Sweet nothings: Shutouts have been a rare NFL treat
01:02 AM CDT on Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Column by RICK GOSSELIN / The Dallas Morning News | email@example.com
Dick LeBeau played on some great defenses with the Detroit Lions in the 1960s.
A Pro Bowl cornerback, LeBeau played with three Hall of Fame defensive backs and a Hall of Fame linebacker. He also played with an NFL all-decade tackle and three other Pro Bowl defenders.
The Lions had the talent to be a slam-the-door shut defense. But in LeBeau's 14 seasons covering 185 games, Detroit managed to slam the door shut only 11 times – posting 11 shutouts from 1959 to 1972.
"Shutouts are extremely rare, even when I played," said LeBeau, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive coordinator. "It was a much lower-scoring game with a lot of 10-7, 17-14 and 13-10 scores. There weren't a whole lot of zeroes back then."
Nor are there many zeroes in today's NFL.
Back in the 1960s, the Lions posted eight shutouts in what was primarily a 14-team league playing 14-game schedules. The Baltimore Ravens lead the NFL this decade with eight shutouts in a 32-team league playing 16-game schedules.
There were 45 shutouts in 1,009 regular-season games in the 1960s. There have been 79 in 1,168 regular-season games this decade. That's one shutout every 15 games.
"The old saying is if you shut them out, you can't lose," Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But to me a shutout is almost like a no-hitter – it's so rare."
In LeBeau's era as a player, the rules were different. Offensive linemen couldn't use their hands in blocking. Defensive backs could mug receivers up and down the field until the ball was in the air. Pass rushers could hit quarterbacks high, low and anywhere in between.
Now offensive linemen can grasp pass rushers with their hands and steer them clear of the pocket. Defensive backs are allowed one bump on receivers and it must come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. And pass rushers can't hit quarterbacks high or low.
"This is now an offensive league," Ravens Pro Bowl defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "Touchdowns are what people want to see. If teams don't score touchdowns, people get fired."
There were only six shutouts league-wide in 2008 and just one on the opening weekend of 2009. There weren't any shutouts on the 12th weekend of the 2008 season, which wasn't a surprise. NFL offenses generated the first 800-point week in league history that weekend. The NFL also set a record for points scored in a season. There was an average of 44.1 points per game in 2008.
"I feel if you hold a team to three points, that's like a shutout," LeBeau said. "If you can hold a National Football League offense without a touchdown, you've really accomplished something."
It takes some luck
The Steelers have been the dominant defense in the NFL this decade. Pittsburgh is the only team to rank in the top 10 in defense all nine seasons and has finished No. 1 on four occasions, including each of the last two years.
But the Steelers have managed only six shutouts this decade. Pittsburgh has played 25 other games, though, where its defense limited the opposition to a single score. The Steelers held opponents to three points nine times and seven points on 16 other occasions.
"Players are always aware of the opportunity when you get close," LeBeau said. "We've been in games when the opponent was behind, 24-0, with two minutes to go in the fourth and they kick a 30-yard field goal. You hate to lose a shutout like that."
The Cowboys posted just one shutout in the decade, blanking the Washington Redskins and their backup quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, 27-0, in 2003. Twenty-two teams posted two or more shutouts during the decade.
Sometimes even a perfect defensive effort is not rewarded with a shutout.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens fielded the best defense of this generation. The Ravens set a record by allowing the fewest points in the NFL's 16-game era at 165.
So overpowering was their defense that the Ravens went five consecutive weeks without scoring an offensive touchdown during one stretch of the season, yet Baltimore still won 12 games.
The Ravens posted four shutouts that season and should have collected a fifth in the Super Bowl. Baltimore brutalized the New York Giants, 34-7, but was robbed of the first shutout in Super Bowl history when Ron Dixon returned a third-quarter kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
"There are a lot of things you can't totally control defensively," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "A fumble when you're backed up in your own end – that's going to be at least three [points]. Special teams, defensive touchdowns.
"You can play great defense for the whole game but to hold a team to no points – you almost have to play well as a group."
December best month
Timing is also everything for a defense.
