Monday, February 28, 2011

The 46 Nickle

How I came upon this defense is quite saddening looking back at the dismal performance we put up on defense this past season.  However, as with anything in life, it's all about the experiences!  This dismal experience allowed me to run and know a defense that up until last August I knew very little about.  The great 46 Defense was made popular by the 1985 Chicago Bears and a staple of any defensive coordinator (DC) in the NFL with the last name Ryan.  I won't dig into the history of the 46, there are plenty of books and postings on message boards out there to keep you buzzed for days on the 46's history.  What I'm going to talk about, is the adaptation of the 46 to the 46 Nickel, and how I used it to stop the bleeding on a defense that gave up over 800 yards of total offense in the first 3 games of last season.  Yes...we were THAT bad! 

Last year at a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, I was perusing the books and DVD tables looking for what I could find to add to my library (and piss my wife off in the process spending money we didn't have).  I came across a book entitled Coaching Football's 46 Defense by Ryan and Walker.  I had always wanted to learn more about this defense, especially if I ever became an offensive coordinator (OC) so I could better learn how to attack it.  Up to that point, as an OC, DC or an assistant coach I had only seen the 46 on TV clips from 1985 Bear highlights.  I knew absolutely nothing about the defense other than it was named after Doug Plank the strong safety (SS) for the Bears that played for the infamous Buddy Ryan.  I knew it was an aggressive attacking style of defense, but that is where my knowledge of the defense ended.  Anyhow, as with most things, it was a book on the bottom of my stack of reading, and I never got around to it before the season.  Anyhow, after our second game, a disheartening 27-25 overtime (OT) loss and giving up an amazing 411 yards of offense, I had had enough!  I began looking into what I could do, asking the experts on message boards, digging up old phone numbers of DC's long retired.  Our major problem on defense was two-fold, we had no defensive linemen (DL) that could consistently demand a double team, and young linebackers (LB's) who were struggling getting off of blocks.  The kids were trying hard, but the DL was out manned and our LB corps consisted of defensive back (DB)/defensive end (DE) converts and some young under aggressive sophomores...uggh.  I knew staying in our base 4-2 look was not going to do well, and I had to find something and quick!  One of our offensive coaches suggested running the double eagle, to which I my answer was "how the hell do we get to the double eagle from the 4-2-5?".  However he got the gears in my head working, and I remembered my book on the 46!  By that time is was too late, and we were having to go out on another Friday night with our base 40 nickel defense, and we gave up 313 yards of total offense and 41 points...ouch!

After the drubbing, I went home, drank a couple of beers and began reading.  Once the sun came up, I was sure the 46 was the defense for us!  However, I was concerned how I was going to get us into the 46 from the 4-2's base front.  That's when I found a very good excerpt in a book titled Defending the Spread Offense.  There was a section in there on the 46 Nickle, oh how the wheels were turning now!  My mind was racing, and I was going on 0 hours sleep since game time and was in bad need of a Red Bull!  After getting my caffeine fix going and a chew of tobacco, the grease pen began to fly, and here's what I came up with.

To start, I will give you some of our nomenclature so you can better understand our base defense.  Here is a positon by position description of each defender in our defense.

A- Anchor; strong side defensive end, plays in a 7 or 5 technique depending on the presence of a tight end (TE).
R- Rover; weak side defensive end, same alignment rules as the Anchor.
T- Tackle; Normally the 3 technique.
N- Nose; Normally the 1 technique.
S- Sam; Strongside LB.
M- Mike; Weakside LB.
$- Spur; SS.
W- Whip; Weak safety (WS).
F- Free safety (FS).
C- Cornerback

Base 4-2 alignment vs. 2 backs

4-2-5 to Bear

I looked at tons of videos on Boston College's 46 look out of the 3-4 and Virginia Tech's 44/46 defense and the two books I had, and the final alignment I came up with was this.

The front would simply kick down to put the Anchor into the 3 technique on the strongside.  The Tackle would move to the 0 technique over the center, and the nose would move to a weak 3 technique.  The Rover, would stand up and move out to what we called a "ghost 9" technique, or outside shade of an imaginary TE.  All of these were not out of the realm of what these positions were asked to do, especially the Anchor, Tackle and Nose.  The secondary and LB corps would move to the strong side of the formation in the following manner.  The Spur, was the loose 9 technique outside the TE.  The Sam LB would walk down on the line of scrimmage (LOS) into a 7 technique.  The Mike LB would move over to a strong side 40 technique over the strong tackle and the Whip would come into the box as a 40 technique LB to the weak side of the defense.  Now, I only had a week to put this in, so I had to move quickly and whatever I did HAD to be simple and adjust easily.  I decided we would play Cover 1 only, and hope for the best.  I had young, but very athletic corners and a ball hawk FS so I felt we could do this. 

