When the Green Bay Packers played the Detroit Lions last Thanksgiving Day, Packer Quarterback Bart Starr was almost buried alive under the repeated assaults of the angry Detroit line. Everyone had his crack at Starr, but the man who cracked him the hardest and the most was Alex Karras, the best defensive tackle in pro football. Thanks to Karras and his pals, the Lions had a romp, beating the Packers 26-14. Last week the two teams met again, but this time the best defensive tackle in pro football was busy wiping off the bar at the Lindell AC lounge in Detroit, serving out his suspension for gambling activities. Without him, Detroit's red-dogging tactics, so effective last year, broke down and Starr was not rushed hard all afternoon. The Packers crushed the Lions 31-10 and looked once more like champions.
"That was the sweetest," shouted Willie Davis, the Packers' defensive end. "It was the sweetest game we ever won."
"Maybe they learned a lesson out there today," another Green Bay player said. "And that is, don't talk too much. They've talked about being a better club, than us for a long time."
As a matter of fact, Alex Karras was talking that way several days before the game. He has been playing handball to keep in shape, and his weight is a trim 245, lighter by 15 pounds than he was the afternoon he gave Bart Starr such a tough time.
"We're a better team than the Packers are," Karras told a friend. "We were better in both games last year, even if we only won one of them. If you can keep Green Bay from running, you can beat them, and we are very good against running teams."
If Karras and the other Lions are proud of their defense, so are the people of Detroit. Defense has become something of a tradition in Detroit and the fans appreciate it. They will cheer the spectacular efforts of the offense, but their affection is reserved for the defensive units. Tobin Rote found this out in 1957 when he led the Lions to the championship with a 59-14 win over the Cleveland Browns. Rote had a wonderful day on the field but, at the end of the game, when the fans poured out of the stands toward the players, he was ignored. He might have been a Cleveland player for all the attention he got. The fans surged past him, hoisted up Middle Linebacker Joe Schmidt and carried him off to the dressing room.
In the years just prior to that game, the fans had saved their loudest yells for a massive middle guard named Les Bingaman. Later they cheered for a hard-bitten secondary known as Chris's Crew. And last year they hollered loudest and longest for a pair of defensive tackles, Karras and Roger Brown.
This year the fans' affection for Detroit's defense has been mixed with worry. After all, Karras is missing and no one has been certain how well his replacement, Floyd Peters, would do. Peters was obtained from the Cleveland Browns. The Lion coaching staff selected Peters carefully, studying some 28 game films of the Browns, ranging over the last two years, before they decided on him.
"We found out he hustled all the time and he had good range," one Detroit coach said. "He could slip a block pretty good, too. He's a veteran and he fit into our defense easier than a rookie would have. He can't rush the passer the way Karras could, but neither can any other tackle in football."
Most of the Lions' defensive unit, like Peters, came to Detroit in trades. Night Train Lane, a great corner back, and Carl Brettschneider, an underrated corner linebacker, are ex-St. Louis Cardinals. Gary Lowe, a defensive back, was cut by the Washington Redskins. Sam Williams came from the Rams, Dick LeBeau, another back, was cut by Cleveland. Darris McCord, a strong defensive end, came to the club after several seasons in Canada. Only Joe Schmidt, the usually magnificent middle linebacker, Wayne Walker, a corner linebacker, Safety Yale Lary and Tackle Roger Brown are Detroit draft choices.
All of the defensive unit are veterans, and all of them, since coming to the Lions, have played better than they did on the clubs they came from. Part of this has been due to Coach George Wilson.
"He thinks like a player," a Detroit defense man said the other day. "We respect him and like him and we'll play our guts out for him."
"We can stop them if..."
When the Lions opened the season against Los Angeles, they found that the Rams had spaced their offensive linemen wider than usual, hoping for blocking angles. Schmidt calmly called more blitzes through the gaps and the resulting pressure on the Ram quarterbacks caused four pass interceptions by the Lions. Schmidt, like Karras, believed that the way to beat the Packers was to stop them on the ground. "We figure if we can stop them there, we can win it," he said before last Sunday's game. "One of our defensive theories is that if you can restrict the other club to less than 100 yards rushing, you'll win. Sometimes you win if they get more, but if they get less, you're a cinch."
