A WALL OF 49ERS

San Francisco's pros, playing near-perfect defensive football, shut out the explosive Rams in early October. Here is how they may do it again when the teams meet Sunday in the Los Angeles Coliseum
November 09, 1959

When rookie Coach Red Hickey told his young and credulous San Francisco 49ers how they could defeat the Los Angeles Rams in the first league game between the two teams this season in early October, they took his lessons seriously and obligingly won the game 34-0 despite the fact that they had lost an exhibition game to this same team 14-48 only a few weeks earlier. It was the first time any team had held the Rams scoreless in 10 years of league play, and it was regarded as somewhat miraculous by most knowledgeable pro football people. The ideal pro defense as used today has four very large, reasonably mobile men in the front line, three slightly smaller, even more active players in the second rank of defense and four very fast, reasonably large halfbacks in the secondary. The 49ers, along with most pro clubs, had men to fill these roles, but their deep defenders, in particular, lacked experience. Two of them—David Baker of Oklahoma and Eddie Dove of Colorado—were raw rookies. The other two—Abe Woodson of Illinois and Jerry Mertens of Drake—had only a total of a season and a half's experience between them. The job of the defense was to contain men like Ollie Mat-son and Tom Wilson, two of the most dangerous runners in the business, to say nothing of Billy Wade and Frank Ryan, two excellent passers throwing to the best pair of ends in the league in Red Phillips and Del Shofner. Jon Arnett, another fine runner, was handicapped by a leg injury. Fortunately, Hickey's rookies, backstopped by a great punter in rookie Tommy Davis, followed their coaches' battle plans faultlessly. The story of how they did it and how they could do it when they meet again on Sunday in Los Angeles is told on these eight pages.

Somersaulting Matson reflects violence of 49er tackling, which time and again sent Ram runners spinning through the air. Here Matson is beset by Clancy Osborne (33), Fred Dugan (87) and Henry Schmidt (74), with Baker (25) and Jim Ridlon (42) coming up.

Gang tackling also marked 49ers' rushing defense. Tom Wilson (24), pounding into a tight hole, is smothered by mass of linemen plus Linebacker Jerry Tubbs (50) and Halfback Baker (25) in one of many abortive sorties that Rams tried against the 49er line.

A NEARLY PERFECT NEW UMBRELLA

The ideal defense against a passing attack combines a fast-charging line, to put pressure on the passer, with an umbrella of four quick, veteran defensive backs with speed enough to stay behind the long passes and three linebackers who have experience and reactions quick enough to plug the line or cut off the short passes. Hickey had none of these. His line was good, but had not put pressure on the passers during the exhibition games. In Matt Hazeltine he had one linebacker who filled the requirements; the other two were Jerry Tubbs, new at middle backer, and Clancy Osborne, a rookie picked up from the Rams as much for his knowledge of the Ram offense as for his ability. The deep men were very fast, very young, very inexperienced. Their coach was a rookie, too—Jack Christiansen, a fine defensive back for the Detroit Lions but in his maiden season as a coach. As shown in the diagram on the right and in the pictures on this and the next five pages, Hickey solved his problem by taking a tremendous gamble. He assigned Abe Woodson (40) and Jerry Mertens (80) to the nearly impossible task of covering Del Shofner (29) and Red Phillips (82), man for man. Woodson and Mertens took their men wherever they went on the routes indicated by the diamonds in the diagram. The middle defensive area, inside the dotted line, was the responsibility of the linebackers and the deep men, Baker and Dove. All of the 49er secondary defenders—linebackers and halfbacks alike—were drilled over and over in releasing their men the minute the ball was thrown and converging on its destination. The four big men up front had the major responsibility for containing the Ram running, helped when possible by the linebackers, and helped sometimes by the very fast deep men coming up to the line.

Strong man of the 49er line was Leo Nomellini, a 33-year-old tackle. This 255-pound wrestler was immovable against running, as well as being the most effective rusher. Stronger even than most players his size, Leo nearly decapitated Ram Quarterback Frank Ryan once (see left), always dumped Center Les Richter (right) on Ram punts.

