Los Angeles Rams


An early 4-3 from the 1956 game between the Rams and the Bears. The Bears tie the game at 7-7 on this play.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

LA Rams in an early 4-3. Note the flexed defensive tackles.

Though Zimmerman suggests extensive widespread adoption of the 4-3 in 1957 after the Giants championship, perhaps some clubs were jumping on the bandwagon a little earlier than that. The flexing of tackles, similar to Tom’s Landry’s 4-3 inside, may have been borrowing via film study. Sid Gillman was a well known film junkie during his days with the Rams (1).

We’ll continue with three interesting quotes from Paul Brown’s 1979 autobiography (2).

The first quote covers the 5-2 Eagle..

Neale had built a fine, wing T running attack around Van Buren, the NFL’s rushing champion, who had gained nearly 3,000 yards in three seasons. He had also designed the Eagle Defense, a concept that had become very popular in the NFL. It was built with a tight five man line, two linebackers to jam the ends as they tried to release downfield, and four defensive backs, which was innovative in pro football at the time.

The thing to note is the role of the two linebackers. So, in comparison to Eagle defenses today, very often you’re going to find linebackers in Earle Neale’s defense playing a 6 or 7 technique, instead of a 50 (See the image in my previous 1950s article).

Next, Steve Owen’s 6-1.

…we noticed that if we kept our two setbacks in to block when their ends came on a pass rush, their only linebacker, Jack Cannady, could not effectively cover the short passes. Conversely, if their ends did not come in on a pass rush, we could release our two backs into the short areas away from their coverage. The key in either case was to throw short and not to try and challenge them with our deep passes.

And of Tom Landry’s defenses circa 1958.

New York, under its defense coach, Tom Landry, had built its great defense utilizing the same “flex” concept Landry still uses with the Dallas Cowboys. Its key is the great discipline it exacts from each lineman and outside linebacker. They must control and stay with a defined area – whether or not the play comes to them – long enough for the middle linebacker and defensive backs to give support making the tackles

I’ll note that Paul Brown is assuming that the “flex” concept is identical to gap control, a common element in all the major Landry defenses. We discuss the differences between Tom’s New York defenses, the 4-3 inside/outside, and his later 4-3 flex, here.

I’ve read big chunks of the two Sam Huff autobiographies out there. The later book, “Controlled Violence”, affirms that the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside were in place by 1956, though in this book Sam suggests that he convinced Landry to have the defensive tackles make sure he was protected (3).

At first, he wanted me to play off the center and then pursue, but that caused me to get caught up in traffic, and wouldn’t allow me to make the tackle. I came up with an idea, and asked Landry to try it out.
“Why don’t you let Mo and Rosey Grier take care of the middle and let me go with the flow of the backfield?”
Tom liked the idea and put them both in a four-point stance. Neither one of them was happy about the move, but it worked.

He also suggests that Tom was in on the ground floor of the keying defense.

In the old days, a team would line up in the 4-3 and focus solely on the ball. The genius of Tom Landry changed that. He told us to watch the way the backs lined up and to watch which side of the field the tight end and flanker were lined up. These became the keys to what the offense would do once the ball was snapped.

I’m not certain how quickly knowledge of Tom’s keying practices became widespread. But even in 1964, Huff’s understanding of the 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside made him valuable when traded to the Redskins, and his coach was having him teach the defense to his peers.

Detroit and their adoption of the 4-3.

Detroit in a 4-3,  1957 Championship game. Note DTs in a 3 technique, unlike the New York Giant's 2 technique.

Detroit in a 4-3, 1957 Championship game.

Joe Schmidt says (4)

The New York Giants were the first ones to play the 4-3 defense.

The Lions are supposed to have taken up the 4-3 in 1955 (5), and the best description of why comes from Rand

Though coaches realized the 5-2 left a hole in the middle, that posed no problem as long as the strong-side linebacker jammed the tight end.

“Then they started pulling the tight end off the line of scrimmage and using a slot situation,” Schmidt recalled. “I’d just pound the tight end — then you were allowed to do that. As a result, they pulled him off the line to give him more freedom so he could escape and get into the pattern more.  What happened then is they started pulling me back once in a while and we’d go into a 4-3. It evolved from necessity.”

So how could the Lions have  followed the Giants if they adopted the 4-3 in 1955? The forward to Sam Huff’s first biography, written by one Tom Landry, provides clues (6).

