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After a Decade of Explosive Scoring, NFL Defenses Are Back on Top

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Within the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who ranked second last season in passing touchdowns (41), threw for less than one rating and two interceptions, and said the Bills “did a very good job of keeping a top on it” within the secondary.

Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback who threw for 250 yards or more 11 times in 2021, barely surpassed 200 against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5. A reason, he said, was that the Ravens limited downfield strikes and allowed mostly underneath throws.

“If teams are going to play us like that, then that’s what we’re going to must do,” Burrow said in his postgame news conference. “There’s nothing down the sphere if teams are going to play us like they did today.”

The scheme shouldn’t be latest. The previous coach Tony Dungy, a Hall of Famer, said two-high safety coverages were the bottom formation within the Nineteen Seventies for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he won a Super Bowl within the 1978 season as a defensive back. That season, the Steelers allowed the league’s fewest points (195).

But within the N.F.L., schemes recycle out and in of usage because the opposition adapts. By the mid-2010s, with the success of the Seattle Seahawks and Coach Pete Carroll, Cover 3 became more popular. In that coverage, a single-high safety allows one other defender to creep closer to the road of scrimmage, making running the ball tougher.

But defenses began to deploy two-high looks last season against Kansas City after seeing how effectively the Tampa Bay Buccaneers limited quarterback Patrick Mahomes within the Super Bowl within the previous season. It led to the worst slump in Mahomes’s profession: In his first 11 games in 2021, he threw 11 interceptions. The coverage highlighted a bent, Mahomes said, of not throwing to receivers on underneath routes as he relied on downfield heaves.

“It becomes cyclical and type of copycat because you must copy an excellent thing,” Dungy, now an analyst for NBC, said in an interview last month. “Then the opposite side will attempt to determine a approach to attack the nice things. And that results in something else, and the cycle keeps going.”

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