Friday, May 31, 2019

Building a Wall—Notable Improvements in Run Defense. Part I

By TJ Troup and John Turney
Many teams have played strong run defense, but what teams improved the most from one season to the next? And why? Was it the scheme, personnel, or a combination of those with a new coach or coaches?

Let's start with the 1955 Redskins. Kuharich wants to keep his job, and the 1954 Skins were porous in the secondary, and could not stop the run as they won 3 and lost 9 on the season.

Dick Evans comes to Washington to coach the line, and he brings out the best in the holdovers. Washington had used the standard 4-3 often in 1953 under Lambeau (mixing it with the 5-2) but it was abandoned in 1954.

The Washington Redskins were the first team to use the standard 4-3 defense on virtually every down for a complete season making Chuck Drazenovich the first true middle linebacker. Others had played it some but in terms of playing it nearly every down, all season Drazenovich is the guy.

Personnel-wise there are upgrades at two positions in the secondary. Left corner Roy Barni is as tough as nine fields of Texas onions, and when asked to stop the sweep he attacks the ball carrier with a vengeance.

Left or strong safety many times to the wide side of the field is veteran Norb Hecker returning from Canada. He is a savvy due to experience, has the size, and is a fine tackler.

Coming over from Detroit is right linebacker Torgy Torgeson, and he also has experience and knows how to play championship defense. Ralph Felton plays left linebacker, and gives a strong effort, yet he helped by being aligned behind the premier left defensive end in football in Gene Brito.
Returning from Canada, Brito has not lost his enthusiasm for the game; in fact, he would probably have been voted Defensive Player of the Year in a close vote with teammate Chuck Drazenovich or Joe Schmidt of the Lions had such an award existed at the time.

Since he was mentioned; Chuck Drazenovich EARNS his first Pro Bowl, and plays the position like he was born to it. The middle linebacker must scrape, and fill running lanes, and "Charley Cro" sure accomplishes this. Chet Ostrowski does a commendable job at right defensive end, and the two big tackles Peters & Kimmel keep blockers off of Drazenovich. Defeating the world champion Browns on opening day is a sure fire way to begin the season, but Washington loses three of their next five.
At the halfway point at 3-3 the Skins run defense has allowed 825 yards (137 a game). During the '54 campaign, the Eagles destroyed Washington twice as Adrian Burk set a league record with 12 touchdown passes in the two games played between these longtime rivals.

Philadelphia does not have a particularly strong running attack, and on November 6th in a game, Washington must have the 'Skins stonewall the Eagles on the ground. Having the complete game film, there is no doubt each running play could be digested—yet here is the breakdown as the three Eagle running backs gained just 32 yards on 14 attempts. Philadelphia attempted straight dive plays, toss sweeps, and draw plays. None of them were effective, as the longest run of 8 yards came on a 4th quarter draw play by Giancanelli.

Gene Brito aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle quickly shed the attempted block and forced the running back on sweeps to go even wider or cut back into the pursuit of Drazenovich and the rest of the 'Skins defense. Rangy Volney Peters used arm over techniques and his hands to shed blocks and play a superb game.
All members of the front seven had their moments as the 'Skins won 34-21 (Burk & Thomasson threw repeatedly as the game progressed and gained yards, but could not get the lead). The only team with any real success in running the ball against Washington all year was Cleveland as Curly Morrison gained 117 on 15 carries.

The offensive coordinator of the New York football Giants; Mr. Vince Lombardi instituted "zone blocking" and as such the Giants rebounded the second half of the year and gained 264 yards in the two victories over Washington, but those yards came grudgingly.

The 'Skins run defense allows just 450 total rushing yards the last six games of the year for a season total of 1,304 or a 913-yard improvement over the disaster of '54. Their yards per carry allowed also dropped from 4.4 to 3.1 and they cut the rushing touchdowns from 20 to seven as Washington records an 8-4 record.

Since TJ mentioned the 1972 Rams when this project was discussed, I will open with them. TJ watched a 1972 highlight set of an early-season game where the visiting Rams gave up 297 yards rushing to the Falcons—just gashed them all day and the next season the Rams run defense was its usual stellar self.

