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Original Issue


A startling number of pro football games have been decided by pass interceptions this season, a fact that is focusing attention on wilier defenses—and a bright new star in Cleveland

Not long ago,when the Cleveland Browns reasserted their claim to eminence in the East bytrouncing the undefeated Dallas Cowboys 30-21, the Cowboys outgained the Browns257 yards to 159. Then, when the St. Louis Cardinals turned back the ChicagoBears on prime nighttime television to stay in front in the East, the Bears didnearly everything better than the Cards except score.

These were keygames in the Eastern championship race, and they had one significant thing incommon. In each case the game was won not by the stronger offense but bydaredevil defenders. Ross Fichtner, a small, intense and voluble man who playsfree safety for the Browns, intercepted three of Don Meredith's Dallas passes.The Cards' Larry Wilson, who is the same size and age (27) as Fichtner andplays the same position, intercepted three of Bear Quarterback Rudy Bukich'spasses and returned one of them for a touchdown.

Although clearlystronger than their opponents, the Cowboys and Bears nevertheless were beaten,and that's what seems to be happening this year in pro football more than everbefore. Dramatically in the work of the pass thieves, and more subtly incamouflaged defensive formations, the defenders are catching up with theattackers and giving them hell.

Why is Green Bayup there in the West? Defense. Despite the brilliance of backs like Jim Taylor,Paul Hornung and Elijah Pitts and the superb passing of Quarterback Bart Starr,they have been leading the NFL in only two minor offensive statistics—kickoffsreturned for a touchdown and most touchdowns rushing. But they have beenrolling along at the top in nine different categories on defense—and are sobrutal to run and pass against that they disdain the fancy stuff other teamsare using more and more. The Browns have been ahead in interceptions and theCowboys in seven categories, including smallest percentage of completionsagainst them. The Cardinals, high in all defensive statistics, and the Brownshave the league's leading interceptors in Wilson and Fichtner.

In more than adozen games so far this season interceptions have either won games outright orprovided the impetus for victory. Starting right off in their opener, thePackers scored their first two touchdowns on interceptions by Lee Roy Caffeyand Bob Jeter to put their chief rivals, the Colts, in fatal trouble. The nextday the Washington Redskins led Cleveland 14-7 at the half, but the Brownsintercepted Sonny Jurgensen five times in the second half and Cleveland won thegame 38-14. That is the way things have been going all season long. When theCardinals defeated the Browns in their first game it was a Wilson interceptionthat pulled the Cards up to a 28-28 tie and provided the winning boost. TheCardinals, in turn, were victimized by the Redskins late last month as JohnReger intercepted a Charley Johnson pass to set up the winning touchdown in a26-20 upset.

Over in the AFLthe ball is falling into a lot of enemy hands, too. The five Joe Namathinterceptions in the Jets' loss to Buffalo give you the idea. Even thelinebackers are slipping into the spotlight. These large individuals normallyare not at their best shadowing swift receivers. In the NFL this year, they aremaking interceptions at a record rate.

But no one hasenjoyed the spotlight's glow more than Cleveland's Fichtner, a 6-foot,185-pound former Purdue quarterback who spent his first six years in the prosin obscurity. Settled at free safety this season with carte blanche to wheeland steal, he suddenly has become a defensive star. The only reason his namedoes not appear among the top deep defenders picked by the coaches and listedin the chart on page 40 is that his rivals in the East are supersafeties—Wilsonand Washington's Paul Krause. Pronounce his name Feektner, and remember it ifthe Browns struggle through to another title. He will deserve much of thecredit.

Like mostdefensive backs, Fichtner disparages his own head and hands and attributesinterceptions largely to chance. "They're nice," he says, "but youhave to figure they're 80% to 90% luck. The ball was thrown short or long orwide. If everyone on both the offensive and defensive teams do their jobsperfectly, the odds are the ball will be caught."

Back in 1962Fichtner tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, and his explanation of thatbrief prominence is interesting.

"That was myfirst full year on defense as a starter," he says. "I was really arookie. I had a lot of gut shots. A rookie, if he is any good, getsinterceptions because people pick on him. After a while a defensive back earnsrespect from the quarterbacks, and they stay away from him. My best year ondefense was probably last year, and I only had four interceptions. What you tryto establish is a favorable position, so that the quarterback is given nochance to complete his throw."

During the sevenyears Fichtner has played in the NFL, defenders have become increasingly adroitat foreclosing receiving territory to the quarterbacks. Never have the defensesbeen better disguised, more varied or less predictable. Norb Hecker, coach ofthe Atlanta Falcons and a whilom defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams andthe Redskins from 1951 through 1957, has been a student of the trend towardgreater guile and complexity.

