middle of the field against Denver. Rex Ryan used to do this to Tom Brady when the Patriots didn't have the deep threat with Randy Moss. Everything was between the numbers with the tight ends and Welker. The Jets would play dime coverage and beg you to run. They had two really good corners who would eliminate two receivers and then they'd put a ton of big safeties in the middle of the field. It kind of worked. By the way, when I talk about Manning's arm strength, I'm not saying he is overrated. He just doesn't make hard throws at this point.
Sando: Now that we've figured out how to stop the Broncos (wink, wink), let's turn our attention to the Packers. Rodgers is averaging 10.3 yards per pass attempt this season and has posted seven touchdowns to just one interception with a nearly 70 percent completion rate. This should be easy ...
Williamson: The Packers have so many weapons, including Randall Cobb, who they can put in the backfield and hand it off to if they want. Few teams have that type of receiver. The offensive line is the Packers' weakness, and Rodgers holds the ball a long time. So, if you are going to have success against their passing game, it will be by hitting Rodgers a ton and making him force his throws. But he is the best quarterback in the league under pressure.
Sando: Rodgers completed 37 of 82 passes (45.1 percent) with five touchdowns, one pick and a league-high 75.2 QBR against pressure last season. He has completed only 1 of 9 throws for 3 yards and one score in those situations this season, but it's early.
Williamson: He's the best QB in the league. At least with Manning, he doesn't throw the deep ball exceptionally well. Of course, there is still no "right" answer with Manning because he is smarter than anyone else on the field. Rodgers has some of that, too, but his greatest strength works well with the Packers' greatest weakness -- the line. The other thing about Rodgers that isn't talked about enough is that he almost never throws interceptions. Between Rodgers and Drew Brees, it's not even close. Rodgers is the best player in the league, but he holds it a long time and his line is not good. You can get hits on him.
Sando: I went back and watched a few of Rodgers' interceptions from last season. Corey Webster of the Giants seemed to guess right on one throw. One of Rodgers' receivers ran the wrong route on another. These weren't repeatable situations.
Sando: While Rodgers is the best, the Falcons' Matt Ryan is leading the NFL in completion rate (71.6) through Week 2. There are also some concerns, however. Steven Jackson is injured andRoddy White has not been 100 percent. Plus, Jackson is 30 years old, White is 31 and Tony Gonzalez is 37.
Williamson: Atlanta is starting to worry me, but I've been down on them all offseason. The Falcons are not a deep team and the passing game makes the whole team go. They are a little more fragile partly because I think Ryan is a step below these other quarterbacks. He is good, but not a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Their line is flat-out bad across the board. Julio Jones is a stud, but White is dinged up and he is getting up there in age. Jackson got hurt on what was not even a violent hit. Gonzalez has looked slow and sluggish to me so far this season. That could be due to his lacking preseason, but he is going to hit a wall at some point.
Sando: Jackson is riding a streak of eight seasons with at least 1,000 yards rushing, but he's also a regular on the injury report. He won't play in Week 3 and is expected to miss multiple games. A hamstring injury is to blame. Of course, the Falcons were plenty good offensively last season without Jackson.
Williamson: There is just a finer line with the Falcons because of the players they rely on. There is no backup tight end of note. Their formula is riskier. If Denver lost Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos would still be an elite passing attack. If Jordy Nelson is out, the Packers will still put up 30 points on you.
Sando: Which is not to say we're writing off the Falcons as an easy offense to stop. We hear a lot about Ryan's effectiveness at home. He has 23 touchdown passes with six picks on the road since the start of last season, and he leads the league in QBR on the road over that span. How do we slow the Falcons?
Williamson: You have to do everything possible to take away Jones and make the old guys beat you. What is nice about facing Atlanta is that you can get to Ryan with a decent four-man rush. A lot of defensive front fours are greater than Atlanta's front five. Even this past week, the Rams got beat in Atlanta, but Robert Quinn destroyed the Falcons' line.
Sando: The Saints are already 2-0 in the NFC South without off-the-charts play from Brees, who has three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Williamson: I can't come up with a glaring weakness for the Saints' offense. Of those quarterbacks, Brees is the most likely to throw it to the defense. That might be the only thing. He can do too much at times. Last year was a big indicator of that. Without Sean Payton, they got away from the running game. Part of that was having a historically bad defense. Brees thought he had to be Superman.
Sando: Brees has thrown nearly as many interceptions since 2010 (58) as Manning (28) and Rodgers (28) have thrown combined over the same span (with Manning missing one season). His interception rate since then stands at 2.8 percent. It's lower for Manning (2.1), Ryan (2.0) and Rodgers (1.6). The league average during that time is 2.6 percent, with no qualifying quarterback higher than 3.6 (Eli Manning).
Williamson: You can disrupt Brees' passing lanes more because he is short. Sometimes you'll see him lean his head way back just to find a place to throw. He's is great at it, but he has a harder time seeing the field than the other top QBs.
Sando: Brees has an NFL-best 84 touchdown passes from inside the pocket since 2011. He ranks third behind Manning and Rodgers in Total QBR on those throws. If height is Brees' primary weakness, the question becomes how to exploit it.
Williamson: I don't think it's an accident that the Saints invested a lot of money in their guards. They had Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, then signed Ben Grubbs when Nicks left. Plus, they have had good centers the whole time. They let their tackle, Jermon Bushrod, go. All of their protection schemes start on the inside because Brees is fantastic at dealing with outside pressure, but inside pressure gives him a lot of problems -- mostly because he cannot look over it. If you have a big defensive tackle screaming in the A-gap, Brees can't see the tight end who's wide open. Pressure up the middle is how to break down the Saints' passing attack.