Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Jun 2005

Can Ray Lewis Shine in the 46 Defense?

In 1985, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, led by middle linebacker Mike Singletary, dominated the league. In 2005, Buddy's son, Rex, thinks his 46 defense, led by middle linebacker Ray Lewis, can do the same. Lewis wasn't anything close to the player in 2004 that he was in 2003, and most people in Baltimore seem to think the team's defensive scheme was to blame for that. I watched Lewis closely last year and I didn't see a guy in the wrong scheme; I saw a guy who struggled in coverage, missed tackles, and wasn't as aggressive as he used to be. In any event, though, it will be interesting to see whether anything can re-invigorate the man who very recently was the best defensive player in football.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 14 Jun 2005

38 comments, Last at 16 Jun 2005, 12:15pm by skinsfan2


by MadPenguin (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 3:55pm

A friend of mine pointed out that the solution to ray lewis was to run right at him. Ray-ray would point out that he was being double teamed throughout the season, when from watching the tape he was usually single covered. I think ray-ray was excellent, but that he is now just average. This is just my opinion.

by Pat on the Back (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 4:43pm

Um... no. Unless the Ravens can make sure Lewis is free from a blocker on every play, they will give up far too many gains. This defense with Ray as the lynchpin would be destroyed by any team that ran with a decent-blocking fullback.

by Sean D. (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 5:44pm

For someone who was only 3 years old in '85, somebody needs to explain exactly how this 46 defense would work. I figure 4 down lineman and 6 linebackers. But that means only 1 DB. Don't the Ravens have 3 former pro bowlers at DB (Reed, Sanders and McAllister) plus they signed Rolle? How does this scheme maximize the potential of their personnel? And who are the 6 linebackers? This idea may be original and bring back memories, but it sure has a lot of holes in it (and not the kind Ray Lewis can run through).

by senser81 (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 5:57pm

My recollection of the Bears 46 is that it required Singletary to be in one-on-one coverage quite often. Singletary was good enough to pull that off; Ray Lewis was one of the best cover MLBs in the game, and he was savvy in zone coverage, too. But I think he might be too old to cover guys one-on-one anymore, and he's never been much of a blitzer.

by B (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:12pm

The 46 Defense is 4 Lineman, 4 linebackers and 3 DBs (two corners and a free safety). It got the name because Singletary, the player with number 46 would crowd the LOS like a linebacker, although he was also capable of dropping into covereage like a safety. The scheme's success relied on the fact that any of those 4 linebackers could drop into coverage or blitz, so the offense didn't know where the blitzer was coming from.

by ABW (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:16pm

Sean, as someone who was only 4 in 1985, I can't claim to be any kind of expert on the 46 defense, but the 4 and 6 in it do not refer to the number of down linemen and linebackers like in the 3-4 and 4-3. As I understand it, the 46 actually refers to the uniform number of the strong safety on the Bears defense at the time. One of the basic tenets of it is that the strong safety plays close to the LOS, sort of like an extra linebacker, and I think he usually is supposed to man up on the TE. Other than that I think it requires essentially the same personnel as the 4-3 - two big DTs who occupy blockers and let the MLB roam free, 2 DEs who are supposed to get pressure on the QB, and 2 OLBs who's responsibilities can be blitzing or dropping into coverage.

It does require superior CBs who can lock down in man coverage, because there's obviously no help coming from the SS. One of the OLBs(or the MLB) is designated for dropping into a zone coverage I think. The major complaint I've heard against the 46 is that it requires superior athletes who can be very flexible about their roles, i.e the MLB needs to be able to drop into coverage, blitz, and make all the tackles inside the tackle box. The advantage is that you have a lot of flexibility in terms of what guys could be rushing the QB, like the 3-4.

by ABW (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:22pm

Um, I think Mike Singletary's number was 50. See link.

by MDS (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:22pm

The "46" doesn't refer to the personnel on the field; it refers to the jersey number worn by Doug Plank, who played sort of a hybrid safety/linebacker position, and it was that position that Buddy Ryan thought was the key to the 46 defense. Mike Singletary, of course, was the best and most important player on the Bears' 46, but the role of Plank is what separated it from the more conventional 4-3.