Our rules were for the DL were simple, we used Rex Ryan's defensive line techniques described in the book of not allowing the jump through block and getting the DL's "hips to the hole" (entire other post on this technique, I won't go into detail).  At first, we slanted our 0 technique based on the call (Bear strong/weak) and this worked quite well.  Later, we moved to 2-gapping him, by making no call and having read the block of the center.  The Rover was the toughest one to teach, as in our base 4-2 he had to adhere to the laws of block down step down (BDSD), but now found himself the force player to the defense's weak side.  This took some coaching, but fortunately for us, our DL coach was an old 50 guy and had no problems dusting off his 50 DE coaching manual! 

Our LB's and outside safeties (OSS) worked in tandem, with the OSS's being the adjuster to their respective sides (the secondary was not divorced in our Bear front).  With this we were able to adapt and adjust with little to no problems.  For the Sam LB, things were easy, if there was a TE present, align in a 7 technique and cover him man to man.  If there was not a TE, he had to listen to the Mike and the Spur.  If the Spur gave an "I'm out" call, that mean the Spur was involved in coverage (slot receiver) and that the Sam would have to be the force player, so the Sam would align in a "ghost 9" and play force.  If a TE was present the Sam gave a "banjo" call to the Mike LB.  The banjo call told the Mike he had the TE on inside and vertical routes, and the Sam had the TE if he attempted to cross the Sam's face.  Whoever was not involved in the coverage on the TE, took the back out of the backfield to their side.  To the weak side, if the Whip made an "I'm out" call, then the Mike had to acknowledge how many backs were in the backfield.  If there were 2 backs in the backfield, he made a "Jayhawk" call and that slid the Sam backer back into a 40 technique.  If there was only 1 back in the backfield, this call did not need to be made, and the Mike moved to a 00 technique over the center.  If both the Spur and the Whip gave "I'm out" calls, then the Mike simply moved to a 00 technique over the center.  This sliding movement by the LB's allowed us to keep the numbers in the box we needed to properly defend the run, be in man coverage and still have to viable force players on the LOS at any time, vs. any formation the offense could present. 

46 Nickel vs. Twins Strong

Jayhawk front vs twins weak

46 Nickel vs. 11 personnel 2x2

46 Nickel vs. 11 personnel Trips Closed

46 Nickel vs. 10 personnel 2x2

46 Nickel vs. 10 personnel 3x1

Coverage for the LB's was simple as well.  They were in man coverage on the 1st back to their side.  If both backs flowed to 1 side or the other, we were in what we termed "flow" coverage.   Flow coverage told the LB to flow to take the 1st back out to his side and the LB opposite of flow to take the 2nd back out.  LB's auto blitzed if their RB did not run a route.  We basically told them "find a window and go" to keep it as simple as possible.  Later we added a blitz or two, but for the most part we were attacking every single play.
The secondary kept a very simple principle in that the Spur and Whip were always the adjusters.  The only time we did not ask them to adjust was against twins closed sets, and then we just played corners over.  Playing corners over allowed the front to stay the same to twins closed and keep it's normal alignment/assignment rules in place.  The FS was always free unless the offense came out in an empty set, and he then became the final adjuster taking #3 to the 3x2 side of empty.  If an offense came out in trips open, the FS would give a "help" call.  A "help" call in my defense tells the OSS away from the trips side to come over to the trips side and "help".  The adjusting safety would cover the #3 receiver in a trips formation.  This adjustment rule also held true vs. empty 4x1 looks as well.

46 Nickel vs. Empty

Flow Coverage

Auto blitz vs. RB block

So there you have it!  The birth of Duece's 46 Nickel (not really mine, but it sounded good anyway)!  Now, there were some other specifics that we had to iron out, such as what do you do against bunch sets?  We played a version of Cover 1 called "banjo", where the OSS to the bunch side played the #2 receiver man and did not let him off the LOS.  The corner and other safety (or other corner in the case of a bunch closed look) would then "banjo" the #1 and #3 receiver's based on their releases.  We did not see this look much, but actually had to put this adjustment in at halftime of our 1st game running the defense (nothing like a little on-the-field adjustment in the heat of battle). 

So I know what you are thinking!  Duece, you committed the cardinal sin as a DC by changing schemes in the middle of the season.  Yes and no though.  A lot of the techniques being taught were very similar, if not the exact same.  We had been playing some Cover 1 and corners over, so there was nothing new there, and with our Bullets blitz scheme our LB's were familiar with covering running backs.  The major changes came in the play of the Sam LB, the Anchor, Tackle Nose and Rover.  That 1st week we really concentrated on getting those guys reps, and we came out and had our best defensive game of the season.  We faced a team averaging over 300 yards rushing per game and held them to 189, and gave up only 26 yards passing!  I was very impressed and the kids had a lot of fun running the new more aggressive style of defense.

