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Steelers vs. Cowboys: Evolution of the 46 Defense

What to look for in the Cowboy's defense when they face the Steelers on Sunday, and how Ben Rothlisberger can attack.

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

If your last name is Ryan, and you're coaching defense in the NFL, you are automatically associated with the famous 1985 Chicago Bear defense. Some refer to it as the Bear defense, while most still call it the 46; regardless, it's important that the Steelers are able to attack, and protect, against this defense on Sunday.


The original 46 defense feature a nose tackle and two defensive tackles lined up on the outside shade of the guard. A linebacker lines up head up on the tight end. The best pass rusher (this was Richard Dent) lines up as the weakside defensive end, and another defensive end lines up outside of the tight end to the strong side. There are two linebackers in the box, and they both take wider than normal alignments. They align on the inside eye of the offensive tackle.

This defense was created by Buddy Ryan to essentially stop a two back running game. Offenses were outnumbered to the tight end side. The linebackers were covered up by the defensive linemen covering up the center and the two guards. As a result, they were to read windows and fly to the ball. The concept of reading windows was revolutionary to linebacker play. Before linebackers were given specific gap assignments to attack based upon the flow of the ball. With the 46 front, the linebackers could just attack downhill and fast. A lot of the thinking was taken away. Essentially, backs are taught to run to daylight. So when you see daylight (window) attack it hard and fast.

When most people think of 46 defense, they think of blitzing linebackers. However, Buddy did not blitz the linebackers as much as people think. The defense worked because of something else.


Because the 46 was so good at applying pressure, teams would try to adjust by throwing quick. The 46 adjusted to this by running various trap coverages. The corner would align off as if he was playing cover 3, and then jump the hitch or out route. During various times the year, we've seen Ryan Clark run underneath a receiver as the corner bailed deep. The 46 called this swipe coverage. This was great in run support and great against quick throws.

These are just two examples of the exotic coverages that Buddy Ryan employed. The coverages were designed to cause confusion for the quarterback. The confusion would either lead to a rushed throw or a sack. Many people think that the 46 blitzed like crazy and played man behind the blitz. That's not true. Man was used, but with all of these other coverages. It was a complicated defense that relied upon smart players that were able to communicate extremely well. That's why Buddy named the defense after Doug Plank, a strong safety who epitomized those qualities.

The 46 Defense today

You won't see Rob Ryan employing much of the old 46 defense against the Steelers on Sunday. As teams began to get more diversified and spread out offensively, the 46 could not align the same. In goaline situations, expect to see the 46 front. However, I would not be surprised to see a front that is used a lot today. It's called the Jayhawk front. With this front, the center and both guards are covered, but there is not a linebacker aligned over the tight end. Instead, there is just a defensive end aligned outside of the tight end. For the Cowboys, this is Demarcus Ware. The Cowboys are able to use Ware in this manner because he is able to control the edge, but also go through the tight end and control C gap. This allows the linebackers to run through windows as I described earlier. However, it won't be Dennis Pitta blocking Ware this week. It will be Heath Miller.

Expect the Cowboys to run this Jayhawk front because it limits the protections the Steelers can use. Essentially, it puts Kelvin Beachum on more of an island. The rookie from SMU is going to have to be solid this week.

The Jayhawk front also allows Rob Ryan to play all of his exotic coverages behind the front 7. Herein lies the problem for the Cowboys. Who is their Doug Plank? Who is going to be the guy that quartebacks the defense? The Cowboys have been decimated by injuries. Will Ryan stubbornly force his schemes on an inexperienced group of defenders?

The person who has the chalk last wins

Coaches love that saying. What it basically means is that schemes don't win games, players do. Think back to this week's GIF. If Lawrence Timmons whips the guard on 3rd and 13, the Chargers are kicking a field goal to end that drive. But, with that being said, great quarterbacks serve as the exception that proves the rule. If you can get the right play called, against the right defense, you have a great chance of being successful. It will be up to Ben Rothlisberger to diagnose the exotic coverages of Rob Ryan and exploit them for big plays.

Because of Ben's experience against Ryan, Ben should have the upper hand. Look for Ben to put the Steelers in the right protection and get the right play called against whatever the Cowboys throw at him. It's time for him to regain the look of a MVP candidate.