LA Rams innovative ‘Big Nickel’ defense haunts 49ers to this day

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Which team gave the peak 49ers fits?

It wasn’t the New York Giants of HC Bill Parcells, DC Bill Belichick, and LB Lawrence Taylor. Nor was it DC Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense with the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles. The San Francisco 49er’s nemesis wasn’t even the New Orleans Saints and their famed ‘Dome Patrol’ linebackers.

Instead, the team that most often confounded the 49ers and their innovative West Coast Offense was the LA Rams and their unfashionable defenses led by defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. A forgotten great among coaching geniuses, Shurmur was an innovator who was years ahead of his time with the way he employed nickel defenses on early downs, created five linebacker packages, and scripted his calls to match how the 49ers called plays.

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In his five linebacker defenses, named the “Eagle” package, one linebacker was tasked with lining up directly over the offensive center. Dubbed the nose backer, Shurmur’s defense allowed the nose backer to attack the line of scrimmage on running plays, or drop back into coverage on passing plays.

Shurmur beat the 49ers 12 times during stints with the Rams, the Phoenix Cardinals, and the Green Bay Packers. His masterpiece came in Week 12 of the 1990 season while he was the defensive coordinator with the LA Rams at Candlestick Park, where Shurmur used his best creation, the “Big Nickel,” to stymie the defending Super Bowl champions.