Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 1966 Miami Dolphins and the 46 Defense

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
Credit: Sports Illustrated
It's been said that the NFL does not invent anything it just recycles old concepts. We are not sure that is 100% true but there are certainly many aspects where that concept is true. One such occurrence is the Dolphins used of what was later known as the 46 defense fairly regularly in their inaugural season.

George Wilson was the new franchise's head coach in 1966 and he had a long and powerful career in the NFL from a player (1937-46) and as an assistant coach (1949-65) on the offensive side of the ball. Over that span, it was certain that he'd seen everything in terms of what NFL defenses did.

He chose as his defensive assistants Tom Keane as defensive backs coach and play caller, recently retired player Bob Pelligrini as the linebackers coach and Les Bingaman as the defensive line coach. Keane was a former player and had been a defensive coach in the NFL before joining the Dolphins staff. He, too, would have had lots of experience seeing various offensive and defensive schemes and had a working knowledge of how to employ them.

In 1966 he turned to what would have then been known as the "Eagle" defense which got its moniker from the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1950s which was usually a 5-2 (five lineman, 2 linebacker defense).
Background
In the early 1950s there were various defensive fronts used by various teams. The 4-3, as a base defense for most of the teams was still a few years away and NFL teams used  5-3, 5-2, 6-1 fronts and spaced those players in a variety of ways.

Here are the New York Giants in their famed 6-1 Umbrella defense. The two outside players were still called ends, though they are in two-point stances and if we were to consider them linebackers (and they did have pass coverage responsibilities) it would be a 4-3 defense and even more technically a 4-3 overshift since one of the tackles is shaded over the outside shoulder of the guard/inside shoulder of the tackle which in today's general terms would be a 3-technique.

In this still the Giants defense (on far side) in a 6-1 only it is an even front, with two "3 techniques".

Here are the Browns in a standard 5-2. The tackles, as they were called at the time, we head-up on the offensive tackles, what is now known as a 4-technque. It resembles a 3-4 defense of more recent years.

Here is another screenshot of the Browns in for all intents and purposes is a 3-4, just imagine the DEs being called outside linebackers and the DTs being called ends.
Here is the Eagles defense of that era, as one can see they have a player over the center (Zero technique) and two 3-techniques. that is the feature that was unique when Greasy Neal invented the alignment. And to this day, many coaches still call the 3-techique an "Eagle tackle".

It is, here, a seven-man front (a 5-2) but a safety could be walked up to create the so-called 8-man box.
1966 Dolphins
In 1966, film study shows that a good percentage of the time the Miami Dolphins used this front, both as a 7-man and 8-man front. Sometimes they would align with it, other times they would stem into it (stem is to the defense what a shift is to the offense, it simply means lining up in one spot and moving to another, pre-snap).

Here are a couple of screen shots:


As can be seen above there is a zero technique and two 3-techniques. The right end is actually linebacker Wahoo McDaniel with his hand in the dirt. Frank Emanuel is the middle linebacker and number 53 is Tom Erlandson who is on the tight end. Outside him, out of the shot, is left defensive end Ed Cooke.

A complete film study would be required to pinpoint how well the Dolphins did in this front and how often. But from seeing quite a bit of film, we'd estimate it was at least 10-15% of the time, maybe more. Perhaps Tom Keane chose to use it based on his experience seeing it from a defensive perspective or maybe the opposite is true. Perhaps George Wilson faced it and thought it served a purpose. 

Sadly, none of the coaches are around to ask. Les Bingaman had a heart attack on the field during a 1969 game, collapsed and nearly died (actually he DID die but an adrenaline shot injected into his heart revived him). He later succumbed to heart issues in 1970. Wilson, Keane and even Pellegrini have also passed on. Perhaps in due time, we can connect with some of the players who are still with us and we can get more information.

