The Ryan D, Part 3: the Cowboys Sink Into the 46

Anthony Spencer

In part two of our breakdown of Rob Ryan’s 3-4 we looked at gap control, and that Ryan played a predominantly one-gap system.  Today, we’ll look at the front flexibility the 3-4 offers.

Here’s a short-yardage situation from Arizona’s first series in the Cowboys-Cards game from last year.  Arizona faces a 3rd-and-1 on its own 20.  The Cards have put in a “deuce” personnel set, something the Cowboys also call their 22 personnel package — two tight ends and two backs:

The Cowboys have their base 3-4 package in, but have made one critical adjustment.  Because the Cards have only one receiver in the game, the Cowboys have removed one of their cornerbacks and replaced him with an extra linebacker.  Dallas has a 3-5-3 in the game: the three linemen, two outside ‘backers, three inside backers, two safeties and one corner.

That’s the package.  The front is a variation of Rob’s father Buddy Ryan’s 46.  Some teams call this an Eagle front.  Some call it sink.  It can be walked into with a couple of simple adjustments to the odd 3-4 we saw before.   Here’s the odd again:

Now, pre-snap both ends slide from 5-technique spots shading the offensive tackles to 3-technique spots over the guards.  The Ted linebacker walks to the strongside and brackets the strong-side tight end;  he’s on one TE shoulder while the Sam is on the other.  The strong safety walks up into the box and assumes the second inside ‘backer spot where the Ted was, while the weak safety drops into the deep middle:
This is how the 46 is used against a balanced basic offensive front, with two receivers.  Being a short-yardage play, the offense has put in a 2nd tight end.  Hence Rob Ryan has the same 46 line — Jay Ratliff is on the nose, while Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman are over the guards.  Demarcus Ware is the weakside OLB.  On the strong-side, the backers are inverted; Anthony Spencer is inside the TE while Bradie James is on his outside shoulder.  
Coverage is man-to-man.  Mike Jenkins has Larry Fitzgerald up top, while Abe Elam is shadowing the H-back.  Where the SS would be, you can see Dallas has Sean Lee and Alex Albright.  Ryan is expecting a run and is selling out to stop it.
Let’s look at gap control.  You can see in still two that the Cowboys are not staying in their pre-snap lanes.  Let’s start on the strong side, to Arizona’s left.  The play is headed that way, with the tailback Beanie Wells following the fullback into the B-gap between the left guard and left tackle.  
Bradie James is taking the D gap outside of the TE.  Anthony Spencer has knifed across the left tackle’s face and it taking the B-gap between the G and OT.   DE Hatcher is angling towards the A-gap at the left guard’s inside shoulder and Jay Ratliff is attacking the other A-gap to the center’s right.
Spencer makes the play at the point of attack.  Not only does he beat his blocker, the LT, but he engages the fullback, who is trying to get out to Sean Lee (50).  With Spencer blowing up two blockers, he and Jason Hatcher set the line of scrimmage on Arizona’s backfield.  Lee is able to follow Spencer and herd Wells towards the cutback lane on his right.   Ratliff has beaten the center and drops Wells for a loss, forcing a punt:

The tight defensive front gave every man on the Dallas front single blocking and the slant call gave the play-makers like Ratliff and Hatcher the opportunity to use quickness and power to win the down.  You won’t see the Cowboys sitting over blockers and waiting for the action to come at them.  Their personnel isn’t built for that and it’s hardly Rob Ryan’s style.

When you break down the games you see several plays like this one from Anthony Spencer.  They are why the coaches were in no hurry to let him get away.  Spencer doesn’t lack for big-play power.  Consistency is another matter.

Next:  isolating playmakers in the nickel.

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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  • richard

    i was just thinking the perfect person for the ss position in this formation would be bruce carter. his name keeps jumping into my head whenever these exotic fronts come up because of his coverage abilities and linebacking skills

  • Sag Bo

    Rafael…need some clarity.  You mention they took out one CB and brought in an extra ILB giving 3 ILBs and 1 CB, however, your diagram still shows two CBs and 2 ILBs.

    • No, Sag Bo.  They have 3 ILBs — Albright and Lee are in the normal ILB spots and James walked to the outside and is over the TE.  He’s next to Spencer.

      You can’t see Sensabaugh in the first still, because he’s in the deep middle, but they have 1 CB, 2 Ss, 2 OLBs, 3 ILBs and 3 DL.

      the S Elam (26) is shadowing the H-back.  Jenkins is the only CB on the field.

  • Michael

    This is a great series of articles. Once again, Raf, you prove why this is the best Cowboys blog.

  • Lee1936

    Glad to see Spencer getting a little recognition.  Couple months ago, quite a few folks were itching to be rid of him.  He’s not great, but pretty good, especially against the run, and contributes some on pass rush.  

    He’d be tough to replace.  
    In this year’s draft, I saw no obvious upgrades at SOLB.  The top prospect, Courtney Upshaw, was not taken until round 2.  Wes Bunting’s guess was that Upshaw would not be a better pass rusher, but about the same.

  • truecowboyfan

    I like the idea of the Cowboys in the 46. Its schemes it so that Ratliff is probably single blocked, which is critical. In fact, you could move Rat to the 3-tech or the nose to get the most favorable matchup for him. For example, against the Eagles, I would like Ratliff against Kelce, rather than have him face their two powerful OGs. But against the Jets, perhaps you would rather not have Ratliff match up against Mangold.

    • Bluefin

       Wade Phillips used a lot of 46 looks (I often call it the Bear front because that’s where it started and some former players call it that) in 2008.

      That’s when Jay Ratliff emerged as a pass rusher with a career high 7.5 sacks. It’s also when Bradie James shocked us all with 8 QB kills, also his career high.

      Greg Ellis chipped in another 8 sacks and the defense had balance on the strongside (16 sacks) to match Demarcus Ware’s 20 sacks from the weakside.

      Wade liked the front because it forced single blocking on his three best rushers and the results that year were off the charts.

      The Son of a Bum didn’t seem to use it much thereafter, for reasons unknown.

      • truecowboyfan

         Really? I didn’t know that, but that is very interesting. The Cowboys have the CBs to be pretty aggressive this year, so maybe we’ll see a little more of this formation in 2012.

      • It’s fun to think about, but I think the evolution of passing offenses limits its use.  To make it work you would need a SS like Darren Woodson, who could be your second ILB or take a receiver or H-back in the slot man-to-man.  Otherwise, the Packers and Saints would spread you out and attack your SS and ILBs.  

        Dallas doesn’t have a guy like that.  

        • Richard Yancey

          they do and his name is bruce carter

          • I’ll believe that when I see it.  Dallas gave Woodson slot CB responsibility in nickel.  I’ve got a tape from ’95 where he covers Tim Brown for a dozen snaps or so.

            You’re telling me Carter can cover #1 WRs one-on-one?  Color me skeptical.

          • Richard Yancey

            you are not generally going to put your best receiver in the slot most of the time it is either a tightend or your third wr

          • A lot of teams do this.  Dallas used Miles Austin in the slot all year.  

            Even if he’s not #1, you really think Carter could take a Victor Cruz? Cause he’s NY’s slot when they go 3 wide.

  • AustonianAggie

    That was a great break down.  I can also see why it’s valuable to interview guys like KC Joyner, because consistency can’t be measured on one play.  I know you can’t break down every play Dallas played this thoroughly!

  • Workingtonian

    Good stuff. Keep it coming. I have a really good feeling about our D this year. We’ve really added some talent and RR has time to coach them up.