Keith Goldner is active this season both on Advanced NFL Stats and his own blog, Drive By Football. As he has updated his Markov Chain model (see also here), I’d suggest finding Keith’s new articles on either of these two sites. In my opinion, Keith’s work on his expected points models is a must read for anyone who wants to learn analytics, because he’s perhaps the best at making sure that readers can understand how he sets his models up.

Jene Bramel is a good follow if you like in game analysis on Twitter. After the Cowboys 24-17 victory over the Giants, this tweet caught my eye, where Jene mentions a Bear front.

A Bear you say?

I never found that Bear, but at 5:18 in the second quarter – one of the more interesting drives in the game, from the standpoint of a defensive front junkie – we see this:

Two down linemen, but six players at line depth and two at linebacker depth give this front a Bear like feel.

Diagrammatic representation of the front at 5:18, 2nd qtr. Bruce Carter is the linebacker between T and TE.

Though this is formally a nickel front, and there really isn’t a 3-0-3 diamond here, there are a couple things of note. There are six players across the line. Bruce Carter is in the gap between the RDE and the R (rush linebacker), just inside the tight end. Sean Lee is at the 50 behind Bruce (a few yards in front of the left offensive tackle), and another player is in the other 50, a few yards in front of the right offensive tackle. The “lineman” in the two point stace, to the left of the nose guard in this view, isn’t playing a 5 technique as much as he is playing a 3, and the whole front looks as if Rob Ryan is guessing a run to the left side of the line.

That’s exactly what happened. The Giants ran left. Bruce Carter defeated his block and the run gained almost nothing. And it’s almost pure stubbornness to run a running back into the heart of this kind of formation.

Otherwise, I saw plenty of 2 and 3 man fronts, and at one point, perhaps a 4 man front.

After the game, I found that the day of the game, Chase Stuart had this article online, comparing the relative skills of Eli Manning and Tony Romo. And no, it isn’t the usual media fawning exercise.

Update: for more Rob Ryan fronts, this thread has screen shots of the first 10 Ryan fronts of the season.

Anybody who says without qualification or categorization that “Eagles fans are scum” has never seriously read or listened to Ray Didinger. The book, “The Eagles Encyclopedia” is excellent, thorough, well researched, and better than any single book written about the history of a football team that I’ve read so far. And it does it by going about the subject in as many different ways as you can imagine, and with an acute eye for detail. There is a general history of the team. There is a section that highlights the important players on the team – guys like Steve Van Buren, Norm van Brocklin, Chuck Bednarik, Tommy McDonald, Tom Brookshier. There is a section for the coaches, especially valuable is the coverage of Earle (Greasy) Neale, but also including Buddy Ryan, Andy Reid and Dick Vermiel. They talk about every championship team  the Eagles have ever had. There is a section that talks about each and every playoff game for the team. The year to year details are stuck in the back, in an appendix.

Because the authors touch the team in multiple ways, you have the effect of many different lenses into the history of the Eagles. It makes them accessible, it shows sides of the team you might not have expected. The legendary Minnesota coach Bud Grant is an example: he spent some time playing for the Eagles, and he was good. He was just proud, and wanted to be paid in an era when players weren’t paid very much. So he left, to play for years in the CFL.

Back in the day, Bud Grant was an Eagle.

Roman Gabriel played for the Eagles for a while. That’s discussed in depth. The  two years that Herschel Walker played for the Eagles is discussed, Terrell Owens, and Jevon Kearse. Hugh Douglass, an underrated end, also comes to mind. Wilbert Montgomery, whom I saw play in his freshman year in the NAIA championship in Shreveport, has some excellent coverage.

The section on Bosh Pritchard caught my eye: he was a halfback who played alongside Steve Van Buren on the Earle Neale teams of the late 1940s. This Boss Pritchard quote is worth mentioning.

It’s such a different game now. Our tackles averaged 220 pounds. Today, they’ve got fullbacks who weigh 250.  These players work out with weights all  year. Our coaches wouldn’t let us lift weights. They said that weights made you muscle-bound. Of course, no one ever said that about me.

Not only is the “Eagles Encyclopedia” a good oversized hardback, you can get it for about 2 dollars on Amazon these days. It’s cheaper than a drug store paperback. And if there is any downside to the book, it ends in the 2004 season. So, it’s a few years behind the current state of the Eagles.

