by Benjamin Trimble
The dark grey skies overhead floated heavily above the massive complex as snowflakes drifted peacefully from those clouds only, at lower altitudes, to be met violently by whipping winds twisting the whiteness into tornadic colonnades dancing about the air. Navy-white and green-gold blurs rushed about the churned snowy mud of the once-green field, chunks of ugly grass vomited by the deteriorating conditions as cleated navy marauders roared toward their prey. The ball sailed lethargically, wobbly from the brush of a defender’s fingers at scrimmage, towards its target.
The receiver, grasping for the wobbly pigskin, slammed with relative ease into the muckily upturned field with a vicious hit. His body whiplashed almost as if struck by a moving vehicle. A painful cringe struck his face, his yelp of pain lost in the thunderous applause from a crowd raucous from the virulent showing by the monstrous men. The ball flipped about lazily, in slow-motion, only to fall to the ground incomplete.
Swirling flakes, falling from the heavens, made their attempts to blanket that violence only to be foiled by more of the same. The men on opposing sides once more circled up upon the trench, formulating how to combat the other’s schemes. Seconds ticked away as the quarterback jogged to the line, pointing at the strong safety as he moved towards the line of scrimmage to sit next to a linebacker.
Both receivers were manned up as the quarterback looked about, a slight sign of fear etched upon his face as the frozen breath of his opponents made them seem more bestial with each exhalation. The pigskin hit his hands, both from the biting frost and from the punishing blows delivered by the defensive blitzkrieg unleashed upon his most unfortunate soul nearly every play. Mud splashed his formerly pure-white uniform; even some splotched blood could be seen upon it as he hobbled back from center.
The offensive line shuddered as again the pressure came crashing through even their best attempts to block those monsters from barrelling toward the quarterback. But that quarterback was already scrambling for his livelihood. Right he went as the blitz shot through the left side of the line.
He ran with fear… he ran with the conviction of the prey in a hunt. A quick glance behind him as he neared the line of scrimmage brought him slight relief. His pursuers seemed far enough behind to allow him time…
An uproarious applause dominated what should have been peaceful air as the quarterback became a ragdoll, his body careening through the chilled air and landing akin to a broken toy upon the gritty turf. Helmet lay yards away, the football tumbling farther and farther from its holder. The quarterback lay motionless in the mud, a light dusting of snow beginning to collect upon him., and looked up. Number 46 stood over his dazed prey, a victorious bellow erupting from his cold lungs…
The principle (and quite simple) concept of this defense is: pressure wins games. The defense still consists of the normal 4-3 personnel (4 down lineman, 3 linebackers, and 4 defensive backs), but in this defensive scheme the strong safety plays down in the box (or another linebacker is brought into the game to replace the strong safety) with the weakside linebacker moving to the left side of the middle linebacker and the right of the strongside linebacker — in essence the outside linebackers are both playing on the same side of the formation. This safety is almost like another linebacker in his defensive duties. The corners usually play bump-and-run coverage as well as tight man coverage; many a time the corners are called upon to blitz.
Another key component to this defense is how the defensive line is shifted to the weakside (opposite the tight end) which leaves both offensive guards and the center covered by the left defensive end and the defensive tackles. With this unique alignment it forces the blockers and offense as a whole to have to account immediately for the defenders lined up directly before them. This makes it considerably harder to execute pulls, traps, and pass protection in general.
The right defensive end, because of this alignment, is left on an island outside of the left offensive tackle, giving him a better angle at which to fly right by him or get a good bit of leverage if he bull rushes. As with the strongside linebacker and weakside linebacker playing on the same side of the defense this allows the defense to blitz five to eight players on a play — which is key in applying pressure to quarterbacks. The linebackers usually line up two to three yards behind the defensive lineman so they can more easily blitz as well as cause chaos on running plays. Any combination of these linebackers along with the strong safety can blitz or drop back while the defensive line rushes all four ninety-nine percent of the time.
“The Bears had a tremendous tactical advantage,” remarked Bud Carson, the Steelers defensive coordinator from 1972 to 1977. “Teams that stayed in normal offensive formations got ripped apart. At that time, I had never seen anything like the advantage the Bears enjoyed. Buddy [Ryan] was reckless and crazy in a good way. He had so many blitzes. Defensive coordinators dream about doing what he did. He definitely had his moment in time.”
The strengths of this scheme rely on causing tremendous amounts of pressure upon the quarterback and disrupting running plays. Back in the 1980s, disrupting the run usually caused an entire offense to be almost completely shut down because so many relied upon play-action passes and power running games.
The emergence of Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense basically spelled doom for this defensive scheme as its short, timed passes and multiple receivers caused the heavy blitz scheme’s holes to be shown brightly. Three-, four-, and even five-receiver sets caused the 46 defense to be spread thinner than was advised. This meant the defense had to either commit more defenders to those receivers; or it could put the necessary defenders into the blitz and risk being beaten horrendously by the pass in hopes of causing massive amounts of pressure on the quarterback.
This would translate to only three to four defenders being in coverage against such spread out formations. Offensive schemes that utilized short, quick, and succinct passes would, in most cases, be able to get the ball out before any pass rushers could reach the quarterback and/or disrupt the play. With such a heavy pass rush and a lesser coverage, one-on-one matchups were created and exploited with incredible efficiency. Such was the case with the Dan Marino led Dolphins in the Bears singular loss of the 1985 season.
This defensive scheme has died somewhat since its heyday back in the 1980s when the Bears made it a highly sought after scheme. But this isn’t to say it is completely dead as today’s Bears and Ravens (among other teams) use it occasionally. The 46 defense today is usually used without the major shift in linebackers and defensive line while the strong safety will still come down into the box akin to the scheme used in the 1980s.
Most teams today cannot play the scheme due to not having the correct kind of personnel as the vaunted 1985 Chicago Bears 46 defense. It usually requires fast, strong corners that can cover a lot of ground quickly and can be left on an island alone to cover, which is exponentially important in the success of the 46 defense. Both corners do not get help over the top from the safeties (only the free safety is deep and he can only help in one side or the other).
You MUST have a defensive end who can successfully speed rush and/or bull rush past/through the left offensive tackle from that island as well as a speedy middle linebacker who can rush the passer or drop into coverage. Again the true 46 cannot be run effectively in today’s game because teams cannot assemble the kind of players required for the scheme.
Buddy Ryan, before coming to Chicago, helped create the vaunted Purple People Eaters in Minnesota during the 1970s as well as the Jets defense during the 1960s (highlighted by the Super Bowl III win where the defense allowed ONLY seven points to the Baltimore Colts offense; the Colts were favored by 14 points in that historic matchup). Ryan also implemented the 46 defense in his time as the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals head coach. But the scheme’s effectiveness and success have always proven meager when compared to its heyday in Chicago as exemplified by the mayhem caused by the Monsters of the Midway.
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