Defensive players have to be tougher, mentally and physically, than offensive players," said Green Bay Packer Coach Vince Lombardi, a squarely built man with a square, almost tough face, who has the toughest defense in pro football. He thought for a moment. "I don't know why I say that," he admitted finally. "But I think it is true."
Next week, when the Packers face the only defense in the West that can match their own, it will behoove Lombardi's specialists in the fine but violent art of knocking down passes, passers and ballcarriers to be at their very toughest. If Green Bay can beat Detroit in this game—which seems likely—then the race for the division championship in the Western Conference will be over. It is, according to Lombardi, no accident that the two best defensive teams in the division are leading.
"Championships are won on defense," he says flatly. "When I came to Green Bay four years ago, my first moves were designed to strengthen the defense. I started working on developing the offense after that."
The defense that Lombardi has gathered together comes as close to perfection as is possible in a game played by fallible human beings. Through the first eight games of the current season, the Packers allowed only 61 points to be scored against them—an average of fewer than eight per game. Although Detroit has given up fewer total yards, the Lions fall short of the Packers in the most important item—pass defense. The Green Bay team has allowed opponents only 116 yards per game—an extraordinary accomplishment against the polished passing that constitutes the primary attacking weapon of most pro football teams.
Lombardi has managed this by carefully blending daring with caution, speed with strength, size with sensibility. His team, like most pro clubs, works in small, almost self-contained units. The corner linebacker and the defensive end who plays in front of him work together; the middle linebacker coordinates his moves with those of the defensive tackles, and the halfback and safety on each side work together. In each one of the five groups that constitute the Packers' defense, Lombardi has purposefully paired off the conservative with the liberal, the solid rock who is perturbed by nothing that happens with the energetic rocket who may go off in any direction, causing great damage or, conversely, making a brilliant play that will keep people talking for weeks.
Lombardi's left defensive end, Willie Davis, is such a rocket. He played offensive tackle for the Browns until Lombardi traded for him and put him on defense. Davis is big (6 feet 3 and 240 pounds), very quick and a taker of chances. He is backed up by one of the soundest corner linebackers in pro football—Dan Currie (SI, Dec. 18, 1961). Currie, who is as tall as Davis and only five pounds lighter, seems in comparison a veritable Tory. Dan almost never makes a mistake and is the perfect foil for the daring Davis, who, sure that Currie will cover for him, can slash in at the opposing quarterback almost heedlessly—a prime requirement for a defensive end.
"I'm more comfortable playing defense," says Davis, who might be speaking for his 10 teammates as well. "On offense I was always thinking what I had to do. Things changed so much from week to week, and you had to know everything cold against any kind of defense you might meet. Now I know on each one of our defenses what my assignment is, and I can spend all my energy doing that." Davis' dislike of offense did not come from lack of mental ability to master the assignments; he is working for a master's degree in education with certification for administration.
"You've got more room for individual effort on defense," he went on. "I do what I'm supposed to, then I go to the ball if it hasn't come to me and I've got freedom to react the way I want to. It's no secret that I studied Gino Marchetti [of Baltimore] for a long time. He's the best pass-rushing end in the business. I noticed he lined up right on the ball, as close as he could get to the line of scrimmage without getting off sides. Then he'd fire in there on the snap, so that he'd reach the tackle blocking him before the tackle could set up. He'd put his hands on the tackle and twist him one way and the other, and when the tackle was off balance he'd get by. I try to do the same thing." (" Davis has very strong arms," Lombardi said earlier. "He can handle a tackle and fight off a block very well.")
This pell-mell charge across the line might set Davis up for traps or overcommit him against the screen pass if it weren't for Currie and Dave Hanner, who is the defensive tackle beside Davis and is another very sound player. Playing his 11th season in the league, Hanner is a tobacco-chewing, red-haired, massive man who is a cotton-field inspector in Arkansas during the off season and is known as Hawg by his teammates. Off the field his small blue eyes peer good-naturedly over wide, freckled cheeks, but on the field he reveals a deep and sure knowledge of his position. It is his ability to detect screens, traps and draw plays from the action of the guard in front of him that protects Davis. Hanner has been All-Pro five times, with reason.
"You can tell pretty much from the way the guard blocks on you," he says. "On a screen, say, when they want you to come in fast so the quarterback can lob a little pass over you, you can feel a softness in the block. It takes a real good actor to make the screen go. Usually when you go in, the guard hits you a real good pop, then backs up a little and hits you another one. When it's a screen, you feel the softness and you know he wants you to come. So you slide over to where the screen will be."