Guide to Defenses 6
By Jene Bramel
August 22nd, 2010

Part 6: The '46' Defense

Though he died just before the 46 defense peaked in Super Bowl XXIV, you can't help but hear John Facenda's voice whenever you see video of or read about Buddy Ryan and the "Monsters of the Midway" defense.

"Blitz is defined as a sudden, savage attack.
It is indeed all of this.
Send more defenders than the offense has blockers to absorb.
From the left side,
From the right side,
From up the middle they come.
All with blood in their eye.
All with one idea.
Get the quarterback.
Get "The Man."

Most descriptions of the 46 defense talk about pressure. For Ryan, it was more than that. He was sending six defenders on almost every play, except when he was sending seven or eight. The persona of the scheme and its parts was meant to be relentless, intimidating and destructive. His defense set scoring and yardage records. In one season in Houston, Ryan's Oiler defense knocked nine starting quarterbacks out of games either with injury or because of poor play. He punched offensive coordinators on national television, put bounties on the heads of opposing players and didn't hesitate to butt heads with Mike Ditka.

Despite all that, the 46 is rarely used in today's NFL and only as a change-up front. Coordinators still believe in pressure, but rarely use the 46. Why? What was so great about the Bear 46, but couldn't stand the test of time?

Here's a diagram the most common 46 alignment:

First, it must be noted that the 46 isn't a 4-6 front. Ryan was apparently incapable of calling any of his players by name. He'd give them nicknames or just call them by their number. The 46 defense was named for Doug Plank, the Bear SS and jersey number 46. The 46 is a variation of the 4-3, with an eight in the box and six men on the line.

Most think of the 46 as an exceptional pass rushing scheme. And it was. But the scheme was just as devastating against the run. Ryan put three monster linemen opposite the three interior offensive linemen. One nose tackle aligned head up on the center, and two very solid end/tackle players were aligned in a 3-technique opposite both guards. This tackle-nose-tackle combination has also been called a TNT front. If the line didn't make the play, they effectively occupied enough blockers to keep both second line defenders (including HOF MLB Mike Singletary) free to hit whatever came through. It was all but impossible to run against the personnel the Bears had in the mid-1980s. Teams were forced to throw and throw often.

When they threw, they had to deal with pressure from anywhere and everywhere. While Ryan would sometimes choose to fall back in coverage from the 46, he usually brought the house. Both outside linebackers (Wilbur Marshall and Otis Wilson) were stud pass rushers and Richard Dent was aligned wide to crash down the weak side. Add in the interior pass rush of Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton, who flanked Refrigerator Perry, and there wasn't a weak link anywhere on the front.

In most cases, the strong safety came down in the box and played like a linebacker. But Ryan frequently mixed up his 46 fronts by switching an outside backer and the strong safety.

But the personnel was the key. Ryan started tinkering with the scheme in 1982, but it wasn't until Dent broke out in 1984 and Marshall and Perry began contributing in 1985 that the 46 really hit its stride. And the 1986 team, which wasn't coordinated by Ryan, may have been even better than the team that flirted with perfection in 1985.

Ryan had very good personnel in Philadelphia and Houston. But the 46 gradually fell out of favor as teams began to exploit its primary weakness - an undermanned secondary. If you protected well enough or had a quarterback with a quick, accurate release - or both - you could get rid of the ball before the pressure got to the pocket. West Coast offenses and premier quarterbacks strafed the 46 with big plays. Even in its best seasons, the Bear 46 was giving up very high yards per completion numbers. The big plays eventually sunk the scheme as a base defense. Don't be left with the impression that Ryan was a one-hit wonder. He was instrumental in designing the Jet defense that helped Joe Namath pull off the upset in SBIII and later had a big role in the development of the Purple People Eater lines in Minnesota. The 46 just became too risky to play every down.

The 46 made a small comeback in Dallas, Houston, Baltimore and the New York Jets in recent seasons and heavily influences the schemes in Tennessee, Minnesota, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Any 4-3 scheme that brings an eighth man into the box and moves players around looking for pass rushing mismatches has probably been influenced in some part by Buddy Ryan's philosophy. But it's no longer used as more than a change of pace. In its day, though, it sure was fun to watch.


Though it's not likely to be relevant often in future seasons, the 46 scheme does elevate the potential value of a few players. Like the zone blitz scheme, nearly every player along the six man front has some increased big play value. More specifically, both outside linebackers and the defensive tackles are likely to get a better than average number of free shots at the quarterback. The MLB, though well protected, may not get the big bump in value that may be expected if teams run away from the clogged middle or pass more frequently against the six man line. The SS who comes down into the box, however, should see more tackle opportunity and increased value as a result. Meanwhile, the free safety is stuck as a deep, roving cover guy and will struggle to put up meaningful tackle results.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to

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