"When I cameup to the Rams," he says, "almost every team in the league used asimple zone defense. You put your best athletes on offense. But now we play alot of man-to-man because the defensive players coming up are bigger and fasterand can handle it."

Hecker coachedthe Packer defensive backs for seven years before going to Atlanta, and it is ameasure of the importance attached to defense that the owners of the Atlantafranchise hired a specialist as head coach.

"You'll see adozen varieties of pass defense during a game now," Hecker says."Blitzes come from any angle. We have a lot more blitzes here than the Ramshad when I came up. We study offenses much more closely than we didthen."

Hecker's youngteam understandably has a leaky defense. "I've got three rookies and asophomore in there," he says, "and I know it takes at least three orfour years for a unit to fit together. The defensive secondary has to do a lotof talking back and forth, and one of those men has to take over and become thedeep quarterback. You prefer it to be one of the safeties, like Ed Meador onthe Rams or Fichtner on the Browns."

When Fichtnercame to Cleveland he was just as puzzled and hesitant as any of Hecker'syoungsters are now. He had quarterbacked the McKeesport, Pa. high school teamand won the Most Valuable Player award in the western Pennsylvania high schoolall-star game in 1956. He was the starting quarterback for Purdue for threeyears, Purdue's most valuable player as a senior and the most valuable playerin the 1959 Blue-Gray game as well as a member of the 1960 college All-Starteam. In that single-platoon era he played safety on defense as well asquarterback, and he was drafted fourth by Cleveland in 1960 for his potentialas a defensive player.

"I knew Ididn't have a good enough arm to be a pro quarterback," he said recently,"but I thought I had a good shot on defense. Then for the first two years Iwas beside myself. I was thoroughly confused."

Luckily forFichtner—and probably for the Browns, too—he did not play much at first. TheBrowns' secondary was set and the coaches had difficulty finding a spot forRoss.

"I playeddifferent positions," Fichtner says now, shaking his head sadly at thememory, "and I didn't learn any of them well. It takes all yourconcentration to learn to play just one position on defense."

"We may haveunderestimated Ross a bit the first two years," says Howard Brinker, theCleveland defensive coach. "He played in the college All-Star Game in 1960and got a late start. When he came to camp he was so eager to make the team helooked a bit awkward. His feet would get tangled, and he even fell down acouple of times."

In the next fewyears Fichtner played both safeties and corner back and did reasonably well atevery position. He became the regular free safety when the defection of BernieParrish to the AFL and an injury to Walter Beach made it necessary to move himthere. The loss of Parrish and Beach forced the Browns to admit a rookie intothe secondary. The best available, Ernie Kellerman, had operated most of thetime at strong safety, so that is where he was placed.

"I feel thatfree safety is best suited to Ross's talents," Brinker says. "In thatspot you are more of a helper instead of having a lot of direct responsibility.Ross gets a good jump on the ball, and he's an opportunist."

Free safety isjust about what the name implies—a safety with no specific man to cover in mostpass defenses. He is available to help out wherever needed. He may have a zoneto cover in some defenses, but much of the time he can roam.

In man-to-mancoverage the strong safety—usually the left safety, since most teams areright-handed and line up with their tight end and flanker back on the rightside of the offense—must cover the tight end. If, however, he drops back intothe corner to protect a deep zone against a pass, then the coverage is at leastpartially zone. A zone defense is very difficult to throw bombs into; whenCleveland scored quickly with a long pass on Green Bay in last year'schampionship game, the Packers changed from their normal man-to-man coverageand spent most of the rest of the game in a zone.

Many of theCleveland defenses are a combination of zone and man-to-man, reflecting thegrowing complexity of pass defense.

"When I tookover the defense in 1954 there was more single coverage," Brinker says."The free safety idea wasn't as popular then, although this had been abasic part, of Steve Owen's original umbrella defense in New York. Since then,everyone has changed gradually.

"Then, too,defense depends on personnel. A good example of that is what we call our 'Five'defense. The corner backs take the outside people alone—the spread end and theflanker. We have combination man-to-man and zone on the running backs. The freesafety is left as a roamer, and many of our interceptions have come off this,including the three Fichtner had against Dallas. In previous years we hesitatedto call it, because the corner back's assignments are so difficult it is hardto find a player who can execute them. In Erich Barnes and Mike Howell we feelwe have that kind of personnel."

