Fritz Shurmur’s Eagle Defense: The Birthplace of the Zone Blitz

NFL Guru: Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur

The NFL has had several geniuses when it comes to coaches. Yet when it comes to coordinators many have not received their due nor have any made the Pro Football Hall of Fame based on their contributions. One such coach that did receive Hall of Fame consideration was Dick LeBeau (enshrined in 2011 as a player), who as a long time defensive coordinator has been credited (with Dom Capers) for creating the zone blitz in the modern NFL. Yes Pittsburgh became Blitzburgh but the true zone blitz, as a scheme, came from the mind of Fritz Shurmur. Another assistant deserving enshrinement in Canton.

In 1989, Shurmur was the defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. When the team suffered multiple injuries along the front line, yet had all their linebackers healthy, necessity became the mother of invention. His team employed a 3-4 defense that featured Kevin Greene, who had back to back 16.5 sacks in 1988 and 1989 (thanks Kevin), coming off the corner. Yet going into the wildcard matchup as an underdog, Shurmur decided  to go with emphasizing his linebackers over his linemen and came up with a 2 down lineman 5 linebacker set up to confuse Randall Cunningham.

You have to understand that this was Randall Cunningham at the height of his career, in fact the next year 1990,  he was the NFL’s MVP. However in 1989 he was on his way to stardom when he electrified a national audience on a Monday night by shaking off a hit by New York Giant Carl Banks, and throwing a touchdown to TE Jimmie Giles. He was a threat that ran for nearly 1,000 yards in the following year. He was John Elway 2.0 and the league was having serious problems in defending against such an athletic talent at QB.

In 1989 he led the Eagles in rushing with 621 yards while throwing for 3,400 yards 23 TDs and only 16 interceptions. The Eagles had won 5 of their final 6 games in 1989 and wanted to make amends in the playoffs for their 1988 playoff Fog Bowl loss in Chicago. Although they lost a toe to toe battle with the defending champion San Francisco 49ers in the regular season, the Eagles believed they could play with anyone and wanted a rematch with Joe Montana and company. But first they had to get through a wild card battle with the Los Angeles Rams, whom they taunted in the papers heading into the game. How would Shurmur defend Randall??

Shurmur opted for speed and confusion. One of the first items for a quarterback to determine is who the Mike (Middle) linebacker is. This is to set not only the blocking schemes but where the focal point to how the offense could attack the defense. Well the Rams shifted into their “Eagle” defense where OLBs Kevin Greene #91, Mel Owens #58, and Mike Wilcher #54 manned the outside with ILBs Larry Kelm #52, and Fred Strickland #53 were supplemented by either Brett Faryniarz #51 or George Bethune #57.

You have to understand the Rams weren’t doing this as a nickel defense, they were doing this on first and second downs also. Strickland would take the role of ‘nose-backer’ sometimes lining up as a nose tackle 1 yard off the ball and then would stand up to join the other four linebackers in a stand up position. They played a cat and mouse game as to who was the Mike on most plays.

Along with the outside linebackers taking a page out of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense and stacking two OLBs over the tight end.  The Rams jumped on the Eagles  14-0 in the first quarter forcing Philadelphia to pass. There were plays where Los Angeles would have as many as 4 linebackers lined up on one side of the formation yet only rushed  one with a blitzing DB.  Along with confusing Cunningham from an alignment standpoint, Shurmur drew up defenses that had DE Mike Piel #95 either dropping or spying.

With an array of blitzes off the corner and so much speed on the field  to chase Cunningham, once he scrambled, had one of his worst days. The Eagles had little continuity and one of the reason the offense couldn’t adjust was the untimely death of Eagle quarterback coach Doug Scovil just a week prior to the game. Without his working confidante, Randall and Buddy Ryan’s offense couldn’t adjust as Kevin Greene recorded 2 sacks and hurried him into a 24 of 40 for 238 yards, 1 interception performance and no splash plays whatsoever.

Once the game was over and the Rams danced out of Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Stadium 21-7 winners, the league took notice of Shurmur’s masterpiece. Every other coordinator running a 3-4 during that time employed some of the same tactics Fritz pioneered. At the time it was thought by pundits that they couldn’t employ that gimmicky type of defense against a down hill running team.

In fact their next opponents would be exactly that style of offense and many waited for the Rams to sign a DL during the week, and when they didn’t, knew they’d see the defense again. An underdog for a second consecutive playoff game they traveled to the Meadowlands where Ottis “OJ” Anderson and the New York Giants would run into the belly of the Rams “Eagle” defense. No way could they win a second cold weather road game…right??

In this first vignette, you see the Eagle defense against the Giants on a sweep play. Notice how Shurmur has “nose backer” Strickland #53 off the ball? A concept borrowed from Tom Landry’s defensive tackle position in his Flex Defense, allowing Strickland to use his speed and agility against New York center Bart Oates.

