The game of football is constantly changing and evolving. Much of that evolution is driven by the offensive side of the ball as coaches constantly search for new ways to score points. We also see evolution on the defensive side of the ball, but all too often it is driven by coaches scrambling to address changes on the offensive side of the ball.
We addressed the basic structure of the NFL’s “base” defense in our looks at the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive fronts with two of our first-ever Summer School posts, both of which the New York Giants have run over the last few years.
But NFL defense doesn’t just neatly fit into two boxes. Over the years we have seen defenses shift and change to adapt and adopt concepts as they try to frustrate the offenses they face.
We’re going to start with the 46 defense, or “Bear” front, which isn’t a new defensive scheme but forms the basis for how many modern defenses deal with spread offenses.
History of the Bear Front
Ordinarily when you see a defensive front identified by numbers, you assume that they’re counting the number of down linemen and linebackers. After all, if a 5-2 defense is five linemen and two linebackers, 4-3 is four linemen and three linebackers, and 3-4 is three linemen and four linebackers, a 46 defense features four linemen and six linebackers, right?
Nope. The 46, or “Bear Front” was created by Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan for safety Doug Plank. Plank might have played safety, but in Ryan’s defense he was, essentially, an extra linebacker. Ryan would walk Plank up to the line of scrimmage, giving him a consistent eight-man box and one-on-one match-ups for his five pass rushers. When combined with an aggressive Cover 1 shell to disrupt quick passing routes, the Bear Front formed the foundation for one of the NFL’s greatest defenses.
I had to use every bit of knowledge and experience and wisdom I had to come up with game plans to attack this defense. It’s really the most singular innovation in defensive football in the last twenty years. - Bill Walsh
A true “46” defense demands talented defensive players, like Ryan had at his disposal with Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary on the Bears, or Jerome Brown and Reggie White on the Philadelphia Eagles.
The 46 fell out of fashion through the 1990s and into the 2000s, though some of the core concepts remained.
Today we are seeing the successors to the 46 — now commonly referred to as “Bear Fronts” — re-emerging and forming the basis for some of the most popular defensive concepts at the college level. And as we see concepts from high-powered college spread offenses adopted by NFL offenses, so to are we seeing the Bear front come back to NFL defense.
Identifying the Bear Front
When it comes to defensive fronts in football, the differences between two fronts can seem almost arbitrary. Sometimes it seems as though a player moves a couple feet to his left or right, the name of his position changes slightly, and all of a sudden it’s a different defense.
However, those little changes in alignment can have a big impact. Moving a lineman or linebacker, even a little, can drastically change the angles for offensive linemen.
When it comes to the Bear Front, there are two distinguishing characteristics which identify it. The first is defensive linemen lined up directly across (Heads Up) from the center and each guard. The second is a strong safety and a linebacker lined up on the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the offensive formation.
While the original “46” front designed by Buddy Ryan grew out of the 4-3 fronts of the day, I decided to show it as compared to a “traditional” 3-4 front. There are a couple reasons for the decision, with the first being that the Giants have based their defense on a three-man front for the last couple years and while Patrick Graham used a variety of looks up front, his “base” defense with the Miami Dolphins was a three-man front.
Secondly, because it illustrates one of the defining characteristics of a Bear Front.
While the 46 was made possible by Plank’s uncommon (at the time) ability to walk down from the safety position and play as a psuedo-linebacker, one of the important adjustments Ryan made was the “T-N-T” alignment of the defensive linemen (red box).
At the time, offensive coordinators tried to avoid having centers block nose tackles without help.
“There was basically a rule, in those times, that you never put the center in one-on-one on the nose guard [0-technique nose tackle] on a pass. Because he had to snap the ball and block the guy, which we felt was too difficult. But this defense virtually forced you to, because your only other option was to put a running back on one of the outside rushers and turn everyone else back to help double-team on the nose guard.” - Paul Alexander
The blue box illustrates the “duo” element of the Bear Front, where the safety walks down to cover the tight end on the line of scrimmage, allowing the strong-side edge rusher to play from a wide-9 alignment.
In short, if you see down linemen aligned over the guards and center (red box) with two defenders on the line of scrimmage, on the strong side of the formation (blue box), you are looking at a Bear Front.
Strengths of the Bear Front
Rushing the passer
When Buddy Ryan was designing the 46 defense, one of his stated goals was to improve his team’s pass rush.
To stop a passing game, you can’t stop it unless you put pressure on it. Now some people are good enough to put it on with a three-man rush; well, we’re not. In fact, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to put it on with a four-man rush. If we have to send eight, we’ll send eight, but we’re not going to let you sit back there and pick us apart.
By moving his defensive linemen closer together and lining up heads-up on the guards and center, walking the safety down, and still using two edge rushers, Ryan was able to create a consistent five-man pass rush. Being able to bring five rushers, and from the alignments he chose, Ryan was able to create five one-on-one matchups, frustrating many blocking schemes. Offenses are either forced to try and win those one-on-one matchups, or keep tight ends or running backs in to block, rather than releasing them into routes.
The Bear Front is frequently combined with a Cover 1 defense in the secondary. The aggressive man coverage in a Cover 1 is designed to allow defenders to disrupt routes early in the play, to prevent quarterbacks from evading pressure with quick passes. If offenses are forced to keep potential receivers back as blockers, they’re less able to create numbers advantages or responsibility conflicts in the secondary.
