The art of defense has always been a grubby, unsung, unnoticed part of football—especially professional football. For a long time no one but close friends, relatives and a few creditors could tell you the name of a defensive tackle or a linebacker. This attitude was, unfortunately, reflected in pay checks; the five-figure incomes were reserved for pro quarterbacks, ends and halfbacks.
Now all of this has changed. When the defensive platoon trots off the field at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, the stands rise and howl; when the New York Giants' middle linebacker, Sam Huff, unjoints a Chicago Cardinal ball carrier, the New York fans cheer lustily. There is, of course, good reason for all this enthusiasm.
As the pro football teams headed into the second half of the season last Sunday, those with the best defenses were in the lead. In the Western Conference, San Francisco stopped the explosive Los Angeles Rams 24-16. Since the 49ers shut out the Rams 34-0 in their first meeting of the league season (SI, Nov. 9), this may not seem an impressive defensive performance until you realize that the Rams were still leading both conferences in total yards gained. In the Eastern Conference the wonderfully wise New York Giant defense throttled the Chicago Cardinals 9-3, and the Giants retained first place in their division. In second place, only a game behind, were the Cleveland Browns, a traditionally stingy defensive team.
The top teams after the seventh game of the season pointed up another change in pro football this year: the running offense is beginning to overtake the aerial attack. Both the 49ers and the Giants pass well but depend on their ground troops. This goes back again to defense. The pros are set up now to cut off the game-winning long pass: the four-man line and seven-man secondary is designed to limit a passing offense to the short passes. The 49ers and the Giants (and the Browns, too, for that matter) take advantage of this, not by throwing short passes but by sending very strong, capable runners banging away through that thin first rank of defenders.
The 49ers' victory gave them a long lead in their conference. Baltimore, the defending world champions, who are in second place, stumbled grievously against the much improved Washington Redskins 24-27, and now trail San Francisco by two full games with five to go. The Colts' 1958 championship was due as much as anything else to their superb defensive platoon. This group, mature and knowledgeable in 1958, has, possibly, become overripe. The Baltimore offense, operating behind football's best quarterback, John Unitas, still scores freely—but the defense has begun to leak too many touchdowns.
The Chicago Bears, whose offensive pyrotechnics were considered second only to Los Angeles' in preseason estimations, won their third game of the year, defeating Green Bay 28-17. Two of the Chicago touchdowns came after the ball had been jarred loose from Packer ball carriers and recovered by the eager Bear defensive platoon. The Bears then protected the victory by twice holding the Packers on the one-yard line in the second half. Chicago and Green Bay retain remote chances at the Western Conference championship; the Bears' George Halas still maintains that a 7-5 record will be good enough to win in the West. The Bears, so far, have accomplished an easy part of that record. They have lost four games.
The victory of Cleveland over Philadelphia (28-7) was a sad portent for the remaining Brown opponents. It left the Browns only a game behind the Giants, with the two teams heading for what should be the most decisive game in the Eastern Conference this year on December 6 in Yankee Stadium. The Giants, you may recall, won the first game 10-6, in Cleveland. Paul Brown, Cleveland's fine coach, has wrought wonders with a team which began the season with a good defense, Jimmy Brown and little else. Brown has carried the ball an average of more than 25 times a game for Cleveland, gaining a total of 862 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns. While he has almost singlehandedly kept Cleveland in the race, Quarterback Milt Plum, after a shaky start, developed slowly. Sunday, against the Philadelphia Eagles, he completed 12 of 20 passes for 128 yards—no great performance but enough to promise relief for Brown in future games. Brown should have more running room, a thought which must frighten opposing defensive halfbacks and linebackers.
Pittsburgh and Detroit, two have-not teams, played a 10-10 tie. This was not so much a triumph of two very good defenses as it was the product of two fangless offenses. Both Pittsburgh and Detroit lack good running backs and their low-scoring game underlines again that pro defenses can now handle a purely passing attack.
COLT DEFENDERS stopped Washington's Dick James after four yards on this play when Dick Szymanski (52) plucked him from air, but Washington won game 27-24.