To get to 1973 we have to start from 1966-70 when George Allen was the head coach and also the defensive coordinator, it was HIS defense. From 66-70 Allen's run defense gave up 3.3 yards per rush. He'd been fired and was the Redskins coach in 1971. He was replaced by Tommy Prothro who had been the coach at UCLA and he brought with him defensive ideas even though his forte was offensive football. He hired Sid Hall to be the defensive line coach, Hall made his bones at San Diego state but had spent 1969-70 with John Madden in Oakland.

In 1971 All-Pro defensive end Deacon Jones had a sprained arch that dogged him much of the season and Merlin Olsen had a decent Pro Bowl season but he was coming off a knee injury he sustained in the previous Pro Bowl. Also, the Rams were starting Phil Olsen (also on a mending knee), Merlin's brother at right tackle and the right end in 1971 was Coy Bacon, a great pass rusher who was not committed to stopping the run.

Late in the season in a Monday Night game, Allen's Redskins beat the Rams in LA and among the key series was one on the goal line where Allen ran the ball at Deacon Jones to score. It was noted by the Monday Night crew, and all the papers that Deacon had been run on.

In the offseason, the Rams send Deacon to the Chargers and traded for former Giant defensive end Fred Dryer who had been traded to the Patriots but wouldn't report. In 1971 the Rams had drafted Jack Youngblood in the first round and he'd made some All-Rookie teams playing for Deacon when he was down and on passing downs in the Rams '57' defense.

So, going into 1972 the Rams had Bacon, a fixture at right end, Dryer who'd only played right end in the NFL and college and Jack Youngblood who was a left end and felt like a "fish out of water" on the right side.
After the trade for Dryer was worked out then plan was that he would take Deacon's spot and Bacon would have the right and Youngblood would battle for the right end position. Dryer said that he could learn to play left and all it took was time and reps.

Well, somewhere early in training camp Prothro decided that since Coy was 20 pounds or so larger than both Dryer and Youngblood that he should play left end and that Dryer should go to the right and Youngblood could challenge him there. And that's how camp went until very late, very near the beginning of the season.

What happened then is Bacon balked at player left end halfway into the preseason schedule. Even with all camp to work on it, he was never comfortable on the left side. And he made threats,, he got his wish and moved to his usual right end spot.
The third preseason game, 1972. Bacon still on left side of defense.
This pissed Dryer off because now he's on the left side and he didn't get the six weeks of reps he felt he needed to play left end. He vocalized the disdain for the move to the Rams coaching staff.  "Prothro let Coy run all over the coaching staff, no one would take a strong hand with him and it really affected the team chemistry" Dryer remembers.

So, as it worked out that's how things took place and all this took place with the regular season looming. Now, Bacon was the right end and, according to Protho and Youngblood would start versus running teams and Dryer would start versus passing teams. Dryer asked, "How are we to know exactly”? So, as can be seen, the defensive line, the most talented group, was in disarray.

And the first week in '71, versus the Saints, there wasn't an issue, but in week two they gave up 144 yards to the Bears and then the aforementioned 297 to the Falcons. They were okay then versus the 49ers then had an excellent game versus the hapless Eagles and thumped them.
Nettles and Howard, good coverage guys, starters in 1972
The Bengals ran on them and then it Oakland they gave up 213 and it looked like 313. The Raiders used their "East" formation and isolated Phil Olsen and Coy Bacon and the Raider backs pounded the ball behind Gene Upshaw and Art Shell.

The Oakland papers picked up on it and it was even memorialized in Murray Olderman's book The Defenders.
So, after that game, the Rams made a change and inserted Larry Brooks, a rookie, into the right tackle spot in place of Phil Olsen. The rest of the year they gave up an average of 100 yards a game, an improvement but proved to be too little too late in terms of the playoffs.

According to Dryer, there was no real technique being taught by the Rams coaches, the Rams did what they always did, ran up the field and reacted to the run, but it didn't work like it did in the 1960s due to the tweaks brought in by the new coaches and the youth on this new line.

Additionally, Youngblood remembers in both 1971 and 1972 that the coaches would install the defensive gameplan with particular line calls and stunts the players would listen politely. Then, after the coaches left Merlin or Deacon would then tell the younger players what they were really going to do.

