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Saunders: Defense Wins Championships? Not Anymore



Super Bowl Kansas City Chiefs Steelers

It took 38 points for the Kansas City Chiefs to win Super Bowl LVII on Sunday night, with a Harrison Butker field goal with a few seconds remaining the final difference-maker. The Chiefs were aided on a final drive by a holding penalty, when Philadelphia Eagles cornerback James Bradberry reached out and grabbed former Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as he was making his break.

When Patrick Mahomes’ pass fell to the end zone turf, it looked like the Chiefs would have to kick with plenty of time left on the clock for Jalen Hurts to mount a comeback. Instead, Kansas City ran things down to under 10 seconds before Butker went to work and made it 38-35.

The game was not the highest-scoring Super Bowl — that was in 1995, when the San Francisco 49ers drubbed the San Diego Chargers, 49-26 to score 75 total points. But the Eagles by far set the record for the most points scored in a Super Bowl loss.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the championship game of the NFL’s 2022 season, it’s that defense no longer wins championships.

Hurts completed 27 of 38 passes for 304 yards. He also ran for 70. The Eagles as a team rushed for 115 yards. DeVonta Smith had 100 yards receiving. A.J. Brown got close with 96. Philadelphia punted just twice.

The Chiefs won because they got a big play from their defense when Hurts dropped the ball for the game’s only turnover and Nick Bolton returned it for a touchdown, and they won because they had the ball last. 

The call that sealed the game for Kansas City just highlights the offensive environment that is being cultivated in the modern NFL. Bradberry certainly grabbed on to Smith-Schuster, but in a different era, that’s probably not a place we see the flags come out.

“It was a holding,” Bradberry said. “I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”

Asked by a PFWA pool reporter about the final call, referee Carl Cheffers said it was a “clear case of a jersey grab that caused restriction.”

Officials miss calls and they don’t get every one right — despite commissioner Roger Goodell’s claims that the officiating has never been better.

But they didn’t get this one wrong, at least not the way the league wants that play to be called. Offense wins in the rulebook, and offense wins on the field.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to get back to lifting Lombardi Trophies, they’re going to have to do something drastic to fix their offense.

The last time the Steelers scored 38 points in a game was Oct. 18, 2020. James Conner, Chase Claypool, Benny Snell and James Washington all scored against the Browns that day. One of them (Snell) might remain on the team for 2023.

Every single starter from the Steelers’ 2022 offense remains under contract for 2023. Backup tight end Zach Gentry is the highest-profile free agent. The Steelers don’t necessarily have holes to fill, personnel-wise. But improving their offense absolutely needs to be the No. 1 goal of the team’s offseason, if the Steelers want to compete with the likes of the NFL’s best this fall.

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