On this play you recognize the cat and mouse game Shurmur’s defense is playing with Phil Simms. Not only does ‘nose backer’ Fred Strickland #53 line up over center in a 3 point stance, he then stands up to give the Rams 4 standing linebackers from the center to the weak side of the formation. Who’s coming?? Who’s dropping?? Simms is so rattled at this point he overthrows Lionel Emanuel and the boo birds were out in the Meadowlands.

On this play you’ll notice that SS Michael Stewart is up on the line to the strong side yet Shurmur still employed twin outside linebackers to the top of the screen in Mel Owens #58 and Mike Wilcher #54.  With the two linebackers up near the line of scrimmage they have to be accounted for by the Giants front line. You’ll notice they engage the OL which kept them from sliding their blocking attention to Kevin Greene who runs over FB Maurice Carthon #44.

Since they were in a 2TE max protection, the only outlet for Simms to throw to as he scrambles to his left is Ottis Anderson #24, yet the aforementioned Owens (who backed off after engaging Giant T Jumbo Elliot) and ILB Larry Kelm were sitting right there. With nowhere to throw the ball, time was up and Greene was right there for the sack. You can clearly see the confusion in the Giants offense. Look at Zeke Mowatt #84 who completely does a 360 and didn’t help Carthon on Greene. Why?? SS Stewart was there to occupy him. Genius

The Rams had been losing 6-0 when the Giants, late in the second quarter, uncharacteristically threw into the teeth of the Eagle defense and an interception set the Rams up to take a 7-6 lead at the half. The biggest play in the game and the turning point that allowed the Rams to upset the Giants 19-13. On this final play DE Mike Piel #95 drops off in the weak flat along with LB Strickland, lined up in 3 point stance in front of Giants guard William Roberts, who also drops.

George Bethune #57, takes over as the ‘nose backer with Brett Faryniarz #51 rushing from the weak-side along with Greene #91 on the strong side. Since Strickland’s first step is forward, Roberts #66 has to honor his charge and not help out LT Jumbo Elliot.  He has no one to block!! Greene and Faryniarz’s rush is so strong Simms has to get rid of the ball and Jerry Gray, zoning away from RB Dave Meggett,  tips the pass that Michael Stewart intercepts. You also notice that Meggett’s “scat” route was to his right and away from the DE that dropped in the weak flat.  Shurmur fielded ONE DL and didn’t rush him!! In a nickel defense?? Think about that for a second…

This was a masterpiece performance by a true NFL genius in Fritz Shurmur. The ’89 Rams fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship and this defense never got the attention the 46 defense, the Steel Curtain, or the Ravens defense did because they didn’t win it all. Had they beat the 49ers and then the Broncos to win Super Bowl XXIV, this defense would have gone down in history. Yet what is interesting is this defense had it’s prime note taker in Giant defensive coordinator and current Patriot coach Bill Belichick.

How do we know this??

He used the 2 man front 1 year later in Super Bowl XXV to stop the Buffalo Bills to win that trophy. Just last year he used the defense with 5 standing players to force NY Jet QB Mark Sanchez into several interceptions. He used it against Tim Tebow also in both the regular season win and again in the playoffs. What Shurmur started in the 1989 playoffs live on to this day in a few 3-4 defenses. One centerpiece to this defense was Kevin Greene who moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993 to help form Blitzburgh.  Surely Greene took his playbook with him to Pittsburgh and may have shared some of these principles with Steeler coaches.


EPILOGUE: As for Shurmur, he moved on to become a champion defensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI with Mike Holmgren. You want to hear about the ties that bind?? From the late 80s into the early 90’s, Mike Holmgren was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers while Fritz Shurmur was his nemesis counterpart within the division for the Rams. Trust us…going into that 1989 NFC Championship it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that the Niners would win.

In fact, in ’89 the Rams won game 2, 13-12 in Candlestick and even though the Rams lost the NFC Championship to SF, they returned to San Francisco the following year. In that game the ‘Niners were 10-0 and the Rams were 3-7 when the Rams hammered them 28-17 when the Niners were trying to 3peat. So when Holmgren took the head coaching job in Green Bay he took Fritz Shurmur with him. Shurmur followed Holmgren to Seattle in 1999.

However he passed away before the 1999 season. Yet now as the Cleveland Browns GM, Holmgren hired current head coach Pat Shurmur, who is the nephew of Fritz.  Shurmur developed other defenses that we will give mention to in the near future yet this 1989 run with his “Eagle defense” was his masterpiece. Even though he went on to coach a 4-3 in Green Bay, his use and expertise to adapt to personnel turned his 3-4 into a juggernaut that nearly stole an NFL title.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Frank “Fritz” Shurmur (July 15, 1932 – August 30, 1999)

Thanks for reading and share the article. Coaches don’t forget to adapt to your personnel instead of forcing your plays down the throat of a group that may not be able to run it.