Saturday, June 1, 2019

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

By TJ Troup and John Turney
The is the second discussion about teams that really built up their run defense after a previous poor season.

Troup on the 1956 Bears

The 1955 Bears forged their way into the western conference lead at 6-3 only to get demolished by the Cardinals as their cross-town rivals gained over 300 yards rushing. The Bears allowed 2,100 yards rushing in '55, but would certainly address this issue during 1956. 

It is strange that Clark Shaughnessy would start Wayne Hansen at middle linebacker, and Bill George at left linebacker for the first three games, yet the Bears still start 2-1. 

My book The Birth of the Modern 4-3 Defense details who played where during '56 for the Bears; thus this narrative is not only about personnel and the change that improved the defense, but the scheme used by Shaughnessy. 

Ken GorgalJesse Castete, and J.D. Smith have been tried in the secondary, and none of them finish the year in Chicago. The return of Stan Wallace is paramount to the Bears run defense success. He is aligned almost always near the line of scrimmage, though he is listed as a safety. His size and tackling ability coupled with his pursuit angles and hustle are a dramatic improvement over the three previously mentioned men. 
Hall of Famer Bill George will go from stand up middle linebacker to a knuckles in the dirt defensive lineman in a 5-man line the opponent offensive line must adjust who to block. 

During the seven-game win streak (Wallace rejoins the team during the streak) opponents gained 935 rushing (133 a game). The per carry average of opponent runners is an impressive 5.0, but since the Bear offense led by Casares & Hill have almost always built a lead the per carry average is moot. 

Men like McElhenny and Perry of the 49ers have their moments as they have in the past (October 28th), but could not control the time of possession, and the Bears for the first time since 1950 beat San Francisco twice. 

Studying film of the November 18th clash in Wrigley against the Rams provided the following the analysis; the Bear defense finally did not allow the Rams to trap and sweep the Bears. Los Angeles beat the Bears five times from December of 1951 through the '55 season, and in those wins averaged 219 yards rushing a game. Chicago limited the Rams to 132 yards a game in the Bears four wins. 

The Rams gained 101 in the Chicago victory earlier in the season in the Coliseum, but today is slightly better giving up 100. Ronnie Waller zipped through the Bears for 42 yards earlier in the game, but in the 4th quarter, he cannot shake loose. Tank Younger also struggles as Los Angeles gains 4 yards rushing on six attempts in the 4th quarter. Behind and with the running game negated, Billy Wade must throw almost every down as the Bears again knock off their west coast rivals twice in a season.  

Was there an opponent who had success on the ground against Chicago? The Lions motored through the Bears for over 200 yards in early December as Hart on straight ahead power runs, and Gedman on sweeps punched out 145 yards as Detroit walloped the Bears. 

The rematch to end the season is a different story as the Detroit duo is stonewalled the entire game. Did Shaughnessy adjust? You betcha! The defensive ends crashed hard inside many times, while Bill George from his line position in the 5-2 or middle linebacker stacked behind a tackle in the 4-3 plugged the running lanes. 

Wallace with able assistance from the other safety McNeil Moore filled the cut back lanes and made Hansen & Joe Fortunato's job much easier. The last two games of the year the Cardinals and Lions gained only 138 yards rushing on 60 attempts. Bear opponents gained 1,483 yards rushing (an improvement of 617 yards) as Chicago won a division title for the first time in ten years. 

Turney on the 1971 Redskins:

In 1970 Washington allowed 2,068 rushing yards, a 4.4 average carry, and 19 rushing touchdowns. Allen wouldn't allow that to continue. In fact, Washington had given up similar numbers in 1968 and 1969 as well, so the issue was systemic as were other things. So, George Allen is hired by Redskin owner Jack Kent Cook.

George Allen liked players who had some experience as opposed to potential and athletic ability so he would often trade draft picks that hold the hope of the future for veterans, telling the Washington sports media that "The Future is Now". 

Allen had done that kind of thing with the Rams in 1966 when he was hired to be the head coach in Los Angeles. He inherited a great front four but he didn't like the linebackers and some of the secondary. So, he talked Jack Pardee out of a one-year retirement (he sat out 1965 due to a bout with cancer and he was tired of toiling for a losing team) and he traded for Bill George to run the defense. He also traded for Maxie Baughan and Myron Pottios to boost the linebacker play and they all did a good job.

In 1971 Allen found that Washington didn't have linebackers he liked with only a couple of exceptions, so he traded for Pardee, Pottios, and Baughan again. He'd likely have talked Bill George out of retirement if he could. He just never liked Marlin McKeever (he traded him away from the Rams in 1967) giving him the distinction of having been traded away by George Allen twice.

Regardless, Allen obviously thought McKeever was part of the problem in stopping the run in 1970.

