Alex Karras (see cover), who earns his livelihood as a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 250 pounds. He is a giant by any standards other than pro football's. He is, however, a runt among pro football tackles, many of whom weigh 25 to 30 pounds more and are an inch or two taller. But Karras is enormously strong for his size—he has the arms and chest and shoulders of a 300-pounder. Even so, he must use guile rather than weight to carry out a defensive tackle's job: rushing the quarterback. Merlin Olsen of the Los Angeles Rams, being abundantly equipped with size, strength and 275 pounds, plays the same position differently. And Henry Jordan, long the key man in the great Packer defensive line, has still another approach. The pictures on these pages and the story that follows define the job and discuss the problems that beset both the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians of pro football's defensive tackles.
NUANCES OF THE INSIDE PASS-RUSH
"Pass-rush is the game I play," says Detroit's Alex Karras, one of the three best defensive tackles in pro football. "If you can't get to the passer, you're in trouble. If you can't get to Bart Starr, for example, he'll kill you. The Packers may hurt you running and they do a lot, but the big thing you have to do as a defensive tackle is to get to the passer."
Karras is a studious defensive tackle who spends hours during the week looking at movies of the play of the offensive guard he will face Sunday. "For a time, the guards figured I always liked an outside route," he said. "Some of them even got in the habit of taking an extra step to the outside to make sure they could cut me off. I didn't realize myself that I had settled into that pattern until I watched movies of me."
November 30, 1964
After analyzing the movies, Karras started faking to the outside and breaking back to the inside, and he has been notably successful, except against Alex Sandusky, the offensive guard of the Baltimore Colts.
"He gives me more trouble than any other guard in the league," Karras says frankly. "I study him in the movies and I figure out what he has figured out I am going to do, then I do something else. Like the outside route. I would really rather have an inside route to the passer because that's the shortest, and I figure you only have maybe between three and four seconds to get to the quarterback, anyway. We don't have inside and outside defenses on the Lions [where both tackles will close to the inside but sometimes loop to the outside, depending upon the middle linebacker to close the hole in the middle of the line]. We get to the passer the best way we can, and we don't depend on the middle linebacker to protect us. So when I found out I was favoring the outside, I thought, against Sandusky, I'd fake to the outside and come back and catch him. He's short and quick and he has great balance and agility and good anticipation, but I was sure he would be playing me wide. But he had been looking at the movies, too, and I found out he was closing to the inside and giving me the outside."
Karras has extremely bad eyesight and wears thick glasses off the field, but he wears no glasses when he is playing, so that he sometimes has trouble recognizing the player across the line of scrimmage from him. His brother, Ted Karras, plays offensive guard for the Chicago Bears. Luckily for the Karras brothers, Alex and Ted usually play on opposite sides of the line, so that they rarely meet face to face.
"I usually get Roger Davis when we play Chicago," Alex says. "I know it's Davis from the movies, since I can't see him well enough to tell at the line of scrimmage. One game, Davis is holding and elbowing and I got tired of it, and I told him, 'You do that once more and it's me and you.' So he held me again on the next play, and I decided to straighten him out."
On the following play Karras devoted all of his attention to punishing the guard in front of him. Since he is an enormously strong man, he knocked the guard down and stepped on him. When the play was over, the guard climbed painfully to his feet and looked at Alex angrily. "Are you nuts, Alex?" he said. "I'm your brother."
"The Bears flopped the guards," Alex says. "I didn't know it was Ted until it was all over. He was pretty mad at me for a while."
Karras has had no difficulty finding the quarterback, despite his poor eyes. "Some of them you almost never trap," he says. "Unitas, for example. Even if I happen to beat Sandusky, I very seldom dump Johnny, because he has a quick release. His arm is cocked high and you may be right on top of him, but he flicks that arm and fires before you can get a hand on him."
Oddly, Karras and the Lions have not had a great deal of trouble with scramblers like Fran Tarkenton of the Minnesota Vikings. "We try to keep him in the cup," Karras says. "The defensive ends take a wide route to contain him, and Roger Brown and I put on the pressure up the middle. When he's running around and avoiding tacklers, he's a tremendous thrower. But when he has to stay in the cup, he's not as effective. So our rush is designed to keep him in it."
Merlin Olsen, who is in his third year as a defensive tackle with the Rams, has a different view of Tarkenton. "I hate to play against him," Olsen says. "I hate to play against scramblers. When you are running and cutting and dodging around in the backfield, it's dangerous. You're set up for blind-side blocks, you're off balance a good deal of the time and I bet you would find that most defensive-tackle injuries come against scrambling quarterbacks. Besides that, it makes for a pretty long afternoon when you're running hard play after play."
If a defensive line coach were to draw up a blueprint for a defensive tackle, it would very likely come out looking just like Olsen. "He has all of it," says Harland Svare, the young Ram head coach. "Great size, deception, speed, wonderful agility. And he's smart. He's 50% better this year than he was a year ago."
Olsen is an aggressive tackle. As a rookie, he was too agressive, as almost all rookies are. "It's only this year that I have started trying to read the blocks by three linemen instead of the block on me by the guard in front of me," he says. "The Lions stung me a couple of times this year on what we call a behind play. The guard in front of me would pull to his left, and I'd start to his left because the play looked like a power sweep going that way. Then they would hand off to a back coming against the flow of the play into the hole I had just left. I took it as a compliment, because they don't use that play on bad tackles. But then I got the feel of it, and I stayed put a little longer, It slowed down my pursuit. And that's what it is designed to do.