The Dolphins were not the only team to employ this, but again, it was rare in our view, based on some fairly extensive study.
Other pre-46 Uses of the Eagle
In 1971 and 1972 the Saints would use it. They tried it in the game that the Rams Willie Ellison gained 247 yards rushing. Here you can see the easy-to-spot "3-0-3" front or "Eagle front:

Here is a screenshot of the 1975 Vikings using 5-defensive linemen with Alan Page over the center in the Eagle front, this was a year before Buddy Ryan became the defensive line coach there
The fifth linemen is Bob Lurtsema playing over the guard, which was Page's usual spot. 

Throughout the time from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and even recently, teams would achieve the "Eagle" or double-Eagle look from a 4-3 defense my simply having the middle linebacker step up and put his hand in the ground in front of the center, between the two defensive tackles. The late-1950s-1960s Bears did it quite often with Bill George with his hand in the dirt between the tackles. 
That was the most common way we saw of covering the center and both guards, but that was merely the middle part of the defense, without the way the tight end was covered as in the Saints shot above and as the 1966 Dolphins did and how the Buddy Ryan Bears of the 1980s did it.

Here is a couple of examples of  that from the 1975 Bears, 1968 Rams, and 1965 Chargers
The 46 Defense
In 1980, of course, Buddy Ryan revived the double Eagle look, gave it a name, and it became a phenom in the mid-1980s as the Bears used in 1984-85 about 40% of the snaps and won the Super Bowl in 1985. If Ryan used it before 1980 we have not seen it. In 1978 he did experiment with a 3-4 defense, he called "Okie" but it was short-lived. In 1979 it was predominately a 4-3 defense with the usual over- and under-shifts.
Here it is in 1980 with Doug Plank #46 walked up to create the 8-man front. It is his uniform number that gave Ryan's version of this defense its name. 

In this screen shot the 46 is a 5-man line since strong side rusher Al Harris has his hand on the turf, as does the weak side rusher, Mike Hartenstine #73. Alan Page is the nose and Dan Hampton and Jim Osborne are the 3-techniques. Otis Wilson is on the instep of the tight end, a position Wilbur Marshall would play in 1985 with Wilson playing where Al Harris, #90 is, only using a 2-point linebacker stance.
Here it is in 1984, with the tight end on the right side so the linebacker combination is on the right, As you can see Wilson and Harris have changed positions since 1980. (In 1985 Harris and Bell #25 held out and Marshall and Dave Duerson stepped in and the defense didn't miss a beat).

One note is that the 3-technique is tighter with the Bears (and 1966 Dolphins) than with the 1950s Eagles. The actual playbooks we've have seen often call for the players over the guards to be head-up or a 2-technque but it seldom shows in the games we've seen the defenders are almost never head-up, but in the 3-tech.

Here is the 1981 iteration of the 46. Todd Bell (#25) is playing one of the linebacker spots and Len Walterscheid is in Plank's position. 
Once the Bears had success with the defense, other teams followed and tried it. By the late 1980s all teams seemed to use it to some degree. The 3-4 teams would simply shift (sink) their defensive ends from over the tackles to over the guards. The 4-3 teams would do what the Bears did and shift their linemen to the appropriate spots.

Here are the Rams, in 1982, using it against the Bears. Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood is "reduced" or "sunk" to a 3-technique over the Bears right guard and Mike Fanning is the zero technique and Cody Jones is the right-side 3-technique.

In 1988 Fritz Shurmur (who was the Defensive Coordinator in the above still) used the 46 Defense, though he called it the Eagle defense and used 5 linebackers because the Rams had injuries among their line and had plently of solid linebackers. The nose was, at first converted college defensive lineman Mike Jerue but when he was injured Fred Strickland was the nose, or "nose-backer". He would stem from the zero technique to an inside linebacker position and when he did that Shurmur referred to it as the "Hawk" defense.
Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher are the outside rushers, Larry Kelm in on the instep of the tight end on the near side and the only two defensive linemen are in 3-technique position. The Rams used it a decent amount but it was never their base defense, which was a two-gap 3-4. However, outside of the Bears and Buddy Ryan-era Eagles, the 1988-91 Rams likely used it the most. The Rams also liked to employ a linebacker heavy nickel/dime scheme in that era which would use, at times, only one and even no defensive lineman since Fred Strickland and enough size, strength, and quickness to rush from a defensive tackle position as did a linebacker named George Bethune.

