Saints Pivotal Moments
@49ers 1978: Saints' Defense Flexes Its Muscles
After Hank Stram won only seven games in two years as Saints head coach, owner John Mecom Jr. promoted Dick Nolan, Stram's linebacker coach, to the top job. In his first press conference, Nolan said his emphasis would be on upgrading the Saint defense. "I have a system. Hank was an offensive coach. I'm a defensive coach."
The system Nolan had in mind was the Flex Defense he learned and helped install while serving as secondary and defensive coach for the Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry. "Flex" referred to the fact that Dallas played one or both of his tackles off the line of scrim­mage depending on which direction they thought the offense might run the ball. That al­lowed the flexed linemen to read and react better to the blocking.
The Flex was so complicated that not even Landry could explain all of it. "You'll never understand it," said Dallas's All-Pro S Charlie Waters when asked by a reporter. "If you and I went off and discussed only the Flex for five years, you still wouldn’t understand it."
Even Nolan said, "You're not going to get any of it right. Every rule about the Flex also has a corollary, which means it can change on every play."
Linebackers and defensive backs would move around, and the strong safety might end up on the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped.
A Dallas writer described the Flex from a fan's point of view. "The ball would be snapped, and instead of the defensive players chasing after the runner, they would all head to speci­fic, predetermined territories they were supposed to cover. We’d rise from our seats, alarm­ed. No one was attacking! No one was pursuing the runner! What is this? They’ve all gone crazy out there! Yet something very odd happened. It seemed no matter where the runner went, there stood some Cowboy waiting to make a tackle. This would happen play after play."
A TV commentator said of Dallas's success, "It ain't the Flex. It's the Flexers." Landry reportedly designed the Flex to take advantage of the great strength and quickness of his All-Pro T Bob Lilly, a future Hall of Famer.
The Saint defense had no one close to Lilly in ability. But Nolan had some players he could build the Flex around. Veterans Elois Grooms, Derland Moore, and Elex Price an­chored the defensive line with "a real headhunter," Joe Federspiel, at middle linebacker, and a rising star, Tommy Myers, at free safety.
But it takes time to install a complicated defensive scheme. The best the Saints could do in their first six games was to hold the Cincinnati Bengals to 18 points to win by two on the road. So no one would have predicted what happened in Weeks 7 and 8.
The 2-4 Saints traveled to San Francisco to play the team Nolan coached for eight years during which he led them to the playoffs three times. The 1978 49ers were 1-5 under first-year head coach Pete McCulley. Their lone victory came at home against the Bengals in Week 5.
The Saints hoped the game wouldn't come down to a field goal. The 49ers' veteran K Ray Wersching, who was six-of-seven on the season, beat the Saints twice in 1977 on last-play three pointers.
Injuries had cost the Saints nine players who were on the roster at the start of the sea­son, including three offensive linemen. The latest Saint to be sidelined was K Rich Szaro, who was placed on injured reserve list with a pulled muscle.
Szaro's replacement, Tom Jurich, was coaching a junior high football team in Arizona when the Saints called him. He had no pro experience.

L-R: Elois Grooms, Derland Moore, Elex Price, Joe Federspiel
Saints Stay on the Ground
After the Saints 14-7 victory over the 49ers, QB Archie Manning said, "I feel like I'm playing baseball again. My grandmother won't believe it. She'll think there's been a mis­print." He was referring to his two-for-four passing performance on a typical windy day in Candlestick Park as the Saints ran the ball a mind-boggling 55 times for 175y. Archie had averaged 33 pass attempts, many to his running backs, in his first six games of the season. The fact that Archie was banged up from beatings he took in the previous two games play­ed into Nolan's decision to restrict his passing.
The Saints defense turned the ball over to Manning at the 49ers 2, 26, 32, 16, and 19 following sacks, fumble recoveries (4), and interceptions (2). Yet the Saints could score only twice. New kicker Jurich had field goals blocked from 42 and 23y, and his 22y attempt hit the goal post.
On two possessions, the Saints had first-and-goal from the five and, sticking with the run, couldn't score. Nolan explained, "We wanted to run the football because of the new­ness of all our line people. San Francisco blitzes a lot, and it just made it simpler for us to do that. We haven't had a lot of time together in the line, and we just wanted to pound it out to stay away from their blitz."
The Saints scored on Mike Strachan's 2y run right after San Francisco's first posses­sion ended when DE Joe Campbell sacked QB Steve DeBerg, forcing a fumble. T Derland Moore tried to pick up the ball at the five before falling on it at the two. Jurich kicked the point to make it 7-0 Saints.
The defenses prevailed until just before the half when 49er P Mike Connell shanked a 14y punt that Don Schwartz caught at the SF 40 and returned to the 32. Manning's two completions for the afternoon came at that point. The first went to RB Chuck Muncie for 17y, and Ike Harris snagged the second for the remaining 15y. Even the touchdown pass started off as a run. Jurich converted again to make it 14-0 Saints.
The 49ers threatened early in the second period until S Ray Brown, beaten on a pass play at the NO five by WR Elmo Boyd, slapped the ball loose, and LB Jim Merlo recovered in the end zone.

Archie Manning runs behind the blocking of FB Tony Galbreath (34) and T Dave Lafary (64).
Saints Repel Every 49er Thrust
The 49ers finally scored early in the fourth quarter after the Saints missed a chance to put the game out of reach. DE Elois Grooms sacked SF QB Mike DeBerg, forcing a fumble that Federspiel recovered on the 16. The Saints drove to a first down at the five. But three straight runs fell short, and Jurich's field goal try was blocked.
DeBerg led an 80y drive to pay dirt. The key plays were two passes to WR Freddie Solomon. The first came on fourth down to the NO 24. Shortly afterward, Solomon beat CB Maurice Spencer and took a 22y touchdown pass to cut the Saints' lead in half with 11:05 still showing on the clock.
Federspiel snagged a 49er pass on their 30 and returned it to the 19 to give the Saints another chance to go two scores ahead. But the offense couldn't move, and Jurich's 22y field goal attempt hit the left upright.
The 49ers reached the NO 32 and 49 in the final minutes before bogging down. The first drive ended when DeBerg was sacked on fourth down. Later a fourth down incompletion under heavy pressure shut the final door on the Frisco comeback.
"We should have been out in front 28-0," said Federspiel. "It should have been no contest. It put a little extra pressure o the defense, especially there at the end."
Saints defensive coordinator Paul Wiggin said, "I'd say the key to the defense was the super play of the secondary, which allowed the rush to get in, and our game plan being pretty accurate."
49ers RB O. J. Simpson was held to 37y on 17 carries. "I thought our offense stunk," he said. "We deserved to be booed. I was booing us in my mind."