The Baltimore Colts, playing with a controlled fury that was sometimes frightening to watch, reduced the Los Angeles Rams to sawdust before their 60,000-odd enraptured fans last Sunday. By winning 27-10, the Colts tied the Rams for the Coastal Division lead and established themselves, at the very least, as co-favorites to win the division title. For Baltimore, this was a last-ditch effort. A loss to the Rams would have put them two games behind with seven to go—and they are confronted by a more difficult schedule than the one facing Los Angeles.
The Colts were trying to rebound from a surprising 30-20 defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Browns the week before; the Baltimore press, in the days preceding this game, had been something less than kind, and the denizens of one Baltimore bar, as a practical joke, had hung John Unitas in effigy. Some joke.
Smoldering under such unaccustomed criticism, the Colts prepared for this game with almost as much fury as they showed in the game itself. Mike Curtis, a 232-pound linebacker in his fourth season, had to be taken out of practice at one point after he had almost unjointed rookie Running Back Terry Cole. Before the game the team had a meeting—without the coaches—and Cornerback Lenny Lyles talked to them.
"We just wanted to stress togetherness," he said. "We have to hang together ourselves, no matter what the fans or the coaches or the writers say about us. When you lose, it's sometimes easy to come apart and start looking for someone to put the blame on, but we didn't do that. We stayed together."
November 4, 1968
The two Colt lines—offensive and defensive—were the key to the ease with which the Baltimore team handled the Rams, a club which had won 14 straight league games before losing this one. The team awarded game balls to the entire offensive line after the game, but they might also have awarded four more to the defenders.
The morning of the game Bubba Smith, the 295-pound defensive end for Baltimore, got a call from his mother. "Suck up your guts and play the best you ever played, Bubba," she said. Whether because of this admonition or not, Smith was a holy terror. He and his mates dumped Roman Gabriel, who had been the best protected quarterback in the league until this day, five times for a loss of 38 yards and harried him so unmercifully that he was twice intercepted and picked up only 78 yards passing.
A couple of days before the game, Billy Ray Smith, who played a quick, smart game at defensive tackle, said, "Watch us Sunday. We'll make them forget Merlin Olsen and what's his name." What's his name—All-Pro Defensive End Deacon Jones—was just another player against Baltimore.
"They made some changes that hurt us," Jones said after the game. "They have been sending their backs out and throwing to them a lot, but today they kept them in and sealed the pocket. They made us take a wide outside rush, and lots of times we overran Earl Morrall. By the time we could get back, it was too late." Jones did not mention young Sam Ball, a third-year offensive tackle from Kentucky, but he should have. Ball, who was badly beaten a year ago by Jones in a key game late in the season, spent long hours studying the movies of that disaster.
"I looked to see what he was doing when he beat me," Ball said. "I made up my mind to resume doing the things I did when I was able to keep him out and not to do the things that cost me. I made some changes and they worked. I don't want to say exactly what they were—I've got to play against Jones again this year."
Norman Van Brocklin, the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, had warned of what might some day happen to the Rams after his team had lost to them in Los Angeles the week before. The blunt Van Brocklin, disgruntled as ever by defeat, greeted the Los Angeles sports writers by saying, "If the Rams ever lose that rush line, they're in trouble."
"Do you mean you don't think much of their secondary?" someone asked him.
"You're a college graduate," Van Brocklin said. "You ought to be able to figure that out."
In effect, the Rams did lose their rush line. They got to Morrall only once all afternoon and, behind the solid blocking which gave him adequate time, Morrall called a very strong game.
The Colts also surprised the Ram defense by running some plays with two tight ends in the game at the same time, a formation which is used occasionally when short yardage is needed, to provide more blocking in the line. In one such instance Morrall hit Tom Mitchell with a 41-yard scoring pass.
"They doubled John Mackey [the regular tight end] on that play," Morrall said later. "When we ran from that set before, we kept Mitchell in to block. This time he faked the block and went down and out. The linebacker tried to take him, but no back picked him up and he was wide open."
Defensively, the Colts used what is called an odd line much of the time, with a tackle stationed over the center and the line overshifted to the strong side. "We had been getting hurt on draws against San Francisco and Cleveland," explained Fred Miller, the defensive tackle who, with Billy Ray Smith, spent much of the afternoon in the Los Angeles backfield. "With the odd line, you can protect against the draw and not hurt your pass rush. It worked well."
The Colts also used the blitz freely in keeping pressure on Gabriel. Often they did not bother to disguise the red dog, stationing the linebackers in the rush line, advertising their intention. Even then the Colt blitzes were deadly.
"They used every dog in the book," said Charlie Cowan, the Ram offensive tackle who had the unenviable task of confronting the massive Bubba Smith.
"They are known as a blitzing team, but they invented some new ones today."
Gabriel, who was almost decapitated by Mike Curtis on one Baltimore blitz, said, "Usually you can break a big one on a team when it blitzes that much, but their blitzes worked. And we missed three audibles, which did not help. But that happens when you have young ballplayers in a game. And the noise they make in the stadium here makes it hard to pick up an audible, too."
Don Shula, the Baltimore coach, had prepared his team well for this game. The Colts have a sound, veteran offensive line and, in Jerry Hill and Tom Matte, two very tough, durable running backs. Shula had decided that he would have to give the Ram Fearsome Foursome a running attack to worry about, and he did just that.
"If they can tee off and forget about the run, they murder you," Morrall said. "So we ran on them to make them think about that. If you are running, then the defensive line must hesitate to read run. That cuts down a lot on the pass rush."
Although the Rams refused to cite injuries as an excuse for the defeat, they were battered going into the contest. Cowan, Fullback Dick Bass, End Lamar Lundy and their big Tight End Bill Truax all had nagging injuries. All or them played, but probably not at full power. The most costly injury was to Truax, who had a sprained thumb on his right hand and was unable to hold the ball. He had been the leading receiver on the club going into the game, but in it he caught only two passes, for 19 yards. Once Gabriel hit him with a high pass that slipped through his fingers and was intercepted by Jerry Logan. The interception gave Baltimore the ball on its 43-yard line, and four plays later Morrall hit Jimmy Orr for a touchdown.
Both the Colts and Rams have now won six games and lost one and they meet again in the last game of the season in Los Angeles. After Sunday's battle Deacon Jones said, "Well, it ain't the end of the world. They paid for every stinking yard they got, and I bet they got more bruises than yards. I assure you—I double assure you—the next time we meet, the results will be different." That, of course, is possible. But if the Colts play as savagely in Los Angeles as they did in Baltimore, it is not likely.