"Well, after playing it so many years in high school and college, I knew that when we put a nose man in there the center couldn't be a good pass protector because he's got to raise his shoulders after he snaps the ball. By then the nose man is by him. What it ends up doing is tying up three people because the guards have got to look out for the center."
Culp, Smith and Bethea, disregarding any consideration of team record, would prefer to play the traditional four-man front, since Phillips' tactic, with all its variations, is a punishing task.
"Personally I don't care for it," Culp says, "but as long as we're winning ball games it's fine with me. In a four-man alignment, you're usually dealing with one individual. In the three-man front, you've always got the possibility of being double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed. But I like it now because we're winning. That's the biggest thing. If we were winning with a two-man front, I'd like it, too."
Along with the defense, Phillips has brought camaraderie to the Oilers, whose short practice sessions produce needling one-liners, laughs and team looseness. "I think the most important thing is how our team gets along," he says. "That's the most pleasant aspect of this season, having it happen as quickly and as well as it has. During camp I said that everyone had to be in the dorm, not their rooms but the dorm, at 11 p.m. That way they could sit around in groups and get to know each other better. You've got to rub shoulders with the guys you're going to be counting on."
"Bum's biggest thing is saying that if you were hanging off a cliff on a rope, you'd want to make sure you had a friend up there holding the other end," says Pastorini. "Thai's our slogan—hold on to the rope and don't let our people down."
Against Detroit on Sunday the Oilers could easily have fallen, but the rope held. Another strong defensive effort and the scintillating work of 5'9", 170-pound Billy Johnson brought them back from a sluggish start and five turnovers.
Mocked by the Lions after he fumbled twice, Johnson had the last laugh—twice. Midway through the second period he made a beautiful catch of a 27-yard pass for the game's first touchdown, and he put the contest on ice in the third period when, after gathering in a punt, he snaked loose down the right sideline on a 52-yard scoring jaunt. Johnson's second touchdown came only 95 seconds after Pastorini connected on a 56-yard pass to Ken Burrough. Including his touchdown catch, Burrough had three receptions for 111 yards.
The Oiler defense allowed but two field goals, blocked another attempt and stopped the Lions four times inside the Houston four-yard line. Using flea-flicker passes, end arounds and quick outs to the halfbacks, the Lions did take away some of the effectiveness of the three-man front, racking up 149 yards rushing and 328 in total offense. "They came out throwing and caught us in our slants," said Tody Smith, "but today reinforced our opinion that we're a contender. They tried to break our concentration and test our poise but we didn't lose it."
"We're proud we're No. 1 against the rush," Phillips said, "but we don't care how much they move the ball around as long as they don't score. Winning the game is more important than stats."
Against the prospect of continuing success are a number of threatening possibilities. The team has one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and lacks depth and experience. A few injuries could prove devastating. So could Bud Adams.