TAMPA — The traditional theory that defense wins championships in the National Football League is about to be tested this season.
When Bucs coach Lovie Smith emerged in January from his basement laboratory after a year away from the NFL sidelines, his conviction that a dominating defense trumps all remained intact. He watched Seattle lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy seven months ago after yielding the fewest points and yards in the league.
Led by a punishing secondary, the Seahawks used both skill and intimidation on defense en route to a championship. The 2008 Steelers also finished No. 1 in fewest points and yards allowed before rallying past Arizona in a riveting Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
But trends and rules suggest even the best NFL defenses are under siege.
The month of August was colored in yellow as officials carried out a league mandate to crack down on illegal contact downfield. In the first three weeks of preseason play, illegal contact penalties escalated from nine to 83 through a similar period in 2013. Defensive holding calls rose from 28 to 137, and illegal use of the hands drew 99 flags, compared to 22 a year ago.
Some players claim Flag Day represents the league’s response to Seattle’s aggressive play. The Seahawks roughed up Peyton Manning’s targets early and often during a Super Bowl rout of Denver, embarrassing the most prolific offense in the NFL’s 95-year history.
“They got their ring, they did it their way and we’ve got to all pay the consequences,’’ veteran Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall said.
Hall makes a valid point in a league teeming with points.
Games averaged 46.81 points last year, breaking a mark (46.48) that was set in 1948. A record 1,338 touchdowns were scored in 2013 and three of the four seasons with the most touchdowns have occurred since 2010.
“It’s starting to feel like if you don’t score a touchdown every time you get the ball, you’re losing serve,’’ Vikings guard Charlie Johnson said.
In Tampa, the Bucs are counting on a talented defense to score touchdowns off takeaways or create short fields for an attack that languished most of the preseason.
But if making the playoffs is your first goal, a healthy offense appears to be a key component. The 11 teams that topped 400 points last season combined to post a .668 winning percentage — with nine of the 11 advancing to postseason play.
Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has done a good job reminding his players that the league is serious about monitoring contact more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
“This is an offensive league,’’ Frazier said. “People like to see points scored, although defensive coaches don’t. You have to find a way to slow those offenses down. You have a mindset that you’ve got to score ‘X’ number of points and on defense, you’ve got to hold a team to ‘X’ number of points to have a chance. But that number, it is rising.’’