Some of the weaknesses we found were that the being in man coverage the entire time lends you to mismatches.  Even though our corners were athletic one was 5'5" and the other was 5'7", this came to light in a couple of games, but hey...75% of pass defense is pass rush, so I blame it on the DL!  The other glaring weakness was the fact the 46 is not the greatest of defenses vs. the triple option if you stay in man coverage.  We moved to a coverage we called "2 roll" which is a moving way of playing Robber coverage and did pretty well against ourselves (Flexbone) in practice.  If I was basing out of this front, that is definitely how I would play the option is with the 2 Roll coverage.

Bear vs. Flexbone

One unique item we found was the utilization of the FS in man free coverage.  With the FS being free, you could do a lot with him in your game plan.  We found we could double an opponent's best receiver, or place him to the field side of the offense and give us an extra man there, or simply place him back deep and let him "roam" around.  I honestly believe this was the top selling point in the 46 Nickel for me.  The FS could be used as an adjuster or extra defender wherever needed.  This seemed to keep OC's guessing too as to where we were going to put him.   We moved the FS around based on the levels of the defense and simply gave a number call tagged to the front such as Bear 1.  One put the FS on the DL level either to the strong side or to the field.  Often times teams would motion the wide receiver down inside to crack the Spur on sweep plays.  By putting the FS on the LOS, now they had to crack him AND try to block the Spur.  The offense was simply outnumbered.  We would tag the call with a "2" to tell the FS too align at LB depth either over center, or to the field depending on where the ball was.  This gave the defense an aggressive 9-in-the-box look and dared opposing OC's to throw.  If we tagged the call with a 3, the FS went deep, way deep, sometimes as deep as 20 yards depending on down and distance.  We did this in obvious passing situations or against teams that like to run the post route.  If we tagged the call with "double" and a letter such as Y, then the FS would help double the Y receiver.  The FS was always deep help in the times that we doubled. 

FS in a 1 alignment

FS in a 2 alignment
Bear Double "Z"

Now mind you, all of the above was built in to the defense over time, however most was not used.  We did put the FS in a 1 alignment and a 3 alignment some, but we used the double call a TON.  Our FS was a tall lanky kid and when we saw a mismatch with our "toy" corners, we could simply call in "double" from the sidelines and the FS slid over to that side and helped out.  All of these calls led to the adaptability and aggressiveness of the defense.  If you are not happy with man to man, in your face aggressive defense, this is not the answer for you.  More often than not, I err on the side of caution, but I gambled this one time and it really payed off for us.  We even got to where we could mix in some 46 with our normal base stuff to use as a short yardage defense.  The flexibility of using nickel personnel is the key to the success of this defense, and the success we saw out of it last season.

Are there other ways to run the 46?  Sure, there are numerous ways to get into the alignment.  Some coaches I talked to stood up the strong side end, and had him play man coverage on the TE.  When they did this, the kept the 3 technique in place and moved the Mike LB down over the center in a 0 technique.  Great adjustment, I just felt our Mike wasn't suited for it.  Boston College, out of their 3-4, will move the SS to where our Sam aligns and let him play man coverage from there.  This allows them to kick their DE down to a 3 technique (something they do in their double eagle and under fronts anyway) and the outside linebacker (OLB) to that side can align in the 9 technique and do what he normally does out of their base 3-4 look.  However you do it is up to, I wanted to share what I came up with and why I did it the way I did.

Boston College's 3-4 Bear

My methodology was simple, our Anchor, Tackle and Nose were very very similar players, with the Anchor being the most athletic, the Tackle being the immovable object and the nose being the "fly" in the ointment.  All 3 had the body size to play down inside in the 3, 0, 3 look of the 46.  The Rover was the most athletic of all our DL, so he would have no trouble being the force player with some reps, and he had 0 coverage responsibilities and was free to rush from a stand up position.  The Sam, we felt, could be very aggressive inside, and we did not really rep an individual coverage technique with him, yet we gave him a simple effective rule "don't let the TE off the LOS".  Our kids got this, and it worked!  They could be aggressive because they knew they had FS help behind them.  We felt by keeping the Spur and the Whip as our adjusters we kept the shceme in the spirit of the 4-2-5 we ran for our base defense.  This allowed these kids to showcase their talents of being aggressive coverage guys that could also blitz off the edge or play inside the box.  Both of these players by alignment were protected very well, as the Spur could play in space off the edge, and the Whip had a 3 technique inside of him and a 9 technique outside of him as well.  All of these were factors in our decision of how to align our pieces of the 4-2 into the 46. 

Go here to download VT's 44/46 defense from 1998!

Again, as with all my posts, this is not to say my method is the best, I'm simply sharing tactics that I used and how I came to them for you guys to use.  I hope they give some insight and can help you defensively in the future.   The video below is some clips of us using the defense this past season.  As you can see we were not the most physically intimidating team, however the Bear can make life miserable for teams trying to make a living running the football.