Maxie Baughan, Myron Pottios, holdover Chris Hanburger, Jack Pardee
So, he got his linebackers and in that same trade, he acquired Diron Talbert who was coming off of a great year in 1970 with Allen's Rams with 61 tackles, 11 sacks and 10.5 run stuffs in 1970. Talbert was going to be his right tackle. He also traded for Ron McDole to play left end and sent a pick to the Jets for Verlon Biggs who was going to be his right end. 

McDole and Biggs were big players for that era, McDole was quick (his "Dancing Bear" name really did fit) and Biggs was strong but could rush the passer well. Both had played on excellent run defenses in the, as good or better than any in pro football. McDole's Bills allowed the fewest rushing yards in both the AFL and NFL from 1964-67. And the Jets, where Biggs was the right end, held that distinction from 1968, beating out teams like Landry's Cowboys and Allen's own Rams who were the top NFL teams in stopping the run in that period.

And both could also get pressure on the quarterback, Biggs especially. 

The 1970 players at the defensive end spots were John Hoffman and Bruce Anderson, both journeyman. The left defensive tackle was Floyd Peters was 34, but looked 44 and was ready to enter coaching. So they were all jettisoned in favor of the three new guys.

Diron Talbert, Verlon Biggs, Ron McDole
Allen's 1971 left tackle was Manny Sistrunk, a holdover from 1970 but who hadn't played much, and Bill Brundidge (another holdover) who would play on passing downs. Brundidge was a starter at right tackle in 1970 but he was part of the problem but he could get inside pressure and Allen liked that part of his game. So, left tackle was a platoon, the first run/pass platoon we know of in NFL history game (the 49ers did it a lot in 1970 but it was at end not tackle).

To round out the rushmen (Allen's term for defensive linemen) he traded for Jimmie Jones, a tall but thin defensive end with great quickness. Jones would play right end (sometimes left) in passing situations (he led the team in sacks with 7½ in his designated rusher role). Even though Biggs was a good rusher (15 sacks in 1967 and 14½ in 1973), Jones was better. He was a great takeoff, Allen compared him to a young Deacon Jones, so he got the pass-down snaps.

Jimmie Jones, the sack leader
Allen liked Washington's "dekes" his term for defensive backs. The corners remained the same Pat Fischer at left corner and Mike Bass on the right. He moved strong safety Brig Owens to free safety and acquire strong safety Richie Petitbon. For good measure, he sent a draft pick to the Chargers for return man Speedy Duncan who doubled as the nickel back.
So trader George used essentially six players on the line in rotation, four linebackers, and five defensive backs (15 regulars) and he traded for eight of them (Maxie Baughan didn't play, but rather helped coach the linebackers)—more than half.

Allen installed his scheme with was a rush the passer, look for the run on the way to the passer, but it was sound in that players were taught keys to the run that they could see in the first couple of steps. So they run was stopped with his scheme as it was in Chicago and in Los Angeles.

Washington proved they were able as well as they cut the rushing yards by 672, the yards per carry dropped from 4.4 to 3.4 and they reduced rushing touchdowns from 19 to seven.

In ten of the fourteen regular-season games they allowed 106 or fewer rushing yards and they only had one game that could be termed bad. It was against the Bears where they gave up 205 yards rushing. However, 88 of that was to quarterback Bobby Douglass (who almost scored helmetless) and then, late in the game, Cyril Pinder broked off a 40-yarder on a trap play. (after which the Bears converted an extra point to secure the upset on a play they botched and then saved with a throw from Douglass to Dick Butkus for the PAT)

But the run defense wasn't the only improvement. By reading the run quickly and stopping them for modest gains they put teams into passing situations and Washington improved the pass defense as well. Sacks were up from 24 to 36 and the defensive passer rating dropped from a poor 70.6 to an excellent 45.1. They cut the opponent completion percentage from 54.8 to 46.5 and almost doubled interceptions (from 15 to 29).

It was certainly Allen football for Washington in 1971. It was a combination of new players and scheme with an emphasis on effort, teamwork, and soundness on the defensive front. Added to which the special teams were great and the offense ran the ball well and worked play-action passing with another new player—Billy Kilmer. All of it added up to a playoff seasons for a team that had not had a winning season since 1955.

We hope you enjoyed Part II and say tuned for Part III of TJ and JT's discussion.


  1. fascinating and detailed as always....TJ, when you have an opportunity, would love to have you break down the 63 Bear defense (there's that man Allen again!)… you think it's the best of the post-WWII era? I'm aware of rules changes, but how does it compare with the 85 Bears?

  2. JHolt I think the 76 Steelers have to be considered the best post WW2 defense. So much talent and so many shutouts.

  3. Alen, you may have a point....28 points allowed in the last 9 regular season I love about that particular Bears team (and I'm not a bear fan especially....) how they dominated despite a (very) mediocre offense....+29 in takeaways....that said, there are a LOT of HoFers on that Steeler D....