THEY RULED the National Football League like ancient war gods.
They bent the game to their will, and finally they were brought
under control through legislation. But for two decades the great
defensive front fours set the tone for professional football.
This is an article from the Oct. 6, 1995 issue
The four-man line came into being on Oct. 1, 1950, in Cleveland.
Two weeks earlier, New York Giant coach Steve Owen had driven to
Philadelphia to scout his next opponent, the Cleveland Browns,
the last champions of the defunct All America Football
Conference. The Browns were making their NFL debut in
Philadelphia against the league's reigning champions, the
Eagles, and what Owen saw that Saturday night terrified him. The
upstart Browns shredded Greasy Neale's vaunted 5-2-4 Eagle
By the time Owen gathered his Giants for their next practice, he
had divined the answer. He would line up his defense in a 6-1-4
and then drop, or "flex," his ends back into linebacker
positions, creating a pure 4-3. He drew it up on the blackboard
and then handed the chalk to his smartest player, Tom Landry,
the defensive left halfback (they were not yet called
cornerbacks), so that Landry might explain the thing to his
"I remember it to this day," says Landry, who would later win
two Super Bowls as the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. "It's where
my coaching career started. I was 26 years old."
The Giants beat the Browns 6-0, the first time in coach Paul
Brown's career that his team had been shut out, and the papers
were full of stories about Owen's fabulous defense. But purists
were aghast. Only four people up front? Unheard of. Many teams
in the NFL were still using a six-man defensive front. How could
four people hold up against six, or even seven, blockers?
Well, they did. Owen had a pair of tackles, Al DeRogatis and
Arnie Weinmeister, who had exceptional quickness and range, and
that was the key to the Giants' success with the formation. By
1957 practically everyone was playing it.
Fans ate it up, especially in New York. "Dee-fense!" they
hollered, a chant never before heard in professional football.
There was something dramatic about four big guys holding off the
rampaging hordes. The formation produced some memorable
pictures--the four warriors taking a blow between plays, waiting
for the next assault; Dick Modzelewski taking a knee; big Rosey
Grier getting a word or two from the middle linebacker, Sam
Huff; Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage, the ends, leaning
forward to see if they could pick up something from the
offensive huddle. Forget the fancy stuff; this was real football.
It seemed so obvious: Put a group on the field that could put
pressure on the passer and still play the run well, and you
could drop your linebackers into coverage. Which in turn would
help the defensive backs gather more interceptions. Ultimately
the appeal of the front four would show itself at the box
The Giants started it all, but it was the Baltimore Colts who
assembled the best front four of the '50s. That quartet featured
two future Hall of Famers, end Gino Marchetti and tackle Art
Donovan, and the line helped Baltimore win back-to-back titles
in 1958 and '59. Marchetti was a stylist who first perfected the
grab-and-throw pass-rush technique. Donovan was a nimble-footed
270-pounder with a great instinctive feel. Tackle Eugene (Big
Daddy) Lipscomb was a 6'6", 288-pound destroyer. And the other
end, Don Joyce, was just ugly to play against.
The dominant team of the '60s, the Green Bay Packers, fielded a
front four of ends Lionel Aldridge and Willie Davis and tackles
Henry Jordan and Ron Kostelnik. Davis and Jordan also have been
enshrined in Canton.
No one bothered to think up catchy nicknames for offenses, but
by the '60s front fours were collecting their share. The first
unit to be dubbed the Fearsome Foursome was the 1961 San Diego
Charger line of Ron Nery and Earl Faison at the ends and Ernie
Ladd and Dick Hudson at the tackles. But the moniker soon stuck
to the Darris McCord-Alex Karras-Roger Brown-Sam Williams line
of the early '60s Detroit Lions and then, most famously, to the
Deacon Jones-Merlin Olsen-Rosey Grier-Lamar Lundy unit assembled
by the Los Angeles Rams in the latter part of the decade.
The Minnesota Vikings had their Purple People Eaters--ends Carl
Eller and Jim Marshall and tackles Alan Page and Gary Larsen--and
the Dallas Cowboys their Doomsday Defense of ends Harvey Martin
and Ed (Too Tall) Jones and tackles Jethro Pugh and Randy White.
Then there was the Steel Curtain of the Pittsburgh Steelers--ends
L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White and tackles Joe Greene and Ernie
Holmes--and as the game opened up for the speed rushers,
defensive line coach Floyd Peters built the Gold Rush and the
Silver Rush for the San Francisco 49ers and the Lions,
Defensive linemen became the most-prized commodity in the
college draft. They were more agile than the people blocking
them; the outside rushers, the defensive ends, had more speed
than big guys were ever meant to have. Greenwood was especially
devastating in Super Bowl IX, chasing Viking quarterback Fran
Tarkenton all over Tulane Stadium.