The Packers, however, had other ideas. Upset by the Chicago Bears in their first game of the season, the Packers considered a victory a necessity. "We lose this one and might as well forget it," said Dan Currie, the corner linebacker. "Sure, there are 12 games left to play, but the Lions would be ahead by two. They've always thought they were a better team than we are. If they beat us, they would really be tough."
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay's stern coach, tried psychology instead of hard work in preparing the Packers for the Lions. Instead of lacerating the team with verbal abuse—which he has done, and does well—he relaxed his discipline a bit and held the lightest workouts since the beginning of training.
"What else can you do after a game like the one we played with the Bears?" Lombardi said. "They knew how bad they were. I haven't told them anything. I figure that if this is a championship team, they'll come back."
One reason for the Packers' failure against Chicago was that the team was too tense. "You can't be cautious in this game," Lombardi said. And from the start of the game with the Lions last week, the Packers played with abandon, but not carelessly. So sure and quick was the Green Bay defensive unit in the first half that the Lions could make only two first downs, and the Packer secondary covered the Lion receivers so closely that Milt Plum was unable to complete any of his seven passes. Often he threw the ball away rather than risk an interception.
Taking a leaf from Schmidt's notes on defensive football, the Packer defense shut off the Detroit running game with 71 yards for the afternoon. They intercepted four of the 26 passes Plum and Earl Morrall tried and allowed only six completions, good for a skimpy 76 yards.
The Packers also adjusted to a new—and surprising—Detroit offense very easily. The Lions came out in a short-lived version of the shotgun offense, reminiscent of the ill-fated shotgun offense of the San Francisco 49ers, and the Packers, who had not expected this and had not worked against it, cast back to the defenses they had used against San Francisco and stopped it cold.
Meanwhile, the Packers were working over the Lions' defense, the pride of Detroit. The Lions rarely blitzed, and the few times they did, Starr caught them in it and pitched short passes out to the side. Starr was not passing particularly well, but he juggled the Green Bay offense perfectly. More often than not he feinted with Jim Taylor, then handed the ball to Moore, who responded by running better than he has in the four years he has been with the club.
The power sweep that has proved effective for the last three years for the Packers with Taylor or Hornung trailing the big Packer guards outside tackle worked just as well last Sunday with Moore carrying the ball. Jerry Kramer and Fred Thurston, the guards, time and again wiped out the first wave of Detroit defenders; Starr, with this battering ground game working so well, went to the air less often than usual. The Lion secondary covered well against passes, but no part of the Detroit defense could contain the Packer running.
The Packers kicked a field goal in the first period and added a touchdown in the second when Jim Taylor drove over from the one. It was 10-0 at the half and 17-3 after three periods. Early in the fourth quarter, after Detroit had made it 17-10, Moore scored on a tremendous 77-yard run that was typical of the brute force with which the Packers subdued the Lions.
There was nothing tricky about the play: it was a basic drive into the line and its success depended on hard blocking. Jerry Kramer, the big Packer right guard, drove Peters, Karras' replacement, well out of the way, opening a huge hole. (The Packers probed at Peters all afternoon, making his life miserable.) Ron Kramer, the huge tight end, slid down the line and wiped out Joe Schmidt. As Moore broke through the hole, Bob Skoronski, the tackle on the left side of the Packer line, cut across to knock down a Detroit defensive back coming over, and Moore was in the open field.
Twice he was hit hard on his long run. He ran right through the first attempted tackle. The second he spun out of, running backward for a few steps, then whirling with perfect balance to break clear. By then he had four more Packers to convoy him to the goal line.
The Packers' victory drew them even with Detroit at one win and one loss apiece. "We needed this one and we got it," said Dan Currie. "We needed a lift. We haven't had the desire. Now we do."
Detroit, with a chance to put the Packers away, perhaps for the rest of the season, had failed. "We just couldn't get anything going," George Wilson said. "I think I've seen the Packers play better than they did today, but we never could get started. We were flat."
Back in Detroit, Alex Karras watched the game on television. It was a frustrating experience. He missed the Lions as much as they missed him. The next day, Monday, he would go down to the gym and play handball more furiously than ever.
IN LAST YEAR'S THANKSGIVING GAME, KARRAS (71) TAKES AIM AT BART STARR