The Eagle gap responsibility page from Fritz Shurmur's playbook on the 5 linebacker defense.


 After Ryan left the Bears they cut down on its use from approximate highs of 40% in 1984 and 1985 to perhaps 20% in 1986-89 or so. Again, seeing all the games and charting them is the only way to find the exact numbers.

One final shot, again it's the Rams, this time in 2013. Jeff Fisher's defense called this 'Cheat' with usual right defensive end Robert Quinn in an "Eagle" defensive tackle position, though it's a 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) rather than a 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) and Chris Long has moved from left end to right end and Alec Olgletree is essentially the stand-up end/weak-side rusher in this instance.
Credit: NFL Replay
If fans ever want to see the golden age of the 46 they can watch almost any game from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Our guess is that almost all teams in those games will use the Eagle/Bear (46)/Cheat or whatever they called it in every game.

It is used to this day, almost all teams will use it if their usual run defense is not doing the job and the three inside blockers being 'covered-up' discourages runs to the middle. However, smart quarterbacks will usually try and check out of a run and thy to throw against this 8-man version and thus the game of cat and mouse continiues as it has since the 1950s Eagles, to the 1966 Dolphins to the 1980s Bears to 2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Rush Linebackers

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
 
Cornelius Bennett began his rookie season late due to a holdout. He was drafted by the Colts but did not sign. He was involved in the Eric Dickerson three-team trade and ended in Buffalo. He played in eight games and recorded 8.5 sacks and forced five fumbles. It was as impactful a season as a rush backer could have. (Lawrence Taylor had 9.5 sacks in 1981 in 16 games). Bennett played more of a hybrid role, some as a traditional 3-4 linebacker, some as an inside linebacker and usually was the left defensive end (opposite Bruce Smith) in the Bills nickel defenses.
From 1982 to present
Mario Williams had been moved to OLBer in 2011 and was off to a good start before he was hurt and missed the final 11 games. He was also a defensive end in the Texans nickel in a hybrid role in Wade Phillips's defense.

Kevin Greene was a nickel rusher in 1987 though he'd also spell Mel Owens and Mike Wilcher, the starting 304 outside linebackers. Owens, in 1988, was a big part of the Rams "Eagle 5 LBer defense" playing, essentially the spot Wilbur Marshall played when the Bears used their famed 46 defense.

Otis Wilson and LaMarr Woodley were on pace for possible career highs in 1987 and 2011, respectively. We included all seasons that projected to eight sacks or more. Some may have been enough to be a Pro Bowl season for the respective players, some not, depending on the competition year-to-year. Urlacher, of course, was a middle 'backer and Adalius Thomas was a multi-role player for the Patriots. Chad Brown made the list twice, in 2002 and in 1995. With the Steelers, he was unique as a rush backer. He'd play inside linebacker in the base and right defensive end, with his hand down in their nickel. Johnie Cooks was supposed to be a Lawrence Taylor-type player, but never measure up to those lofty-standard (who did?) although he had good seasons in 1983 and 1984.

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Backs

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney

During this project, we learned quite a bit, but one specific thing was we'd not noticed that Mel Renfro (1967), Larry Wilson (1965), and Lem Barney (1975) all missed significant time. All three had good interception totals and all three DID make the Pro Bowl. As did Ed Reed in 2010 and Sean Taylor in 2007 but those two we knew about. Wilson and Renfro were on pace for double-digits in picks. We'd also never noticed that Bobby Bryant missed four games in 1969.
Atop this list is Kirk Collins a player who earned a starting position in 1983 after a couple of years playing special teams and some dime back. He picked off five passes in four games and while returning one 58 yards he pulled a hamstring. While being examined by doctors, routinely as it happens, a tumor was discovered in his throat. That turned out to be malignant cancer and it ended his season. And his life. In 1984 the Rams wore a sticker of Collins's number on their helmets as a tribute to him. Had this odd turn not happened he may have been able to reach double-digits in picks if he'd pilfered just five more over the next 12 games. Likely teams would have thrown away from him as he established his bona fides so he may not have had the opportunity, but teams kept throwing Lester Hayes's way in 1980 so who knows?

