Defensive players have to be tougher, mentally and physically, than offensive players," said Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi, a squarely built man with a square, almost tough face, who has the toughest defense in pro football. He thought for a moment. "I don't know why I say that," he admitted finally. "But I think it is true."
Next week, when the Packers face the only defense in the West that can match their own, it will behoove Lombardi's specialists in the fine but violent art of knocking down passes, passers and ballcarriers to be at their very toughest. If Green Bay can beat Detroit in this game—which seems likely—then the race for the division championship in the Western Conference will be over. It is, according to Lombardi, no accident that the two best defensive teams in the division are leading.
"Championships are won on defense," he says flatly. "When I came to Green Bay four years ago, my first moves were designed to strengthen the defense. I started working on developing the offense after that."
The defense that Lombardi has gathered together comes as close to perfection as is possible in a game played by fallible human beings. Through the first eight games of the current season, the Packers allowed only 61 points to be scored against them—an average of fewer than eight per game. Although Detroit has given up fewer total yards, the Lions fall short of the Packers in the most important item—pass defense. The Green Bay team has allowed opponents only 116 yards per game—an extraordinary accomplishment against the polished passing that constitutes the primary attacking weapon of most pro football teams.
November 19, 1962
Lombardi has managed this by carefully blending daring with caution, speed with strength, size with sensibility. His team, like most pro clubs, works in small, almost self-contained units. The corner linebacker and the defensive end who plays in front of him work together; the middle linebacker coordinates his moves with those of the defensive tackles, and the halfback and safety on each side work together. In each one of the five groups that constitute the Packers' defense, Lombardi has purposefully paired off the conservative with the liberal, the solid rock who is perturbed by nothing that happens with the energetic rocket who may go off in any direction, causing great damage or, conversely, making a brilliant play that will keep people talking for weeks.
Lombardi's left defensive end, Willie Davis, is such a rocket. He played offensive tackle for the Browns until Lombardi traded for him and put him on defense. Davis is big (6 feet 3 and 240 pounds), very quick and a taker of chances. He is backed up by one of the soundest corner linebackers in pro football—Dan Currie (SI, Dec. 18, 1961). Currie, who is as tall as Davis and only five pounds lighter, seems in comparison a veritable Tory. Dan almost never makes a mistake and is the perfect foil for the daring Davis, who, sure that Currie will cover for him, can slash in at the opposing quarterback almost heedlessly—a prime requirement for a defensive end.
"I'm more comfortable playing defense," says Davis, who might be speaking for his 10 teammates as well. "On offense I was always thinking what I had to do. Things changed so much from week to week, and you had to know everything cold against any kind of defense you might meet. Now I know on each one of our defenses what my assignment is, and I can spend all my energy doing that." Davis' dislike of offense did not come from lack of mental ability to master the assignments; he is working for a master's degree in education with certification for administration.
"You've got more room for individual effort on defense," he went on. "I do what I'm supposed to, then I go to the ball if it hasn't come to me and I've got freedom to react the way I want to. It's no secret that I studied Gino Marchetti [of Baltimore] for a long time. He's the best pass-rushing end in the business. I noticed he lined up right on the ball, as close as he could get to the line of scrimmage without getting off sides. Then he'd fire in there on the snap, so that he'd reach the tackle blocking him before the tackle could set up. He'd put his hands on the tackle and twist him one way and the other, and when the tackle was off balance he'd get by. I try to do the same thing." ("Davis has very strong arms," Lombardi said earlier. "He can handle a tackle and fight off a block very well.")
This pell-mell charge across the line might set Davis up for traps or overcommit him against the screen pass if it weren't for Currie and Dave Hanner, who is the defensive tackle beside Davis and is another very sound player. Playing his 11th season in the league, Hanner is a tobacco-chewing, red-haired, massive man who is a cotton-field inspector in Arkansas during the off season and is known as Hawg by his teammates. Off the field his small blue eyes peer good-naturedly over wide, freckled cheeks, but on the field he reveals a deep and sure knowledge of his position. It is his ability to detect screens, traps and draw plays from the action of the guard in front of him that protects Davis. Hanner has been All-Pro five times, with reason.
"You can tell pretty much from the way the guard blocks on you," he says. "On a screen, say, when they want you to come in fast so the quarterback can lob a little pass over you, you can feel a softness in the block. It takes a real good actor to make the screen go. Usually when you go in, the guard hits you a real good pop, then backs up a little and hits you another one. When it's a screen, you feel the softness and you know he wants you to come. So you slide over to where the screen will be."
On the draw play, which is the bane of a middle linebacker's existence, the quarterback drops back as if to pass, the fullback fakes a block, then, as the defensive line pours in, intent upon doing bodily damage to the quarterback, the quarterback slips the ball to the waiting fullback. Since the middle linebacker has dropped back quickly against the threat of a pass, and the two tackles, hopefully, are intent on the quarterback, the play often results in a gaping hole in the center of the defense, through which the back scoots for sizable gains.
