Saturday, September 21, 2019

Minus Seven—After Forty Years It's Still the Record

By John Turney
The 1979 Seattle Seahawks were a team on the come. In 1978, their third season in the NFL, they were 9-7 and Jim Zorn was a First-team All-Pro according to NEA (i.e. the 'player's All-Pro team) and wide receiver Steve Largent was a Second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler as well.

From 1976-80 Zorn was 3rd in passing yards and 4th in most completions in the NFL over that span. Jim Zorn was good at football. Largent was establishing himself as a Top 5 NFL receiver. Largent was good at football, too.

They could run the ball as well. In 1978 the 'Hawk running game was 7th in the NFL and rushed for 28 touchdowns. In 1979 they rushed for 24 touchdowns and going into Week 10 they were a top 5 team in rushing average and rushing touchdowns.
Jim Zorn
Also, going into Week 10 the Seahawks were catching the eye of the NFL media even more as an excellent offense that could move the ball and put points on the board. In Week 9 they had a comeback win versus the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football that moved the needle of respect higher for the Seahawks.

After that MNF game, the Seahawks were sixth in scoring and sixth in total yards in the NFL. Clearly, they were a good offensive team.
The pre-game press has quotes from Seattle head coach Jack Patera saying that he thought his team would be ready to beat the Rams and that he had confidence they would play well. In fact, Seattle was favored by the oddsmakers.

On the other hand, the Rams were 4-5 and had just come off a loss to the New York Giants. They had suffered a rash of injuries beginning in the preseason and it continued through the Seattle game. The Rams were slumping offensively and defensively.

In 1979, on offense, the Rams had lost both their starting receivers, a left guard, their right guard, Dennis Harrah, was playing with a stress fracture in his leg. Their dominant left tackle, Doug France, missed time with a bad elbow and split time with Gordon Gravelle in the Seahawk game. Backup quarterback Vince Ferragamo had a broken hand. And during the Seattle game on November 4, 1979, the Rams lost Pat Haden to a broken pinky finger and starting running back Wendell Tyler played but was lost with a rib injury.
Ricky Odom (L) and Doug France (R)
Also in the game, Kent Hill hurt his upper arm and John Williams had to finish the game for him.  Ironically Williams was the starting guard who got hurt early in the season and the rookie Hill stepped in.
John Williams filled in for Kent Hill, who'd taken Williams' spot week earlier.
The roles were reversed in the Kingdome that day. Needless to say, this shows the lack of health on the Rams. Trust us, we could post a long article on the injuries the Rams sustained in 1979.

The Los Angeles Times reported, "

So, on defense, as the Times pointed out, for the Week 10 battle in Seattle the Rams were down both Pro Bowl cornerbacks (Pat Thomas and Rod Perry) were out and free safety Nolan Cromwell played in Perry's right corner spot and Dwayne O'Steen played left corner with Eddie Brown taking Cromwell's spot. When the Rams played their nickel defense Sid Justin played right corner and Cromwell played slot corner with middle linebacker Jack Reynolds leaving the field.

As was mentioned the whole defense was slumping going into the Seattle game. In weeks 8 and 9 they had allowed 70 points combined to the Chargers and Cowboys. In the first 8 games of the season the Rams defense recorded only 16 sacks (2 per game) but in Week 9 Fred Dryer broke out with five sacks on his own and it seemed to turn the defense around. While they had good outings against the Cardinals and Broncos, it just wasn't the #1 rated defense it was in 1978.

Jim Zorn was a quarterback with great mobility and his line has protected well (allowing just 12 sacks in the first nine games, tied for third-best in the NFL) and he could make his own protection by scrambling and throwing on the run.