With Ryan now in charge of the defense I'm sure the Ravens will blitz more. I've always thought both Ray Lewis and Ed Reed ought to be used more often as pass-rushers, so I like the idea.

by B (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:32pm

Ahhh yes, I was wrong about the identity of number 46, I got confused cause the article kept mentioning Singletary.
Anyways, is it the best use of Ed Reed's talents to have him rush the QB as a Linebacker/Saftey hybrid? I thought he was undersized for the '46' position.

by Vern (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 6:45pm

Is there an on line reference or a book that details these schemes? The high level stuff (man, zone, etc.) is common, but the details are muddy. I get bits and pieces all the time, but none of the football books I've seen are modern enough to really go into these things. Ideally there would be a survey overview of each scheme, with x-o diagrams and a list of what positions are supposed to be doing (as well as key responsibilities and threats).

I keep hearing things like "he needs to be someone who can fill the two-gap role" and wonder, what's the two-gap role exactly? Where do I look for it when watching the game?

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 7:00pm

Vern, a good place for the things you ask about is Bob Davie's Football 101 series on espn.com, in the college football section. It gives in-depth explanations of a lot of commonly referenced, little explained concepts like cover 2/3, zone/man blocking, etc, and makes them very easily understandable. Unfortunately, like almost everything else good, it's become insider content and requires a subscription. So if you have access, I'd start there.

by mactbone (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 7:09pm

To be honest video games are a lot of help on these issues as well. I know most of scheming knowledge from Madden/NCAA football and following my team.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 7:13pm

My understanding of the general 4-6 is that it's more like a 4-4 with one of the safeties being the fourth (strongside) backer.


My understanding of the Bears 4-6 is that it's more like a 6-2, with a regular set of 4 down linemen set weak, two backers on the line at the strong side, and then a middle backer crowded on the strongside, two CBs, a safety off weakside and a safety back.


Somebody better complement me on my neat use of ellipses.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 7:19pm

Okay, don't compliment me on my neat use of ellipses...the preview lines things up a bit differently than how they end up. On the 4-6 the inside linebackers should be outside the DTs and the SS should be just outside the DE like an outside backer would be.

On the Bears 4-6, the safety should lined between the DE and DT and the MLB between the DE and first OLB. All the depths behind the line are accurate. I might not be entirely on, but this is to the best of my knowledge.

by ABW (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 7:24pm

B, I agree, I don't really think Ed Reed would be too happy about having to play closer to the line - he's always seemed to me like the kind of guy who excels when he gets lots of space to run around and make plays. He's listed at 200 pounds, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's significantly under that. I bet he racks up sacks if he's asked to blitz from close to the line though - he's got a great burst that will definitely catch somebody off guard if they aren't expecting it.

I also have my suspicions about whether Ray Lewis can still play as well in coverage as he used to, but I'm not going to be the one to tell Ray Lewis he can't cover anymore.

by jim\'s apple pie (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 8:34pm

Can't you just keep this defense off the field by going to 4 wide receiver sets? I don't think a lot of teams used 4 wide back in '85, but you see it a lot more often these days. Even the "three wide with an athletic tight end" type teams (SD, KC) would be almost impossible to cover with this scheme, and that's basically the standard set for those teams.

I'm not saying that it will be horrible, but it seems like it de-emphasizes what was supposed to be a strength of this defense: the secondary.

I think that the '05 Ravens are being widly overestimated. I've seen nothing from Boller that makes me think that he'll be any better than average, Jamal Lewis is one-dimensional and having off-the-field issues, Lewis is in decline (and not working out as hard, according to the article), Ogden isn't the player he once was either, and free agents usually disappoint with their new teams (Mason, Rolle). It SEEMS like they have a lot of talent, and I haven't even mentioned Heap, Clayton, Suggs, and Reed until now, but I just don't believe that they will be this dominating team that some seem to expect. Another 9 win season seems about right.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 9:00pm

Basically, the 46 seems nearly impossible to run against, but the DBs recieve very little help (except for a very strong pass rush) which is why I assume that very good DBs are the starting point for the 46 in the first place... you cant run it if its too easy to pass on you. The Ravens can also always back their players off of the ball; and the novel defense will mean that teams will have less time to prepare for them, in effect.

by Troy Aikman (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 9:14pm

I don't know what the Ravens have planned, but I would predict that Ed Reed plays the Free Safety role in the 4-6. That way he can use his speed and ball-hawking skills to essentially play centerfielder in the backfield. I guess Will Demps would have to play the SS role, but he's only 5 lbs. heavier than Reed. In fact, no safety on the roster is much bigger than Demps. Unless they use a fast LB (which they do have a few of) as SS, they might have problems, especially at the end of games when the undersized players tend to get run down. I've heard a rumor that Dallas might experiment with the 46- and Roy Williams seems the perfect 46 SS- one that tackles like a LB and runs like a FS. I don't know if both of their corners could handle the single coverage though, and they don't seem to have a FS with the range to cover the whole field (or even half the field last year).

