Nobody in the NFL runs Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense anymore.
But we’ll see remnants of it Sunday when the Green Bay Packers play at the New York Jets, more obviously in the blitz-oriented 3-4 defense run by Ryan’s son, Jets coach Rex Ryan, and to a lesser degree in Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 zone-blitz scheme.
“Basically the theory behind (the 46) is, the quarterback’s got the ball in hand, there are 10 other guys, we’re going to bring 11,” said Ron Jaworski, the former NFL quarterback and current “Monday Night Football” color analyst whose recently published book, “The Games That Changed the Game,” includes a chapter on the 46. Buddy Ryan was the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach in Jaworski’s final year with the team.
“If you want to make it real simple, that’s kind of how it was. I remember playing against (the 46) in preparation for it, those early days when it was just starting to come into prominence, it was not a very sound defense. There were holes in that defense. The problem was, you didn’t have time to find ’em.”
In its simplest description, the 46 is a six-man line, with one defensive end lined up outside the tackle, the three other linemen over the center and two guards, and two linebackers on the tight end side. Two other defenders line up close to or on the line: a linebacker in the large gap between the end and three other linemen, and a safety at middle linebacker.
Ryan went to it initially to stop the run. There are eight men in the box, which is the standard way to load up against the run, but with an unusual alignment that includes three linemen directly over the middle of the offensive line. He was daring opponents to throw.
But the alignment also offered quick, creative blitzing combinations that confused quarterbacks. Ryan didn’t drop defensive linemen into coverage, like Capers’ zone-blitz scheme would beginning in the early ‘90s, but all the linebackers and the safety were in position to blitz, or fake blitz. Quarterbacks didn’t know who was coming, but all were a threat.
The scheme meshed with Ryan’s aggressive mindset. He’d rather send one more rusher than the offense had blockers, and risk getting smoked on a big play, than play coverage and risk being picked apart. He wanted to beat up the quarterback and knock him out of the game.
Ryan dabbled with the 46 as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator in 1979, and it slowly evolved into his base scheme. By the time the Bears built top-notch personnel (Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson and Dave Duerson) in the mid-80s, they had one of the dominant defenses in NFL history. Each year from 1983 to 1985, the Bears finished in the top five in points allowed, top eight in yards allowed and top six in sacks. In ’84 and ’85, they finished in the top three in all three categories, and the defense was the key to the Bears’ Super Bowl title in January 1986.
When Ryan moved on, he continued to produce defenses that rushed the quarterback well. In his final eight years of coaching, as head coach in Philadelphia (1986-90) and Arizona (’94-95) and coordinator in Houston (’93), his defenses finished in the top four in sacks four times and top 10 six times.
The 46 was innovative because it lined up three interior linemen over the three interior blockers, and because Ryan used it almost every down. Unlike the zone-blitz schemes to come, he didn’t drop defensive linemen into coverage, but quarterbacks still didn’t know which combination of the three linebackers and one safety might rush. Ryan had no qualms leaving his cornerbacks and other safety in one-on-one coverage.
Eventually, offenses found ways to beat it, especially when Ryan had inferior personnel in Arizona. They used improved protection schemes, spread alignments and quick routes.
But Ryan taught the defense to his twin sons, Rex and Rob, who have become successful defensive coaches in the NFL by combining the 46’s philosophy into 3-4 schemes they’ve learned from other coaches. Before becoming the Jets’ coach last year, Rex was defensive coordinator in Baltimore from 2005 to 2008. Rob is Cleveland’s defensive coordinator.
Rex Ryan uses some 46 rush principles but has narrowed their scope. Similar to Capers’ and others’ zone-blitz schemes, he’ll study an opponent’s protections and devise ways to overload a side or segment of the line, and try to overwhelm it with more rushers than blockers, but not necessarily rushing heavily across the entire line. Instead of blitzing only linebackers and safeties, as his father did, Rex regularly blitzes cornerbacks as well, probably more than anybody in the NFL. In fact, he is one of if not the only coach in the league who runs individual blitz periods for cornerbacks and safeties to work on their rush techniques.
“They do a great job with that and what they call trail blitzes as well,” Jaworski said. “They’ll have one guy blitz behind another guy, and if that (running) back stays in to block then the second guy will go. If the back peels out then the second guy will run with him.”
Rex Ryan also benefited from coaching with a defensive-oriented organization in Baltimore that provided excellent personnel. In his four years running the Ravens’ defense (2005-08), Baltimore twice finished in the top two in yards allowed and top three in points allowed. Last year, his first as a head coach, the Jets ranked first in points allowed and yards allowed.
His rushes aren’t as risky as his father’s because he usually keeps at least one man in deep coverage to protect against the big play. But he is not averse to leaving his cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, in single coverage. He gets especially unpredictable on third-and-7 or more, when he often runs his version of Capers’ Psycho package, with maybe one player lined up with his hand on the ground, and four or five others walking around pre-snap to prevent offensive linemen from zeroing in on who is rushing, and from where.
What distinguishes Rex Ryan’s 3-4 from the zone-blitz schemes is his heavier use of man coverage behind the blitzes, and most notably, his mindset, which is similar but not as extreme as his father’s. While most zone-blitz coaches, such as Capers, are aggressive generally, Ryan takes it a notch or two higher. Jaworski charts the videotape of most NFL games each week and said Ryan is the biggest blitzer in the league by a significant margin.
“Defensive coordinators now are not as courageous as Buddy Ryan was,” Jaworski said. “(The 46) was a very high-risk defense, there was no one in center field.”
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.