Jeff Fuller only played six games and was a hybrid nickel/back linebacker type player. In those six games in 1986, he picked off four passes and had 2.5 sacks. It would have been great to see a sub- defense player making those kinds of plays for a full season. He was on pace for 11 interceptions and 6.5 sacks.

Chuck Allen was a linebacker and if he'd finished the season on the same pace he'd established in 1961 he'd have totaled 9 picks which would be a record for linebackers. (In this exercise we grouped defensive backs and linebackers together).

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Linemen

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney


Certainly, we cannot know what Antwan Odom might have done had he been able to finish the 2009 season. We are not suggesting he would have reached the 21½ sacks he was on pace for, but we are suggesting that had he played in the final ten games he likely would have sacked opposing quarterbacks with enough frequency to warrant a Pro Bowl selection. Would he have had 12? 15? More? Eight sacks in six games a five-sack game against Aaron Rodgers was causing Odom to gain some national attention. However, an Achilles injury scrapped all those possibilities and ended Odom's career, though he came back in 2010 he was not the same and he was released by the Bengals and no other team signed him.
From 1982-present
Robert Young is in the same boat as Odom. He had a fast start in 1993 and then a knee injury finished his season. Again, it's not likely Young would have had 18½ sacks, but certainly, double-digits were possible. He came back in 1994 and started all 16 games and had 6½ sacks, fewer than the season before in ten more games. In 1995 he lost his job to Kevin Carter and was relegated to a backup role and got a shot with the Oilers in 1996 and he started the entire season and had 4 sacks, It seems 1993 was his chance to break through but a knee injury ended that.

Mark Gastineau, in 1988, was having a comeback season of sorts when he abruptly retired. He said it was because his fiancee had cancer. Gastineau was leading the AFC in sacks with seven in seven games at the time (he'd only had 6½ in the previous 25 games) and the Jets were pleased with his performance. The poof, he's gone. There were rumors that he'd tested positive for steroids and that a suspension was looming, though never proven in terms of a specific test in 1988 but Gastineau has admitted to steroid use during his career. To be fair, Gastineau was not alone in steriod use among NFL linemen in that era. 

Osi Umenyiora and Cameron Wake have garnered plenty of honors in their career and 2011 and 2015, respectively would have added one more Pro Bowl to those honors had they not been felled by injuries.

We've listed some other potential Pro Bowl-type shortened seasons, though not all were dominant they held reasonable chances for post-season honors.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Quarterbacks

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney



As a follow-up to the running back post we now add recent quarterbacks. To qualify a quarterback had to average 220 yards a game and start a minimum of five games. We are posting a table of the top 20 (sorted by QB passer rating) and added in Andrew Luck's 2013 season.
(Click to enlarge)

Josh McCown has his 2013 season with the Bears and his 2015 Cleveland Brown season on the list at number one and number 15. Bill Nelson, the Steelers QB had some really good numbers. We tweaked his W-L record and it would have been nice to see what he might have done in a full season.0

Aaron Rodgers's 2013 season would have likely been a typically great season and it should be noted that Brian Griese's 2000 season did result in a Pro Bowl selection.

Marc Bulger was very good in 2002 filling in for Kurt Warner. Not only did he put up numbers he was highly rated by Pro Scout, Inc as a "high blue" for his efforts. Trent Green, in 2000, also filling in for Warner also put up excellent numbers but didn't garner the wins that Bulger did.

Dan Marino's 1993 Achilles tendon rupture stymied what was likely going to be a typical Marino season. The same can be said of Carson Palmer's 2014 season.

