Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 1966 Miami Dolphins and the 46 Defense

LOOKING BACK
By John Turney
Credit: Sports Illustrated
It's been said that the NFL does not invent anything it just recycles old concepts. We are not sure that is 100% true but there are certainly many aspects where that concept is true. One such occurrence is the Dolphins used of what was later known as the 46 defense fairly regularly in their inaugural season.

George Wilson was the new franchise's head coach in 1966 and he had a long and powerful career in the NFL from a player (1937-46) and as an assistant coach (1949-65) on the offensive side of the ball. Over that span, it was certain that he'd seen everything in terms of what NFL defenses did.

He chose as his defensive assistants Tom Keane as defensive backs coach and play caller, recently retired player Bob Pelligrini as the linebackers coach and Les Bingaman as the defensive line coach. Keane was a former player and had been a defensive coach in the NFL before joining the Dolphins staff. He, too, would have had lots of experience seeing various offensive and defensive schemes and had a working knowledge of how to employ them.

In 1966 he turned to what would have then been known as the "Eagle" defense which got its moniker from the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1950s which was usually a 5-2 (five lineman, 2 linebacker defense).
Background
In the early 1950s there were various defensive fronts used by various teams. The 4-3, as a base defense for most of the teams was still a few years away and NFL teams used  5-3, 5-2, 6-1 fronts and spaced those players in a variety of ways.

Here are the New York Giants in their famed 6-1 Umbrella defense. The two outside players were still called ends, though they are in two-point stances and if we were to consider them linebackers (and they did have pass coverage responsibilities) it would be a 4-3 defense and even more technically a 4-3 overshift since one of the tackles is shaded over the outside shoulder of the guard/inside shoulder of the tackle which in today's general terms would be a 3-technique.

In this still the Giants defense (on far side) in a 6-1 only it is an even front, with two "3 techniques".

Here are the Browns in a standard 5-2. The tackles, as they were called at the time, we head-up on the offensive tackles, what is now known as a 4-technque. It resembles a 3-4 defense of more recent years.

Here is another screenshot of the Browns in for all intents and purposes is a 3-4, just imagine the DEs being called outside linebackers and the DTs being called ends.
Here is the Eagles defense of that era, as one can see they have a player over the center (Zero technique) and two 3-techniques. that is the feature that was unique when Greasy Neal invented the alignment. And to this day, many coaches still call the 3-techique an "Eagle tackle".

It is, here, a seven-man front (a 5-2) but a safety could be walked up to create the so-called 8-man box.
1966 Dolphins
In 1966, film study shows that a good percentage of the time the Miami Dolphins used this front, both as a 7-man and 8-man front. Sometimes they would align with it, other times they would stem into it (stem is to the defense what a shift is to the offense, it simply means lining up in one spot and moving to another, pre-snap).

Here are a couple of screen shots:


As can be seen above there is a zero technique and two 3-techniques. The right end is actually linebacker Wahoo McDaniel with his hand in the dirt. Frank Emanuel is the middle linebacker and number 53 is Tom Erlandson who is on the tight end. Outside him, out of the shot, is left defensive end Ed Cooke.

A complete film study would be required to pinpoint how well the Dolphins did in this front and how often. But from seeing quite a bit of film, we'd estimate it was at least 10-15% of the time, maybe more. Perhaps Tom Keane chose to use it based on his experience seeing it from a defensive perspective or maybe the opposite is true. Perhaps George Wilson faced it and thought it served a purpose. 

Sadly, none of the coaches are around to ask. Les Bingaman had a heart attack on the field during a 1969 game, collapsed and nearly died (actually he DID die but an adrenaline shot injected into his heart revived him). He later succumbed to heart issues in 1970. Wilson, Keane and even Pellegrini have also passed on. Perhaps in due time, we can connect with some of the players who are still with us and we can get more information.

The Dolphins were not the only team to employ this, but again, it was rare in our view, based on some fairly extensive study.
Other pre-46 Uses of the Eagle
In 1971 and 1972 the Saints would use it. They tried it in the game that the Rams Willie Ellison gained 247 yards rushing. Here you can see the easy-to-spot "3-0-3" front or "Eagle front:

Here is a screenshot of the 1975 Vikings using 5-defensive linemen with Alan Page over the center in the Eagle front, this was a year before Buddy Ryan became the defensive line coach there
The fifth linemen is Bob Lurtsema playing over the guard, which was Page's usual spot. 

