Professional football has become an exercise in the creation of doubt and in the old war tactic of arriving at a given point first with the most. Since the offense is always outmanned numerically by the defense, the attackers' achievement of these two objectives is obviously difficult. On any given play the defense can commit 11 men; the offense can commit only 10 effective players, since the quarterback can neither block nor catch a pass. He can run, of course, but not well.
In the center of the line the offense has little hope of creating surprise or doubt or even of obtaining substantial advantage in manpower. The only possible weak spot in the defense is to be found on the flanks, and it is this which makes the job of the defensive corner linebacker in professional football a physically and mentally demanding one. It is no accident that a championship team is invariably equipped with fine corner linebackers. They are as hard to come by as quarterbacks who can pass or halfbacks who can defend against a pass.
A corner linebacker must have, to begin with, almost mutually exclusive talents. He must be able to stem a running attack by meeting a fullback of the size and brute power of Cleveland's Jim Brown at the line of scrimmage after he has had time to develop momentum, and either stop him cold or so impede him that help will arrive before Brown has made an appreciable gain. This, of course, takes size—something on the order of 230 to 240 pounds. For all his size, the corner linebacker must still have enough speed to accept the responsibility of covering one of the rabbit-fast halfbacks in the National Football League all the way on a pass pattern. This is something like asking a Percheron to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
The Green Bay Packers, in a sense, are doubly a championship team, for they have two corner linebackers who fit the position's demanding specifications. The club's success over the past two years has been due in no small part to Dan Currie (see cover) and Bill Forester, who tackle fullbacks with enthusiasm and effect, cover ends and halfbacks with some trepidation but reasonably well and, upon occasion, barrel in to commit legal mayhem upon a quarterback bent on passing.
"The toughest job is taking a halfback all the way," Currie said the other day in Palo Alto, where the Packers, the Western Conference championship already safely won, were preparing to meet the San Francisco 49ers. "When you get that assignment—and you don't get it very often—you have to play loose. I mean you have to drop back off the line so that you've got a good head start in the foot race you'll have with the swing halfback. And even then a guy like the Rams' Jon Arnett can scare the hell out of you. I can't run as fast as Arnett. What I've got to do is stay as close to him as 1 can and hope the passer doesn't have time to throw."
Currie, at 26, is a tall, dark and handsome man. He and Forester, the other Packer corner linebacker, are almost precisely the same size—6 feet 3, 235 or 240 pounds. They are probably the biggest pair of corner linebackers in football and almost certainly the best. Currie was the Packers' first draft choice in 1958, after making most All-America teams as a center and linebacker at Michigan State. He had also played offensive guard for two years at State and at one time or another filled in at every position in the line. Because he had an older brother who was good, he got an early start in football, being accepted in kid games as a sort of handicap to compensate for his brother. By the time he graduated from St. Anthony High in Detroit he had made All-Detroit and All-Michigan as a center. Currie lives in Waren, Mich. during the off season with his wife Mary and three children: Janie, 4, Tom, 2, and Matthew, 6 months.
Off the held he dresses meticulously, a habit that has earned him the nickname of Dapper Dan. Even if he were the sloppiest man on the Packers, Currie probably would have won the name anyway for the very neat way he analyzes and reacts to keys, those often mentioned but seldom understood nouns and verbs that are tossed around by some football people these days as though they were so much pied type.
Key to the future
In professional football the whole defense depends substantially on keys. A key is an action taken by an offensive player that indicates almost irrevocably what type of play is coming. A simple key, for instance, is the action taken by the strong-side end—the end playing close to the offensive tackle on the side to which a halfback has been flanked. If the strong-side end blocks on the defensive end, his action tells the corner linebacker that the play almost certainly will be a wide run.
This key sets up an instantaneous chain reaction. The corner linebacker reads sweep and fights to the outside in order to force the runner either to turn in—in which case the runner turns into the heavy traffic of the defense—or keep going wide until he hits the sideline and cannot maneuver. The corner halfback comes up to be in position to tackle the runner should he cut back, and the safety man comes up fast from his deep position to lend assistance on the tackle.