Dave Krieg's 1983 partial season was very similar to his 1984 full season. Kreig was not injured, he came off the bench to lead a solid Seattle team to the playoffs and one game away from the Super Bowl. Dan Fouts missed six games in 1983 and like Griese was voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers. Sam Bradford was off to a good start in 2013 when he tore his ACL for the first time. He tore it again in 2014 and was shipped off to Philadelphia.

The final 20 is rounded out by Phil Simms, Kurt Warner and John Kitna. For comparison sake, we added Andrew Luck.

We will be taking a closer look at this and adding players who had good half-seasons in the era where it was not common to average 220 or even 200 yards a game. It will take more than a quick search on Pro Football Reference.com (who we thank for their tools) due to some QBs playing in 14 games because they were the holder but only quarterbacking in, say five. (Think Sonny Jurgensen)

So, we will do further posts covering the "dead-ball" era in NFL passing. One note is that it shows how special Bill Nelson's partial 1966 was, to make it onto this list.

Here are the rest who average 220 yards a game or more, again, sorted in order of passer rating and with the projected 16-game totals.
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Running Backs

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
Art by GL
Sometimes a player gets off to a tremendous start to an NFL season and then sustains an injury mid-season and that season, remarkable as it may have been, is lost to history. Other times a player may be able to join a team late in the season, perhaps they had been injured the previous year and are healthy for a stretch of a season. These seasons rarely result in a player getting post-season honors like All-Pro or Pro Bowl and for good reason, it's almost always better to chose a player who played the majority of a season than someone who played less than two-thirds or who played half.

Here is a table of some seasons that fit the above profile. We went back to the 1960s and will do a separate post about the pre-1960 era at some point. The highlighted column is the respective player's yards projected to a 16-game season. Also note that three of these—Gale Sayers, Floyd Little and Barry Foster all WERE Pro Bowl selections for their seasons on the table.

Priest Holmes and Edgerrin James were off to potential career years in 2004 and 2001 when felled by injury. Ricky Williams was on pace for a 2000-yards-from-scrimmage season in 2000. Terrell Davis was on pace for a 1400-yard season in 2001 and Billy Sims's devastating knee injury in 1984 was the end of his career. Fred Jackson, in 2011, might have cracked the 2000 total yard barrier as well.

One historical question:  Had Jim Braxton not been hurt in 1973 would O.J. Simpson carried as heavy a load as he did and not gained his 2003 yards? Braxton was off to a fabulous start averaging 4.6 yards a carry

we cut this list off at 75 yards rushing per game, so the season total would project to 1200 yards. Certainly, there are lots of seasons that would likely have been 1000-yarders by running backs had we cut that off lower. Maybe next time we'll do that.

Hat tip to Pro Football Reference for the search engine that helped in this project.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The 1979 Rams "Dollar" Defense

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
PFJ Illustration

As with designated pass rushers or nickel backs (not the band) it would be difficult to exactly pinpoint when a facet of the NFL was first introduced. We will explore nickel and dime backs in the near future but today we want to explore something fairly recent in NFL terms:  The 'Dollar' defense of the 1979 Rams, which was seven defensive backs behind four defensive lineman.

The following are pages from the Rams defensive manual.


As it notes the coverages for the Dollar and Dime are the same as the nickel. The positioning of the two DBs (LBers) would vary according to the offensive formation, the Rams defensive line front and the coverage and call (if it was a dog (blitz, the Rams terminology was a 'dog' was a LBer rush a 'blitz' was a defensive back rush).

Another interesting note is that among the coverages is one that is called "Cover 22". While it may not be a familiar term, in today's NFL it would be called "Tampa-2".


In entails the nickel back (in this case from 1978-81 it was Nolan Cromwell) to play the middle linebacker spot and his coverage was the "hole"—the middle zone that extends into the deep middle in between the deep safeties who had the deep halves. Cronwell would be responsible for a receiver running up the middle. Jack Reynolds, a great run defender, just would not have been able to play this coverage like some of those linebackers Tony Dungy had in Tampa so it was regulated to nickel with the Rams in the Reynolds era.