"The coaches had us trying to do slants from outside a player across his face to the inside. That may work at San Diego State (defensive line coach Sid Hall's school) but it wasn't going to work in the NFL. That's why Merlin and Deacon would take over" recalls Youngblood. It's a wonder things were not worse.

However, even after Brooks became the starter the damage was done and the Rams, though doing better versus the run, at that point they had a stalled offense and a quarterback (Roman Gabriel) with a bum arm. The players grew weary of coach Tommy Prothro and things got even more bizarre.

Here is just one example:

Once, when Prothro was out of his office Merlin Olsen, Dryer and Youngblood let themselves in, to be mischevious at best. Someone, maybe Merlin saw Protho's briefcase on his desk and opened it up. They saw a couple of cartons of Pall Malls and a betting card—the kind bookies gave to clients in that era. Hmm.
All told, the Rams gave up 1,762 rushing yards and allowed 4.0 a carry. Those numbers are not bad, but they were not Ram like, given the recent tradition. The Rams finished 6-7-1 their first losing season since 1965. Prothro was fired and the Rams hired Chuck Knox.

So, when Chuck Knox got hired he got the lowdown on all the players. When he heard Coy Bacon wouldn't play the run he sent him packing to San Deigo where he'd play with Deacon Jones. he took Jack Youngblood aside, gave him a copy of and said, "You're my left end".

Knox handled Fred Dryer differently. He called Dryer to his office and said, "You and Phil Olsen will compete for the right end spot. You are going to have to prove you can play right end at 225 pounds in the NFL". Dryer's response was "That's what I've been doing"  referring to the fact that he'd played well at that size for four seasons in the NFL.

Knox and Dryer had crossed paths a couple of months earlier when Knox, then the Detroit Lions offensive line coach, came up to Dryer after the game and asked him, "What went on here this year". Dryer, who had no I idea who Knox was other than a coach for the Lions said, "You have no idea what went on here this year. It's a looney bin".

Due to the things we've mentioned and more, Dryer through his agent had asked the owner to trade Dryer after the season. The owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, told Dryer's agent "things will be different next year, there will be changes".

When Dryer picked up the LA paper one day he saw that the Rams had hired Knox and he realized that was the coach who stopped him on the field in December.

Dryer didn't mind the competition at the right end position, he knew his skills and abilities and he cared about winning and playing well so he was confident he would win the spot. He used camp to learn and perfect the butt technique and the coordinated defense Malavasi brought.

By the time preseason came around, it was clear Dryer, despite being only 225 pounds could play the run well due to scheme and technique and he was the clear starter for the season. So, the front four was set—Youngblood, Merlin Olsen, Brooks, and Dryer with Phil Olsen backing up the ends and Bill Nelson backing up the tackles.

At middle linebacker, Marlin McKeever was solid in 1971 but in 1972 he was not so solid. He'd lost a step, he'd make defensive calls that would give him the least responsibility and the defense sometimes got hurt because of it. McKeever was cut in '73 camp and played that season with the Eagles, his last in the NFL.
McKeever also cut in camp, 1973
He was at first to be replaced by Bob Stein (who the Rams obtained from the Chiefs for Willie Ellison) but he got hurt in camp when he was in a position battle with Jack Reynolds (who was a #1 pick in 1970 but had yet to secure a starting position). Hacksaw stepped into the void and held the starting job for the next eight seasons. He was short, not fast, but was like a computer in terms of making defensive calls and adjustments and would hit and tackle. 

Left linebacker (Stub) Jim Purnell was not good in 1972 (he was listed at 229 but looked 215) and in 1973 Ken Geddes, a big (6-3, 235), talented player who had a tough time staying healthy in the past few seasons took over for Purnell. After Stein recovered from his camp injury he competed some at left linebacker but Geddes beat him out, too. 

Isiah Robertson was the RLB (Buck). Robertson was excellent as a rookie in 1971 but tried to do too much in 1972 and was often out of position. He didn't play a disciplined game in 1972. However, he took to Knox and the nest scheme.