Middle linebacker was a new position in pro football in the 1950s. I had been developing the “4-3″ defense for the Giants in those couple of years before Sam’s arrival.

Sam Huff was drafted in 1956. A couple years before that would be 1953 or 1954. So, if Detroit saw film of the Giants in 1954 playing a 4-3, perhaps that spurred their adoption as well.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Katzowitz, Chapter 8.

(2) The three Brown quotes are from Brown and Clary, Chapter 9 page 197, Chapter 10, p 218, and Chapter 11, p 253.

(3) both quotes from Huff, Clark and Gifford, Chapter 2.

(4) D’Annunzio, Chapter 15, page 152. I’d love to give more of this quote but it is relatively incoherent.  I think what Schmidt is trying to say is that Detroit was using a 6-1 from the day he arrived. Schmidt  then notes that he had played middle linebacker in high school and college. Further, the quote would suggest that the 6-1 experience made the switch to 4-3 middle linebacker relatively easy.

(5) D’Annunzio, Chapter 4, page 51 and Rand, Chapter 4, page 36. If Detroit thinks they adopted the 4-3 in 1955, what to make of the Brown’s claim that Detroit was playing a 4-3 in 1952? Perhaps the Lions thought they were playing a 6-1 at the time.

(6) Huff and Shapiro, page ii.

Bibliography

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

D’Annunzio, John A When the Lions Roared: The Story of The Detroit Lions 1957 NFL Championship Season, CreateSpace Publishing, 2011.

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, Saint Martin’s Press, New York, 1988.

Huff, Sam, Clark, Kristine Setting, and Gifford, Frank Controlled Violence: On the Field and In the Booth, Triumph Books, 2011 [ebook]

Katzowitz, Josh, Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game, Clerisy Press, 2012 [ebook]

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006 [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

Rand, Jonathan Riddell Presents: The Gridiron’s Greatest Linebackers, Sports Publishing, 2003.

In 1947, defensive theory in football had not yet advanced to the level of offensive theory. I’m saying this because the focus of defensive line play was gladitorial in nature: you would beat the man in front of you, pursue the ball carrier and tackle, preferably with the best form possible. Adjustments were rare. People had to accommodate man in motion but that was about it. The notion of a defensive key isn’t even talked about (1).

In the late 1940s to mid 1950s, defensive linemen were somewhat interchangable, and there were no specific guidelines for the sizes of defensive tackles, defensive ends, or middle guards. The roles of these linemen weren’t as detailed and specific as they are in modern days. There were big powerful immobile linemen, and smaller, faster, more nimble linemen. And though people like to think of linemen falling back into zones as a modern invention, the tactic was used in Steve Owen’s 6-1 Umbrella, and sees time in the pages of Dana Bible’s book:

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

Linemen falling back and into coverage was a common tactic in 1947.

The idea, therefore, of a middle guard falling back into coverage wouldn’t have caused anyone in 1947 to blink an eye. So when you have a middle guard with sprinter’s speed, a guy like Bill Willis,

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter's speed.

Cleveland Browns all pro middle guard Bill Willis (1946-1952). As big as the centers of his time with sprinter’s speed (2).

the idea that he should be a part of coverage would have been expected. Good linemen would fall back from the line and into coverage when the situation demanded. Linemen rushed yes, but behaved more like modern linebackers when they had to.

“He often played as a middle or noseguard on our five-man defensive line, but we began dropping him off the line of scrimmage a yard because his great speed and pursuit carried him to the point of attack before anyone would block him” (3)

So why is this important? It’s important because the dominant defensive front from 1950 or so through 1955 is a five man front, often a 5-2 Eagle. An example comes from this screen shot of video of the 1953 NFL championship

defensive_front_1953_NFL_championship

when diagrammed, would look something like this:

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

Typical five man front from early 1950s NFL football.

And therefore, the appearance of 4-3 fronts, as a product of a middle guard digging into the “bag of tricks” a lineman was supposed to know, should have been expected. 4-3s would have appeared as a poor man’s prevent defense, or as a response to specific game events, like quarterbacks throwing the ball just over the head of Chicago’s middle guard, Bill George.

…in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles, George made a now historic move that permanently changed defensive strategy in the National Football League.

