Masters of Disguise — The Fluid Face of the Ryan 3-4

Recall the dark days of September and October, when Wade Phillips’ 3-4 was bleeding yards and points in obscene amounts.  Opposing quarterbacks and coaches commented on the ease with which they could recognize Dallas’ intent.  Blocking schemes and read progressions were set and the Cowboys blitzes, no matter the intensity or variety, were stumped.

That should not be as big a problem for the Rob Ryan 3-4, which places a premium on pre-snap movement and disguise.  The Ryan brothers choose the 3-4 over their dad Buddy’s preferred 4-3, because they feel it offers more flexibility in attacking a front.  Today, we’ll look at one sequence from Ryan’s Saints game plan.  The play shows the ease with which his Browns, and his new Cowboys, can and will operate.
Here is the first play of New Orleans’ second series.  As the Saints come to the line of scrimmage, the Browns are in daddy Buddy’s favored 46 front:
The defensive ends are tight, putting all three linemen over the center and guards.  This means no help for any of the interior OL three on the rush, giving the nose a potential mis-match.  Strongside inside backer Matt Roth, the Ted backer, is walking wide to line up inside the tight end, where strong OLB Scott Fujita will line up outside the TE.  The Browns are teasing a max pressure front against the Saints’ one-back set.
Just before the count, however, the DEs flex wide, while Roth drops back into a deeper set over the strong-side guard:
With minimal effort, the Browns have moved from the Buddy Ryan 46 to a standard, odd 3-4 look.  It’s unclear if the movement caused Drew Brees to change his play call, but the Saints ran a toss to their left, away from the stacked linebackers in the 46.  Cleveland stopped the play after a small gain.  
As much as the late movement is intended to confuse the quarterback, it is also meant to confuse the offensive line’s calls and blocking assignments.  It won’t work every time, but if the linemen are hesitant or confused, blocks will be missed and negative plays will be generated because defenders will get free paths to the football.
Keep it simple for yourselves.  Make it harder for your opponents.  This is one aspect of the Ryan 3-4.  
Next:  disguising the blitz.  
Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for
Rafael Vela

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  • Daddy Ryan’s 46 has six players along the line, of which 4 would be in a three point stance. I count 5 myself, and only the “diamond” in a 3 point.

    And if they were reacting to the 46, they would do so by shifting to a spread formation and throwing, not running to the strong side of a formation that has “ends” in a 9 technique and has a de facto 8 man line.

    Does Rob Ryan ever play the Desert Swarm? I’d be curious.


    • Rafael Vela


      The Ryans call it the 46.  Wade, who was Buddy’s DC for a year, also used this front on occasion.  The only difference here is that the weakside DE is in a two point stance rather than a three.  They’re all lined up in the same places.  

      • Rafael,

        In a classic 46, along the strong side, you have a tackle in the 3, a linebacker in the 40, a linebacker in the 6i and a “end/rush linebacker” in the 7 or 9 (usually a 7). 8 in the box. Where’s the 6i? This leads to a 4-3 overmatch on the strong side, and the tight end – in a classic 46 – can’t block both linebackers. That’s why you don’t run to that side.  That’s also why if this is a classic 46, a strong side toss would not be the “46 reaction”.

        The photo you show clearly shows a “diamond”, but no one in the 6i. It -could- be a 46, as the 6i is often the adjuster, but it also could be any kind of double eagle defense, including Earle Neal’s Eagle defense of the late 40s. Without a clearer view of the entire field, it’s hard to say.


  • Weareblma

    though i know this is the SLOWSLOW off-season, but still miss ur writings…
    welcome back!

    btw, thought roy w telling everyone his life philosophy, going the easy way, 
    no respect to others feelings, won’t take NO for answer, carefree?

  • Glad to see you are not on strike Raf!

  • Rafael Vela

    Let me get this straight.  Roy Williams proposed to a woman, with a mondo engagement ring — via the mail?!!!!!!!

    There’s a Roy Willie joke or ten in there, but my brain is too fried from the summer head to come up with it.  I’ll leave that to you.  

    • Rafael Vela

      Uh, that’s summer heat.  Point proven.

      • Sean N

        summer head huh Raf?

        • Rafael Vela

          Not going there.  Just not going there.

          • Sean N

            Typos happen to the best of us 😉

    • Doomsday

      Why are you surprised to hear that Roy just mailed it in?  Seems about right.

      • greatwhitenorth

        I prefer to say that he just “dropped” it in the mail….

      • TL fan

        that is very funny, Doomsday

        I normally do not infer much from individual’s personal lives,
        but there are times when people’s actions are so beyond the pale that it makes
        you wonder if they simply lack mental fortitude.

        This is one of those moments.

  • Tex

    Wade Phillips = addition by subtraction.