Nineteen seventy-two starters Jim Nettles  (free safety) and Gene Howard  (cornerback) were around in '73 camp but both were cut. Jim Nettles was a decent ball-hawking free safety in 1972 (he had been a cornerback previous to that) but was not a tackler, and he lost his job to journeyman Steve Preece, who was so-so in ball skills but would hit and tackle.
Nettles and Howard. No tackle, no job
Howard had a fine 1971 season in coverage (gave up just one touchdown) but lost his edge in 1972, as did Clancy Williams (who started some but was battling injuries), a long-time Rams corner who hung 'em up after 1972. Rookie Eddie McMillan won the right corner spot and the Rams went through a few players at left corner. They even tried out Herb Adderly there but eventually traded for Charlie Stukes a 6-3 zone corner with little speed but a lot of ability in run force.

Tellingly, Nettles, Howard, Purnell, and Clancy Williams never played another down in the NFL.

The Los Angeles Times called this new group "Merlin Olsen and the 11 Question Marks" and when the Rams went 1-5 in the preseason the sarcasm looked to be a reality. Olsen, the only Ram defender to play great in 1972 (Isiah Robertson, Dave Elmendorf, Jack Youngblood, Bacon, and Dryer all had their moments but none did it consistently) defended this new iteration of the Rams defense. He said it was potentially the best the Rams had in his time with the club. Writers scoffed.

Chuck Knox hired Ray Malavasi to as his defensive coordinator, taking over for Tom Catlin (who remained as the linebackers coach). Malavasi cut his teeth in the AFL and he brought an "AFL defense" to the Rams which meant defensive fronts would be the major consideration when putting in defensive calls.

Although they used some overs and unders the Rams, under Allen (and Marion Campbell who was the defensive line coach for Alle), then Catlin in 1971-72 was an "even" defense. In 1973 Malavasi changed that. They'd overshift towards the tight end in an effort to overplay the run. Or if the team was a weakside running team they'd play the undershift for that game. No one was going to run on them anymore.

In addition to the scheme change, they were coached to play the run in a different way. In the past, they play the run on to the quarterback but didn't have any particular thing to do to stop the run. They relied on the athletic ability of Deacon, Bacon, Lundy, Brown, etc., to run up the field and if it was a run they'd make the stop.

Now, the subtle change was they'd use the "butt technique" which was to slam their hands on the shoulders of the blocker and their facemask against the offensive lineman's facemask and control the blocker, dominate him rather than finesse him. They'd use that technique and know where the play was going.  The finesse came versus the pass if the play was a pass they'd just continue on.

Malavasi also played a more coordinated gap sound scheme that made sure all the holes were covered. He and Knox both agreed that the linebackers and defensive backs had to be more physical. Knox drilled them and made sure they were a hard-hitting team at all eleven positions rather than just the front four. And as was mentioned the new starters (Reynolds, Geddes, Preece, Stukes) were all solid tacklers.

All of this worked since in 1973 they were first against the rush and allowed the fewest touchdowns rushing in the NFL (it also didn't hurt the pass rush as they went for 42 sacks to 45). It also worked for more than 1973—While Malavasi was the defensive coordinator (1973-77) the Rams were first in total defense, first in lowest points allowed, first in rush defense, first in fewest rushing touchdowns, third in lowest yards per rush, had the second most sacks, the second most interceptions, the second-lowest defensive passer rating and had the second-most pick sixes.

So, even though it's not a 913-yard difference like the '55 Redskins achieved it did amount to 493 fewer rushing yards from 1972 to 1973 and the Rams cut the yards per carry from 4.0 to 3.5.

Individually, Merlin Olsen was the NFC Defensive Lineman of the Year, Isiah Robertson was second in the voting for AP Defensive Player of the Year. Eddie McMillan was tied for second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Robertson was All-Pro, Olsen was All-NFC, Youngblood was Second-team All-Pro (had had 16½ sacks and 13½ tackles for loss), Jack Reynolds got All-Pro from the Newark Star.
Chuck Knox was the consensus NFL Coach of the Year, and had there been a coordinator of the Year Award Malavasi would have likely won that.

In 1974 the success continued as they led the NFL in rushing defense again and led the NFC in sacks. Youngblood and Dryer were both All-Pro and Olsen and Brooks were both Second-team All-Pro as was Dave Elmendorf. That kind of success went on through 1979 when they set the NFL record for fewest yards allowed in a game with -7 in Seattle. But more on that in November.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this discussion between TJ and JT.

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