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

Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Madison/Getty Images) /
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Rams baffled Montana in All-Time great upset

Ironically, Shurmur’s best game against the Niners came in a down year for the Rams. Head coach John Robinson’s team had been in the NFC Championship Game the previous season, losing 30-3 to the 49ers, but the Rams would finish 5-11 in 1990, Shurmur’s last year with the team.

These Rams were 3-7 when they returned to Candlestick to face a 10-0 49ers squad coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins. The deck could not have been more stacked in the home team’s favor, but Rams DC Shurmur had something special planned for Montana.

It was the ‘Big Nickel,’ an innovative defense with a slightly misleading name, but one designed to flood the field with defensive backs and clamp on Montana’s receivers. Rice was the most dangerous of those, but Shurmur focused his scheme more on stopping tight end Brent Jones.

The defense was really a Dime package because Shurmur had six defensive backs on the field. Three of those defensive backs were safeties, one of whom was safety Michael Stewart, who played at the linebacker level, alongside regular LB Mike Wilcher:

Stewart played a role that was a forerunner to the ‘Buffalo Nickel’ or ‘Star’ position many teams use today. Linebacker Mark Barron once played it for the Rams, while the likes of defensive back Adrian Phillips of the New England Patriots and safety Darrick Forrest of the Washington Commanders are playing the hybrid role this year.