Before 1978 the rules still allowed defensive linemen to avail
themselves of the ultimate weapon, the head slap. Deacon Jones
and Rich (Tombstone) Jackson in his heyday with the Denver
Broncos became masters of the technique. It doesn't sound like
much, a slap to the side of the helmet, but, says former
Cincinnati Bengal tight end Bob Trumpy, "On a cold day, with a
forearm taped and then soaked and left to harden, that thing can
take chips out of your helmet."
In the late 1970s, with defenses knocking offensive statistics
back into the 1940s, the rule makers finally stepped in: no more
head slaps; passing lanes were opened up; holding rules were
liberalized; quarterbacks were protected from late hits.
And gradually the great front fours began to disappear as
defenses went to situation substitution and to the 3-4, with
linebackers such as the Giants' Lawrence Taylor lining up as
ends in passing situations. Defensive coordinators began to
employ multiple replacements in an effort to keep the linemen
"It's unusual to see a front four go the whole way now, because
of the fatigue factor," says Olsen, the Hall of Fame left tackle
who played for the Rams from 1962 to '73. "The most efficient
way to do it is to keep rolling fresh bodies in and out. It
destroys some of the great matchups you used to have in my day,
but it's a different game now."
The famous front fours of the past, units that would go a whole
game without relief, are almost museum pieces. And in the wake
of their disappearance comes the inevitable debate: Which one
was the best?
The consensus among some 100 NFL coaches, players and
administrators, past and present: the Fearsome Foursome of the
'60s Rams and the Steel Curtain of the '70s.
Both units had gifted pass rushers who also knew that job number
one was stopping the run. The key player for the Rams was Olsen.
At 6'5", 265, he had a devastating bull rush and a fine talent
for mayhem, but he soon became the coordinator on the field, an
athlete whose instincts gave him a near-perfect read on
everything going on around him. "We took great pride in the fact
that every year the Foursome was together we improved against
the run," Olsen says. "Everyone knew his role on that unit. A
guy like Deacon [who played end], well, you just turned him
loose. To ask him to play a reading defense would have been
insane. Rosey, who played next to me, was perhaps the quickest
off the ball, but if he saw that I was hung up, he'd just cover
for me. Lamar, on the other side, was 6'7"; he could worry a
quarterback, but he could also play traffic cop. It was very
pretty, the way we worked together."
In five years under coach George Allen (1966 to '70), the Rams
won a pair of division titles, ran up three consecutive seasons
of 50 or more sacks, and four times finished either first or
second in lowest rushing yards per carry allowed.
The Steel Curtain, with a relentless, punishing style, believed
in total control, in annihilation. "Offensive coordinators
worried not just about trying to game-plan them," says former
Eagle offensive tackle Stan Walters, "but about how not to lose
a player. You worried about losing a quarterback or a running
back. Those guys played you life and death. The Steelers would
The Steel Curtain was about intimidation: Greene, coming out of
a tilted (or "cocked") alignment on the center faster and
quicker than any 275-pounder had ever moved; Greenwood, steaming
around the end with his 4.7 speed; Mad Dog White, relentless,
screaming obscenities as he charged from the right outside; and
in the middle, collapsing the pocket, cleaning up on the run,
was the strong man, 280-pound Fats Holmes.
As good as they were, Steeler sack totals would have been even
higher during the six-year period (1974 to '79) that produced
Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl wins, except that enemy
quarterbacks learned early not to stick around and let the
Curtain come down on them. Passers unloaded early--so early, in
fact, that there was no season out of the six in which
quarterbacks completed better than 50% of their throws against
Pittsburgh. The six-year cumulative completion percentage
allowed by the Steelers, 44.85, was appreciably lower than the
rest of league.
And, of course, the Steel Curtain's run-stopping was legendary.
In the 1974 postseason the Steelers held Buffalo runners,
including O.J. Simpson, to 100 yards. The following week the
Pittsburgh defense gave up a mere 29 yards rushing to the
Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. In the Super Bowl
they allowed the Vikings all of 17 yards on the ground.
Some fans might wonder why the Purple People Eaters of Minnesota
would not be chosen as the best line ever. Yes, they were dogged
in their determination, and they were ferocious pass rushers,
but every time they got into the big one, they came up short.
They held the Kansas City Chiefs to only 273 total yards in
Super IV, but the Chiefs made them look foolish on traps and
reverses and misdirection plays in a 23-7 Kansas City victory.
Four Super Bowls later the Miami Dolphins rushed for 196 yards
against them in a 24-7 Miami win, and Pittsburgh piled up 249
yards rushing the following year. In 1977, Oakland eviscerated
the Viking defense with 266 rushing yards.
The Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters, the great
unnamed quartets of the old Raiders and Chiefs--who could ever
forget Oakland's mustachioed Ben Davidson and Kansas City's
giant Buck Buchanan--are all gone now, and we will never see
their like again in a game that no longer thrives on one-on-one
matchups that lasted a whole afternoon.
Situation substitution has made defenses more efficient now, to
cope with the speed and razzle-dazzle of modern offenses. But
wouldn't it be fun, just for one game, to put a great front four
on the field and leave it there? It would sure bring back some