On the Attack : Ready or Not, Fisher Turns 'Em Loose

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They respected each other, but, with increasing tension, found little common ground as the years went by.

It never peeked above the surface, it never got to be a cause celebre while the two men were together, but privately, John Robinson and Fritz Shurmur were locked in a friendly but constant struggle to shape the kind of Ram defense each envisioned.

Robinson, always looking to find the cutting edge, continually pushed for reform, for change, for a move to a more aggressive mode of defense. He saw what the 1985 Bears did, and he knew defensive football was heading that way.

Shurmur, careful, cautious and with a long track record to back him up, preferred his proven bend-but-don't-break zone style, acceding only to minor changes within his original framework.

So when the reform-minded Robinson began his football version of perestroika this offseason by firing the 59-year-old Shurmur, his defensive coordinator of eight seasons, and replacing him with 33-year-old firebrand Jeff Fisher and a defense completely at odds with Shurmur's teachings, nobody close to the situation was surprised.

"It was coming," says one Ram coach who heard many of the discussions. "Not just last year, but years before that. This has been in the works for a while."

Says another: "This was something that just was going to happen, no matter what."

It was something Robinson says he felt he had to do after the Rams' defensive collapse of 1990, a feeble, injury-affected effort that was the major reason the team fell to 5-11.

After a brief, unsuccessful switch to a trumped-up four-man line designed by Robinson, the injury-wracked Ram defense quickly reverted to Shurmur's three-lineman, four-linebacker zone set and totaled just 30 sacks (fourth-worst in the league) and forced just 12 interceptions (tied for fifth-worst in the league), while yielding an average of 338 yards (21st in the league) and 25.75 points (third worst in the league) a game.

What worked in 1985 and 1989 wasn't working anymore.

"I think our personnel, or what our personnel can be, no longer fit what we were doing," Robinson said recently. "I just felt like we were . . . not able to do the things we had done in the past. We were caught somewhere in between . . . "

With Robinson by the early stages of 1990 finally convinced that the team couldn't keep up with the rest of the league playing Shurmur's way, the remainder of the season justified his move. They couldn't tinker with the defense, it had to be trashed.

When Fisher, for the past two seasons Buddy Ryan's defensive coordinator with the overwhelmingly-aggressive Philadelphia Eagles, became available, Robinson interviewed no other candidates.

Shurmur's defense was all about preventing the big play, content to let the offense pick up five- and six-yard gains until it made a mistake. He didn't have much pass-rushing talent up front, so he didn't push it.

Fisher's defense, a version of Ryan's old Bear defense, is all about making the big play or giving it up, content only to dominate the offense. He doesn't have much pass-rushing talent up front, but he's going to try to push it, using his linebackers and safeties in blitzes to bleed pressure out of passion.

Suddenly, the dull, personality-less Rams are bent on becoming one of the most physical, gambling defenses in the league, and its players, such as free safety Pat Terrell, defensive end Bill Hawkins and cornerback Darryl Henley, are emerging as characters in this defensive glasnost .

Fisher's defenses are constantly switching personnel, switching fronts and coverages on the field in a wild effort to confuse the offense and batter the ball-carrier.

In Fisher's two years as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, the Eagles averaged 53.5 sacks and 24.5 interceptions a season, and allowed 289 yards and 17.9 points a game.

Robinson's explanation for why he chose Fisher is also fairly vivid reasoning why he could not stay with Shurmur.

"You're looking for somebody who is in a scheme that I thought was . . . I don't know the right words, not necessarily in vogue, but was in tune with what I thought the direction football was going," Robinson said of Fisher, whom he coached at USC. "I think he is an advocate of a philosophy that is a moving philosophy . . . I think the game keeps moving each year.

"It does not stay the same. And I think the people who are entrenched in a philosophy sometimes can have the game pass them by, if you will. Or the philosophy becomes almost more important than the adjustment to what's actually happening.

"Jeff was at a place where he is the . . . not the heir, to this defensive philosophy, but a disciple of the originator, Ryan, so that he will begin to take it further.

"I think sometimes the original author of an idea can take it for a certain distance and then maybe becomes a little static, that's not a comment on Ryan . . .

"I guess I feel like we're catching a rising star."

The Ram defensive players feel like they have been freed. Asked to take chances, dare to challenge themselves to make big plays and risk getting beat, the players--especially in the secondary--suddenly are playing with abandon.

"This is a defense where you go get them, you make things happen," strong safety Anthony Newman said. "It's a man-to-man defense, there's a lot of blitzing, there's not much time for the quarterback, so I have time to do different things to receivers, maybe slow them up a little bit.

"When I heard about it, I didn't know what the deal was. I just knew Coach Fisher came from Philadelphia, and I knew that Philadelphia had a defense where the defensive backs were making plays all the time. The safeties were blitzing all the time, and I'm like, 'Yeah, that's a nice defense. He's coming here, great.' I think it's an opportunity to make plays.

"And that's what we needed. We were very excited, and now we're doing it, it's great."

"We're free," middle linebacker Frank Stams said. "I think this is a defense that lets you loose, let you be yourself . . . lets players make big plays. You're an individual in a team sense."

It probably will be very rocky going early, with the Rams offering up more challenges than they are yet ready to accept. But after years of the status quo, John Robinson finally has his cutting edge defense for the '90s.

New Defense Stark Contrast to Past

When Jeff Fisher became the Rams' new defensive coordinator, he changed every aspect of the system taught by Fritz Shurmur, his predecessor: From a 3-4 soft-style zone to an aggressive man-on-man philosophy. 1991: "The 4-3 Kamikaze Blitz"

One of the key tactics used in Fisher's aggressive, hard-hitting, storm-the castle style. Fisher employed the system in Philadelphia and the Eagles quickly moved up next to the Bears as the league's toughest defensive teams. Whether it's teachable and do-able in one season with virtually the same personnel--some switched to different positions, only time will tell. But Ram fans will be kept awake by this gambling, risk-taking defense where aggression, if contained, will result in intimidation and victories.

With tackles Alvin Wright and Mike Piel taking the outside route, that leaves the center to contend with the blitzing Larry Kelm (M) and Roman Phifer (W).

1990: "The 3-4 Vanilla Zone"

Conceived by Shurmur, the defense, called the "Eagle", was introduced in 1988 and was effective for two seasons. Last year, it came undone, breaking more than bending. In back-to-back losses Oct. 7 and 14 to Cincinnati (34-31) and Chicago (38-9), the defense fell apart, the Rams falling behind, 21-0 and 28-0, respectively. The end result: Shurmur was fired after nine seasons, eight as defensive coordinator. The "Eagle" was a soft zone which, after the snap and initial contact, called for the defenders to drop back, wait and react to the play.

With a three-man front--Doug Reed (E), Alvin Wright (NT), Mike Piel (E)--it was up to Kevin Greene (SB) and Mike Wilcher (WB) to pressure the quarterback.

POINTS ALLOWED: Rams 25th among NFL's 28 teams Rams: 412 NFL: 293 TAKEAWAYS: Rams tied for 13th in the NFL (12 interceptions, 19 fumble recoveries). Rams: 31 NFL: 31.8 SACKS: Rams tied for 24th in the NFL Rams: 30 for 180 yards NFL: 38.1 for 266.1 yards

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