"That first year, all I wanted to do was blow in there," Olsen continues. "I never tried to read trap or draw or screen. If the guard gave me an alley, I'd say, 'Whee, here I come!' and I'd barrel in as hard as I could go, and I'd get trapped or a draw would go by me or they'd throw a screen. Now I try to read the blocks and I don't get caught much. Of course, I don't always read the block right, either. Against the Eagles, the guard came out of the huddle, and when he lined up I sensed he wanted an outside position. I asked myself, 'Why would he want that?' and I figured it must be a draw and he wanted to pull me out with him, and I figured I'd give him the outside and close the middle. Well, it was a screen to Ollie Matson, and it cost us a touchdown. I did get through and nearly caught Ollie from behind, but if I had worked to the outside I might have got him. You learn something all the time."
Olsen, who was an A student at Utah State University, also studies his present profession assiduously. "I've watched movies of tackles," he says. "Guys like Dave Hanner with Green Bay. He's one of the smartest in the league. He is never fooled by a draw or a screen, and it's because he reads the blocks. You can see the guard try to give him an outside route so he'll clear the middle of the line for the draw, and Hanner senses the route the guard is offering him and closes the middle. Or, on a screen, you can see him read the soft block the guard puts on, trying to lure him deep so the screen will be successful behind him, and he'll peel off to the outside instead to break up the screen. These are things you learn only by experience."
Although Olsen agrees with Karras on Sandusky's ability as a guard, he rates Jerry Kramer of the Packers, who is a casualty this year, and John Gordy, of the Lions, as the two best he has met.
"They are entirely different," he says. "Gordy is a lot like Sandusky. He drops back fast and dares you to come get his quarterback. He's stubborn and he stays there in front of you taking punishment and dropping back and taking more punishment and staying between you and the quarterback. Sandusky does the same thing. Kramer, on the other hand, will pop you now and then, meeting you at the line of scrimmage and giving you a good shot. Then the next time he may drop back, or he may cut you down or leg-whip you, so you never know what he is going to do."
Unlike Karras and the Packers' Henry Jordan, both of whom are so small that a blast block—a driving straight-ahead block by the guard designed to pry a hole for a back—gives them trouble, Olsen is big enough and strong enough to take a blast block and keep going.
"I don't worry about the guard on me," he says. "I feel that I can handle him. I try to read the blocks of the center and the tackle then. Sometimes the center will help on me, or sometimes the tackle will block down on me. I try to read them so that I can break away for pursuit."
He is also learning something that Karras now knows very well after six years, three of them as an All-League tackle. "You can't get to the passer every time," Karras says philosophically. "If you reach him two or three times in a game, you have done a good job. But if you can occupy a blocker, or sometimes two blockers, maybe someone else will get by him and reach the passer."
Olsen, like Karras, is often the object of the attention of two blockers, a real compliment for a defensive tackle. "It can be very discouraging," Olsen says. "I mean, you beat the guard and you feel like you're home free, and all at once the center pops you in the ribs. I used to worry about it more, but now I know that if I have occupied two blockers probably someone else is going to break loose."
This year, for the first time, Olsen feels that he is working well in the close team play in the center of the line—the way Karras and Roger Brown, his running mate at tackle, coordinate their efforts instinctively.
"My rookie year, I was always getting tangled up in the middle of the line with John LoVetere, who was then playing the other tackle," Olsen says. "I'd take an inside route, and he'd go to the inside and the guards loved it. With both of us going inside, they'd jam us together and it would be like trying to break through three guys. John would be squeezed up against me on one side and my guard and his guard would be in front, and there wasn't any place to go. Then, last year, when Rosey Grier played the other tackle, I began watching to see which' way Rosey would go, and if he went inside I went outside and the traffic jam opened up a little. But last year it was not instinctive. I had to think about it and I lost time, and I didn't get to the passer. Now I know without thinking what Rosey is going to do, and he knows what I do and I'm on schedule. I just fire out."
After the game against the Packers a couple of weeks ago in Green Bay, Karras was, naturally enough, despondent. The Lions had lost 30-7; Karras had played strongly, but the Green Bay defense—with Henry Jordan running around the Detroit backfield as though he belonged there—had played even more strongly, and the Green Bay offense had held the ball most of the afternoon.
"This is a good defense," Karras said. "It hurt to lose Joe Schmidt, but this is still a good defense. It may be as good as the defense we had in 1962, when we might have set every defensive record in the book if we hadn't been on the field most of every game. You have to have some rest."
In the Packer dressing room the last man to leave was Henry Jordan. He sat slumped on a stool in front of his locker, fully dressed, with a cup of coffee in his hand, staring at the floor.
Vince Lombardi, the Packer coach, came out of the coaches' dressing room and looked at him.
"You all right, Henry?" he asked. Jordan looked up and smiled and nodded.
"Sure," he said. "I'm just tired. You get tired out there chasing 'em, Coach."
"As long as you dent the cup, it's worth it," someone else said, and Jordan nodded. Olsen and Karras would have agreed.