The Dallas Morning News has a cute article, about how the first defensive call by Rob Ryan on the first defensive play of the first preseason game of Dallas in 2011 was the 43 Flex. I recall watching that play and thinking “psycho front”. And yes, Ryan has 4 players along the line of scrimmage and 3 players at linebacker depth, but what we’re going to do in this article is talk about about Tom Landry’s first two defenses, the 43 inside and 43 outside, and how they then morphed into the flex, to better use the talents of their All-Pro defensive tackle, Bob Lilly.

Dallas-Miami, SB VI, 4-3 inside line setup.

43 inside/outside. Inside, DTs rush "A" gap. Outside, "B" gap.

If you have the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, then you have perhaps the best resource I can locate on the 4-3 inside and the 4-3 outside. Pages 174 through 185 cover these two defenses. The physical setup of the defensive line is the same in both cases. In the 4-3 inside, the defensive tackles rush into the “A” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “B” gaps. In the 4-3 outside, the defensive tackles rush into the “B” gaps and the middle linebacker is responsible for both “A” gaps. The front, from the offenses left to right, is a “5-2-2-5” alignment, with the tackles head up on the offensive guards, and the ends on the outside shoulders of the tackles. The middle linebacker is 1.5 yards deep, the strong side linebacker is nose onto the tight end if the tight end is separated, suggesting strong side sweep.

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 inside

Vince Lombardi on the 4-3 outside

The ideas for the Flex came about after Bob Lilly’s move from left defensive end to right tackle. Dick Nolan describes it as one half of  the line playing a 43 inside, one half playing a 43 outside. To note, the  tackles in the inside/outside are flexed. In Tom Landry’s Flex, however, it depended on which side of the offense was “strong”, or likely to be  the side players would run to. Bob, in Peter Golenbock’s book, describes it as follows:

If I were on the weak side, I’d be head-up with the guard, right on the line of scrimmage, whereas the tackle on the other side would be three feet back. George Andrie would be right over the tackle and instead of being on his outside shoulder, he’d be head-up, three feet back. He would be keying my guard. I also keyed my guard.

Dallas flexed. DLT on the LOS because offense is strong left.

43 flex. Left to right, front is "4-2-2-5".

As Dick Nolan explains

Let’s say the other team tries the old Lombardi sweep. When that guard pulls and that center tries to choke back to get Lilly, he can’t get to him quick enough because Lilly can just go around him, and the center will fall down on his nose trying to block him. Lilly will be running right behind their guard, and Paul Hornung will be running the ball, and Paul Horning can’t come back, because  if he does, he’ll be running right back into Lilly…

To guard against the counter, the off side defensive end now plays a 4 technique as opposed to a 5. That end is responsible for the weak side gap that the off side defensive tackle has left behind.

When introduced, it caused a lot of confusion,  because Dallas soon came to  be able to play the  43 inside/outside from the Flex set. That was the upside, as no one knew what they were actually playing. The downside is the weak side defensive end’s pass rush was effectively stuffed whenever the Flex was played. By the late 1970s early 1980s, it became almost automatic for teams to pass when they saw the Flex. Consequently,  as Charlie Waters explains in Golenbock’s book, the Flex was played less and less.

In the 1990s, Dallas switched to the Miami 43, versions of which are still played today. A derivative of the Miami 43 is Ron Vanderlinden’s Stack defense, discussed briefly here.

And now we have Rob Ryan’s 43 Flex. No, it doesn’t look a bit like the Tom Landry defense, but does resemble, somewhat, the double eagle flex defenses that were popularized by Dick Tomey and Rich Ellerson. A screen shot and a diagram of Rob’s defense follows.

Rob's 43 flex, first play of preseason. Denver appears to have an 8 man line.

Rob Ryan's 43 Flex

Notes: updated due to typos, and a very nice article on Blogging the Boys that identified each player along this front. Further, the blog Compete in All Things has some Xs and Os on the modern 43 Flex.

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This is the  third of a series on drawing football diagrams, and this time we’ll be talking about drawing the defensive side of the ball. For now, we’re going to have the offense going “up” the image and the defense going “down” the image. It’s easy enough to invert. Draw the offense the way we show in Part 2, rotate the result by 180 degrees, and then add your defensive players. In the old days, the defense was indicated with triangles. Most football bloggers, however, like to use fonts with names on them for the defense. The problem with fonts is that fonts are often tied to an operating system, so using them well requires some familiarity with font families. A good introduction to font families is here. And to note, Helvetica is installed as part of Image Magick, so if you want a no nonsense solution that should just work, set your font to “Helvetica-Bold”.

Since we are using Image Magick to generate our graphics, we can add color at will to our diagrams, and so one convention we’re going to follow for now is to use shape and color to distinguish offense from defense. offenses will be in white, defenses in yellow. Other conventions we could use are:

  • Using different shapes for linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs.
  • Tilting the defensive symbol to indicate a slanted lineman.
  • Shading the offensive lineman to indicate a shaded orientation on the  part of the defensive player.

For now, we’re going to use this image as the basis for our defenses. We’ve spoken about the Desert Swarm, a kind of double eagle defense, here.

Arizona versus Washington, 1992. I formation versus Desert Swarm. Whip (flex tackle) on TE side of formation..

And these are our attempts to duplicate that photograph. Obviously one corner and the free safety position are a product of speculation.

Defense in yellow, using symbols. Slant lineman denoted by tilt of triangles.

This graphic is a text based representation of the defense.

Helvetica-Bold is the font used here.

The images as displayed above are about 3/4 their actual size, so double click on them to see a full sized image (unless you’re using Chrome, in which case you’ll get a huge image).

Font notes:

To list the fonts that Image Magick can use by name, use the command (Win32/64 cmd window or Unix shell):

convert -list font | more

fonts that are not listed here can be accessed by direct path to the font file itself. In Ubuntu/Linux, the Fontmatrix utility can be a big help in seeing which fonts are good and determining the font path.

In this article, the example code is going to be given in Perl, using the Image::Magick module.

Code samples:

Previous parts of this article:

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.