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.

In Brian Burke’s recent roundup, he references a Fifth Down blog article on Rex Ryan’s philosophy of offense, one where running is heavily emphasized and the yardage? Not so much. He then says that as an offensive philosophy, it seems to be “ridiculous”, except in the metaphoric sense of a boxer, with a jab, using the run to keep an opponent off balance, so that he can lay out the “killing blow”.

I tend to think that Brian’s boxing metaphor is, at best, an incomplete picture. For one, he doesn’t see the jab as a knockout punch, but for Muhammad Ali, it was. Another point is the jab is fast, elusive, confusing. By contrast, the run is a slow play, and there is nothing particularly elusive or confusing about the run. Rex-like coaches often run when it is most expected.

The way Rex is using the run, in my opinion, is closely tied to the way Bill Parcells used to use the run, especially in the context of Super Bowl 25. This New York Times article, about Super Bowl 25, details Parcells’ view of the philosophy neatly.

Parcells' starting running backs averaged about 3.7 ypc throughout his NFL coaching career.

To quote Bill:

“I don’t know what the time of possession was,” the Giants’ coach would say after the Giants’ 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. “But the whole plan was try to shorten the game for them.”

The purpose, of course, is time control, optimizing time of possession, and thus reducing the opportunity of the opposing offense to have big plays. It’s a classic reaction to an opponent’s big play offense, to their ability to create those terrific net yards per attempt stats [1].

Note also Rex is primarily a defensive coach. If the game changing, explosive component of a football team is the defense, doing everything to suppress the opponent’s offense only hands more tools to the defensive team. It forces the opponent’s offense to take risks to score at all. It makes them go down the field in the least amount of time possible. It takes the opponents out of their comfort zone, especially if they are used to large, early leads.

The value of time, though, is hard to quantify.  Successful time control is folded into stats like WPA, and thus is highly situation dependent. The value of such a strategy is very hard to determine with our current set of analytic tools. Total time of possession no more captures the real value of time any more than total running yards captures the real value of the running game in an offense.

Chris, from Smart Football, says that the classic tactic for a less talented team (a “David”) facing a more talented team (a “Goliath”) is to use plenty of risky plays, to throw the outcome into a high risk, high reward, high  variance regime. The opposite approach, to minimize the scoring chances of the opposition, is a bit neglected in Chris’s original analysis, because he assumed huge differences in talent. However, he explicitly includes it here, as a potential high variance “David” strategy.

It’s ironic to think of running as the strategy of an underdog, but that’s what it is in this instance. New England is the 500 pound gorilla in the AFC East, ranked #1 on offense 2 of the last 4 years, and that’s the team he has to beat. And think about it more, just a college analogy for now: what teams do you know, undersized and undermanned,  that use a ground game to keep them in the mix? It’s the military academies, teams like Army, Navy, and the Air Force, using ground based option football.

[1] The down side of a loose attitude towards first and second down yardage is that it places an emphasis on third down success rate, and thus execution in tough situations.

Both Rex and Rob Ryan are known to use the Bear front, otherwise known as the double eagle, and in its 1985 incarnation, the 46, and  in preseason week 1 year 2011, both brothers flashed some double eagle with 8 man line.

The image above is the most famous Bear of the night, as Jon Gruden mentioned it, but  the very next play featured a Bear with a flexed nose tackle.

Rob’s double eagle had 5 down linemen instead of 6, but the 6 players along the line, and two players at linebacker depth and over the tackle leads me to designate this the first Bear the Cowboys have run under Rob Ryan.

From  the blog “Compete in All Things” comes  this nice little quote:

 The 3-4 has a lot of moving parts, more so than just about any other defense, and often has changing responsibilities with regards to force, contain, spill, all those terms we love to use to define good defense….


    The 3-4 is a seven man front to start. The actual front alignment varies quite a bit, with some teams preferring a 4-0-4 head up approach with slanting and stunting, and others preferring an ‘under’ front variation (9-5-1-3-5), and yet others running a 3-0-3 double eagle front

which, because I just think it’s cool, I’m going to illustrate:

3 different 34 fronts. The base front is on top, an over shifted front in the middle, and the double eagle front obtained by "Eagling" the DEs and ILBs (i.e. having them swap facing linemen) is on the bottom.

This dovetails  in with another neat quote, this time from Coach Huey’s board, on a thread devoted to what an Eagle defense is.

 “eagling” was often used to describe either the Okie tackle going in over the guard and the LB going out over the tackle, or in the 4-3 the end going out over the TE or over a ghost TE, and the OLB going in over the tackle…

To note as well, for all you 46 aficionados out there, Coach Huey has a seven nine page discussion of the 46 that’s been going on for almost four years now.

You would think that when Dom Capers and Rex Ryan clash, and play in a 9-0 defensive slugfest, that the NFL network could find interesting film for both coaches. In this particular game, they largely showed highlights of the frustrations of the Jets offense. No matter, Dom Capers can make very subtle changes to very ordinary looking defenses. This shot for example: looks like a 3 man front on first glance. But is it that? For that matter, is  it even a psycho (1 man in 3 point stance) or just a very well disguised cloud?

This is typical of the fronts you can find throughout the video of this contest. This nickel front is very ordinary by Dom’s standards.

This front, I’m hard pressed to classify. Look at the defensive line splits; almost purely geared for an outside pass rush.

We’ll end with this one, a far more standard psycho front.

For those less familiar with the various kinds of modern fronts, I can suggest this article on Rob Ryan from this blog, and perhaps checking out the very excellent Blitzology sometime.

It’s the 2011 division playoffs. The Jets have just scored and the Patriots have the ball. The Jets are lining up in a 3-3-5. The right defensive end is number 70, Mike DeVito, an undrafted free agent out of Maine. The right outside linebacker is Bryan Thomas, number 58, a 6 foot four inch 260 pounder from UAB who was once a first round draft choice. This is not a defense designed to stop the run. Hence the Patriots run.

The blocking scheme is going to require the Pats to “reach out” to block their opposing numbers. The guard goes for the defensive end, the tackle for the OLB.  This tandem blocking is similar to what the whole line is doing in this photograph, from Tim Layden’s excellent book:

As the play develops, there are problems with both blocks. It isn’t soon before Bryan Thomas has the LT’s hips perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, and therefore the tackle has no control over Bryan. The guard has been beaten; Mike has taken an inside move and is about to shed the guard. Two players converge on the running back, who, before the collision, begins to guard himself against the impact.

Want more? Check out the game highlights on

I’ve just begun to look at  this game, and it’s not as rich in exotic fronts as some. There are plenty  of orthodox 3 and 4 man fronts. The Jets made plenty of use of the 4-2, but on occasions, both teams would use the two man, or nickel front. This image is of a 2-3 by the Jets. I don’t recall  having seen a 2-3 before seeing this one (I’m sure it’s been used). The result of the play was a sack of Tom Brady.

Even Bill Belichick, the defensive genius, the master, will use the two man front these days.

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


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.