As John Reed points out , the phrase “Eagle” is abused, inconsistent, and overused. And even though Earle Neale’s “Eagle” defense is celebrated, it’s hard to know exactly what it is. Jene Bramel’s excellent series on pro defenses shows something akin to a 5-2-4 Oklahoma (father of the modern 34), but the diagram of Neale’s Eagle defense in Ryan and Walker’s 46 book (page 10) looks something more like this:

According to Ryan and Walker, Earle Neale's Eagle looked something like this.

This latter diagram is more believable, since people do claim that dropping the nose guard in Earle’s defense led to a kind of 4-3 (Or in Steve Belichick’s notation of the time, a 45 – back in the 1950s, corners would be sometimes be counted as linebacker depth players).

The three players in the middle – the diamond – are a 0 technique nose tackle, and two 3 technique tackles. The 3 technique tackles can also be called eagles – terminology used in odd front 4-3s and also certain derivatives of the 46. These sons of the 46 are often called double eagle defenses because of the 46 “diamond“, which they inherit from Buddy Ryan’s defense.

The most important of these defenses is called the Desert Swarm defense, made famous by Dick Tomey during his period as Arizona’s head coach. This defense lives on in college through the work of Rich Ellerson, currently the head coach at Army, who was a defensive staffer during Tomey’s run at Arizona. Though a number of sources call this defense a 4-3, it’s more an 8 in the box defense of the Ryan family, with the strong safety playing more of a linebacker technique, and the alignment to me looking quite a bit like a 5-3. To note, in the Desert Swarm, one of the 3 techniques (usually the weak side tackle) is a flexed tackle. Ironically, in the photo below, the flex tackle is on the strong side of the formation.

Literature on this defense is a little hard to come by. Some links that you might find useful are given below.

To summarize: a double eagle defense is one with a nose guard and 2 3 technique tackles. A double eagle flex has one flexed tackle. A double eagle double flex has two flexed tackles. Earle Neale’s Eagle appears to be a double eagle, though no one is 100% certain. These defenses should not be confused with the 34 Eagle of Fritz Schurmer, which is an eagle of an entirely different color.

Update: a more nuanced look at Fritz Schurmer’s Eagle can be found here.

This DVD set has just arrived, and as my DVD player is in the shop, it’s not the easiest thing to review. Thankfully, most computers these days have DVD players.

There are 12 games in the 1985 season on the set. The disks themselves are housed in  6 thinpacks and those thinpacks are fragile. I have bits of teeth falling out every time I open up a new DVD.

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After looking at the film highlights available for the Cleveland Browns in 2010, you can see that Rob Ryan uses a broad array of defensive fronts, depending on down and distance. In short yardage, Rob will use traditional goal line defenses, but also the 46 front. Whether he’s using a “pure 46″ or a newer “zone 46” is anyone’s guess, but the front itself is unmistakable.

He uses a lot of traditional 3 and 4 man fronts, but he also uses nickel fronts ( 2-4) and psycho fronts (1-5) and also “cloud” schemes (no down linemen). Nickel fronts arise when, from the 3-4 you replace a defensive end with a rush linebacker. Psycho fronts happen when both defensive ends in a 3-4 are replaced with a rush linebacker. You can also go from a 4 man front to a nickel front by replacing both defensive ends with rush linebackers. I’ve seen substitutions that look like 4-3 over and under defenses where the weak side DE has been replaced with a rush linebacker. These end up appearing as if they are very shifted 3-4 fronts.

In this particular capture, the looping rusher ends up outside the rush linebacker facing the opposition LT.

This is a psycho front versus Cinncinnati

And this a particularly good shot of a nickel front versus Tampa Bay.

The two man line is in particularly heavy use versus New Orleans, so I strongly recommend perusing the highlights of that game.

Related Articles:

In a previous blog article, we reviewed this book. But in terms of those of us who are 46 wonks, it has a lot more to say in the rich set of interviews provided for the fan. We’re going to explore those comments a little deeper in this second, companion blog article to the first.

The first point to make is that the text in this article is quite good. Jaws accurately describes how the Bears lined up in the 46 on page 161 of the Ballantine hardback. The diagram, however, on page 169 leaves a lot to be desired. Well, it’s simply wrong.

