THE GAME THAT GOT RID OF THE FRUSTRATION
The stakes were a championship and a crack at $15,000 per man in the Super Bowl, and a good old pro football team beat a good young one. So if 80,000 Cleveland fans were reduced to chilled glumness, the result was hardly shocking. Still, seldom in the long history of NFL championship games has one team so thoroughly dominated the other as did Baltimore in shattering the Browns 34-0 at Municipal Stadium last Sunday.
It was a prodigious display of almost flawless football. The Colts, executing Don Shula's stratagems with precision and flair, succeeded in reducing the Browns to a state of confusion by midway of the third period. When it was all over and the Browns had repaired to their dressing room to suffer in seclusion, Coach Blanton Collier looked in surprise at the troop of writers who came in to find out what had happened.
"I didn't know so many people would come to see the body," he said. "They really gave us a licking. Penalties destroyed our momentum, but penalties don't make that much difference."
January 6, 1969
"The penalties changed our offensive philosophy," said Paul Warfield, Cleveland's dangerous split end. "We would make a good gain, get a penalty and, instead of it being second and maybe three or four yards, it would be first and 15. That meant the Baltimore line could just blow in on Nelsen."
The Baltimore line did, indeed, spend most of the afternoon blowing in on Bill Nelsen. The Cleveland quarterback, who is not a tall man, found himself surrounded by tall rushers time and again and never was able to locate his receivers with any degree of success. Cleveland's hopes in this game had been predicated, first, upon repeating the running attack that had been instrumental in the 30-20 regular season victory over Baltimore, then upon a passing attack utilizing the considerable talents of wide receivers Gary Collins and Warfield and Tight End Milt Morin.
The Baltimore defensive backs keyed on Morin and came up to the line of scrimmage instantly when they saw him block for a sweep by Leroy Kelly, the league's leading rusher who had gained 130 yards and scored two touchdowns in that victory. In this game, Kelly was so effectively shackled that he finished the day with 28 yards on 13 rushing attempts.
"We had to stop their running game," Colt Defensive Captain Ordell Braase said when it was all over. "Kelly killed us in the first game on sweeps and draws. We felt that if we could shut off the run, we would force the Browns into doing other things that they do not do so well. We didn't change our defenses in any basic way. We simply read their offense better. When they could not run, they began to grow desperate and we could put more pressure on the passer and shut off the pass, too."
The Baltimore defense, which is the best in football, operated so efficiently that Cleveland's deepest penetration all day was to the Colts' 33-yard line. This came in the third quarter and by then the game was well lost. Meanwhile, the Baltimore striking force completely bamboozled a Cleveland defensive team that seemed disconcerted early and disorganized late. The Colts gave the Browns a bewildering variety of offensive sets to look at and added wrinkles to their running game that opened huge holes in the heart of the Cleveland line.
In the first quarter Baltimore came out several times with Tight End John Mackey occupying the up position in an I-formation backfield. The Colts had used the formation a few times in 1967 but had not shown it at all in 1968. No significant gains came off this strange alignment, but it created doubt and hesitation among the Cleveland defenders.
The most effective formation for the Colts was one they call "wing left opposite." This sends their two wide receivers—Jimmy Orr and Willie Richardson—to the wide side of the field, with Mackey on the narrow side. The Colts have used this often enough but usually only for passing plays. In this game, to confound the Browns, they ran, sending Tom Matte bustling back to the side away from the two receivers.
Mackey, a burly 220-pounder who is an exceptional blocker, handled the Cleveland defensive end (usually Ron Snidow) while Jerry Hill, the tough, violent Baltimore fullback, blocked on the linebacker. Matte, who may not be the fastest back in the league but is surely the most determined, repeatedly slashed inside or outside the blocks for substantial yardage.
Although Earl Morrall did not have an exceptional day throwing the ball, he called a very heady game, varying the Baltimore running attack by calling Matte and Hill on traps up the middle and on late draws. The Colt offensive line responded with beautiful trap blocks on the Cleveland tackles and with irresistible surge blocks. Surge blocking is what it sounds like. Some teams call it drive blocking, but all it means is that the offensive linemen block straight ahead and the back follows the surge.
"They were very much aware of the pass," Morrall said after the game. "I think that may be why they were so vulnerable to the blocks. Of course, our offensive line did a great job, but they have been doing a great job all year long. I was a little surprised that our running game went so well, but when it did it set up everything else."
In the first quarter Baltimore fenced with the Browns, feeling out their defense and examining their offense and playing with a degree of caution abandoned later when the Colts became sure that their diagnoses of both phases of the Cleveland game were correct. As the quarter ended, Baltimore began to move with the authority that was to grow minute by minute for the rest of the day. Morrall, starting from his own 31-yard line, passed to Jimmy Orr on the left sideline for 14 yards, Orr deceiving Brown Cornerback Ben Davis. Morrall missed Mackey twice, then went to his right, where Willie Richardson had outmaneuvered Erich Barnes, something he was to repeat several times.
With the Cleveland defense properly impressed by the pass, and the Cleveland defensive line overly conscious of its obligation to get in on the quarterback, Morrall switched to the run. From the wing-left-opposite formation, Matte ran for six and 12, then up the middle on a trap for three more. But Morrall overthrew receivers twice and Baltimore had to settle for a 28-yard field goal 15 seconds into the second quarter.
