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When the Green Bay Packers played the Detroit Lions last Thanksgiving Day, Packer Quarterback Bart Starr was almost buried alive under the repeated assaults of the angry Detroit line. Everyone had his crack at Starr, but the man who cracked him the hardest and the most was Alex Karras, the best defensive tackle in pro football. Thanks to Karras and his pals, the Lions had a romp, beating the Packers 26-14. Last week the two teams met again, but this time the best defensive tackle in pro football was busy wiping off the bar at the Lindell AC lounge in Detroit, serving out his suspension for gambling activities. Without him, Detroit's red-dogging tactics, so effective last year, broke down and Starr was not rushed hard all afternoon. The Packers crushed the Lions 31-10 and looked once more like champions.
"Maybe they learned a lesson out there today," another Green Bay player said. "And that is, don't talk too much. They've talked about being a better club, than us for a long time."
As a matter of fact, Alex Karras was talking that way several days before the game. He has been playing handball to keep in shape, and his weight is a trim 245, lighter by 15 pounds than he was the afternoon he gave Bart Starr such a tough time.
"We're a better team than the Packers are," Karras told a friend. "We were better in both games last year, even if we only won one of them. If you can keep Green Bay from running, you can beat them, and we are very good against running teams."
If Karras and the other Lions are proud of their defense, so are the people of Detroit. Defense has become something of a tradition in Detroit and the fans appreciate it. They will cheer the spectacular efforts of the offense, but their affection is reserved for the defensive units. Tobin Rote found this out in 1957 when he led the Lions to the championship with a 59-14 win over the Cleveland Browns. Rote had a wonderful day on the field but, at the end of the game, when the fans poured out of the stands toward the players, he was ignored. He might have been a Cleveland player for all the attention he got. The fans surged past him, hoisted up Middle Linebacker Joe Schmidt and carried him off to the dressing room.
In the years just prior to that game, the fans had saved their loudest yells for a massive middle guard named Les Bingaman. Later they cheered for a hard-bitten secondary known as Chris's Crew. And last year they hollered loudest and longest for a pair of defensive tackles, Karras and Roger Brown.
This year the fans' affection for Detroit's defense has been mixed with worry. After all, Karras is missing and no one has been certain how well his replacement, Floyd Peters, would do. Peters was obtained from the Cleveland Browns. The Lion coaching staff selected Peters carefully, studying some 28 game films of the Browns, ranging over the last two years, before they decided on him.
"We found out he hustled all the time and he had good range," one Detroit coach said. "He could slip a block pretty good, too. He's a veteran and he fit into our defense easier than a rookie would have. He can't rush the passer the way Karras could, but neither can any other tackle in football."
Most of the Lions' defensive unit, like Peters, came to Detroit in trades. Night Train Lane, a great corner back, and Carl Brettschneider, an underrated corner linebacker, are ex- St. Louis Cardinals. Gary Lowe, a defensive back, was cut by the Washington Redskins. Sam Williams came from the Rams, Dick LeBeau, another back, was cut by Cleveland. Darris McCord, a strong defensive end, came to the club after several seasons in Canada. Only Joe Schmidt, the usually magnificent middle linebacker, Wayne Walker, a corner linebacker, Safety Yale Lary and Tackle Roger Brown are Detroit draft choices.