It will be billed as the great quarterback shootout, John Elway
versus Brett Favre, star wars at the highest level, but I
wouldn't be surprised if Super Bowl XXXII turned out to be a
defensive battle. The star of Sunday's conference championship
doubleheader wasn't Elway, who played well enough to stake the
Denver Broncos to a 24-14 halftime lead but struggled in the
second half when the Pittsburgh Steelers made a run before going
down 24-21. Nor was it Favre, who had a solid game despite
miserable conditions in the Green Bay Packers' convincing 23-10
win over the 49ers in San Francisco.
Nope, my weekend game ball goes to Fritz Shurmur, Green Bay's
65-year-old defensive coordinator, who schemed the Niners into
oblivion. His defense cut off Steve Young's rushing lanes,
turning his day into a succession of tiny completions, and
manhandled a ground game that produced only 33 yards, the fewest
for the Niners since they rushed for 29 yards in a 1987 NFC
divisional playoff game against the New York Giants.
Old Fritz. He has spent 23 years as an NFL assistant, 18 of
those as a coordinator. He was kind of conservative in his early
years, with the Los Angeles Rams, but then the innovative juices
started flowing. "When did Fritz get like this?" Niner Kevin
Greene, a linebacker under Shurmur in L.A. from 1985 to '90,
said after Sunday's game. "In the old days it was the most
vanilla defense in the NFL."
"What did you use today?" someone asked Shurmur after his
defense had permitted the 49ers only seven snaps in Green Bay
territory, all in the first half.
"Let's see, we had an over and an under," Shurmur replied, "a
3-4 scheme, an even scheme, a nickel 33, a dime 40 and switches
on them, and we had.... "
Enough. We get the point. Of course, the key is that he has a
bunch of good players. Shurmur has linemen who can hold their
gaps and control the running game. He has blitzers who can bring
heat while at the same time cutting off the quarterback's escape
lanes (Young was credited with one yard rushing on two runs), a
technique defensive coaches preach ad infinitum when facing a
mobile quarterback but seldom see. Shurmur has a terrific pair
of cover guys at the corners, Doug Evans and Tyrone Williams,
and in LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson a pair of safeties with
21 years of experience plus exceptional instincts. Robinson's
quick read on a slant pass to San Francisco tight end Brent
Jones and 58-yard interception return set up the first Green Bay
That's what Elway & Co. will be facing, and I think they'll be
overmatched. "I saw John in the off-season a couple of years
ago," Robinson says, "and he said, 'Remember the time I beat you
on that deep post when you moved over?' I said, 'Yeah, I never
forgot that day.' What I remember is I've got to stay deep when
he starts scrambling."
That was the old Elway. At 37, the one thing that has eroded in
his game is the ability to take off, stop and zip the ball with
accuracy 20 or 30 yards downfield. It was a rare talent, it was
the Elway trademark, but after 15 years in the league he doesn't
have the same fluidity. He can still put the ball on a line, as
he did a few times against the Steelers, but his feet have to be
planted. I don't think the Packers will let him get set.
Green Bay can rush with its front four, but its most innovative
schemes come from a 3-4 alignment. Linebackers Seth Joyner, who
used to raise hell on Buddy Ryan's old Philadelphia Eagles
defenses, and George Koonce patrol the inside and find the soft
rush lane, either alone or in tandem with a defensive back,
usually Butler. The scheme tests a quarterback on his ability to
go to his hot reads quickly. Young, who's one of the best at it,
had his problems on Sunday. He was finding his hot receivers all
right, but the Packers' cover guys were clamping on them tight
and keeping the gains minimal. Of Young's 23 completions, 12
were for six or fewer yards. "You've got to hope one of your
guys breaks a tackle," Young said, "and the Packers weren't
missing any tackles."
Elway can get to his hot reads in a hurry--he had to against
Pittsburgh's blitz--but he's not as good at it as Favre, who's
the best in the game, whether it's over the top or sidearm, on
the move or stationary. He can pump it downfield, too. "Even
when his read isn't correct, he can get away with it," 49ers
strong safety Tim McDonald said, "because he knows that's the
time to put that little extra zip on it."