"You can read the draw from the block, too," Hanner says. "Usually the guard sets up to block you squared away between you and the quarterback. But on the draw, most of the time, he'll be turned a little to the inside or outside, inviting you to take whichever route the play calls for. If he sets up to give me an outside route, I fight to the inside."
Fighting to the inside closes the gap against the draw, slows down the action and gives Ray Nitschke, the powerful Green Bay middle linebacker, time to recover and throw his 230 pounds into the breach with the force that has made him one of the most fearsome tacklers in football.
"It's a real help, having a couple of tackles like Hanner and Henry Jordan in front of you," Nitschke says. "I've got to read pass when the center and the fullback get up for pass blocking, and when I read pass, I got to drop back in a hurry. If I don't, the middle over my head may be unprotected and I'd get in a lot more trouble than I do on a draw. But when I hustle back, it opens up the draw play. Hawg's being able to read it so good gives us protection we need."
Nitschke, now one of the best middle backers in football (with Sam Huff of the Giants, Joe Schmidt of Detroit and Bill George of the Chicago Bears), once suffered from an excess of gambling spirit. A tall, rangy, balding blond, he was known as a wild man when he came to the Packers. The Green Bay defenses are not as complicated, say, as the Chicago Bears', where there are some 15 or 16 formations to master, but they are not suited for wild men either. There are four basic line defenses and four basic defenses in the secondary, which may be combined in almost any way, but in each Lombardi and his defensive coaches, Phil Bengtson and Norb Hecker, have meticulous assignments for every player, which must be carried out precisely. Particularly, there is no room for individual stunting. This is what Nitschke did for a year or two when he first came up; and the result was horrible. Now he still gambles—but only within the patterns drawn up by his coaches.
Nitschke is a very effective defender against the pass because of his height (6 feet 3) and because of his hands—as soft as a pass receiver's and as little prone to fumbles. His is a difficult position. Against some passes he drops straight back to cover against a shot up the middle, against others he may drift to either side of the field to help the corner back. Then, of course, he must protect the middle when the two tackles use an outside route to reach the passer (swinging away from the center of the line and around the outside of their blocker); or he must be prepared to cover the left or the right against the run when the tackles go inside, leaving a gap between them and the defensive end on each side. And, of course, there is always the draw. Against the Lions the draw is an ever present menace, since Lion Fullback Nick Pietrosante is one of the better fullbacks in the league at milking yardage out of the play.
"You look for speed, agility and size in a lineman," Lombardi says. "You may get two. If you get all three you have a great football player."
By Lombardi's definition the other Green Bay defensive tackle is great. He is Henry Jordan, and he has all three qualities. He is fortunate, as is Willie Davis, in that he is backed up by Nitschke and abetted by Bill Quinlan, the right defensive end for the Green Bay club. Quinlan, like Currie, is a player who never makes a mistake. He does not have the quickness of his opposite number, Willie Davis. But Quinlan, also like Currie, has been in the league a long time and understands the small differences that make a pattern in the offense.
"He can rush the passer," says Bengtson. "But he is as good against the run as any end in the league. He doesn't chase ducks; he's where he should be against almost any kind of play."
Quinlan is another ex-Brown. He is a black Irishman from Massachusetts with an immense joie de vivre but, oddly enough, he does not play with the daring recklessness that his personality would suggest. He is a careful, intelligent end who seldom overcharges and who never is caught on the inside when the other team is sweeping wide to his side.
Behind him, at corner linebacker, is Bill Forester. Bill is a sporting-goods salesman in the offseason in Dallas, Texas. He was a younger brother in his family and his nickname is the southern generic term for younger brothers—Bubba. He is the exception in the Green Bay defense in that he is neither ultraconservative nor a gambler. He plays his position studiously, gambling with calculated daring, playing it close to his shoulder pads when the occasion demands.
"He's good to play with," Quinlan says. "If I want to take the inside route, it's always all right with Bubba. If I want to go outside, he agrees to that, too. But he doesn't blow a signal. Not ever."
It should be pointed out that Quinlan and Hanner, both of whom protect against surprises in the Green Bay line, are at least as important to the overall defense as Jordan and Davis, who get most of the public acclaim because they are, nine times out of 10, the defensive players who set the quarterback on his pants. But neither of the two gamblers could afford to be as reckless as they are if it weren't for Quinlan and Hanner, who close the holes left by Jordan and Davis when they cross the line helter-skelter in pursuit of the passer.
The deep secondary of the Packers, of course, follows the pattern of the two front lines. On the left, behind Davis and Currie, arc Herb Adderley and Henry Gremminger—Adderley as the corner back and Gremminger at safety.
Adderley, playing his first full season in this unit, came up originally as an offensive back. He is young and ambitious and not careful but, according to Norb Hecker, he improves with every game. "He's got wonderful reactions, and he can play receivers as close as anyone in the league because he has so much speed. Lots of halfbacks give receivers the short pass to make sure that they don't get a long one completed over their head, but Adderley doesn't. He sticks tight because he can go back with the best in the league. And he knows he's got Gremminger behind him, too. He's protected deep or to the inside so he can go for the ball short or outside."
