Deciphering the Cougs' 46 and Double Eagle Ds

IN EACH OF THE last three weeks I've asked myself the same question dozens of times during my work as the color analyst on the Cougar football radio network: Will the average fan know what I mean?

Turning regular football language into plain English is one of the biggest challenges I've found so far. The WSU defense offers a case in point.

In last week's game at UNLV I talked on a couple of occasions about the "46 Defense" the Cougars were running.

As an analyst, I don't have a whole lot of time to speak between plays, so I'm always looking for a little shorthand to help make my point quickly.

The downside, as a former player, is that I have a ton of shorthand in my head that would work well with an audience of ballplayers, but not necessarily with an audience regular fans.

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  • So when I used the term "46 Defense," it was shorthand for saying it's a defensive alignment, developed by the Chicago Bears in the early 80s and named after No. 46, Doug Plank, that features the following: four down linemen shifted way to the weak side, two outside linebackers lined up side-by-side on the strong side, and a strong safety up in the box filling the spot where one of the linebackers normally is.

    That's a mouthful.

    My guess is that Bob Robertson and Bud Nameck would toss me out of the booth if I tried to squeeze all that in between two plays. So that's why I simply said "the 46 Defense."

    But that's also why I'm writing about it. I want to make sure you, our listeners, know what I'm referring to when I say it, because my presumption is that WSU is going to continue using that alignment periodically. In the UNLV game the Cougars played four or five snaps in the 46.

    They also played several snaps of "Double Eagle," which they also ran a bit against BYU and EWU.

    So what's the Double Eagle, you might wonder?

    For an offense, the answer to that question is often times confusion. The reason why is because it seems like nobody is lined up where they should be. In a basic defense, you have three layers of defenders – linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. With the Double Eagle, there are a variety of options but the core of it is usually this: a nose tackle lined up directly over the center, two DTs lined up over the guards (and sometimes just one), and two Bucks lined up very, very wide.

    From this alignment last week, WSU was in position to defend against any inside trap-type running plays as well as sweeps to the outside. By maintaining four players in the secondary they could also continue to run all of their traditional defensive coverages from depth.

    However, nothing in life or football is without consequence. This defense shuts down anything in the middle of the field (i.e. WSU's presumed weakness entering the season), but it gives a free release and a mismatch to the tight end, and is not very effective against the passing game.

    And that's why the 46 Defense was introduced last week in Las Vegas. BYU and EWU, you see, had success on third downs against WSU's Double Eagle front. The 46 was used to eliminate that weakness while at the same time offering advantages that you might not otherwise have by sticking with their base 3-4 defense.

    AS THE COUGAR DEFENSE starts to mature, I think you're going to see more of the Double Eagle and the 46.

    And that means as a color analyst, I'm going to be tossing those terms out there, but without the air time to explain it all. So I hope this information is helpful.

    Right now, I think the Cougar defense is just scratching the surface of what it can do from a schematic standpoint. They're mostly sticking to their base 3-4. But time and practice will find them switching things up more and more. I'm waiting eagerly to see a cover-zero look.

    WSU ran the 46 Defense successfully against UNLV even though it was brand new to them in a game situation. That's bodes well for the long-term progress of the defense. I wouldn't be surprised to see them run more of it, and with different coverage combinations, in the future.

    Not to get too wonky here, but the 46 Defense actually traces its roots to the Double Eagle. Buddy Ryan, who developed the 46 with the Bears, basically morphed the Double Eagle by taking Plank and aligning him directly over the tight end. That created what's known as the SEX look (funny that WSU first showed the SEX look in Vegas). SEX is an acronym for Sam and End exchange.

    In WSU's version of the 46, you'll notice that strong safety Casey Locker will line up on the line of scrimmage with Buck linebacker Travis Long outside of him. Thus creating the 46 defense, and the first true snaps of the three-deep shell that WSU has shown all season. From this look, your typical coverages are man-to-man, though you also can rotate to a three-deep zone which most teams do not run.

    In today's brand of pass-happy football, teams will also be forced to run cover zero when in the 46 as well. Cover zero is when there is no free safety in the middle of the field and every defender is either rushing the passer or in coverage. Like I mentioned, WSU has not run a snap of cover zero all season. I presume that's because coaches aren't comfortable yet leaving DBs on an island.

    I hope all this sheds a little light on both the Cougar D and our radio broadcasts. Hopefully I didn't cause too much confusion last week, or here today.

    On a side note, thanks to so many of you for your kind words about my fledgling work as a color analyst. I know I have a long way to go to fill the giant shoes of Jim Walden and Paul Sorensen, who collectively held the seat for 25 years, but I promise I will never stop working to be the best I can be.


    ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
    Shawn McWashington is a 1998 graduate of Washington State who played a starring role on the 1997 Cougar football team that won the Pac-10 title and came within two seconds of knocking off No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl. His father Ammon was a standout on WSU's fabled 1965 Cardiac Kids. Shawn is the new color analyst on Cougar football radio broadcasts. He lives in Seattle and works as an assistant vice president for the insurance and risk management firm Marsh Inc.

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