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Defense of the '80s

Defense wins championships, and in the 1980s, the 49ers' defense proved that point.

Defensive coordinator George Seifert devised strategies to keep opposing offenses off balance and giving Joe Montana the chance to work his magic.

Seifert's abilities are summed up in the book, "San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years":

"Seifert had an innovative defensive mind. More than anybody else, he popularized the use of situation substitution, using defensive specialists at a time when teams were generally making few substitutions. ... Seifert was as imaginative with his defensive approach as Bill Walsh was on offense."

More details can be found in a September 1986 San Jose Mercury News article, Defensive smorgasbord hard to digest:

Some teams make minimal adjustments along their defensive front. They'll come out in a three-man line and stay there until it's third-and-10, then go into a nickel.

Seifert? He's got a little something for every down, every distance. For him, it's the element of surprise, the need to put the offense on the defensive.

... The smorgasbord of defenses causes Seifert's players to study their playbooks long into the night, but it takes advantage of their particular talents.


In addition to being an imaginative strategist, Seifert was a demanding coach. Ronnie Lott described Seifert in his book "Total Impact":

"He constantly rode us. ... He forced us to stay on the field at least half an hour after practice for more drills, and then he ushered us into the meeting room for a few hours of extra film work. ...

The Saturday morning prior to a game, Seifert gave us three-page tests on personnel and formations. On game day, he hit us with umpteen questions in the locker room. ...

On Monday afternoons, while the rest of the 49ers underwent a light workout, the Taskmaster, who ran several miles a day, subjected us to his training runs."


In Super Bowl XIX, Seifert's nickel defense "had turned Dan Marino, coming off a 48-touchdown season, into a panicked Pop Warner quarterback," journalist Peter Richmond wrote in a 1997 GQ article.

Here's how Seifert stymied Marino.

Seifert put in some new line stunts for Super Bowl XIX that were designed to put pressure on Dolphins center Dwight Stephenson. The four-man line stymied Marino and held Miami's running game to 25 yards.

The line also occupied the center so that Fred Dean and Gary Johnson could pressure Marino up the middle. Marino, who was sacked only 13 times all season, was sacked four times by the 49ers. Dwight Hicks and Carlton Williamson each had an interception, with Williamson's grab coming in the end zone in the fourth quarter.


"If there was one constant ingredient in the 49er formula, it was George Seifert's ability to design a defense," Richmond wrote.

A December 1986 article in the San Jose Mercury News that backs up that statement:

The men who work with Seifert and the players who play for him know him as an even-tempered man who seldom raises his voice in anger and whose stock-in-trade is consistency.

How consistent? In 1984, his defense gave up 225 points (not including kick returns and safeties). In 1985, 226 points. In 1986, 226 points.

He sits up in 49ers Control Central, pulling the levers and fooling with the controls that send in the extra defensive backs or dictate the blitzes. ... Though Walsh has never said it, many believe that if he were to step down today (1986), he would appoint Seifert as his successor.



San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh hired his former Stanford assistant, George Seifert, as defensive backs coach for the 49ers. He was almost too late because Seifert had been contacted for a job with Green Bay Packers.

It was the second year for Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and the 49ers opened the season with a three-game winning streak. They wound up 6-10, after two straight 2-14 seasons.


Rookie defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson were put under Seifert's tutelage. The progress of that defensive backfield was almost as critical to the 49ers' success as the development of quarterback Joe Montana.

The 49ers gave up the lowest number of points in the NFL during the regular season. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI, capping a 16-3 season.


In a strike-shortened season, the 49ers went 3-6. It was a nightmarish year marked not only by the players' strike but also by dozens of injuries.


Seifert was promoted to defensive coordinator after Chuck Studley's departure. Studley's defenses had been designed to stop the run, and Walsh looked to Seifert as a coordinator who could devise more sophisticated defenses agains the pass.

In 1983, the 49ers were 11-7 (10-6 regular season), and lost to Washington 24-21 in the NFC Championship Game. Ronnie Lott went to his third Pro-Bowl, and Eric Wright led the team with seven interceptions, two for touchdowns.


In an 18-1 iseason, Seifert's defensive unit allowed a league-low 227 points, an average of only 14.2 points per game. The entire 49er secondary went to the Pro Bowl.

In Super Bowl XIX, the 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins 38-16. The Dolphins had entered the Super Bowl as second-highest-scoring team in NFL history with 513 points, an average of 32 per game, but the 49er defense stopped that potent force.

Ronnie Lott acknowledges that Seifert drove the defense to greatness. In a December 1997 GQ article, Lott says:

"For whatever reason, people think the stamp was put on the team by Bill Walsh. But George had a lot to do with the overall success of the organization. The reason the 49ers won championship games was the defense."


Indianapolis asked Seifert to become its head coach, but negotiations hit a snag, and the Colts hired Rod Dowhower.

The 49ers went 10-7 (10-6 regular season), and the injury-riddled team lost a wild-card playoff game to the Giants, 17-3. This was Jerry Rice's rookie season; he had 49 receptions for 927 yards.


The 49ers won their fourth NFC West title since 1981, going 10-6-1 (10-5-1 regular season), and lost a playoff game to the Giants, 49-3. Joe Montana was sidelined after the first game with a back injury that required surgery. It was feared his season -- even his career -- might be over, but he returned in the 10th game.

During the season, Seifert's defense had 49 takeaways, tying Kansas City for the NFL lead. The Niners set club records with 39 interceptions, 578 return yards and five scores off pick-off returns.


The 49ers' defense finished No. 1 in the NFL in 1987 -- the first time the team had ever finished No. 1 in total defense (No. 1 vs. the pass; No. 5 vs. the run). The Niners were 13-3 (13-2 regular season) and lost a playoff game to Minnesota, 36-24.

The 1987 season was marked by a players' strike, and replacement players were used throughout the league for three weeks (games 3, 4, and 5 of the season). The 49ers went 3-0 during the games replacement players were used.

Seifert was wounded during a spirited halftime exhortation in 1987: Despite a 20-0 halftime lead vs. the Bears, he was determined to not let his players let down. To punctuate his lecture, he kicked the chalkboard, which was standing against a cement wall. He broke his toe.


Green Bay looked to Seifert to replace Forrest Gregg, who resigned to become head coach at SMU. But the Packers job went to Lindy Infante, and Seifert stayed with the 49ers, who went 13-6 (10-6 regular season).

In 1988, the 49ers were third in total defense (No. 3 vs. the run; No. 8 vs. the pass) and held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in eight games.

The 49ers beat the Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl XXIII. The Bengals' only touchdown came on a kickoff return. In his two Super Bowls as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, Seifert devised schemes that neutralized the league's MVP -- Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason.

Just four days after the Super Bowl, Bill Walsh retired, and George Seifert was named head coach.

Next stop: The Seifert Era.