I agree with #16 in that this defense could have serious problems with teams that have good recieving TEs or good 3 or 4 WR sets. Wasn't the run and shoot becoming popular right around the time this defense fell out of favor? Also, it seems susceptible to RBs who are good receivers out of the backfield. It is probably not a coincidence that Pittsburgh drafted the best TE in the draft in the year their division rival decides to switch to the 46.

From what I remember, this defense relied heavily on getting to the passer quickly, and if the pass rushers failed to get pressure then the LBs/SS could get burned if they had to cover for too long a time.

by charles (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 9:46pm

The redskins ran the 4-6 front with six lineman in the three technique when they face teams like green bay and pittsburgh and they shut down their running game. But the redskins had sean taylor playing centerfield with springs and smoot on the corner not to mention all four of their d-linemand were 300 pounders. And they had pierce play the rule of singletary. They lead the nfl giving up 3.1 yards a carry. But the key to any defense is matchups. While a 4-6 might work against a rival like pittsburgh. Will a 4-6 work against a team like the bengals who have lots of good wide receivers and can spread the field out.

by Whatever0 (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 10:16pm

The link in my name is to another, similar article, where Rex Ryan discusses the 46. The emphasis is more on the scheme, though, not Ray. His quote on how often the Ravens will use it:

“If we feel like we need it, it’s like aspirin, we’re going to take it,� Ryan said. “It’s definitely a good chunk of what we’re going to use.�

The Ravens probably won't use the 46 as much as some people seem to think: They'll use both the 3-4, 4-3, and 46 fronts. The difference between this year and last year will be that Suggs will be putting his hand down much more than last year, the defense will be much more aggresive, and there will be a greater emphasis on keeping linemen off Ray. The fronts will still change, but a greater percentage will have four down lineman with two DTs on the field to protect Ray.

And, the 46 won't be used against three WR sets any more than the 4-3 is used against them. One of the LBs will be subbed out for Deion, just like a 4-3 team would. When they bring out a fourth wide out, out comes Dale.

That's why I think teams won't spread out the Ravens that much. Deion isn't what he used to be, and neither is Dale, but they are still the best nickle/dime combo in the league. Both are capable of shutting down the third/fourth WR on any team in the NFL.

I think there's only one team the Ravens will play where they use the 46 more than half the snaps. That would be the Steelers. Other times, it will be an excellent change in pace, mixed in with the 3-4 and 4-3.

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Tue, 06/14/2005 - 10:27pm

The thing about the 46 against the pass is that you either have to play a deep zone, in which case you leave the underneath open, or have corners that play excellent man with a FS that can recognize quickly and has excellent ball-hawking skills. Makes sense the Redskins could run it effectively at points last year, then. The QB normally doesn't have a great deal of time with a 46 rushing him.

by Erasmus (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 1:23am

I think the Titans ran the 46 defense when Gregg Williams was still there as DC as well. I remember reading that it was a boom or bust defense that allowed big plays occassionally.

But like someone said before-they are not going to use the 46 as a base defense-I bet its going to be used against the Steelers and maybe the Browns (who seem to have a run-first personnel).

by Chris Smith (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 3:17am

The calculation of the 46 against the pass is that when you go 4 wides or whatever, the Bears would blitz one or two or seven men and ring the QB's head. The other calculation was that the SS, Gary Fencik, would take the head off anyone trying to catch one over the middle. The corners cover their man single, the rush sacks the passer and the Bears win. Its a calculation that the Bears would get more big play sacks, hurries, or ints than the opponent would catch bombs.

In 85, the Bears only loss came against Miami where Marino's quick release and solid line gave the wideouts/TE time to get open. It wasn't run and shoot teams that gave the Bears trouble - just quick passes and good line blocking.