The Bear Front is generally considered to be a run defense and is commonly called in short-yardage or goal line situations. The Bear Front’s advantages as a run defense are obvious to see in a basic diagram.
The Bear Front naturally places eight defenders in the tackle box, which will pretty much always limit the amount of rushing yardage an offense is able to generate. It’s a matter of simple math that if the defense has more defenders than the offense has blockers for a running play, the defense will have the advantage.
The Bear Front takes it a step further with the alignment of its defenders.
By concentrating defensive linemen on the interior, it accounts for each of the offense’s interior blockers, preventing the double-teams most inside running plays depend on to be successful. And not only does the Bear demand that the interior linemen win one-on-one blocks, it also positions edge defenders for contain while linebackers can come up to take on the offensive tackles.
At the time it was conceived, the Bear Front was innovative, solved a number of problems which offenses created for defenses, and created a few problems of its own for offenses.
Defeating the Bear Front
The primary weakness of the Bear Front against the passing game is its aggression. It relies on an aggressive Cover 1 defense to both free up the manpower to keep eight defenders in the box and create a natural five-man rush. And while Cover 1 shells generally result in the lowest completion percentages, they can also be unforgiving and when they break, they break spectacularly.
I won’t belabor the point here, as Nick Falato just did an incredible breakdown of Cover 1 shells and how to beat them. I encourage everyone to go back and take a second look at that piece. Of the options he presented for beating a Cover 1, I’m partial to the “Mirrored Slant” and “Slant/Flat” concepts when also faced with an aggressive defensive front. Not only do they create responsibility conflicts against man coverage, but they are quick-hitting plays that can still help to negate the pass rush.
There is, however, one other way to frustrate the Bear Front through the air, and that’s play-action.
At its core, play-action is all about misdirection and playing on the defense’s expectations. And while Buddy Ryan initially conceived of the 46 defense as a way to pressure the passer, it has primarily been viewed as a run defense. So it’s reasonable to conclude that opposing defensive coaches are teaching it as a run defense, and the players will be looking for a running play.
Good play-action is difficult for defenses to stop because reacting to the initial run fake is hard-wired into their response. Assuming the quarterback and offensive line do their job in selling a run play, the eight defenders will come up to defend a run which isn’t coming, opening up the middle of the field for a pass. And because of how the Bear Front and the Cover 1 are constructed, that should leave just three defenders in coverage and a void in the middle of the field where the off-ball linebackers used to be.
Running on the Bear
When it comes to running the ball, it often comes down to a numbers game. If the offense outnumbers the defense, it’s probably going to be a good run, and if the defense outnumbers the offense, the running back probably won’t find much yardage.
The Bear Ffront is an effective counter to the running game because the concentration of defensive linemen in the middle pretty much forces interior running games to bounce plays outside, out of their comfort zones. While almost every NFL running game is multifaceted, the inside zone is one of the most popular and versatile running schemes in the league. It can be adapted to almost any offensive philosophy and the balance of finesse and power appeals to a broad swath of coaches, particularly in short yardage situations when the speed of the game accelerates. The Bear might not be able to stop every run, but it makes those inside runs difficult at best.
What’s the answer if the numbers aren’t in your favor? Change the numbers.
Ordinarily offenses will attack a Bear Front by running at the weak side of the formation, where they are more likely to be able to shift the numbers in their favor. But here we’ll look at a play where the offense runs into the teeth of the defense.
This play is from 2015, when Rex Ryan (son of Buddy Ryan) was coaching the Bills. The Bills’ defensive formation shows the hallmarks of a (slightly modified) Bear Front with three defensive linemen lined up over the guards and center, as well as a duo lined up over the tight end and at the 9-technique.
Looking at the diagram of the play, we see how the Bengals are able to change the math on the play side to give themselves the numbers advantage. Now let’s take a look at the play in action and see how changing the math can turn what would likely have been a modest gain into a touchdown.
The left tackle and left guard pull all the way across the formation to establish blocks on the play side. By pulling both blockers from the left side, the Bengals are able to devote five blockers to four defenders, essentially creating a light box for the running back. And with each of the blockers winning their one-on-one blocks, the left tackle is able to sneak through the right D-gap to block the middle linebacker.
In order to allow the tackle and guard to pull, the Bengals let the left (defensive right) edge go unblocked. It’s a calculated risk that their play-side blocks will be effective and he won’t be able to run the back down from behind.
The center, right guard, and right tackle each down-block, each taking the defender lined up to their left. Those are difficult blocks, but necessary to allow the guard and tackle to pull.
Finally, we see a good block from the Bengals’ receiver on the right side to make sure the defensive back isn’t able to make a tackle short of the goal line. That’s one final weakness of the Cover 1 defense, as the tight man coverage makes it easier for receivers to block corners.
There’s no such thing as a perfect defense in football. There is only the best defense you can call to fit your personnel and what you think the offense is going to call. The original 46 defense was close to a “perfect” defense when it was first unveiled by Buddy Ryan, but as the game as grown and evolved, offensive coordinators have come up with answers.
In the time since the early 1980s we’ve seen how the Bear Front can be effective and difficult to counter. We’ve also seen that the Bear Front can present opportunities for big plays if the right counters are called.
Defensive coordinators, of course, have adapted and evolved in response as well. As mentioned above, while the 46 defense, or Bear front, fell out of fashion, it has formed the basis for some of the most popular and effective responses to the spread offense — but that’s a topic for another time.