Said Cromwell recently, "Ray Malavasi's defense was ahead if it's time, it had an answer for everything. NFL Defenses are often recycled but yes, the Cover-22 is the same as the Tampa-2 in terms of coverage assignments."

Here is a screenshot of the 1979 Rams-Cowboys playoff game and you can see the deployment of the secondary versus the Dallas spread.

After the December 31, 1979, divisional playoff game versus the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas coach Tom Landry said, "LA has played seven defensive backs against us before. They just have some talented backs there and you have to find the hole. They mixed things up on us and tried to keep us off balance. And they were hitting well on defense."

What he was speaking about was the Rams nickel defense that employed two defensive backs as linebackers and the Rams playbook called it "dollar" personnel, as opposed to the standard "nickel" for five defensive backs and "dime" for six DBs.

Rams coach Ray Malavasi, referring to the dollar defense said, "We tried to match speed with speed. Linebackers don't have the speed of receivers. It was Bud Carson who came up with the idea "He had planned to use it here in October but we had too many defensive guys hurt. It was very effective for us today.".

On likely passing downs Dallas liked to use a "spread" or "shotgun" offense. The had two excellent outside receivers, Tony Hill and Drew Pearson and a very good third wide receiver, Butch Johnson and also two very good situational running backs, Preston Pearson and Ron Springs. Although Tony Dorsett was a good receiver, Pearson would replace him on third downs because was just tougher to cover for most linebackers. Springs was also a good receiver but also a good blocker versus rushing linebackers.

So, the Rams pulled out a wrinkle in their playbook, which had been there for years, and used the seven defensive backs to counter the Dallas spread attack.
When the passing personnel of the Cowboys came into the game, the Rams pulled all three linebackers and brought in Dwayne O'Steen, Ivory Sully, and Eddie Brown. (technically O'Steen started the game at left corner because Pat Thomas was nursing an injury, but early in the game Rod Perry hurt his knee and Thomas came into the game as the left corner and O'Steen moved to right. Later, Perry was ruled by the trainers able to play and he came back into the game and Thomas and Perry, the normal starters, were playing in the base).

O'Steen and Sully would play the linebacker positions, Eddie Brown would play strong safety, Dave Elemdorf would play free safety and Nolan Cromwell would play the slot corner. The Rams were free to use any of their coverages and felt that the front four and O'Steen and Sully would be able to contain the running game that, in these situations, was sans Tony Dorsett.

"I had played nickel some in 1977, but I was the slot corner in 1978 so I'd played it before, but when we went with five defensive backs in 1979 I was the slot corner anyway, so it was nothing new".

Said Cromwell at the time, "We used seven defensive backs today when they were in the shotgun formation that's the only we changed (from game in October) and that way, instead of linebackers on the shotgun formation we had seven defensive backs".

Linebacker Jim Youngblood added, "We had a new nickel defense. We put in seven defensive backs. Yeah, it was very vulnerable to the draw, but we only used it only on third and long situations."

The base defense, even with Jack Youngblood playing on a fractured fibula, was able to bottle up Dorsett and the Cowboys running game just enough to put the Cowboys in third and long quite a bit. Roger Staubach was 13 completions in 28 attempts for 150 yards and one touchdown and one interception (by Eddie Brown) and was sacked one time (by Jack Youngblood in the 4th quarter forcing a punt).

That sack led to Rams getting the ball and allowed the Rams to be in a position to take the lead on a 50-yard touchdown strike from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy putting the Rams ahead 21-19. Dallas then was stopped on their final drive and the Rams won the game by that score.

