Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Stack of Confusion

By Joe Zagorski
Lanier with an interception in Super bowl IV   credit: CBS
Pro football strategy has been a series of actions and reactions since the very first game over a century ago, focusing on the play calling and formation decisions made by offensive and defensive coaches. Their identical goal was—and still is—to fool the other enough times and on enough plays from scrimmage in order to obtain victory.

Offenses try one bit of strategy, and defenses try to stop it with their own elements of designed maneuvers. It is a chess match, played on a 100-yard stage. Coaches throughout these many years have made their reputations on being able to design the type of strategy that can not only fool their opponent, but that can take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses, as observed from their personnel and their tendencies. Coaches also devise specific strategies that take advantage of the strengths and abilities of their own players.

During much of the latter 1960s, the defensive coaches of the American Football league were well aware of the fact that their league possessed somewhat more explosive offenses than those of the usually stodgy and conservative National Football League.

Their assignment was to find a new way, or at the very least a more effective way, to curtail their opponents’ offensive run and pass production. One of the more promising and successful methods to achieve their goal was innovative in its simplicity. What was not simple was how many offenses dealt with it.
Credit: CBS
That pioneering idea was called the stack, a defensive maneuver that placed at least one linebacker, and often two or all three linebackers, taking their stances directly behind their defensive linemen, who were usually in a three-point stance. The result? Confusion beyond belief for many offenses.

Let’s look at the team that seemed to use the stack the most, the Kansas City Chiefs. Hank Stram, the head coach of the Chiefs, gets a lot of credit for establishing revolutionary ideas as an offensive play caller, and rightly so.  But Stram also deserves plenty of accolades for his defensive plans.  The key to Stram’s success with the stack starts with the size and abilities of his personnel.

Stram possessed three of the quickest and most agile linebackers in pro football in the late 1960s.  Middle linebacker Willie Lanier, and outside backers Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch, each had speed, quickness, superb tackling talent…and boy could they hit!  Then one had to look at Stram’s defensive line.  Ends Aaron Brown (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and Jerry Mays (6-4, 252)  teamed up with tackles Curley Culp (6-1, 265) and Buck Buchanan (6-7, 287) to form one of the largest front fours in the pro game. 
Jerry Mays.  Credit: CBS

Their reputation was so feared, that they were often called by many opponents “The Redwood Forest.” It was the size of the Kansas City defensive line which provided onlookers with the most obvious showing of the stack’s success. Those mammoth linemen were required to tie up as many blockers as possible on each play, which enabled the linebackers more freedom the find and tackle the ball carrier.

Moreover, the huge size of those defensive linemen made it extremely difficult for offenses to see what the Chiefs’ linebackers were doing on any given play. As a result, the linebackers were virtually hidden until the snap of the ball. Deception thus became the first and most important byproduct of the stack.

“You have to have the right kind of defensive linemen to use a stack,” admitted former New York Jets coach Walt Michaels, a man who used the stack almost as much as Stram. “They have to be quick types.  They have to be able to penetrate that gap and tackle people, not big lard asses who can’t close their arms around anybody.”

What exactly were Stram’s linebackers trying to do prior to closing their arms around opposing runners while using the stack? Really, any number of things. Often, the linebackers who were stacking were required to fill in the gaps in between the defensive linemen. 

They also—individually or in tandem—would react to a play by going to their left or their right. The dilemma with that was that opposing offenses never really knew which direction the linebackers would flow to, especially if they disguised their movements numerous times throughout many different down and distance situations. And then, one or more of those linebackers could decide to blitz, coming from an unpredictable direction.

Finally, one or more of the linebackers could peel back into pass coverage, while one or more of the others did something completely different, such as fill a gap that no one on the offense expected that player to fill. 

Truly, the options available to a coach who employed the stack were virtually endless. The key was to make sure that you did not really have a rhyme or reason to what type of stack you were calling, or to where the linebackers were going, on consecutive plays, or possibly more than once in a game.

The goal was to keep your opponent guessing, to keep them confused, to keep them adjusting to your stacks, and most importantly of all, to keep them reacting to your actions. If an offense was a step behind linebackers like Lanier, Bell, and Lynch, Kansas City’s stack defense had a good chance at achieving success.

Certainly, the greatest moment of success for Coach Stram and his stack defense occurred in Super Bowl IV, when the Chiefs took on the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings on January 11, 1970, in New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium. On that epic day, the stack did its job of confusion to perfection.  True, the Minnesota brain trust only had one week to prepare for the Chiefs, unlike the customary two-week span of time between conference championship games and the Super Bowl today. 
Credit: CBS
But that did not matter all that much. Kansas City’s defensive line dominated Minnesota’s smaller offensive linemen, and the Chiefs’ linebackers filled the gaps as well as they ever did.  The Vikings could gain only 67 yards rushing all game long. 

Lanier, Bell, and Lynch also did their part in limiting the Minnesota runners to just two first downs rushing all game long. And to add a cherry on top of this tasty dessert, the Chiefs managed to intercept three Minnesota passes in achieving a 23-7 victory in Super Bowl IV.

“We were in some form of the stack 90 percent of the time,” said Kansas City defensive end Jerry Mays following the game, “and we never played it that much before. Minnesota’s recognition was destroyed.”

Unfortunately for defensive coaches league-wide, the stack was not the be-all, end-all of defensive football strategy. Minnesota’s recognition of the stack would take several more months to be seen, but it was seen, in the first game of the 1970 regular season, when a rematch with the Chiefs brought about a much different result than what occurred in the previous Super Bowl. The Vikings gained at least some measure of revenge by scoring a 27-10 victory over Kansas City.

“No defense is perfect,” admitted Mays after the loss. “The stack included. They angle-blocked us and didn’t take us head-on. They had learned how to attack it. They got us out of it.”

The stack defense still makes an appearance now and then in the NFL of today. But it is not used as much as it was by the AFL teams of the late 1960s. That is because pro football coaches have had a couple of allies for many years in helping them defeat the stack defense, and any other defensive or offensive strategy that has come down the pike since the very first game.

For a time, that ally was the 16mm film projector, but today, it is a digital video recording and playing device. And studying…lots and lots of studying. Whatever it takes to avoid getting too confused on Sundays.

Editor’s Note: Joe Zagorski is the author of three pro football books.  His newest book, America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield, and will be released in February 2020.

Bennett, Tom.  The Pro Style: The Complete Guide to Understanding National Football League 
Strategy.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
Zagorski, Joe.  The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade.  Jefferson, North
Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2016.
Zimmerman, Paul.  A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football (Revised Edition).  New York: E.P.
Dutton, 1971.

1 comment:

  1. I always heard Willie Lanier was one of the Slowest if not THE slowest mlb in football which made his hof career that much more remarkable... hmm.