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Pro Football : Weak Defenses Almost Guarantee an Elway-Kosar Shoot-Out

January 15, 1988|Bob Oates

Whenever John Elway and Bernie Kosar are on the same field, as they will be Sunday in the American Football Conference championship game at Denver, there is a reasonable prospect of a high-scoring shoot-out.

It is their defenses that, more or less, assure this. Neither Denver nor Cleveland has an especially strong defense. Neither has a designated sacker or run stuffer.

Neither excels at rushing the passer, and so Elway, who led the Broncos to first place in the AFC West again this season, should be able to trade bombs with Kosar, who led the Browns to another AFC Central title.

On a freezing January day in Ohio a year ago, Elway and Kosar played to a draw before the Broncos won it in overtime, 23-20. And in good weather, both passers can improve on that.

Everything seems to be in place for a stirring rematch.

Two Cleveland players have made theirs a respected defense if not a great one. They are Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, the National Football League's most famous cornerback pair since Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes of the Raiders' last Super Bowl team.

The difference is that at the nine other defensive positions, the Browns aren't as intimidating as the Raiders of the Hayes era. They aren't even as intimidating as they were last year, when they had Chip Banks. Banks, their one bruising linebacker, was traded to San Diego. They have also lost nose tackle Bob Golic to injury.

Defensively, the Browns get by because Coach Marty Schottenheimer is a defensive expert. In Denver, the Broncos get by for similar reasons. Their defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, arrived in Denver 12 years before Coach Dan Reeves got there in 1981, and the Broncos have had one of the game's smartest defenses ever since. It is often also the smallest.

Asked how Denver handles physically larger teams routinely, Collier said: "Give me intelligent players and you can have the big players."

The best he has are Karl Mecklenburg, who plays seven positions, and Rulon Jones, a veteran defensive end. Otherwise, Collier has pretty much rebuilt the defense this season--in the Collier mold. That is, the Broncos give up yards, and even points, but not too many games.

As stylists, Elway and Kosar are the two most conspicuously different quarterbacks in the league.

Though both weigh 210, Kosar is two inches taller. At 6 feet 5 inches, the Cleveland passer is an awkward, slow-footed side-armer who doesn't do anything right, seemingly, but throw straight passes--to the right receiver, at the right time and place.

Because of his physical limitations, Kosar had to learn the intellectual side of quarterbacking. When he came up from Miami, therefore, he could read defenses as an NFL rookie with more skill than Elway shows today.

When Elway came up from Stanford, he was the greatest natural athlete playing his position, and he proved it almost every week. For several years, he made most of Denver's yardage as a scrambler on broken plays. And that is still his reputation. But that is no longer Elway.

He throws a better pass from the pocket today than he does rolling out. He has become a big-play pocket passer, one of the finest of that variety. And if it's true that the Browns' game plan is based on preventing him from getting outside Sunday, he'll eat them alive.

It isn't likely, however, that Schottenheimer will take that route, or stay on it if he starts that way. For coaching is Cleveland's long suit--as it is Denver's.

Strangely, the head coaches of these teams work with opposing platoons. It will be Dan Reeves' Denver offense against Schottenheimer's Cleveland defense Sunday when Collier's Denver defense will oppose a carefully constructed Cleveland offense led by assistant coach Lindy Infante.

More than most teams, the Broncos and Browns are creatures of their leadership. To compare Reeves' personnel against Don Shula's in Miami, for example, is to wonder how Reeves keeps getting to the playoffs when Shula doesn't.

And in Cleveland, Schottenheimer, in personnel terms, is outgunned by two of the three other teams in his division, Cincinnati and Houston.

So there's more to the matchup at Mile High than Elway vs. Kosar.

In the NFC championship game at Washington, the personnel will be altogether different from that on view in Denver. The Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, for one thing, can both rush the passer.

They don't do it in the same way, but they both do it well. So this game, unlike the Denver game, figures to be determined not by the passers but by the pass rushers.

The Vikings attack quarterbacks with a side-by-side tackle and end, Keith Millard and Chris Doleman. The Redskins' most effective rush men are their defensive ends, Charles Mann and Dexter Manley.

There are advantages in both kinds of alignments. With Mann and Manley, the Redskins can maintain constant pressure on Minnesota quarterback Wade Wilson from both sides--restraining him from ducking out either way.

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