The Rams used similar defenses after 1979, but usually with six defensive backs and one linebacker. In 1980 and 1981 they had a player named Joe harris who was a smaller, quick linebacker who could cover and blitz and he'd match up with Jeff Delaney or Ivory Sully as the two linebackers. In 1982 George Andrews and Sully were usually the two linebackers in the nickel.  In 1983 the defense changed and it was Fritz Shurmur's 3-4 as a base and Shurmur kept the tradition alive and there were various and sundry packages in his playbook for "sub" defenses ("sub" is a catch-all term for all schemes other than base).

In fact, in some ways, the Rams recent defense with Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron as the linebackers in front of five defensive backs is similar to what was done in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Before those two the Rams used players like Adam Archuleta, Craig Dahl, Corey Chavous, Mike Scurlock, Michael Stewart and others to fill the role of a linebacker in the nickel defenses.



This is 2006 with Will Witherspoon and safety Corey Chavous as the LBers

This shot is from 1980 with Joe Harris (51) and Ivory Sully (37) as the LBers in dime personnel
\
This is 1996 with Roman Phifer (58) and Mike Scurlock as LBers. #91 is DE Leslie O'Neal
The Rams were not the only team to use seven backs, among others the Bills used it quite a bit in 1981. They had a safety named Rod Kush who could rush and cover and he'd play one linebacker, sometimes with Isiah Robertson as the other linebacker, but also sometimes Kush and Bill Simpson were the linebackers, Rufus Bess was the slot corner. Mario Clark and Charles Romes would play the corners and Jeff Nixon would come into the game and play Simpson's free safety spot and Steve Freeman would stay at strong safety. Kush intercepted a pass, recovered three fumbles and had 5½ sacks in his role as a linebacker, a role he reprised with the Oilers in 1985 when he had 5 sacks and a nickel linebacker.
Here you can see all four linebackers leaving this Bills-Jets game in 1981
Here Kush and Simpson are the linebackers, even agaist base (21 personnel) on 3rd and long


Most teams, though, would not use seven backs like the Rams and Bills did. They would use the traditional 2 LBers and 5 DBs most often, but there were plenty who used one linebacker and one defensive back as a linebacker in front of five defensive backs.

One such team was the Bears where Jeff Fisher and starting free safety Len Walterscheid as linebackers quite often, especially in 1982.

The above two shots show a nickel defense with one LBer (51 first, then 90) and two DBs as LBers
Another interesting one was the Cowboys. They had used six defensive backs in 1979, with Mike Hegman and DB Aaron Mitchell as linebackers and Dennis Thurman was the nickel back. In 1980 they had a fine young backer named Anthony Dickerson who was the linebacker in nickel and over the next several years he had different partners at linebacker, Sometimes it was Benny Barnes, then Charlie Waters or Dexter Clinkscale. But in 1983 he got perhaps his best partner in the role: Bill Bates.
Bates in the Box
Dicker is 51, Bates 40, Thurman 32, Fellows 27
Here Bates is in the MLB spot (similar to Cromwell in the Cover-22)
Bates was listed as a safety but his role was likely 95% linebacker. He and Dickerson would be behind the defensive line and Ron Fellows and Everson Walls would play outside corner, Dennis Thurman would play the slot and Michael Downs and Dexter Clinkscale would man the deep areas. In 1983 Fellows would come in the game with Bates and defensive lineman Don Smerek (who replaced John Dutton) and Thurman would move from corner to slot.

In 1984 Fellows was the starter at right cornerback in the base and Thurman would come off the bench. Bates would blitz (10 sacks from 1983-85 as a non-starter) or cover (six picks over the same period) and was a solid tackler if a team tried to run on the nickel defense.

Bates eventually earned the starting strong safety spot but still dropped to linebacker in the nickel defenses.

There are tons of stories related to this topic and we will post some of them going forward. We think it is key since these kinds of schemes are commonplace now but in the late-1970s and early 1980s it was new, interesting and considered ground-breaking. Though it may have been tinkered with earlier than that but we think that when it was used in earnest was the same time the passing game was opened up because of the mid-to-late 1970s rule changed and the era of substitution bloomed and remains in full force to this day.