The 46 relied on pretty much the whole team being able to beat their man 1 on 1 to put pressure on the offense. As the defense got older, that didnt happen every week anymore. At that point the Bears offense had declined from good to OK to being pitiful. So for a few years you could tell a Bears game in the first quarter. If the other team could move the ball at all, even just a few first downs they would win more or less easily. If not, the Bears would win another 12-6 / 10-9 game.

by J (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 9:59am


Exactly. Considering their division, using the 46 should be a smart move, I believe whoever wins the divisional games will win that division.

by ElJefe (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 10:02am

Just another comment on what the "46" is ... (see, ellipses :) )

It used 4 down linemen and differed from a traditional 4-3 by covering both guards and the center. The remaining defensive end would line up opposite one tackle and either both OLBs or 1 OLB and the SS would line up opposite the uncovered tackle (likely the TE side of the formation). The Bears had Fridge and Steve McMichael at DT (squatty guys), Richard Dent to play the weakside DE (speed vs. OT) and Dan Hampton to play the DE opposite the OG. I suppose Hampton was considered fairly big for a DE in those days.

The defense helped make Singletary a star because he hid behind the 3 DLs that were covering the middle of the OL. If the defense was working, he would be unblocked on almost every play. It requires a very rangy MLB as he not only has sideline-to-sideline responsibilities, but he also has a lot of middle coverage responsibilities. (Hence the recollection of Singletary often being in the deep middle.)

This was revolutionary in 1985, primarily because it was new and the blitz pickups were awkward for teams that hadn't seen it before. After the first year or two, most teams had incorporated some of the "46" principles into their own defenses and the novelty wore off. The Bears still had a successful defense, but a pair of HoF DEs, a HoF MLB, and a pair of Pro Bowl OLBs had something to do with it. (And McMichael & Fridge weren't exactly chicken feed either.)

by B (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 10:48am

Let's not forget that one of the reasons for the Bears decline after 85 was Ditka and Buddy Ryan could no longer work with eachother, so Ryan left his position as defensive cordinator and took a job as a head coach.

by Aaron (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 11:17am

Regarding "Football 101", I would love to run a series of articles on strategy issues like this, if people would like to write them. We do have an article coming on the distinctions between the 3-4 and 4-3.

Will Demps is set to play the Doug Plank role in Baltimore, as the "Jake linebacker" or whatever that safety in the box is called, and Ed Reed will be the "centerfielder" helping the two corners.

by MDS (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 12:32pm

"Can’t you just keep this defense off the field by going to 4 wide receiver sets?"

Perhaps, but then you've succeeded in taking your opponents out of their base offense. One thing to remember is that the '85 Bears were absolutely dominant with the exception of just one game, against Marino's Dolphins. In that one Marino was finding open receivers all night long, and Ditka and Buddy nearly came to blows on the sideline because Buddy wouldn't switch out of his base 46 to get another defensive back on the field. Of course, there aren't exactly a lot of quarterbacks around who can pick apart a defense the way Marino could.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 2:42pm

Looking over the comments here, its amazing that not a single person actually noted what the 46 defense is supposed to accomplish.

In the 46 the goal is to always have at least 6 men pressurring the O-line and the quarterback.

The Defensive Ends are supposed to beat the Offensive Tackles and go straight for the QB (or the RB on a running play) while maintaining lane discipline.

The Defensive Tackles job is to occupy the Offensive Guards and the Center - so these guys should be big enough to take on 3 men and unconcerned about getting sacks, thus plugging up the middle lanes.

The Strong Safety is in man-coverage lock with the Tight End.

The Outside Linebackers rush the QB and contain the run to the outside of the Offensive Tackles, making most tackles to the outside of the field.

The Middle Linebacker is free roaming and should make most tackles between the two Offensive Tackles. He also shoudl be able to drop back in coverage, in essence becoming the 4th DB.

The two Cornerbacks and Free Safety cover the edge and middle of the field, and can do so in zone up to around 20 yards, and then in man beyond that.

The role of the Outside and Middle Linebackers and the Strong Safety can be interchanged by stunting, so that the offense is left guessing who is blitzing, who is covering the Tight End, who is free roaming, and who is containing the perimeter.

