LOOKING BACKBy John Turney
The same is true of the nickel back, when was it first employed? No one is really sure. When was it employed "in earnest" that is when it was a dedicated part of a defensive game plan would be a better test.
The same is true for the so-called "designated pass rusher" or nickel rusher. Today it is commonplace, so much so that it's not talked about much in the media, either on the Web or during games, but it is a vital position. Sometimes it's an older player coming in at the end of his career or a younger player with his young legs taking the place of a 3-4-type end when a team uses four down linemen.
Film study has yet to reveal the first time it was used in the NFL, but we do have a good idea of when it was used in earnest.
Years ago we spoke to Paul Zimmerman, then SI's head writer. He mentioned he thought perhaps Larry Cole, in 1968 would come in to fill in for a heavy-legged starting left defensive end Willie Townes. But, Townes was injured early in the season and Cole became the starter anyway.
In 1969 Roger Brown sustained an injury and youngster Coy Bacon became the Rams starting right tackle, but when Brown returned they split time and T.J. Troup indicates that essentially Bacon, the younger, quicker player was used on pass downs in a platoon with the older, heavier Brown.
However, neither really did it for a sustained time. We think that distinction came in 1970 when Cedrick Hardman was a rookie. He was a dynamite pass rusher in college and taken in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers. He was, though, not ready to be an NFL starter. "Heck, it took him until 1972 to learn how to close a trap. He threw a party for him when he got it done", says then 49er linebacker coach Mike Giddings. Hardman started five games that season after the 49ers coaching staff had tried to groom Hardman. Early in the season he'd rotate in at right defensive end, but "the idea was to get him run-stopping experience in the rotation and then get him into the game on passing downs" recalls Giddings.
It worked well as the 49ers won the division and Hardman led the team in sacks with 8½. In the following clip you can see Bill Belk leave the game and Hardman enter the game and make a play.
In this clip you can hear Frank Gifford mention this Redskin duo entering the game in a passing situation.
In the same game as the first clip you can hear the ABC announcing team mention Youngblood's role, coming in on a pick 6 and leaving on a 3rd and one.
Harvey Martin won the designated role in training camp and he'd play in sure passing downs at left defensive end, with, ironically, Larry Cole going to the bench. Martin ended the season with 9 sacks as the Cowboys advanced to the NFC Championship game.
|Cole, at LDE in Dallas base 4-3 flex|
|Martin in game at LDE in place of Cole|
Here are some more stills from 1973:
|Here Martin is in for Cole and Bill Gregory for Lilly.|
|This is the Dallas base 4-3 flex with Cole as LDE.|
Joe Owens, would be on the bench. Bob Pollard would play right DE in the 30. When they went to nickel (4-2-5) Pollard would play inside (similar to what Bubba Smith and Coy Bacon had done and what Howie Long and Dan Hampton would do in the future) and Owens would come in and be the sack master, and he led the team in 9½ sacks.
|The Saints when they used a 3-4 as a base|
|Here is their 4-3 base defense, note the RDE is #82 Pollard.|
|Here is the nickel with Owens at RDE and Pollard at LDT|
Joe Owens was used in the same role in 1975 as well, finishing with 6½ sacks. However, there were times he'd spell new right DE Stave Baumgartner at right DE in the times they used the 4-3.
Randy White. Dallas thought he'd end up being a starting linebacker in their defense, eventually. In the meantime, he'd be used in a variety of ways, mostly as a rusher on pass downs. The Cowboys would line up White as and outside linebacker in a 3-3-5 defense and rush, either from the right or the left. He'd also take either Jethro Pugh's spot at LDT or Larry Cole's spot at RDT and rush on 3rd and long situations and would also line up as a nose in a 3-man line. He had 11 sacks combined in 1975 and 1976.
Here are some examples of White's play in 1975 and 1976 lining up in various spots.
The Chiefs had a rushman in 1976 as well and they finished with 5½ sacks and only started three games. We have not seen enough 1976 Chiefs film to know his role exactly, but we suspect it was as an inside rusher in likely passing downs, in that the Chiefs had decent ends, Whitney Paul and Wilbur Young, though they seem to be reversed in where they lined up, but that's a different topic altogether.