The Baltimore defense, playing now with the confident abandon that has made it the stingiest in football, slammed Kelly to the ground on an attempted sweep, trapped Nelsen for a 13-yard loss when he tried to pass and, though it gave up a 10-yard gain to Kelly on a screen pass, forced the Browns to punt. This time Morrall started from his own 40 and dazzled the Cleveland defense with a marvelous mélange of offensive plays.. With his two wide receivers deployed to the left, he sent Mackey for 10 yards around the left flank on an end-around. Then he called Fullback Jerry Hill up the middle for four yards and, faking the same play, threw to Matte for a short gain. From a conventional set, he passed to Mackey for eight. Orr, who had been probing the reactions of Ben Davis, now gave Davis a strong inside fake, cut to the sideline and caught Morrall's pass, tiptoeing to stay in bounds. The play gained 19 yards and put Baltimore on the Cleveland 17-yard line.
On five running plays the Colts scored, with Matte carrying four times and Hill once. The damage was done inside and much of it came on a draw which worked wonderfully well all afternoon. It was, really, a variation on a draw, designed to create unexpected blocking angles on unsuspecting Brown defenders. Normally the center will block the middle linebacker on a draw; in this case, the center blocked across on the Browns' left tackle, the Colt right guard trapped the right tackle and the left guard went through to wipe out the middle linebacker. It worked well enough for Hill to slam seven yards to the Cleveland one. Two plays later Matte followed the surge blocking of the right side of the Baltimore line for the touchdown.
If there was a decisive play that extinguished whatever small hope Cleveland still had at this point, it came with two minutes left in the first half. Mackey, grabbing a screen pass, had raced to the Cleveland 14, where he fumbled, and Erich Barnes returned the fumble to the Cleveland 23. Had the Browns been able to capitalize on this break, they might have regained their waning confidence. Nelsen, hoping to score quickly, tried to find a wide receiver on a pass into a crack in the Baltimore zone. But the Colt defense shut off his targets. The pressure of the Colt front four was reaching him as he gave up on a completion and tried to throw the ball away, over the sideline. He was hit just as he released, and the ball, fluttering like a wing-shot duck, landed in the hands of Baltimore Linebacker Mike Curtis, who accepted it thankfully and stepped out at the Cleveland 33-yard line.
The pressure on this play was typical of that applied all afternoon by the Baltimore rush. In a passing situation, the Baltimore tackles and ends often stunted. That is, the end looped to the inside, the tackle to the outside and, most of the time, 295-pound Bubba Smith, the left end, broke up the Cleveland pocket on the inside, forcing Nelsen outside and making him throw off balance.
Once again Morrall called for the new draw with the blocking change, and on the second play from scrimmage Hill thumped up the middle for nine yards to the Cleveland 12. From there Morrall used Matte on the off-tackle play back to Mackey's end of the line. Flanker Jimmy Orr cracked back on Defensive End Jack Gregory, Jerry Hill got a piece of the linebacker and Matte, who had started inside, cut to the outside off Orr's block and raced untouched into the end zone.
Hill, whose blocking was a big factor in the Colt success, said later, "That second touchdown took their game plan away and forced them to play catch up. It made them play our game."
Indeed, in the second half the Browns went to an atypical long-pass strategy, and it was largely unsuccessful. They spread Warfield and Collins even wider than usual, trying to increase the burden on the Baltimore defensive zones and create gaps between them, but the maneuver actually worked against Cleveland. "It was hard to hear the countdown from so far out," Warfield said. "Instead of getting down in a three-point stance and looking downfield at the man covering me, I had to look down the line at the ball, so I would get off with the snap. That takes maybe half a second away from you and that half second means a lot." It might also have accounted for some of the illegal motion penalties that plagued the Cleveland offense.
The only question in the second half was the margin of the Baltimore victory. Collier put Frank Ryan in at quarterback late in the third period and Ryan promptly fumbled the snap, Don Shin-nick recovering for Baltimore on the Cleveland 20. From this contretemps, the Browns suffered a field goal, but Ryan was hardly to blame for the final score. By this time Cleveland had relapsed into a state of utter confusion and he was no more befuddled than anyone else.
Matte, who seems to reserve his best efforts for the most important games, was injured midway in the fourth period when someone hit him in the back as he drove for an eight-yard gain. He had a bruised kidney and after the game he talked briefly on television, walked painfully to his locker, sat down on the stool and put his head down. He was pale and in agony and the Baltimore doctor rescued him from further interviews and led him away.
"Will he be able to play against the Jets?" someone asked another Baltimore player as Matte moved carefully through the crowded dressing room.
"With a broken leg, he'd play against the Jets," the player said. "And do a hell of a job."
Lenny Lyles, who had a good afternoon containing Warfield, watched Matte go.
"We hit, we hurt, we won," he said.
"We were hungry," Mackey said. "This was the hungriest team I ever saw."
"Who do you cover on the Jets?" someone asked Lyles, who looked up in surprise.
"The Jets? I haven't the vaguest," he said. "I haven't thought about the Jets. This was the game I thought about. This was the one that got rid of all the frustration. This was it."
Lyles will get George Sauer, which will be no bargain for Sauer. The Colts are no bargain for anyone. After their years of near misses, they may still have some frustration to work out.