On passing plays, George’s job was to bump the center and then drop back. George, noting the Eagles success at completing short passes just over his head, decided to skip the center bump and drop back immediately. Two plays later he caught the first of his 18 pro interceptions. While no one can swear which middle guard in a five-man line first dropped back to play middle linebacker and create the classic 4-3 defense, George is the most popular choice.

This game dates to 1954. Andy Piascik’s book claims that in the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns in 1952, the Lions employed a 4-3 (4). I’d suggest though, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these 4-3s fall into the form of an adjustment to the 5-2, as opposed to an integral coordinated defensive system.

The deal is, by 1956, Tom Landry, as the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, has a 4-3 that isn’t anyone’s adjustment to something else. It’s a full blown base defense, a creation of his own hard work and imagination. It’s a largely 1 gap, keying defense, with distinct assignments to the linemen. Linemen have to fill gaps and keep the offensive line from getting to the middle linebacker. The middle linebacker roams, tackles, covers his two gaps. The initial Landry defenses have been lavishly detailed in the two volume text “Vince Lombardi on Football“, because these were the defenses Vince took with him to Green Bay.

And while what video I can watch in the period from 1948 to 1955 has yet to yield a single 4-3, the Giants live in it in the 1956 Championship game, and after some initial five man line in the 1957 Championship game, Detroit soon switches to a 4-3 and stays in it.

All this lends credence to the words of Paul Zimmerman (5)

Here and there the 4-3 popped up around the league. The Eagles got into a form of it when they had their middle guard, Bucko Kilroy, stand up, though at 258 pounds he hardly had true middle-linebacker responsibilities. The Redskins tried it, lifting middle guard Ron Marcinak and substituting a linebacker, Charley Drazenovich.

Landry graduated from player to player-coach to defensive coach under Jim Lee Howell. Vince Lombardi ran the offense. In 1956 the Giants drafted a tackle from West Virginia, Robert Lee Huff, nicknamed Sam, who had been born to play middle linebacker in the 4-3, and that became the Giant’s official standard defense. By 1957 everyone was in it.

So the real question is, how much of this 4-3 defensive system was prior art? Not the positions, mind you, but the components. The keys, the coordination, the pieces? I think the minimum you need to make such a defense are these three elements.

1. Film study. Without it you can’t really predict trends.
2. Two platoon football. Otherwise, you’re teaching one player offense 80% of the time.
3. A modern coaching staff, with full time assistants.

It’s very clear that Paul Brown’s staff with the Cleveland Browns has these three elements in the 1950s, but I don’t see signs that they were unusually innovative on defense. Instead, what you see are things like references to three man single safety backfields (6), and signs that they were working within the status quo of the times.

One resource I’d love to get my hands on is the writings of the former Cleveland Browns linebacker, Hal Herring (7). He played for the Browns for three years, starting in 1950. Later, he wrote a dissertation that was titled “Defensive Tactics and Techniques in Professional Football.” I’m not close enough to a research library to know if it can easily be obtained, but back in the day when I was writing my own dissertation, we had to make dissertations available to just about anyone who wanted a copy.

