Rex, as vowed, takes Bills back to famed 46-defense

Sal Capaccio
September 14, 2016 - 7:08 pm

By Sal Capaccio

Twitter @SalSports


Last year, Rex Ryan admittedly tried to merge two different defenses for his Buffalo Bills.  A mixture of the “46 defense,” made famous by his late father Buddy while coaching the Chicago Bears, with what Bills defensive players felt more comfortable doing that was so successful the year before under Jim Schwartz.


The results weren’t nearly what the man known for some of the best defenses in pro football over the past twenty years hoped for.  Or what Bills fan did.


Rex’s Bills unit finished 19th in the league in yards allowed, not only the his worst showing in seven years as a head coach, but also his worst in eleven years as either a head coach or defensive coordinator in Baltimore, New York, and Buffalo.  In fact, a Rex Ryan defense had only ranked outside the top-8 in the NFL one other time during that period, and that was 11th with the 2013 Jets.  


From almost the very moment last season ended, Ryan had vowed to not only return to running the 46, but making a full commitment to it.  No more merging.  No more appeasing.  


Of course a huge reason was simply because the Bills defense last year didn’t rank very high and didn’t dominate opponents and was one of the reasons the team only finished 8-8 and once again out of the playoffs.  Another reason was because the communication on that side of the ball was always disjointed.  Players getting calls late, subbing in and out at bad times, seeing things they weren’t sure of, and reacting poorly to what the offense did presnap.


But maybe the biggest reason was, with all of that added up, Ryan felt the "Ryan name" - from Buddy to him and his twin brother Rob - the name that had been synonymous for so many years as some of the best defensive minds with some of the greatest defenses in NFL history, had been sullied. 


Rex made it personal from day one of the offseason, and he hasn’t been shy about it.


That’s why he hired Rob to work with him again for the first time in 20 years.  That’s why he hired Ed Reed, who created a Hall of Fame career for himself while playing in, and teaching others, the Ryan defense in Baltimore.


Rex’s mantra for the 2016 Bills is “All-In.”  Make no mistake.  As much as those two words are about players buying in to what he wants and to one another (something that was well documented didn’t happen last year), the saying is also as much about playing this defense.  The 46 defense.  The RYAN defense.


So here we are, one week into the 2016 season.  The Bills lost 13-7 to the Ravens, but allowed only 308 yards of total offense.  Yes, it’s only one week in, but a look at league rankings and there’s Rex Ryan’s defense once again sitting in the top-10 (they allowed the ninth fewest yards opening weekend).


But is he staying true to his word?  Are the Bills running the famed Ryan 46-defense?


We didn’t have to wait long to find the answer, which is "absolutely."  Take a look:


First play of the game at Ravens:


Here it is from the sideline view:


Don’t take my word for it, take it right from Rex in his 1999 book, “Coaching Football’s 46 Defense,” co-authored by Jeff Walker (which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the 46 defense).  This is the first page of that book, showing the base 46:



One of the hallmarks of the 46-defense is that, in a base set, the strong safety plays on the weak side (opposite the tight end).  That is very unique in football.  After all, it’s why the strong safety is called “strong” safety.  He almost always lines up on the strong (tight end) side.  But not in the base 46. 

It's also actually why the defense is called the “46.”  That was the jersey number of Doug Plank, the strong safety for the 1985 Bears, who lined up in that unique spot and was what Ryan calls “the adjuster” of the defense.


Above, #27 (Duke Williams) is the strong safety.  As you can see, he’s lined up on the week side.


Who covers the tight end if that’s the case?  As you can see, in the base 46, the TE is flanked by two linebackers, one on each side.  Depending on down and distance, tendencies, and what he does at the snap will dictate how he is treated by those players.  Then there is another linebacker behind them and a free safety who can slide over if needed.


Of course there are many different fronts and adjustments that are made throughout a game based upon down and distance, offensive formation, and what Ryan is trying to accomplish on a given play.  But as I looked at the All-22 Coaches Film from last week’s game, the same basic 46-defense principles were evident throughout the game on a play-to-play basis.  


To give you an idea of this, here’s another play on the very first series, it’s what Ryan calls the 6-1-umbrella look:



See it in the book:


One point of note about the 46 Defense.  Players don't have to have labels for positions to line up in a certain spot.  For example, in the base set, Rex could choose to line up the Mike, Will, Sam, or End in any of the four spots they are shown in above.  All that matters is whoever is in that spot knows the role of that player.  The person or "position name" does not determine the role on the play.  The alignment does.


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