Theory and philosophy of Rams defense, via their playbook
Says Fred Dryer, "Seattle was a good team and Jim Zorn was having a great year so we knew it was going to be a tough game for us. Of all the quarterbacks in the league at that time Jim was probably the toughest to prepare for with him being left-handed and with his great mobility."
Sid Justin (L) and Bud Carson (R)
So, the Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson and head coach Ray Malavasi installed a gameplan intended to slow Zorn, keep him in the pocket, and put pressure on him on passing downs.
Rams strategy, as outlined in their playbook
On run downs, the Rams would play their usual 4-3 base defense and attempt to limit running plays and get Seattle in 2nd and 3rd and long. They did deviate a little in that they played what they called "solid" quite often. "Solid" is a 6-1 look, similar to what the Patriots ran in the Super Bowl against the Rams last February.
4-3 solid (a 6-1 look)
They used other fronts (over, under, stud) as well, but film study shows they used the 6-1 the most.
Another shot at the 6-1
6-1 of 4-3 'solid'. This was employed most of the game on first down
A 5-2 look which is a 4-3 with the ROLB in what they called the "L" position
Rams used this a few times in the Seahawk game.

Rams call this front "46", they used it once, but it's a 4-3 "stub"
Then, on passing downs, they'd play nickel with Sid Justin coming in and playing corner and Cromwell would move to nickel corner playing on the slot receiver inside.

The defense would often line up 11 across, showing what is now would be called 'cover zero' or a 'cover zero' look. The corners and slot were in press coverage looks and the outside linebackers were on the line of scrimmage and the two safeties would line up in the A, B, even C gaps in positions the Rams playbook called "slug", jug", "jab", "jaw, or "up". Now, when linebackers do it, coaches usually call it "Mug" or "Double-A mug" look and things like that.

So the Rams linebackers and safeties would show that pressure look but back out of it to varying degrees on some downs and sending more than Seattle could block on other downs. The pressure look frustrated the Seattle passing game all day and controlled rush hemmed in Zorn as well.
Fred Dryer (R)  next to George Menefee (L)
Dryer explains his memories of the defensive line game plan—
"Defensively, all we heard all week  from the coaches  was 'contain, contain, and contain some more' so our coaching staff was very goosey the entire week"
"But Bud Carson and the coaches put together a very sound game plan. The premise was pre-snap confusion and a containment pass rush philosophy and of course, great coverage by our defensive backs."

"We were to make Zorn throw the ball downfield and make him throw it from the pocket rather than on the move. He was dynamic rolling out and dumping the ball off short or deep—once he got loose he had several choices—throw long or short or run. A running quarterback kills defensive coordinators because it breaks down coverage and sends fear throughout the entire to bottom."

If you cant contain quarterbacks like this you are finished so what I've explained was was our task at hand. For me personally having to do this on that fucking turf was doubly troubling. Its bad enough stopping ball carriers running from a conventional offense but a quarterback that zigs and zags and rolls out is hard to keep behind the line of scrimmage."  

And then there is the “embarrassment factor” with a quarterback like Zorn. Truth be told nothing is more difficult and futile chasing a crazy jackrabbit swerving and looping all over the place the stopping and starting aspect the difficulty in being able to run under control and still be in proper tackling position goes right out of the window.!

As a defender relying on arm tackling and running straight-legged not knowing when to break down as a defender was impossible.

The entire game all of us kept reminding each other in the huddle, 'Do not let this fucker Out of the pocket'. Jack Youngblood and I did not go for sacks—all we did is rush up the field and push the offensive tackles around Zorn always being in a position to come off our pass rush if Zorn did take off and run."

From the LA Times on the Ram tactics—

Said Jack Youngblood (who concurred with Dryer), "Zorn was like Roger (Staubach) and Archie (Manning) only even quicker. We had that little dude in camp in '75, I think. We couldn't catch him. 

'For that (Seattle) game, Bud and Ray wanted us to contain rush, keep Zorn in the pocket where we felt he was less effective, we thought if he was in the pocket he wouldn't know where to coach with the ball. The coaches drilled that into us all week.

