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

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LA Rams News Rams History Fritz Shurmur
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Shurmur was the father of many modern defensive schemes

Another of Shurmur’s safeties, LA Rams safety Vince Newsome, also lined up in the box, often head-up over TE Jones, who was clamped and jammed all over the field. Having his regular four coverage players behind this adjusted front seven allowed Shurmur to double Rice at will.

The defense drew first blood when Rams linebacker Brett Faryniarz sacked Montana, forcing a fumble that Rams linebacker Kevin Greene recovered. It was the first of six 49ers turnovers forced by Shurmur’s defense, with Rams safety Vince Newsome soon knocking the ball loose from 49ers fullback Tom Rathman to let Greene recover again.

This takeaway became points when Rams running back Cleveland Gary scored the first of his three touchdowns, catching a lateral from fellow running back Buford McGee on a planned, college-style option. Gary later scored the 12th of his 14 rushing touchdowns that season after recovering his own fumble at the goal-line, proof that luck was on the Rams’ side this day.

There was nothing lucky about how Shurmur’s defense shut down Montana. Joe Cool went 22 of 37, threw three interceptions, and suffered two sacks against the Big Nickel. Rice, meanwhile, tallied 72 yards on seven catches, but most of those yards were harmless. He was kept out of the end zone and lost a fumble when Rams cornerback Jerry Gray poked the ball free and Wilcher recovered.

The Rams also held 49ers running back Roger Craig to 44 yards rushing on 13 attempts, despite playing what John Weyler of the Los Angeles Times (subscription may be required) dubbed a “we-dare-you-to-run defense.” Weyler credited Shurmur for using four safeties as the “only concession to the run.”

It’s tough to imagine the Rams going with one linebacker and six DBs to combat the modern-day 49ers. Not when DC Raheem Morris needs veteran linebackers like Bobby Wagner on the field and playing downhill against Kyle Shanahan’s zone-stretch running game.

The legacy of Shurmur’s masterfully engineered upset is a reminder of how the Rams have used the scheme to redress an imbalance in talent and still beat the 49ers on the road.

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