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Pack It In

Crafty coordinator Fritz Shurmur and his Green Bay defense figure to make life miserable for Denver

by Paul Zimmerman

Posted: Wed January 14, 1998


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.

Packers won't give Elway time 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.

Garrison Hearst "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 touchdown.

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.

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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 junked.

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.

Issue date: January 19, 1998



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