The Packers, reading this key, play it a little differently from other clubs in the league. It would be worth your while to watch the strong-side flank of the Packers defending against a run—specifically, the defensive end and the corner linebacker. In a normal defense, once the running key becomes evident, the linebacker crosses the line of scrimmage, intent on stopping the play there. This sets him up perfectly for a block by the guard who leads the play. The Packer corner backer, either Forester or Currie, does not cross the line, and consequently is harder to block. Each man is equally fast, although, according to Packer Defensive Coach Phil Bengtson, Forester, who is 29 years old now, probably was faster than Currie a few years ago. "Now," says Bengtson, "they are just about the same speed. And both of them can do everything a corner linebacker should do."
"Against a run inside, the corner linebacker becomes a defensive end and closes down the line," Bengtson said last week. "Against a sweep, he has to cover to the outside. When the tight end is on his side, he has the responsibility of chugging the end [knocking him out of his intended pattern by shoving him at line of scrimmage], then dropping out into the flat to cover against a sideline pass. Against some offensive patterns, he might have to drop back 10 yards into the area where the quarterback might throw a pass to a hooking end."
Student of the possible
Currie, who has learned his trade well, thinks a great deal about his responsibilities as a corner linebacker and studies opposing teams carefully. "It takes three or four years before you can play this position well," he said in Palo Alto. "We get the defense and lineup, and always I go over the situation: the down, the yardage, the personnel, the score, how late it is in the game. After a few years of looking at the same clubs you begin to understand the pattern of thinking of the quarterback. You know that Conerly, for instance, will throw to Kyle Rote in a clutch. You know that, but you have to discount it a little, too. The game [two weeks ago] against the Giants was a perfect example. When Conerly came in, all of us figured he would try to pick the defense apart—call draws, short passes, hooks, that kind of thing. Instead he threw three bombs."
The three long passes Conerly threw were so far out of his normal pattern of tactical thinking that they had the Packers deep backs scrambling desperately. With just a little luck—the Giants dropped two good passes—they were able to prevent a score.
Forester, more conservative than Currie, makes a conscious effort not to depend on a pattern.
"I think about the situation and what the club we're playing has done in other games, but I never depend on it," he says. Forester is a rather quiet, slow-speaking Texan who played college football at Southern Methodist. He is in his ninth season as a pro—three of them All-Pro. "I try to react to the play as it develops," he went on. "You can tell in a second if it's going to be a pass or a run, and you've got time to carry out your assignment then. When you try to anticipate you can get in trouble. Like in the championship game against the Eagles last year."
The Eagles had scored once on the Packers on a slant-out pass from deep in Packer territory. They had penetrated deep again; the down, the position on the field and the tactical situation were almost the same as on the earlier play.
"I remembered the slant-out," Forester said. "I figured they would try it again, and I watched the end for a split second and then saw the sweep coming. But by then the end had an outside position and could block me. The sweep went all the way for a touchdown because I tried to anticipate and I was wrong." The moment of hesitation that put Forester out of position is the bugaboo of a corner linebacker.
"You don't have enough margin of error to allow for hesitation," Currie says. "You have to be able to execute your assignment instantly. The unpardonable sin in pro football is to blow an assignment. You should never make a mental error; you should always know what you're going to do and do it immediately. The whole idea of the offense is to create that moment of doubt in your mind, to cause hesitation that allows a blocker to get to you or a pass receiver to get the step or so he needs to beat you."
Learning by Rote
Kyle Rote of the Giants has the deep respect of Currie. "He's a deceptive runner on pass patterns," Currie says. "He comes downfield slow and makes a slow head-and-shoulders fake to the outside and lulls you. Then he plants his right foot and makes his break, and if you aren't used to playing against him he breaks clear with that extra speed."
Rote dropped one of Conerly's passes in the game against the Packers earlier this year. This lapse could be credited to what the Packers call their howler defense. "Rote had a step on the defensive halfback," Currie said. "Then just as the ball got to him, the back hollered at Rote. He took his eye off the ball for an instant and dropped it. It doesn't work against Rote very often, but as a last resort you try anything."
In the same game Rote caught a pass because he faked Currie into hesitating. "I dropped back toward the sideline to cover," Currie said. "For just a second I thought Rote would run a turn-in—a pattern where he goes straight downfield then turns into the middle. I hesitated and he turned out, and by the time I had recovered and gone after him the ball was thrown and I missed knocking it down by a couple of feet."
