Rams' upset hopes are pinned to defense
Most knowledgeable pro football people think the best chance, perhaps the only chance, the Los Angeles Rams have of upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV on Sunday is with their defense.
The front four of Jack Youngblood, Mike Fanning, Larry Brooks, and Fred Dryer have 33 years of pro football experience among them. Behind them are linebackers Jim Youngblood, Jack Reynolds, and Bob Brudzinski.
The deep defense consists of cornerbacks Dwayne O'Steen and Rod Perry, plus strong safety Dave Elmendorf and free safety Nolan Cromwell. There isn't much that this group hasn't had to deal with over the years from opposing National Football League offenses.
Two weeks ago when the Rams shut out Tampa Bay, 9-0, in the playoff game that got them to the Super Bowl, they adjusted to almost everything the Buccaneers tried offensively. And their pursuit against the run was magnificent.
But Pittsburgh, with a multiple- offense so powerful that it often wins without much in the way of window dressing, presents considerably more problems than the Buccaneers. On the ground it basically runs a lot of the same stuff that Vince Lombardi used with the old Green Bay Packers.
The Steelers are a team with superb offensive balance in QB Terry Bradshaw; running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier; and three of the best pass receivers in the game as a unit in Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Bennie Cunningham.
While nobody has to be told that the Rams aren't sharing their defensive plans with the news media, there are certain things they are obviously going to try to do. For example, there are standard defenses against the run and pass that everybody knows about. The three-man front against the run is popular, because it leaves an extra defensive player back who can help out against any wide stuff.
But the four-man rush is what many teams prefer against the pass, because it puts extra pressure on the quarterback. If the defense can take even a second or two away from the time the QB gets to set up and throw, it often means he must either eat the ball or risk throwing into traffic.
So what you basically have in pro football is a game within a game -- the offensive team trying to mask its point of attack and the defensive team trying to anticipate whether the play will be a run or a pass.
How well Los Angeles reads Pittsburgh's offensive sets, or simply how often the Rams guess right when they have no idea what is coming, is probably going to decide whether the Rams win or lose -- or at least whether they can keep it close.
Pittsburgh reportedly has 17 offensive formations, with approximately 250 plays or options off those sets. And this doesn't even take into consideration the number of times Bradshaw will scramble upfield on broken plays or throw a safety-valve pass to a running back.
One thing the Steelers have to be a little concerned about is that not too long ago three Ram assistant coaches (Bud Carson, Dan Radakovich, and Lionel Taylor) were on the Pittsburgh staff.
Carson, defensive coordinator for the Rams the last two years, provided the Steelers with the same expertise from 1972 to 1977. It was Carson who came up with the matched set of seven defensive backs late in the Rams-Cowboys playoff game that so frustrated Dallas QB Roger Staubach.
Radakovich, who became L.A.'s line coach this season, had a similar job with the Steelers from 1974 to 1977. And while Taylor is an offensive coach (concerned with pass receivers), he tutored Swann and Stallworth during their early pro years and should have a good idea of their preferences in certain situations.
But what it mostly comes down to is how well the Youngblood brothers, Brooks, Reynolds, Perry & Co. handle Pittsburgh's attack as a unit.
Since the Ram offense doesn't figure to control the football for long periods of time, the way it did against Tampa Bay, the defense could run out of gas if it has to spend too much time on the field. And that would be enough to beat them.