Back in March, we were given tribute to an exhaustive and amazing two part post on the JJ43 Defense by Son of a Newton (part I and part II). It is important because both our head coach and defensive coordinator worked for Jim Johnson at different parts of their careers and it is a defensive style that we will see often under the current staff. However, Rivera is also familiar with another famous defensive coach, Buddy Ryan, who put his own stamp on the football world through his innovation of the Ryan 46. It was this defensive alignment that Rivera played during his time as a Super Bowl winning Chicago Bear.
Given the history of Rivera and his familiarity with this defensive style, let's give it look...
Buddy Ryan began to implement this defensive style in 1978 for the Chicago Bears, who at the time were terrible at rushing the passer and stopping the run. If that sounds a little familiar, it should. The Panthers have been struggling in both areas for the last two years now, finishing near the bottom in sacks and run defense. It took him four years, but the by 1982, the using the 46 alignment, the Bears went on to become the stuff of legends still talked about today, 30 years later.
In your typical 4-3 defense, such as the JJ43, the defensive line has a standard line up. The NT playing the 1-technique lines up in the A-gap. The UT plays a 3-technique and lines up in the B-gap. The DE on the strong side takes over the C-gap while the weak side DE is supposed to contain runs to the outside. I myself and not a b ig Xs and Os type of guy, but the image to the right should give you a good idea of how the typical line looks.
Right off the bat, the 46 defense is completely different. Instead of lining up in the typical gap-control, the 46 defense overloads the weak side opposite the tight end. This puts the DE on either the LT or RT, the two DTs on a guard and center, and the last DE on the other guard. As for the linebackers, the typical SLB and WLB also line up in front of the two remaining lineman with the MLB lined up in the middle of the field, behind the DE and DT. The SS comes down and lines up behind the DT and DE, leaving the FS to cover the field behind them and the CBs in single coverage. The biggest strength of such a formation is that it causes havoc for the offensive line. Normally, a defender controls a specific gap. Instead, the 46 causes a defender to line up right on a lineman, making pulls and traps harder to execute since there was a defender right in your face immediately.
In the 1980s, the run game was king and it had to be stopped. The focus of this defense was rushing the passer and disrupting any run plays, and it is very effective. Typically, the defense rushes 3 to 5 defenders on your average play. Linebackers could drop into coverage as needed, but more often than not their job was to get to either the QB or the RB. Like the JJ43, getting this big disruption is the core idea behind this alignment. And it's not just disruption, but also confusion that can be created in such an alignment. After showing such an aggressive front, LBs (either the SLB or the WLB) can drop into coverage in order to throw off the opposing offense.
Now, right off the bat you can probably guess the biggest weakness of this defense, and it is also the reason it is no longer used as much anymore. First of all, your CBs are on their own with only one safety left to cover the whole field. This is, essentially, and 8-man front. Your CBs have to be able to bump and run in order to disrupt short, timing routes found in west coast offenses. They also don't have any help over the top so if a CB gets beat, it will be up to the lone FS to save the play. AS the league becomes more and more pass happy, this front represented a major risk, but the reward is still there.
So why would we use such a front? Well, in the 1980s there was a player by the name of Doug Plank. It is from him that this defensive alignment gets its name. And he was, in fact, not a linebackers for which the Bears were so famous. His base position was the SS in this setup, but in effect he played as a pseudo-linebacker (remember, the SS lines up behind the weakside DE and DT). And here is where the brilliance of confusion can set in and why I think we will see this alignment a bit this year.
Simply put, Thomas Davis would be ideal for the filling the SS role in the 46 defense. He is a former safety himself, converted by the Panthers after drafting him. Now, the roles of the SS in this alignment don't differ much from those of a typical linebacker, essentially transforming this into a 4-4 front. But we here in Carolina are lucky in that we have 4 very talented linebackers. While this scheme shows blitz, any one of the LBs can drop into coverage to defend a pass (a perfect place for Kuechly's coverage abilities to shine). Kuechly can actually fit anywhere in this package, making it difficult for the offense to really know what we plan to do on a particular play. We are also lucky to have Gamble who can neutralize his assignment, taking a little bit of pressure off Godfrey.
Now, the 46 as a base defense will probably not be making a comeback. It is hard to defend short, quick passes like in the West Coast offenses, and with teams becoming more and more pass oriented, the weaknesses in this alignment can be exposed. However, for use as a great wrinkle and a way to get our 4 LBs on the field at once, there is no better sub-package for us. I expect to see it a few times a game, at least, and with McDermot's creative blitz packages, it should pay big dividends.