Bears Defenses 101: The 46 Zone

Jan 26, 1986; New Orleans, LA, USA; FILE PHOTO; Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan is hoisted by his team after defeating New England Patriots 46-10 during Super Bowl XX at the Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Welcome back to my continuing series on the Xs and Os of Bears football. After taking a look at some of the new offensive ideas that Mike Tice and Jeremy Bates will be implementing, it's time to turn our attention to the defense. Before I start to look at concepts from the Tampa 2, however, I wanted to look back into Bears history a bit. The 46 defense is both the perfect counterpoint to and a major force behind the Tampa 2. Flip below the fold to see why the 46 was so effective, discover its weaknesses, and preview how its success led to the later development of the Tampa 2.

Ask Jay Cutler the one key to running a vertical offense like Mike Martz ran here, and he will be quick to tell you that a Coryell system requires great pass protection. If the quarterback is on the ground or running around in the pocket, he won't be able to take those deep shots that made the Greatest Show on Turf so Great. The 46 was designed to defeat exactly this type of system: indeed, Buddy Ryan first drew up the 46 to defeat the vertical attack of Dan Fouts' Chargers during the 1981 season.

But why is the 46 so effective against a big-play passing offense? Simply put, the goal of the 46 is to always rush one more player than the offense can block. Sack or flush the quarterback, and it won't matter what your down-the-field coverage looks like: the quarterback won't be able to deliver the ball even if his receiver is wide open.

Let's take a look at the standard formation for a 46.


The 46 is technically a 4-3 defense in its original incarnation, but there aren't just four people on the line here. The defense has brought down two linebackers and a defensive back to join the front four on the line of scrimmage. While these "extra" linesmen can drop out into coverage after the snap, more often than not, they had only two goal in mind: tackle the running back or sack the quarterback. Even if some of these eight players get blocked, the defense is liable to get into the backfield by sheer force of numbers - there are more blitzers than there are linesmen to block them. It's a simple enough idea, but it works wonders when there is talent to execute it well.

Like any defense, however, the 46 has its vulnerabilities. First of all, with seven or eight men on the line, there are only three defenders left to cover the receivers. In general, the two defensive backs will play straight man coverage and there will be one free safety playing center field. This means that if the pressure does not get home and one of the defensive backs loses leverage, opposing offenses can hit the big plays that the 46 was designed to thwart. As such, this defense is a bit of a gamble: unless the pass rush is solid, it is just as liable to give up a big play as it is to get a sack.

The 46 is also vulnerable to the run. With the linebackers so close to the line of scrimmage, if a running back gets past the first level of the defense, he will have a decent chunk of open field ahead of him before the down-field defensive backs can rally. It's not surprising that while many run plays against the '85 Bears went for minimal yardage, there were more 5-to-10 yard runs against it than one might suspect based on their reputation.

With the linebacker level moved down to the line of scrimmage, the 46 begs offenses to attempt to make plays that attack the vacated space in the middle of the field. This was how Dan Marino was able to beat the Bears in '85 - lots of dink-and-dunk passes into the flats and over the top of the line. It was the basic playbook of what is commonly referred to as the West Coast Offense. Marino's short, timed routes were a surprisingly good way to counter overwhelming numbers on the line of scrimmage - if you can't run past them and you can't block them, just quickly throw it over them.

Think of the 46 as the defensive version of a gunslinging quarterback. You take risks, and if you're good, they'll usually pay off. Sometimes, though, you end up paying by giving up big plays or get chipped away at until there is no field behind you left to defend. Still, the emphasis on stopping the run and preventing deep passing plays through overwhelming numbers made the 46 a highly effective response to the vertical offenses that were in vogue in the 80s and whose variations are still seen today. Next week, I'll show how the Tampa 2 attempts to respond to the offensive innovations caused by the havoc of the 46. See you then!

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