In order to useany of these defenses well, the defensive team must conceal its intentions aslong as possible, since such veteran quarterbacks as Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr,Frank Ryan and John Brodie can immediately spot the weakness in a specificdefense and take advantage of it. In the never-ending ebb and flow of offenseagainst defense, no defensive edge stands up for long.

"Youcamouflage," Fichtner says. "You invite the quarterback to attack whereyou know you're going to have help."

Hecker equatesthis ability to camouflage with experience.

"That's onereason rookies hurt you," he says. "They are afraid to line up out ofposition. When you call a defense they play it absolutely straight. Butveterans like Willie Wood will challenge the offense. Lots of times when I wasat Green Bay, Willie would line up so far out of position you wanted to yell athim to get back where he belonged. But when the ball was snapped he'd be thereand the quarterback would find a strength instead of a weakness."

Says DefensiveCoach Chuck Drulis of St. Louis: "People are not just sitting in the 4-3alignment as much as in the past few years. They go into odd alignments,especially with a man over the middle to start with, in order to stop quicktraps. From there they may overshift the line to the strong or weak side; thatis, if the line shifts to the strong side, the linebackers shift to the weakside, and vice versa.

"This seasonwe came up with a stacked defense, using ends as linebackers—either end firsttaking a position behind the tackle next to him and then shifting or starting acharge from there. It makes it difficult for the blockers on certain plays andtakes some plays entirely away from the offense. We stunt off that formationand the ends may wind up covering on passes, so that if a linebacker blitzes hedoesn't have to worry about covering. Of course, we change this every week alittle bit."

In an effort tounmask the defenders' intentions, the offensive brains have come up with a newploy. The once inviolate routes of the pass receivers have been tinkered withso that many of the better catchers in the league have an option—the equivalentof a running back's right to run to daylight regardless of the blackboardpath.

"Ends likeBoyd Dowler or Carroll Dale or Ron Kramer have become experts at reading zonecoverage when they come off the line," Hecker says. "If they see thestrong safety dropping off, they'll change their pattern to take advantage ofzone coverage. And a Starr or a Unitas will read the same thing as he isdropping back to pass. But you can see why this takes so much experience. Underthe best of circumstances, when your pass blocking is holding up, you get maybethree and a half to four seconds to throw the ball. Now, instead of justrunning the pattern called in the huddle, the end has to read and change as heheads downfield. The quarterback has to know that the end has picked up thedefense and visualize the alternate pattern."

Blitzes, ofcourse, are designed to give the quarterbacks and receivers even less time toreact, but they are not an infallible method of destroying a pass attack.Indeed, most good offensive teams welcome the blitz, since it forces thedefensive team into man-to-man coverage and uncovers weaknesses against thelong pass. The Cowboys' Meredith, for instance, has completed some 70% of hispasses against the blitz.

Blanton Collier,the Cleveland head coach, feels that a team can go too far in the direction ofstunting (varying the charge of the defensive line and linebackers) andblitzing.

"Blitzing isno defensive panacea," he says. "Some teams may use it to hidedefensive weaknesses. By the way, some people feel that the blitz is aimed onlyat the passer. This is not true. Certain types of blitzes can also be used tostop running plays by confusing the blocking and generally disrupting theopposition. But blitzes can be handled. There are pass patterns to lickthem."

Collier feelsthat the defensive line rush is just as important as any blitz, and points tothe NFL statistics. Green Bay, leading the Western Division, blitzes only twoor three times a game, yet leads the league in dumping the passer. When WillieDavis & Co. go tearing in at the quarterback, the blitz is usuallyunnecessary.

The Brownsthemselves blitz more now and use more stunts in the line. The team used to beknown as a reading defensive club; the line would try to read the blocks andthe takes of the offense before committing itself, but that is no longertrue.

Nick Skorich, theline coach, says the new Brown front-line attack is "a controlled charge.You read as you rush. First you charge and control the man in front of you.Then you find the football and get it."

Along with thenew idea of line play, the Browns use more stunts in the line than they didbefore.

"There arenumerous variations," Collier says. "We have one in which the tacklescross routes as they rush the passer. This is called an X pattern. Then wemight have an X on the strong side with the tackle and end crossing, or adouble X with the ends and tackles on both sides crossing."

All of the stuntsand blitzes are designed to make the job of men like Fichtner easier byharrying the passer into hurrying his throw, hopefully before his receivershave completed their patterns.

As thechampionship struggle tightens, the decisive moments could come in a fewdesperate races between receivers and daring little men like Cleveland'sfavorite thief.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]