Update: correction on the Bill George date.

~~~

Notes and References

(1) Keys and tells are different beasts. A tell is Dan Fouts giving away run or pass in 1979 with his feet placement. An example of a key is a person whose actions tell you where to go and what role to play when you do. Tells have been part of football forever, akin to stealing signs. Keys are elements of the game that have to be built into the defense and coached.

(2) Image from Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.

(3) Paul Brown, quoted by Goldstein.

(4) Piascik, Chapter 11. The exact quote is:

“I think the 4-3 defense originated with him [Parker] and his coaches,” Dub Jones said of the Detroit team that so stifled Cleveland in that first ever meeting between the two teams. “They threw that in our face in ’52 and it was tough for us to cope with, having not faced it.”

(5) Zimmerman, Chapter 6.

(6) Brown and Clary, p 220, has this interesting blurb regarding the 1951 NFL championship:

For several years, our secondary had never declared a strong side of our opponent’s offensive formation until it saw which direction the fullback was going, and though we had gotten by with this strategy, it put a great burden on Cliff Lewis, the middle safety in our three-man secondary.

(7) Piascik, Chapter 8.

Bibliography

Bible, Dana X, “Championship Football”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Goldstein, Richard, “Bill Willis, 86, Racial Pioneer in Pro Football, Dies”, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2007, accessed Jun 7, 2013.

Piascik, Andy, The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns – Pro Football’s Greatest Dynasty [ebook]

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

It’s amazing how small things can lead to upgrades, expensive or otherwise. I discovered media streaming to televisions over the summer, via the product ps3mediaserver, and that led to an interest in things like mplayer, ffmpeg, and avidemux. The demands of programs like that led to a motherboard upgrade, so now I have a 8 core AMD processor and 16 Gb of memory on my main desktop. Since 32 bit operating systems cannot address more than 4 GB at a time (though interestingly, the modern 32 bit pae kernels can handle 16 Gb of memory via paging tricks), I upgraded my main machine to Ubuntu 12.04, 64 bit.

Some notes: for those of you following my work technically, I’ll note that Maggie Xiong’s PDL::Stats does not like the version of PDL installed by Ubuntu 12.04 – that PDL is buggy – and CPAN does a poor job of trying to install PDL. It is best is to download the PDL module separately from CPAN and manually compile it. For one, you’re bound to find things you forgot to install and those extras will help give you a working product. Afterwards, you can compile PDL::Stats just fine.

John Turney, of the Pro Football Researcher’s Association, writes the blog about this article:

Shurmur ran an Eagle defense with the LA Rams and it was a double eagle defense, with 2 3-techs over the guards and a noseguard who was a linebacker by trade. The Eagle defense of Shurmur was very similar or identical to the 46.

Shumur’s book makes it clear, Eagle: The 5 LBer defense.

The only difference was in the personnel used. He used a linebacker in the place of the nose tackle and the defense ends. That allowed him to move that nose linebacker around if he wanted to and stem that guy to a standup linebacker and a variant of the Eagle called “Hawk”.

Shurmur did use a 3-4 as a base defense for Rams from 1983-90, but the Eagle was a sub defense they used for several reasons more often in 1988-90 than in 1985-87. In base situations with the Rams they were a 3-4 team. When the Eagle happened they’d pull the nose tackle Alvin Wright and LDE Doug Reed, and bring in extra linebackers to fill the spots in the Eagle.

So, the Eagle was an “eagle” and Shumur addresses this in his book. It was based on the Greasy Neale defense as well as the Buddy Ryan defense.

Thank you, John, for the correction. And for those of us who follow the Duece on Twitter, he tweeted an article from Strong Football about the Shurmer 5 LB defense, that pretty much lays out what John said above. That article is highly recommended. To borrow a diagram from that article, there is a position called nose backer, and he can be roughly where the Will backer is in a classic 4-3, or he can step into the line and function as a lightweight nose tackle.

Nose backer in the line, in the Eagle variant of the Shurmer 5 LB defense. Diagram originally from the Strong Football article referenced above.

Pretty cool, huh? At this point, I’d have to say that the Strong Football article is a must read for those of us interested in Eagle variants.

Stepping back to the beginning of preseason, there are at least two teams in the NFC East with lingering offensive line issues. I don’t have much insight presently into the state of the Giants or Redskins lines (feel free to speak up if you do), but you can see a fair amount of tweets and articles involving Philadelphia Eagle left tackle Demetress Bell. With the Cowboys, everyone who was considered a solution at guard (here, here, and here) and center, as of a couple months ago, is now injured. Guard has become something of a revolving door, and there is now talk of bringing in a veteran center, as Phil Costa is also injured.

One of the nice things about Madden’s book, “One Knee Equals Two Feet”, is that it does understand the importance of Preston Pearson, and the notion of the third down back in general. A lot of this influence is a consequence of a single game. In 1975, the Dallas Cowboys were a wild-card team, a 10-4 team advancing into the second round of the playoffs against a very good and well coached Chuck Knox team, the Los Angeles Rams, with a record of 12-2. They were led by the excellent Lawrence McCutcheon at running back and featured one of the best defensive lines ever in professional football, featuring Fred Dean and Jack Youngblood at defensive ends, Merlin Olson at defensive tackle, and Jack Reynolds and Isiah Robertson at linebacker. The Rams were the #1 defense in football, allowing less than 10 points a game.

By the end of this game, Dallas had won 37-7. Roger Staubach called it “the most perfect football game we ever had as Cowboys.”  Preston Pearson had gained 20 yards rushing, but 123 yards passing, including three touchdowns.

It wasn’t as if he was given easy passes to catch, either.

second touchdown

reaching for the ball.

The most famous catch was his third touchdown, the shovel pass.

Video of this game is here.

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