'Well, on one play, Zorn did break outside—he did that little reverse spin move he did and he got outside Freddie. The play was coming towards the Rams sideline and while the play was still going Ray yelled at Freddie and called him a 'so-and-so' and by that time Zorn got the ball off and Freddie ripped his helmet off and threw it at Ray and said, "Fuck you, Ray. YOU WEAR THIS AND PLAY"!

'When we watched the film of the game we all fell out laughing because the sideline camera was in the perfect angle and you could read Freddie's lips. I about died"

The play resulted in an incompletion, but it emphasized how the coaches were keyed up to make sure Zorn didn't break containment and get outside the pocket.
Both starting cornerbacks missed the record-setting game
Additionally, the game plan, at least in part anyway, stemmed from the Rams being short-handed in the secondary, the issue mentioned by the Times. The Rams had to find a way to keep their outside corners (second-year man O'Steen and rookie Sid Justin) from being exposed and one way to do that was to force the quarterback into quick decisions with pressure—hence the Cover-0 look.

Then, of course, once that has been shown the Rams would back out some to play zone coverage as well. But with pressure by blitzers and the rushmen in a controlled rush they could get pressure and not lose contain on Zorn.

O'Steen and especially Justin were NFL journeymen at best. Both were Los Angeles natives and both went undrafted when they graduated college. Justin couldn't catch on as a free agent in the NFL but would hang out and workout with the Rams defensive backs like Perry and Thomas and Monte Jackson in Long Beach in the off-season. The recommendations of those players led to him playing semi-pro for a time and then eventually was purchased by the Rams and given a chance to make the team.

O'Steen made the Rams as a rookie as a special teams player but took a step up in 1978 and was someone who would play in sub situations. In 1979 they were backups to Perry and Thomas but were forced to start when injuries hit.
Dwayne O'Steen (L) and Sid Justin (R)
O'Steen and Justin different cats for the Rams of that era. They were the only two Rams (as per a pre-1980 Super Bowl survey) who shopped on Rodeo Drive and among the few that hit the LA nightspots differentiating them from most of the Rams who were more "into beer than champagne or mixes drinks". When asked if those things fit those two corners Youngblood laughed loudly and said, "ABSOLUTELY!", they were slick guys, nothing like PT and RP".

In any event, O'Steen and Justin held up their end in nickel and O'Steen and Cromwell allowed no completions in base defense. Both completions were to Steve Largent on shallow crossing routes through the short zones, with essentially either Bob Brudzinski or Jim Youngblood defending.
As has been mention the plan was extremely successful. In fact, it was the best single-game performance by a defense in the history of the NFL. The Rams defense allowed -7 yards for the day, allowing 23 yards rushing and -30 passing. Both the -7 total yards and -30 passing yards set Ram team records, which still stand.

The previous record was the 1967 Oakland Raiders who allowed the Broncos just -5 yards in 1967.

NFL.Com NFL Statistical Record Book
The Rams defense had a strong reputation during the previous 15 years or so, call it 1966-78. In fact, for the Decade of the 1970s—1970-79, the Rams defense allowed the fewest total yards, the fewest rushing yards, the fewest rushing touchdowns, sack the most quarterbacks and allowed the second-fewest points, posted the most shutouts, the second-most defensive scores, the fourth-most  interceptions, and the fourth-best defensive passer rating. They were a great defense in all phases—run-stopping, coverage, pass-rushing.

However, they did not get quite as much publicity due to the annual failures in the playoffs, losing to Dallas or Minnesota every year they made the playoffs in the 70s. 