Gremminger, who played corner defensive back for the Packers last year, was shifted to safety this season. He is a soft-spoken Texan who is possibly the most conservative of the Green Bay defenders. In fact, "too conservative as a corner back," Bengtson says. "He's a worrywart. On corner back, you always, or almost always, take a good receiver, man for man. Gremminger thought about that too much. Now, as a safety, where he has help, he's still conservative, but not too much so. He's a fine safety."
Gremminger feels better at safety than he did as a corner back. He will even gamble once in a while now for an interception. "We try to fool the quarterback," he says. "Against Baltimore, for instance, we'll fake a four-four defense, with four men just behind the line instead of the usual three linebackers. I'll step up and wait until Unitas calls an audible, then drop back. Johnny will almost always change from a run he called in the huddle to a pass when he sees the four-four. I picked off a pass against a club in the league last year because we faked the four-four, then dropped back into the four-three."
Gremminger's running mate at safety is Willie Wood. Unlike many teams, the Packers do not transfer their safeties from side to side depending upon the way the offense lines up. The Giants, for instance, shift Jim Patton from side to side so that he is always the free safety. The free safety's assignment is a roving one, in which he is loosed to go for the ball or to help whichever of his teammates seems most in need. The other safety always has a specific assignment, usually covering the tight end, i.e., the end who plays close to his tackle rather than spread some 15 yards out. Obviously, the free safety has more license to gamble than anyone else on defense.
"Wood is the most daring of the defensive secondary," says Hecker. "He has wonderful reactions, and he can jump like a kangaroo. We have a drill where the defensive backs jump up and try to touch the crossbar on the goal posts. Willie is only 5 feet 10 and he can touch the crossbar with his elbow. He's also maybe the best tackier on the ball club. He's what I would call an ideal free safety. Gremminger probably is faster, straight away, than Wood. Both of them like to be the free safety. And when Henry is free, he'll go for the ball almost as dangerously as Willie will."
Playing in front of Wood, at the corner-back spot, is Jesse Whittenton, the equivalent of Currie and Hanner in the short-line defense. Whittenton came up to the Rams as a quarterback, was shifted to defense and has stayed in his position with the Packers longer than anyone on the team except Hanner. He is a successful restaurant owner in Green Bay; his King's X bar and restaurant is not only full after Packer games in Green Bay, it is jammed almost every night in the week. Since Whittenton is a Texan, some of the most exotic although not the most popular items on his menu are Mexican dishes, served spiced with peppers so hot that an average customer cries for five minutes after his first bite of a taco or an enchilada.
"Jess reads ends as well as anyone I ever saw," says Hecker, who once was defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams. "He can look at a spread end coming downfield and tell by the way he is running whether he will cut to the inside or the outside."
Whittenton is understandably reticent about revealing the secrets of his trade. "I can read 'em," he says. "But I don't want them to know how. I got to play against them for a long time, I hope."
This peculiarly effective combination of personalities was concocted by Lombardi, Bengtson and Hecker but the principal architect of the defense itself was Bengtson, an equable man who has almost never been heard to raise his voice in complaint.
"The offensive team is graded every week and the grades put up for everyone to see," one Packer player said. "Bengtson was supposed to grade the defense, but he put it off for a long time. He didn't want to embarrass his players. You got to play your guts out for a guy like that. You blow a play, you hear from him in private."
The Packer defense is designed to contain the opposition's running attack within a close perimeter. No opposing halfback or fullback should ever be able to skirt the perimeter set up by Green Bay; this is a theory of Lombardi's, and it is a good one.
"If we can keep their attack within the perimeter of defense, the pursuit can catch the ballcarrier," Lombardi says. "We have very good pursuit on this team from everyone."
This means that the defensive ends and the corner linebackers, one or the other, are "contain" men. If the defensive end takes an inside route to reach the quarterback, the linebacker has the assignment of covering the outside so that a ballcarrier will be turned back toward the middle of the field, where the tackles and the other linebackers will have time to reach him after they have executed their first assignment. This perimeter defense insures that the Packer defenders will have a short route to the ballcarrier; if it is short enough, the ballcarrier will be lucky to reach the line of scrimmage.
The time the defenders have to execute their assignments is much shorter than appears when you watch a football game. Most coaches believe that a quarterback must release the ball on a pass play within three seconds of the snap. If he waits longer, more often than not, he is on his back with a defensive end or a linebacker resting happily on his head. On a running play, the action takes about two seconds. If the defender has guessed wrong, he seldom has time to remedy his mistake. The best he can do is pursue the ballcarrier downfield.
Charlie Johnson, the bright young quarterback of St. Louis, tended to make what might be called a cardinal error early in his career: instead of retreating seven to nine yards before setting himself to throw a pass, he retreated only five. This gave the defensive team a much shorter and more direct route to him. He spent most of his time disentangling himself from a large number of tacklers. The time difference between a five-and a seven-yard retreat is only a split second, but defenses live on split seconds.
The Packers, against Detroit, will, as usual, use their split seconds wisely. And gamble on them, too.