West Coast defense is all the rage

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For years, the Pacific side of the United States has been associated with the West Coast offense. Sunday, the NFC title game will showcase the West Coast defense.

While the New England at Denver AFC title contest is a meeting of high-scoring offenses, the NFC event pairs power defenses. Seattle allowed a league-low 14.4 points per game during the season, then in its playoff debut held high-scoring New Orleans to 15. San Francisco was third-best against points during the regular season, at 17 points per game allowed, and just held Carolina to 10 points on its own field, shutting out the Panthers in the second half.

The breakthrough idea of the West Coast offense was throwing passes that are designed to be short. Before Bill Walsh, nearly all passing routes were drawn up with long gains as the goal. Walsh realized that short passes could be like extended handoffs. Today at the prep, college and professional levels, football playbooks contain far more short passing routes than long ones.

What's the breakthrough idea of the West Coast defense? Back to basics. During this young century, "unorthodox" has been the favorite word of defensive coordinators. Overload zone blitzes, standing fronts, split coverages, the 46, the Times Square Defense (first used by the Jets against the Patriots in the 2007 playoffs -- all defenders moving pre-snap, like tourists milling around Times Square): confusing the opposition's quarterback has been the goal. The Packers and Ravens have won recent Super Bowls with weird alignments including 2-4-5 looks and defensive linemen dropping into coverage.

This is not the theory of the West Coast defense. The Seahawks and 49ers play conventional fronts, and use a conventional rush much more often than the blitz. There's no mystery about where Seattle or San Francisco defenders are going to be. Offenses know exactly where they're going to be; the problem is outperforming them. Seattle's maddeningly effective corners are not trying to fool quarterbacks, rather, they want to stay glued to receivers. Both teams' front fours usually are coming straight ahead -- maybe a twist, but little funky stuff. Linebackers for both teams crash on rushes and drop on passes, like linebackers of a generation ago.

The West Coast defense is refreshingly simple. Seattle and San Francisco use old-fashioned tactics and outperform offenses. Plus, nobody on either defense takes a down off, which is more important than it might seem. Nobody quits on a play, even when the ball is going the other way -- also, important. And of course Seattle and San Francisco have good players. But most NFL defenses have good players; the Seahawks and 49ers have good players who reach their potential, and they're doing it the old-fashioned way.

Who would have thought the West Coast, known for fads, high-tech, casual dress, laid-back evenings and now for legal marijuana, would be shining the light on traditional football? The West Coast's Chargers can play some defense, too -- three of Denver's four lowest-scoring games this season were versus San Diego.

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