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HEADING THEM OFF AT THE PASS
Ron Fimrite
November 29, 1971
Los Angeles intercepted four of John Brodie's aerials—three by the ubiquitous Gene Howard—to defeat the San Francisco 49ers and go into the lead in the National Conference's Western Division
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November 29, 1971

Heading Them Off At The Pass

Los Angeles intercepted four of John Brodie's aerials—three by the ubiquitous Gene Howard—to defeat the San Francisco 49ers and go into the lead in the National Conference's Western Division

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The Los Angeles Rams have this profitable approach to giving and receiving—they are generous, but never to a fault, and they will take whatever is given them. The San Francisco 49ers, whom the Rams displaced last weekend as leaders of the National Football Conference's Western Division, adhere much more closely to Christian doctrine. They are givers, not receivers.

In whipping the 49ers 17-6 before a crowd of 80,050 in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Rams gave up yards—382 of them—but not touchdowns. The 49ers gave up only 173 yards, but they also gave away the football game. Not that the Rams didn't deserve it. As their canny middle linebacker, Marlin McKeever, explained afterward, "We may have bent a little, but we held when we needed to."

Bending a little, but never breaking, is the Rams' defensive philosophy; they are prepared to yield short yardage in favor of shutting off the long gainers. This is a tactic particularly useful against teams like the 49ers—and the Rams' Thanksgiving Day opponents, the Dallas Cowboys—which enjoy throwing the long ball. The Rams, with their fierce rush and intimidating zone defenses, see to it that the ball is kept in front of them, where it belongs.

"They are playing a lot more zone," said the beleagured 49er quarterback, John Brodie, who completed 23 of 40 passes for 286 yards, "and their pass rush keeps the zone from being exploited. The rush restricts the length of the pass pattern."

"The zone defense," said the 49ers' fine young receiver, Gene Washington, who caught five passes for 86 yards against it, "should be outlawed, and for the same reasons professional basketball outlawed it. It's taken all the color out of the game. There's no way you can throw long against it. And who wants to watch a 3-0 game?"

Or, for that matter, a 17-6 game, if you happen to be the loser.

Ultimately, of course, the 49ers lost because they gave up the ball four times on interceptions, and they now trail the Rams by half a game with four left to play. Of the interceptions, one was returned for a Ram touchdown and another both prevented a 49er touchdown and propelled the sputtering Ram offense on its only touchdown drive of the afternoon. The remaining two were simply freaks, each bouncing off 49er receivers into the hands of Ram Cornerback Gene Howard, whom Los Angeles acquired only this year in a trade with New Orleans. Howard had become a 49er nemesis. In the first regular-season meeting between the two teams, he scooped up a San Francisco fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. And in their exhibition game he ran a kickoff back 103 yards for another score. Sunday he had three of the four interceptions—the two rebounds and a leaping theft in the end zone of a second-quarter Brodie pass intended for Gene Washington.

" Washington just ran a deep pattern into my zone," Howard recalled. "I was playing the deep zone, so I was there. I was thinking about him going long. Anytime you play against anyone like him, you got to be thinking a lot about him."

Succumbing to the entreaties of his teammates, Howard ran the ball out of the end zone instead of taking the touchback, and he reached the Rams' 32-yard line. From there Los Angeles went 68 yards in only five plays, Roman Gabriel passing 13 yards to Jack Snow for the touchdown. It was an uncommon display of offensive brilliance on this predominantly defensive day for the Rams.

The Los Angeles defense got the other touchdown all by itself. With 40 seconds remaining in the half and the ball on his own 21, Brodie unwisely tried a sideline pass to Preston Riley, a reserve wide receiver substituting for the injured Dick Witcher. Jim Nettles, the other Ram cornerback, jumped deftly in front of Riley, snatched the ball away from him and ran 29 yards untouched into the end zone. That, essentially, was the ball game, since scoring in the second half was limited to a 49-yard field goal by the Rams' David Ray.

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