From Out of His Bag of Defensive Tricks, Walsh Pulls the 4-1-6

Times Staff Writer

Before Sunday's Super Bowl, Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino had thrown 55 touchdown passes in this National Football League season.

That sort of simplified the 49ers' approach to defense that led to their 38-16 victory.

"We were in our pass defense all the game long," said Manu Tuiasosopo, a nose tackle.

And for that kind of cunning, they call Bill Walsh a genius.

"This was the best game we ever played since I joined the 49ers," Walsh said. "It was a great performance by a truly great team."

His quarterback, Joe Montana, he said, "clearly is the best quarterback in football today. And maybe the best in many years.

"I think some (people) underrated our defense. How many touchdowns were scored against us in the playoffs (two, one on an interception return)?"

Montana, the Super Bowl's most valuable player for the second time in four years, said people also underrated the 49ers' offense.

"All we heard all week long was Miami's offense and how we were going to stop them. Nothing was said, but deep inside (we knew) we had an offense, too."

But the 49ers' head coach wasn't all that smart. He ran the first two defensive series with standard alignments and got burned once before deciding special measures would be necessary to control the Dolphin sharpshooter.

"Coach Walsh suggested we put the nickel in there after they scored their first touchdown (to take a 10-7 lead)," said George Seifert, the 49ers' defensive coordinator.

So the 49ers abandoned their three-man line with four linebackers and went to their version of the nickel defense, which consists of four down linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs (a 4-1-6), with Tom Holmoe and Jeff Fuller joining the regular Pro Bowl secondary of Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks and Carlton Williamson.

Fuller is listed as a strong safety, but Seifert calls him a "whip," a defender who often plays up close like a linebacker. The only bonafide linebacker in the lineup is Keena Turner, who is fast enough to handle pass coverage on tight ends and running backs.

The 49ers call that their "elephant" defense, and the rest of the NFL that must deal with Marino in the future will no doubt remember it well.

The alignment destroyed the Dolphins' quick-strike capability. Between the deep coverage and the pressure of the rush that sacked him four times, Marino was forced to settle for short completions that failed to sustain many meaningful drives.

Hicks said: "With our elephant defense we got the good rush, coverage and still stopped the run. We let 'em have the short passes. Short passes aren't gonna beat you."

The scheme also called for the 49ers' cornerbacks to cover the Dolphins' elusive receivers man-on-man, Turner estimated, "about 70% of the time, instead of the 70% zone we played during the season."

Hardly anybody would have thought the 49ers could do that successfully.

Lott said: "I knew (Mark) Clayton was faster than me. I knew (Mark) Duper was faster than me. I just tried to line up differently to make 'em think. You don't have to be the best cornerback in the world."

Lott added that he didn't even think he was the best cornerback on the team, that Wright is.

"The turnaround (in the game) was when Eric Wright made that great interception," Lott said.

That was right after the 49ers had posted the game's final points at 8:42 of the third quarter. Marino sent Clayton down the left sideline from the 49er 27-yard line, and Wright was with him every step of the way, holding an inside position.

When they reached the one-yard line, Wright outjumped Clayton for the ball and tumbled into the end zone with the interception.

Wright said: "I was up on bump and run and got a piece of him coming off the line. That gave me enough time to adjust my coverage, and I made up my mind that this guy wasn't gonna outwrestle me for the ball."

That about ended the Dolphins' comeback hopes. Earlier, in the second quarter, Lott took away a potential touchdown when Marino tried to finesse a lob pass to Clayton in the end zone.

"I knew he was gonna throw a fade," Lott said. "It happened to me in the Pittsburgh game. When he (Clayton) went up I wanted to go up, and the ball hit me in the head."

The 49ers' coverage was that tight.

Lott said: "Eric's been in my shadow the last couple of years, but he and I know he's the best corner on our team."

Wright said the defensive linemen and backs had discussed the problem of playing the Dolphins and concluded that the key was to keep Marino's receivers covered until the rush could reach him.

Wright: "They said, 'Give us three, three-and-a-half seconds.' We said, 'We'll give you as much time as you need.' "

Dwaine Board sacked Marino twice, Tuiasosopo and Gary (Big Hands) Johnson once each.

"For two weeks we knew we could handle their line as well as we did," Johnson said. "They have a young line, and young ballplayers make mistakes. This is the Super Bowl.

"Marino was a little intimidated, a little gun-shy. When you're getting hit, you'll crack."

The Dolphins caused the 49ers only minor problems with a no-huddle offense early in the game.

Seifert said: "They no-huddled on our 4-3 defense instead of our base defense and caught us off guard a little. We had automatic calls prepared for our base defense."

It wasn't a problem with the elephant defense with which, Seifert said, "we have more flexibility."

Offense was the other half of the 49ers' success story in Super Bowl XIX.

"We're not a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust passing team," said guard Randy Cross.

Wide receiver Dwight Clark said: "We were doing anything we wanted to. It was just an incredible game plan by Bill.

"We had 60 runs in, maybe 65. We normally have half that many. We went into the game thinking we were going to run the ball. I'm sure they (the Dolphins) were surprised."

The 49ers ran it 40 times for 211 yards, while Joe Montana threw 35 passes, completing 24, for 331.

Cross: "About the fourth quarter I looked over there and all 11 (Dolphin) players were looking at us like, 'Who are those guys?' "

Wendell Tyler carried the ball 13 times for 65 yards, Roger Craig 15 for 58--and Montana 5 for 59. One of the Dolphins' stated aims was to keep Montana contained in the pocket.

"If they were trying to stop Joe from rolling out, it didn't show," Cross said.

Tyler also caught four passes for 70 yards. He and Craig each broke a long gain off a fake draw-pass that hadn't worked as well all season.

"Their linebackers are big," Tyler said, "but we saw on film that other backs were able to dip and cut and elude 'em. We just used our speed against 'em. It was a bit easier than we expected."

For the record, Tyler never fumbled.

"We knew we had to have a productive offense without any turnovers," he said. "Another milestone in my career.

"Wendell Tyler had a dream, that I'd gain a thousand yards this year (1,262, a career high) and I'd go to the Pro Bowl, and it worked out that way. I'm going to Hawaii. Give praise to God.

"I just hope all my peers are happy they voted me into the Pro Bowl because I showed I deserve to be there."

Tyler said he felt no pressure.

"Real pressure is coming back from a car wreck when they give you only a 10% chance to walk again," he said.

"I've been to two Super Bowls now (he was with the Rams in '80) and I'm happy to be a Super Bowl champion this time. I'll be home (in West Covina) after the Pro Bowl. (Tell them), 'I'm coming to show you my Super Bowl ring.' "

The game also was gratifying for Carl Monroe, a 49er reserve running back who scored the first touchdown on a 33-yard pass play from Montana. Monroe has a drunk-driving charge hanging over his head following an incident two weeks ago when his car struck a pedestrian, without injury. He is due to enter an alcohol treatment program.

"It's something I had to put behind me," he said. "We'll have to see what happens."

His only regret Sunday was failing to spike the ball.

"I tried to spike the ball and dropped it," he said, laughing. "I haven't had enough practice."

Montana was much sharper than he had been in the other two playoff games when some thought his game was affected by his engagement to actress Jennifer Wallace. Perish the thought.

"She's been behind me the whole way and given me the support that I've needed," Montana said.

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