Key roles in the 49er defense were taken by Mertens (80) and Woodson (40), shown here playing on Phillips (82) and Shofner (29). They dogged these two fine pass receivers wherever they went. The safety men, Baker and Dove, helped on very deep patterns and on covering the short area in the middle (dotted circle) with Middle Backer Jerry Tubbs and with the other linebackers.

Panther-Quick reflexes plus sprinter's speed helped Mertens and Woodson in their assignments. As fast as the men they had to cover, they reacted so quickly that they were able to move with the feints thrown by the agile Phillips and Shofner and still recover well enough to be in position to knock down the pass (left) or harry the receiver so that he missed the pass (right).

Sideline views of 49ers' converging defense in action shows how it worked. Leon Clarke (84) has just caught pass. Woodson (40), Baker (25), Osborne (33), Tubbs (50) and Dove (44) are all turning toward Clarke in instant reaction to the situation.

Hit hard by Tubbs (50), first man to reach him, Clarke fumbles, and Dove (44), another of the fast-closing ring of 49er defenders, is on hand to scoop up the ball. Diagram at the right shows how the defenders gang up on the receiver after the pass is thrown.

Ring of red jerseys around a lone Ram receiver was a typical sight. Another pass bounces away from harried Clarke into hands of approaching Tubbs (50) while Woodson (40), Dove (44), Hazeltine (55) and Baker (25) prepare to block for Tubbs.

Payoff for unrelenting pursuit comes again in this interception, initiated by Baker as he goes up with Clarke (84) to bat away a quick pass over center. Woodson (40) has left Shofner to hurry to the scene with Linebackers Tubbs (50) and Hazeltine (55).

Reward for haste came in the form of interception by Woodson. Baker slapped ball away from Clarke and straight down, but the hurrying Woodson arrived to make shoestring catch, converting what would otherwise have been an incomplete pass into one of the three interceptions which helped keep the high-geared Ram offense outside the 49er 29-yard line all afternoon in a true classic of defensive football. Clarke was prime target because of close guarding of Phillips, Shofner.

THE OFFENSE WORKED TOO

A good offense is not necessarily the best defense, but it helps. The 49ers, led by aging, bald Quarterback Y. A. Tittle, used Coach Hickey's imaginative, resourceful play book superbly well. Surprisingly, they were most effective with a walloping running attack powered by 32-year-old Joe Perry and a refugee from the defense, big, oak-legged J. D. Smith. Quick, accurate passes foiled any Ram tendency to overdefend against this running; and the blocking was very good all day. Tittle himself added to both running and receiving by picking up 22 yards on a surprise gallop and completing pass to himself which was good for four yards.

Powerful perry (34) follows a blocker on one of his sweeps which gained consistently. Now in his 12th season, Perry has gained more yards running than anyone in NFL history.

Running mate for Perry, J. D. Smith (24), is convoyed by Hugh McElhenny (39), himself an All-Pro runner who is now used on the wing of 49er attack where he is available as a receiver and where he blocks corner defender infallibly.

Touchdown pass to End Billy Wilson (84) came when the alert Tittle, on fourth and one at the Ram 13, noticed that Wilson was covered by lone defender, changed his signal at the line of scrimmage and tossed quick pass to Wilson. Wilson eluded Tom Franckhauser and scored easily. This quick reaction to a weakness in the Ram defense was typical of the 49ers' attack.

Acting ability of McElhenny (39) made this screen pass go for 62-yard touchdown against Detroit last week. McElhenny blocks, falls to ground to lull defense, jumps up to take short pass, follow screen of waiting linemen for gain or touchdown.

ILLUSTRATIONROBERT RIGERARNETT ILLUSTRATIONROBERT RIGERDAVIS FOURTEEN ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT RIGER DIAGRAM9
29
40
80
82
84
DIAGRAM9
33
24
29
40
55
44
50
84
33
25
82
80
DIAGRAM84
39
80
79
64
34
48
53
14
24
77
76
57
88
ILLUSTRATIONROBERT RIGERA
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)