Of the 79 regular-season shutouts this decade, 32 have come in December. Eighteen have come in September, 11 in October and 18 in November.
New England leads the way with four December shutouts. That's easily explainable. With a decade-leading three Super Bowl championships, the Patriots tend to play their best football at the end of the season.
The Cleveland Browns have been shut out seven times in December. The Browns have qualified for the playoffs once and have six last-place finishes to show for the 2000s.
"There's a whole different mentality in December," Pryce said. "Some teams are headed to the playoffs, others are not. When December rolls around and you're completely out of it, you think, 'Oh my God, when is this going to be over?' I couldn't imagine playing for [0-16] Detroit last year."
There are other reasons for that defensive dominance in December. Start with the weather.
"It's cold," Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis said, "and most teams are running the ball an awful lot. Early in the season everyone is throwing the ball, and there are some high-scoring games.
"But in the later part of the season, the W is most important. You'll see running backs touch the ball 25, 30, 40 times, and there isn't as much scoring in general."
Familiarity also comes into play.
"Teams become stereotyped by then," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "Defenses have studied offenses and have figured out the tendencies. So defenses are able to zoom in on what teams do in certain formations and situations."
Backup QBs take a hit
Injuries also play a role. Of the 32 shutouts in December this decade, more than half (17) have come against offenses playing their backup quarterback.
"Most of the time the defenses are jelling by December," Lewis said. "Then it's a frenzy against some young quarterbacks."
That's what's impressive about Baltimore's decade-leading eight shutouts. Seven have come against an opponent's No. 1 quarterback, including Troy Aikman and the Cowboys in 2000. The Ravens have limited 16 other teams to single scores, either a touchdown or a field goal.
"Nobody says the offense has to score," Lewis said. "The bottom line is when you step on the field you can make up your mind as a defense that they don't have to score. That's been my mentality since coming from the University of Miami – the offense doesn't have to score."
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have been shut out twice this decade. The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins kept Brady's offense out of the end zone.
Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers also were shut out twice (Bears and Patriots), as have Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers (Baltimore and Jacksonville). Peyton Manning was shut out once by the New York Jets in the playoffs. His brother Eli also has been blanked once, also in the playoffs (Carolina).
But NFL defenses don't go into games expecting to shut out a JaMarcus Russell, much less a Peyton Manning.
"The job of the defense is to keep the score low, keep your team in the game so that the offense can make some plays and score enough points to give you a chance to win," LeBeau said. "You can't give up too many points. If you can come off the field with zero points, you've had a rare afternoon and a truly great game."
Rick Gosselin shares his NFL analysis Wednesdays through Fridays on the NFL blog.
Rick Gosselin is the author of GoodFellows, the story of Detroit's surprisingly successful St. Ambrose football teams of the '50s and '60s.
NFL shutouts by year in the 2000 decade
2000: 13 ... 4 by Super Bowl champion Ravens
2001: 10 ... Cincinnati offense shut out three times
2002: 7 ... Wade Phillips post 2 shutouts as DC at Atlanta
2003: 12 ... 3 by Super Bowl champion Patriots
2004: 4 ... Bucs shut out Atlanta, haven't had one since
2005: 6 ... Joe Gibbs suffers first regular-season shutout
2006: 15 ... Oakland offense shut out three times
2007: 5 ... 2 shutouts by Steelers
2008: 6 ... Cleveland shut out in Weeks 16-17
2009: Seattle shut out St. Louis in Week 1
Most shutouts by a defense in the 2000 decade:
New England, 6
Tampa Bay, 6
San Francisco, 4
No shutouts: Arizona, Detroit, Minnesota, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington
Most shutouts of an offense in the 2000 decade:
Offenses that have not been shut out: Denver, San Diego
Quarterbacks who have been shut out most in the 2000 decade:
Jay Fiedler, Mia 4
Jon Kitna, Sea/Cin 4
Aaron Brooks, NO/Oak 3
Akili Smith, Cin 3
Defensive coordinators with the most shutouts in the 2000 decade:
Monte Kiffin, TB 6
Marvin Lewis, Balt 4
Dick LeBeau, Pitt 4
Jim Mora, SF 4
Wade Phillips, Atl/SD 4