Since their assignment often requires them to tackle the best ballcarriers on the opposing teams, the corner linebackers make a serious study of the running habits of the backs.
"We looked at movies of Jim Brown over and over before we played Cleveland," Currie said. "Of course, he is a great runner. He does one thing that gets him extra yardage time and again, and we saw it in the movies. He gets hit—a good tackle, arms around his legs—then he relaxes and the tackier relaxes and Brown steps out of his arms and goes on. Jim Taylor goes on after he is hit, but he does it differently. Just as a tackler comes up to hit Jim, he seems to coil up and explode. He takes the impact on his thighs. He hits so hard it seems to stun the tackler, and Jim uses the rebound from the tackle to take off in another direction. He has tremendous leg drive."
To an observer it would appear that the hardest play for a corner linebacker to cover would be the halfback option pass, the play in which a halfback takes a hand-off, swings wide to the strong side, then either throws or runs, depending upon the reaction of the defense.
"That's not too bad," Currie says. "The corner linebacker has to play it like a run. You have to come across and force the play, make the halfback throw. The guy who has a tough job on that play is the safety on that side. The tight end blocks, and the safety reads 'run' and comes up fast; then the tight end slips off the block and goes into the hole left by the safety coming up. If the halfback has time he can hit the end in the clear. It's tough for the safety to recover and get back in time to knock down that pass."
The overall Packer defense is called from the sidelines by the very knowledgeable Bengtson. But within the defensive pattern that Bengtson calls, Currie and Willie Davis (the defensive end on his side, with whom he works very carefully), devise their own small stratagems, while Forester and Bill Quinlan on the other side work out their own tricks.
"We'll switch off now and then," Currie says. "I may take the inside and Willie the outside or vice versa. We try to avoid setting up a pattern that the offense can read, just like offensive quarterbacks try to avoid developing a pattern in calling plays. If we can mess up the blocking assignments, it's a help."
On the most spectacular play a linebacker makes—the red dog or blitz—Currie and Forester nearly always rush the passer from the outside.
Strategy of the blitz
"Usually there's not a big enough crack between the offensive end and tackle," Forester said. "I take the outside route, the end goes inside. We have to go hard because on an all-out blitz the secondary has four men to cover with four men. If the passer has time—three or four seconds—it's a sure bet that one of the four receivers will work himself into the clear. We try to break up the play by making the quarterback throw too fast or by getting to him before he can throw at all."
"You have to force a team out of what it does well," Currie says. "You have to make them do what you want them to do. For instance, when a quarterback runs and gains yardage it may look spectacular but this isn't what a quarterback does best. He's most dangerous when he is throwing the ball, and if you make him run he's forced out of his most effective function. Sure, some quarterbacks are great runners, but you don't often get beaten by a quarterback having a fine day running. You do get beat when he has a good day passing."
Vince Lombardi, the brilliant coach of the Packers, has a rather simple but unorthodox philosophy of football. Whether on offense or defense, he concentrates on whipping the opposing team where it is supposed to be strongest. This, of course, is what the Packers did to the Giants. Defensively, the Packers stopped New York's biggest threat, Del Shofner, cold. Offensively, the Packers ran on what was supposed to be an almost impregnable line.
"If you can beat their best players and start their morale crumbling, team morale crumbles," Lombardi says.
So far, no club has tried to turn Lombardi's philosophy against his team. Should one try, the chances are it would take out after Forester and Currie on defense—and that could be a terrible mistake, for this year at least there are no two more stubborn corner linebackers in football.
THE AREA OF CONTAINMENT
No defensive man in pro football has more ground to cover than the corner linebacker. Against runs to the inside, he closes down through territory A. On passes, he may be required to defend against hooks to the middle or sideline throws in territory B. He may have to turn a wide run back to the middle in territory C. And on a blitz, he must penetrate through territory D to reach passer.
Covering same areas diagramed above, the Packers' Dan Currie is practically all over the field. Against inside run (A) he breaks to right to help contain play. Against pass into hooking area or to sideline (B) he backpedals furiously to cut off short throw or cover halfback all the way downfield on a pass. Against wide sweep (C) he fights to the outside, trying to force runner in, and when blitz (D) against passer is called, he takes outside route at full speed, hoping to hurry or drop quarterback.