The 46 cannot necessarily be defeated by 4 or 5 Wide Receiver sets. In a 5 set, the Strong Safety would cover the innermost strongside receiver instead of the Tight End, while the Middle Linebacker and Free Safety would take on the other receivers in man or zone coverage. This still leaves the five Offensive Linemen facing six defensive gentlemen running headling for the Quarterback, so there is little time for him to get his receivers down field, unless one Lineman can double team two defenders.

The situation with a 4 receiver set is similar, whether the 11th man left is a Tight End, Running Back, or Full Back. That man should be overmanned by the Strong Safety, and again, 5 Offensive Linemen must stop 6 Defensive Linemen and Linebackers.

Ideally, a 46 defense has (1) good CB's, (2) above average MLB and SS, (3) fast DE's, and (4) big DT's. The OLB's and FS can be average. With the Ravens changing their D-Line back to a normal 4 set, they should be able to run this defense effectively given Ray Lewis at MLB and Ed Reed at SS and Maccaliister and Rolle at CB.

by zach (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 2:49pm

can anyone explain to me how the 46 defense is any different from the conventional "bear" package? or is the only difference that it's the focus of the offensive scheme, rather than a package used mostly in short-yardage situations?

by boyakasha (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 4:04pm

People always say the most important element to the 46 are good corners. So why was the best variant of the 46 run using Mike Richardson and Leslie Frazier at corner? They were not bad players but neither is gonna get anywhere close to the Hall of Fame. The strength of that Bears defence was clearly the front seven.

by MDS (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 4:43pm

I definitely don't think corners are the most important part of a 46 defense. I'd say the middle linebacker is the most important player, followed by a good pass-rushing defensive end and a good strong safety. The Ravens are three-for-three on that score.

by zach (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 4:47pm

front eight.

by bravehoptoad (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 5:02pm

It's threads like this one that make the FO forums the best thing in football on the internet.

I love you guys.

by senser81 (not verified) :: Wed, 06/15/2005 - 7:52pm

re: post #29

Actually, the DE's aren't supposed to beat the OT's and 'maintain lane discipline'. The 46 figured out the best pass blockers are usually the OTs, so they are uncovered in the scheme. The strong end (Hampton) is over the guard, while the rush end (Dent)is outside the LT. Its Dent's job to loop around the LT, while Hampton and the two DT rush straight up the middle. Interestingly the Bears got more sacks in 1984 than in 1985, probably because Mike Hartenstine played over the center and was a more effective pass rusher than the Fridge. Buddy Ryan liked putting Hartenstine and sometimes Hampton over the center because the center was usually the weakest pass-blocker on the O-line. The OLBs are on the same side of the field. Its strange how something as old as the 46 defense is so misunderstood.

by Stiller Fan in Cle (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2005 - 4:07am

Just one question:

With the new focus on downfield contact with recievers, is it really possible for a defense to succeed with only 3 DB's? It seems that the LB covering the slot would get dusted pretty regularly. Also, it seems offenses now are built much more like the Dolphins that torched it.

Unfortunately, it looks pretty good on paper against the Steelers. Which is a shame because it was fun watching Kreider knock the heck out of Lewis.

by ElJefe (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2005 - 10:40am

RE #26:
Buddy and Ditka couldn't work together after '85 primarily because Buddy was the head coach of the Eagles. :) (Where we were treated to the 46-Defense starring Mike Reichenbach, a squat, slow MLB.)

RE #35:
Ah, you've hit it right on the head. The point of covering both guards was to force the center to block one-on-one. In Philadelphia, that was usually against Jerome Brown. That worked out pretty well while it lasted. :(

RE #31:
I think you underestimate Mike Richardson, IIRC he made a few Pro Bowls. But unless you've got Mike Haynes and Deion back there, I think the key to pass defense is QB pressure. And Da Bears had plenty of that.

I don't think this is going to have that great an impact on the Ravens this season. I suspect most teams in the NFL have stolen the good ideas that came of the 46 and incorporated them into other defenses. With the novelty gone it just comes down to players making plays. The Ravens will make it look good because they have a lot of good players.

Hasn't Tennessee been running the 46 as their base since Jeff Fisher took over? If so wouldn't Washington be running something similar (assuming Gregg Williams learned from Fisher)?

by skinsfan2 (not verified) :: Thu, 06/16/2005 - 12:15pm

RE: 37
Yep, washington, tennesse, and buffalo have it in their defensive playbook. But, IMO the best defense is a bend but don't break style instead of a high risk, high reward style.