Again from the Times:

"Had the Steelers or Cowboys set this record it would be on the NFL Network or ESPN every year. In past forty years I am not sure I have ever heard it mentioned on TV" says Hall of Fame defensive end Youngblood. "It is", he adds, "something we've talk about amongst ourselves when we get together. It mattered to us and we're proud the record still stands to this day."
Cromwell was CB in base, slot CB in nickel on Sea game. He was the Rams
starting FS but moved for a few games due to injuries, a testament to bis abilities.
However, over time, memories do fade in fact, Nolan Cromwell had forgotten he played cornerback in that game (he did so for three games in 1979—Giants, Seahawks, and Bears) in the game but seeing some stills remembered that pressure was the game plan "We felt it was to our advantage if Zorn didn't run".
The Cover Zero Look, 11 across the formation
Cromwell added, "We did a lot of blitzes and dropping into coverage from THAT look (see above)—it could have been 2xA (double A) or 2x B (double B) pressure looks. The linebackers are on the outside and the two safeties are the inside linebacker positions ( Dave Elmendorf and Eddie Brown)". 
This is a closer look with the safeties in "slug" and "jab" spots
(Eddie Brown #25 and Dave Elmendorf #42) as ILBers with Cromwell (#21) as the slot corner. 

Another look at the 11 across front the Rams employed
Here a couple of diagrams of the Double-A and Double-B blitzes Cromwell named. The personnel is a bit different in that these playbooks show the nickel as one of the A- or B-Gap blitzers but in the Seattle game it was the safeties and the nickel was covering the slot receiver but the principles were the same. 

During the CBS telecast, George Allen noted that Seattle should run against the nickel front, calling it "smart football". And it traditionally is. On this day, however, it wasn't working, if the safeties rushed the A-Gaps defensive tackles would 'spy' and when Seattle tried draws on the Rans defense Larry Brooks and Mike Fanning stuffed them. The longest run Seattle had all day was 8 yards.
Dave Elmendorf in the A-Gap
Seattle also tried screens but the run limited them as well. Allen said, "the rush is no dominant Zorn doesn't have time to set up screens". None of the screen passes the Seahawks attempted were even completed, much less gaining any yards to slow the rush. 
The Rams stymied the Seahawks offense all day and as time was waning, on the final play from scrimmage for the Seahawks they stood at 2 yards of total offense. They tried one final pass and Zorn was sacked by Youngblood for a 9-yard loss, taking the total yardage to -7 and the record was broken. 

The LA Times reported it this way:
 Here are some stills from NFL Films and from the CBS telecast—
Youngblood takes the edge
Flattens and sacks hits Zorn
And then takes Zorn down for a 9-yard loss

Youngblood ended up facing away from Zorn
Rams front four meet at the quarterback
And then they meet on the sidelines.
The offense does deserve some credit for the defensive performance as well. They ran for just over 300 yards and with the 63 rushes it took to gain those yards it took tons of time off the clock. Pat Haden  (passer rating 132.5) set a then-Rams record of 13 consecutive completions before his pinky got caught in a seam in the turf in the Kingdome. With the ball not hitting the ground much, the clock kept running, limiting the plays Seattle could run.
Lawrence McCutcheon
Wendell Tyler ran for 86 yards in just over a quarter's worth of work before they both joined the Rams 1979 list of the walking wounded. Nineteen seventies Ram icon Lawrence McCutcheon filled in for Tyler and gained 82 yards himself.
Jack Patera
After the game, a frustrated Seahawk head coach Jack Patera told the media, "I've never heard of a game like this. We had mistakes by our quarterback, our receivers and our offensive line. We couldn't run and we couldn't pass". 

“Every third down, every critical situation that we had to get a drive going, they lined up in this blitz look and got us,” Zorn said. “We tried to make adjustments one way and they got us another way. Nothing worked.”

Rams head coach Ray Malavasi added this, "I've seen it happen to Namath, Staubach, Tarkenton . . . to every quarterback in the league. The quarterback gets what I call 'unbalanced'".

The following week the Rams were scheduled to play the Chicago Bears and their head coach Neill Armstrong echoed Patera, "I've never seen anything like it. I couldn't believe it because Seattle is a fine offensive team". I certainly hope we can gain more yards than Seattle did".