Favre has had a tendency to spray the ball in the early going.
"Yeah, sure, I've been concerned about it," Green Bay coach Mike
Holmgren said. "He comes in so fired up that the ball can take
off on him. But he didn't have that problem today, did he?"
Sure didn't. On the Packers' first play Favre hit wideout Robert
Brooks perfectly on his break with an 18-yard strike. His next
pass drew a 24-yard interference penalty on Rod Woodson. Favre
completed three more passes before one was deflected. A little
more than six minutes later, when he connected with wideout
Antonio Freeman for a 27-yard score, the 49ers were down 10 and
in a catch-up mode, with a running game that was just about
That's the difference between the San Francisco team that Green
Bay manhandled and the Denver squad the Packers will face in San
Diego. Terrell Davis and his mobile line give the Broncos hope.
Davis, starting wide and then cutting back against the flow--his
specialty--found creases in a Pittsburgh defense that ranked
first in the league against the run. If the Denver defense
doesn't get overrun early and if the offense doesn't have to
throw to stay in the game, the Broncos could make a game of it.
The Packers have their run-stopping monster in the middle,
345-pound Gilbert Brown, but as the game goes on, he becomes
less dominant, and pretty soon he's spending as much time on the
bench as on the field. Davis is effective running late, when
that little bit of zip has been drained from defenders' legs,
and if Denver's defense hangs in, well, who knows?
Wishful thinking. I just don't see it happening that way. The
Broncos gave young Kordell Stewart a rough time, mixing blitz
packages with a three-man rush, backed up by eight men in
coverage, but they won't have it so easy with Favre. I see an
early Green Bay lead, a comeback of sorts for Denver--Elway has
always raised his level of play in the Super Bowl, even in games
in which the Broncos defense has been blown out--and then a
closing crush by Dorsey Levens and the Packers ground attack.
Levens, underrated and brutally effective, has been Green Bay's
finisher, the guy to close out games, much as Emmitt Smith was
for the Dallas Cowboys in his prime.
The Pick: Packers 24, Broncos 10.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Super Bowl Preview Denver'S Defense: Better Than You Think Green Bay's Brett Favre: Better Than Ever Dr. Z's Forecast Packers Wideout Antonio Freeman
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The way Dr. Z sees it, the Packers won't give Elway the time he now needs to plant and put zip on the ball. [John Elway throwing football in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Garrison Hearst (20) had nowhere to run against a Green Bay defense that held the Niners to 33 rushing yards.
ON THE FRITZ
How well has the Green Bay defense played the last two
postseasons under coordinator Fritz Shurmur? The Packers are the
first NFL team to allow fewer than 100 rushing yards and 300
total yards in five consecutive playoff games.
Rushing Passing Total
Season Opponent Yards Yards Offense Result
1996 49ers 68 128 196 Won, 35-14
1996 Panthers 45 206 251 Won, 30-13
1996 Patriots 43 214 257 Won, 35-21
1997 Buccaneers 90 173 263 Won, 21-7
1997 49ers 33 224 257 Won, 23-10
A LOOK ON THE FRIGHT SIDE
During the regular season the Broncos allowed 4.73 yards per
rush, the worst average ever for a Super Bowl team. That's bad
news for Denver because the four Super Bowl clubs that were the
next worst against the run lost the title game by an average
score of 33-13.
Regular Season Super Bowl
Team Att. Yds. Avg. Opponent Att. Yds. Avg. Result
1997 Broncos 381 1,803 4.73 Packers
1984 Dolphins 458 2,155 4.71 49ers 40 211 5.28 Lost, 38-16
1987 Broncos 454 2,017 4.44 Redskins 40 280 7.00 Lost, 42-10
1973 Vikings 450 1,974 4.39 Dolphins 53 196 3.70 Lost, 24-7
1982 Dolphins 293 1,285 4.39 Redskins 52 276 5.31 Lost, 27-17