October 18, 2015

1970: Second Quarter Surge Leads Lions to Win Over Browns

Two teams with 3-1 records, the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, met in Cleveland in the fifth week of the NFL season on October 18, 1970. The Lions, coached by Joe Schmidt, were coming off of their first loss of the year the previous week. The team had long been known for prowess on defense, and while the line was showing its age, linebackers Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker and the backfield led by CB Lem Barney were still assets. The offense had a competent quarterback in Bill Munson, who was starting ahead of the up-and-coming (and more mobile) Greg Landry, while the corps of running backs was a good one and the receivers competent.

Cleveland, under Head Coach Blanton Collier for the eighth year, was a team used to contending that had moved to the American Football Conference in the newly-merged and reorganized NFL, and was expected to do so again. QB Bill Nelsen was a good passer playing on brittle knees and QB Mike Phipps had been drafted out of Purdue in the first round to be groomed for the job. However, the receiving corps was missing WR Paul Warfield, who had been dealt to Miami in order to trade up for Phipps, and HB Leroy Kelly was still an effective runner, but showing signs of wear. The defensive line was effective, but the linebackers and backfield were a source of concern. 

It was a sunny afternoon with 83,577 fans in attendance at Municipal Stadium. The Browns had the game’s first possession, had to punt, but got the ball back immediately when Lem Barney fumbled the kick and DB Freddie Summers recovered at the Detroit 20. Three plays later, Bill Nelsen threw to WR Gary Collins in the end zone, who beat Barney for a 14-yard touchdown. Don Cockroft added the extra point.

A short series by the Lions resulted in a punt and it looked promising for the Browns when FB Bo Scott ran for seven yards and then Leroy Kelly gained 24 yards to the Detroit 36. But a Nelsen swing pass was then intercepted by DE Larry Hand, who returned it 62 yards for a TD. Errol Mann kicked the point after and, instead of the home team possibly extending its lead, the score was tied at 7-7.

The Browns had to punt following their next possession and Detroit drove 77 yards in six plays. FB Mel Farr carried twice for a total of 13 yards and Bill Munson then threw deep to WR Larry Walton (pictured at top) for a gain of 56 yards to the Cleveland eight. Runs by Farr and HB Altie Taylor picked up six yards and, on third down, Munson tossed a pass to Taylor for a two-yard touchdown. Mann’s conversion put the visitors up by 14-7.

The teams exchanged punts as the game headed into the second quarter. The Browns crossed midfield but Nelsen fumbled while being sacked and Mike Lucci recovered for the Lions at the Cleveland 40. Munson completed three passes to Farr and Mann kicked a 51-yard field goal that hit the crossbar but tumbled on through to make it a 17-7 contest.

Cleveland responded with an eight-play, 79-yard drive. Nelsen completed passes to TE Milt Morin for eight yards and WR Fair Hooker for 18 and Scott had runs of 10 and six yards. Nelsen threw to Hooker for a 16-yard TD, Cockroft added the extra point, and Detroit’s lead was cut to 17-14.

The Lions came back with a scoring series of their own, going 80 yards in six plays. Facing third-and-ten from their own 20, Munson connected with Walton for a 40-yard pickup and, after runs by Taylor and Farr, it was Munson to Walton again for a 28-yard touchdown. Mann converted to put the visitors ahead by ten points. The lead expanded again quickly when, on the second play of the ensuing series, a Nelsen pass was picked off by SS Mike Weger (pictured above) and returned 29 yards for another Detroit touchdown.  Mann’s PAT made it 31-14.

Cleveland got the ball back with 2:39 remaining in the first half, and once again a Nelsen pass was intercepted, this time by Lucci. On the very next play, Munson again threw to Walton, this time for a 34-yard TD. Mann converted and, thanks to the 24-point second quarter, the Lions took a commanding 38-14 lead into halftime.

Detroit added another Mann field goal in the third quarter, from 34 yards. Rookie Mike Phipps came on at quarterback for the Browns but threw two more interceptions, the second on the first play of the final period. Cleveland finally scored again on a 47-yard Cockroft field goal and a late drive led to a Scott touchdown from three yards out, but it was all inconsequential as the Lions won by a final score of 41-24.

The Browns had a slight edge in total yards (318 to 315) and also led in first downs (19 to 13). However, Cleveland also turned the ball over six times, to two suffered by the Lions. Detroit also accounted for all of the game’s three sacks.

Bill Munson completed 10 of 20 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns while giving up an interception. Larry Walton had a huge performance with four catches for 158 yards and two TDs. Altie Taylor topped Detroit’s runners with 51 yards on 13 carries. On defense, Mike Weger accounted for two of the Lions’ five interceptions.

For the Browns, Bill Nelsen was successful on just six of 16 throws for 65 yards and two TDs while giving up three interceptions. In relief, Mike Phipps was six-of-13 for 141 yards and was picked off twice. Leroy Kelly (pictured at right) was effective running the ball, gaining 106 yards on 24 attempts. Fair Hooker had four pass receptions for 52 yards and a TD and TE Chip Glass gained 74 yards on his two catches.

The Lions endured a midseason slump to go 10-4 and finish second in the NFC Central, qualifying for a Wild Card playoff slot. They lost to Dallas in the Divisional round. Cleveland bounced back to win the following week but slumped badly during the second half of the season and finished second in the AFC Central at 7-7.

Bill Munson started eight games before yielding to Greg Landry. He completed 84 of 158 passes for 1049 yards and 10 touchdowns while giving up 7 interceptions. Larry Walton, in his second season, had 30 catches for 532 yards (17.7 avg.) and five TDs. The 158-yard performance against the Browns was his only hundred-yard game of the year and was also his career high.