The Seattle Seahawks recovered, played well, and finished the season with their second straight 9-7 record and were 4th in the NFL in scoring, even with being shutout by the Rams. They finished seventh in the NFL in total yards—and with any kind of performance in the tenth game of the season, say 300 yards, they would have been third in the NFL. The minus seven yard-game cost them four slots or so in the rankings.
Jim Youngblood the SAM 'back or "Stub" which is what Malavasi's terminology called him
The record-setting feat by the defense was accomplished with just twelve defenders taking snaps. The front four of the Rams played all the defensive snaps as did outside linebackers Jim Youngblood and Bob Brudzinski. Four of the defensive backs (Nolan Cromwell, Dave Elmendorf, Eddie Brown, Dwayne O'Steen) played all the snaps as well.

And as we mentioned when the Rams were in base defense Jack Reynolds was the MLBer and when they went to nickel Sid Justin came in and played outside corner while Cromwell would slip inside to slot corner thus Reynolds and Justin split snaps.

As much as anything—schemes, and gameplans aside, it came down to. the fact that the Seattle offensive line was no match for the Rams front four. Yes, they'd been successful all year in protecting Zorn (only 12 sacks in previous 9 games) but allowed six in the November 4th game. And they allowed pressure on almost all of the 23 passes attempted (including sacks).
Right tackle Steve August was a 1977 first-round pick was solid, Tom Lynch was a fine player but at that point neither were matches for Jack Youngblood and Larry Brooks and left tackle Nick Bebout and right guard Bob Newton were not up to the task of blocking Fred Dryer and Mike Fanning. John Yarno, the center, spent most of his time looking to help out on whoever was breaking free and fullback Dan Doornink was chipping Youngblood most of the day.

Here are the negative team records the Seahawks set that day—

With the Rams 24-0 win, they evened their record at 5-5 but went to Chicago and lost but defensively the corner had been turned. Starting with the 5-sack game Dryer had against the Giants, the Rams pass rush was sparked, after the 16 they had in the first eight games they upped that to 36 in the final eight games to lead the NFC with 52 sacks.

That keyed a winning streak that enabled them to end up the 1979 season with a 9-7 record and won their seventh straight NFC West title and then beat Dallas and Tampa in the NFC Playoffs and went on to lose Super Bowl XIV to the vaunted Steelers. 

In the Playoff game in Dallas, Bud Carson and Malavasi employed another terrific game plan—the Dollar defense which tested Dallas and then became a staple in the Rams scheme for a few years.

The Rams made the playoffs in '80 and were a still a great defensive team that year (led NFC in sacks with 56 and were third in passing defense), but that season marked the end of an era. 

In 1981 Dryer, Reynolds and Brudzinski were jettisoned, Larry Brooks hurt a knee, and the 1970s-era defense was, for all intents and purposes, over. They were still good versus the pass but the run defense, without those four suffered. The strike-shortened 1982 season was a disaster for the Rams defense and in 1983 the defense was re-tooled as a 3-4 defensive team and as starters, only Jack Youngblood and Nolan Cromwell remained from the 1970s.
So with that, this -7 yards record is the crowning jewel of that defensive unit, one that capped the statistical marks they set that we previously mentioned (fewest yards, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, most sacks, etc.) but who knows about it? The answer is likely hardcore NFL fans and perhaps half of Rams fans could tell people the Rams defense holds the single-game mark for fewest yards allowed.

So, with 2019 being the 40th Anniversary of this record and its occurring during the NFL's 100th Anniversary season, (a record that will not likely be broken) should be remembered.

It should be also be remembered that it was set indoors, not on a sloppy, muddy track and that it was achieved against a (then) lesser-known team but who was a strong offensive team led by a good, elusive quarterback and a Hall of Fame receiver (Steve Largent).

It truly was a special achievment. 

1 comment:

  1. Saw this game a while ago on youtube. It is awesome that a younger guy like me can go back and look at these games and marvel at what these guys did out there.

    Jack Youngblood was awesome in 79 and in addition to his sack I think he forced Zorn into throwing a pick too. Jackie Slater dominant run blocking was on display too.