In comparison, we’ll show you the first page in Rex’s book, which is correct.

If you’re using this blog as a 46 reference, this won’t come as a surprise to you, but the mismatch between text and diagram is disorienting. On  this page,  however, is a critical passage.

Let’s be clear though: The 46 could not be an every-down defense. The better NFL offenses could still make big plays if it was used too much, so its risk-versus-reward ratio was deemed too detrimental for Chicago to run it for an entire game. But Buddy dialed it up frequently enough (often 30 to 35 percent and sometimes more) to keep quarterbacks guessing.

The defense, in other words, was one of many in Ryan’s pocket. The point ultimately, Jaws and his interviewees argue, was confusion.

Another critical passage, is the effect of modern spread formations on the effectiveness of the “pure 46″. We’ll quote Doug Plank this time:

The tightly packed eight man fronts from our day just can’t succeed as a base defense against spread formations. Offensive coordinators came to the conclusion fairly quickly that unless they spread defenses out, their quarterbacks were going to get hit again and again. That isn’t acceptable today…

Jeff Fisher’s role – this will be difficult to quote and be accurate, because this book uses the phrase 46 to both mean the defense and the philosophy behind the defense – in the  evolution of  46 style defenses is described in a Brian Billick quote as follows:

Fisher was the first to adapt it to the modern game. He came up with zone concepts that appeared to give the same look as the original 46 – but weren’t – and that created a new set of problems for offenses.

Of the people truest to the principles of the 46, the authors of this book point to the late Jimmy Johnson, the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.

This content is a personal interpretation of elements of Rex Ryan’s book on the 46. The diagrams come from scans from the book.

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One of the nicer things about this more modern age of football is that Youtube gives us all great access to video that we didn’t have before. For the student of the 46, this means that fans of the 1980s Chicago Bears have been active putting up video of their favorite team. A user named ironworkerjeff has put up several videos useful for analysis. I’ll give links to three of them

  1. 1985 Chicago Bears
  2. 46 Special, part 1 of 3
  3. 46: variations and versatility

Update 2-26-2011: These Youtube videos have been removed. I suspect since video of this period is a product and ESPN Classic is still airing their 46 Special, there were copyright violations that led to the removal of this content. I can’t see any place to buy the ESPN Classic 46 Special, but it was replayed on ESPNCL this last February 26th. Video of the 1985 Bears is available on DVD. 12 games of theirs are on sale through Amazon.

In the first of these three videos, there is a terrific section with Forrest Gregg that starts at roughly 0:58

They run several different alignments, and they move their defensive linemen around to different positions. They have the ideal personnel to handle that style of defense.

Though there is a tendency to talk constantly about the 46, not all video throughout the series is of the 46. 4:30 into video one is a generic 4-3.

A classic 46 look

Madden drawing a 46. The MLB is behind the NG. He can be over the RT.

On the second video mentioned, at 3:28, there is an excellent shot of a 46 front. In the third video, at roughly 2:40 to 2:43, John Madden talks about the signature recognition feature of the 46, the “diamond”.

Madden drawing diamond in the divisional playoff broadcast, Giants and Bears

Update 3-2-2011. The diamond can also be seen in the broadcast of the 1985 Chicago Bears – San Francisco game, available via DVD from Amazon:

The “diamond” can easily be mistaken for a 3-4 front if you’re not looking but the three interior linemen aren’t lined up the same.

  • The “nose tackle” is lined up over the center.
  • The “ends”, in 3-4 jargon, are lined up over the guards, or are found in the “B” gap. Tackles are uncovered.

The three linemen in the diamond are usually down in a three point stance. Everyone else on the line can be in any stance. There will be 5 to six players on the line and eight in the box.

Now throughout  the series they keep talking about the two (Sam and Will) linebackers over the tight end blitzing. I think these comments aren’t correct. Those players in that position have assigned rush responsibilities depending on whether the TE goes out for a pass or stays.

Other notes and comments about the video. In video 2, three are terrific comments by Leslie Frasier and Ron Rivera  at about the 2:00 mark, useful comments by Bill Walsh at the 4:00-4:22 mark, and there is a fantastic quote by Mike Ditka in video 2 at the 5:14 mark.

People would spend hours preparing for the 46, but Buddy might not play the 46 but about 10 times a game.

This, I think, marks the true genius of a multiformation defense.

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