Chalk Talk: the 46 Defense

From the Steel Curtain to the Purple People Eaters, the NFL has had many incredible defenses over the years. But Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, which led the Chicago Bears to a crushing victory in Super Bowl XX, is perhaps the most memorable. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the birth of the 46, what made it so successful, and why it essentially disappeared.

On January 12, 1986, the Los Angeles Rams lined up for a first-down running play in the NFC championship game. The Rams' running back, Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson, saw through the cold air of Soldier Field that the Chicago Bears' defense had lined up in a stacked, eight-man front. Seeing arguably the greatest defensive front in the history of the game hovering around the line of scrimmage, Dickerson turned to quarterback Dieter Brock and said, "You are going to audible, aren't you?"

The 1985 Chicago Bears defense is considered by many to be the most dominant defensive unit in the history of the NFL. It caused legendary athletes like Dickerson to shake in their cleats and gave opposing offensive coordinators nightmares for over a decade. The defense was known as the "46," and its creator was then defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

Ryan broke into the league in the 1960s with the New York Jets. He played in integral part in coordinating the Jets' defensive unit of Super Bowl III, which held the high-powered Colts offense to only seven points. He then moved on to the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, where he developed the intimidating defense known as the "Purple People Eaters."

In 1978, Ryan accepted the defensive coordinator position for the Bears. It was then that he began developing the famed 46 defense. The scheme's name derives not from the position of players on the field – like the 4-3 and 3-4 – but from the jersey number of one of Ryan's favorite players, Doug Plank. Plank was a hard-hitting safety who played with reckless abandon, a style that Ryan loved. As the foundations of his new defense were taking shape, Ryan felt it proper to name the system after the player who most exemplified its all-out attacking style.

The 46 philosophy was designed around a simple concept: pressure wins games. By putting constant pressure at the line of scrimmage, the offense will not be able to run the ball and the QB will not have enough time to throw. These are the basic goals of any defensive coordinator, but Ryan's new system took that line of thinking to an entirely new level.

The 46 base defense consists of four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. It differs from a base 4-3 in the fact that the strong safety lines up near the line of scrimmage, or "in the box," instead of 10-15 yards off the ball. It is critical that he be a powerful run-stopper, like Plank and his successor Dave Duerson, for this defense is not reliant upon deception. It basically states, "There are eight of us here. Try and get through us."

The four down linemen are composed of a nose tackle, two ends, and a "rush" end. The nose tackle and ends line up over the center and guards, respectively. The rush end is normally positioned on the weak side of the field, or the side without a tight end. His job is to line up a yard or two wide of the tackle and rush hard off the edge. These four pass-rushers alone can cause problems for an offensive line, but the 46 does not stop there.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Two outside linebackers act as the fifth and sixth down linemen. They line up side by side on the opposite end of the field from the rush end. The middle linebacker and strong safety round out the eight players in the box, beginning each play 4-5 yards off the line of scrimmage. The strong safety, in essence, becomes the fourth linebacker.

Now is when the fun starts.

At the snap of the ball, any combination of these eight players may rush the quarterback. On one play, only the four linemen will rush. On another, all eight may come on a blitz. It is a gambling, in-your-face defense that looks to put constant pressure on the quarterback and makes running the football difficult if not impossible. Many times, the opposing offense's only choice is to pass the ball, attempting to exploit a weakened secondary.

The two cornerbacks in the 46 play man-to-man coverage, normally in a tight, bump-and-run fashion. Both must have the coverage ability to stay locked on to a receiver for the duration of a play. If the receiver gets behind them, their only hope is that the free safety roaming the middle of the field can provide sufficient deep support. It is this overwhelming pressure on the secondary that eventually led to the demise of the 46.

After the 1985 season, opposing offenses began mimicking the short passing game of Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense. It revolved around a vertical, quick-strike passing attack that did not allow opposing defenses time to reach the quarterback. With eight men constantly in the box, offenses soon learned that the short passing game could have great success against the 46. Spreading receivers all over the field forced most 46 units to move to a more conventional package.

Ryan moved on to coach the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, eventually retiring from coaching in 1995. Since then, only one team has attempted to resurrect Ryan's 46 defense: the Baltimore Ravens. It is no coincidence that Baltimore's defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, is the son of the 46's famed creator. Rex Ryan utilizes middle linebacker Ray Lewis in the same way his father used Hall-of-Famer Mike Singletary, and he's gotten outstanding results.

Says Lewis, "No running back in this league wants to face me, and they know that. My thing is bashing running backs. That's what the 46 defense lets me do."

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
05/17/2007 - Screen Pass
05/10/2007 - Draw Play
05/03/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part II)
04/26/2007 - West Coast Offense (Part I)
04/19/2007 - Zone Blitz
04/12/2007 - I-Formation
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

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