Throughout the time from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and even recently, teams would achieve the "Eagle" or double-Eagle look from a 4-3 defense my simply having the middle linebacker step up and put his hand in the ground in front of the center, between the two defensive tackles. The late-1950s-1960s Bears did it quite often with Bill George with his hand in the dirt between the tackles. 
That was the most common way we saw of covering the center and both guards, but that was merely the middle part of the defense, without the way the tight end was covered as in the Saints shot above and as the 1966 Dolphins did and how the Buddy Ryan Bears of the 1980s did it.

Here is a couple of examples of  that from the 1975 Bears, 1968 Rams, and 1965 Chargers
The 46 Defense
In 1980, of course, Buddy Ryan revived the double Eagle look, gave it a name, and it became a phenom in the mid-1980s as the Bears used in 1984-85 about 40% of the snaps and won the Super Bowl in 1985. If Ryan used it before 1980 we have not seen it. In 1978 he did experiment with a 3-4 defense, he called "Okie" but it was short-lived. In 1979 it was predominately a 4-3 defense with the usual over- and under-shifts.
Here it is in 1980 with Doug Plank #46 walked up to create the 8-man front. It is his uniform number that gave Ryan's version of this defense its name. 

In this screen shot the 46 is a 5-man line since strong side rusher Al Harris has his hand on the turf, as does the weak side rusher, Mike Hartenstine #73. Alan Page is the nose and Dan Hampton and Jim Osborne are the 3-techniques. Otis Wilson is on the instep of the tight end, a position Wilbur Marshall would play in 1985 with Wilson playing where Al Harris, #90 is, only using a 2-point linebacker stance.
Here it is in 1984, with the tight end on the right side so the linebacker combination is on the right, As you can see Wilson and Harris have changed positions since 1980. (In 1985 Harris and Bell #25 held out and Marshall and Dave Duerson stepped in and the defense didn't miss a beat).

One note is that the 3-technique is tighter with the Bears (and 1966 Dolphins) than with the 1950s Eagles. The actual playbooks we've have seen often call for the players over the guards to be head-up or a 2-technque but it seldom shows in the games we've seen the defenders are almost never head-up, but in the 3-tech.

Here is the 1981 iteration of the 46. Todd Bell (#25) is playing one of the linebacker spots and Len Walterscheid is in Plank's position. 
Once the Bears had success with the defense, other teams followed and tried it. By the late 1980s all teams seemed to use it to some degree. The 3-4 teams would simply shift (sink) their defensive ends from over the tackles to over the guards. The 4-3 teams would do what the Bears did and shift their linemen to the appropriate spots.

Here are the Rams, in 1982, using it against the Bears. Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood is "reduced" or "sunk" to a 3-technique over the Bears right guard and Mike Fanning is the zero technique and Cody Jones is the right-side 3-technique.

In 1988 Fritz Shurmur (who was the Defensive Coordinator in the above still) used the 46 Defense, though he called it the Eagle defense and used 5 linebackers because the Rams had injuries among their line and had plently of solid linebackers. The nose was, at first converted college defensive lineman Mike Jerue but when he was injured Fred Strickland was the nose, or "nose-backer". He would stem from the zero technique to an inside linebacker position and when he did that Shurmur referred to it as the "Hawk" defense.
Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher are the outside rushers, Larry Kelm in on the instep of the tight end on the near side and the only two defensive linemen are in 3-technique position. The Rams used it a decent amount but it was never their base defense, which was a two-gap 3-4. However, outside of the Bears and Buddy Ryan-era Eagles, the 1988-91 Rams likely used it the most. The Rams also liked to employ a linebacker heavy nickel/dime scheme in that era which would use, at times, only one and even no defensive lineman since Fred Strickland and enough size, strength, and quickness to rush from a defensive tackle position as did a linebacker named George Bethune.

The Eagle gap responsibility page from Fritz Shurmur's playbook on the 5 linebacker defense.


 After Ryan left the Bears they cut down on its use from approximate highs of 40% in 1984 and 1985 to perhaps 20% in 1986-89 or so. Again, seeing all the games and charting them is the only way to find the exact numbers.

One final shot, again it's the Rams, this time in 2013. Jeff Fisher's defense called this 'Cheat' with usual right defensive end Robert Quinn in an "Eagle" defensive tackle position, though it's a 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) rather than a 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) and Chris Long has moved from left end to right end and Alec Olgletree is essentially the stand-up end/weak-side rusher in this instance.
Credit: NFL Replay
If fans ever want to see the golden age of the 46 they can watch almost any game from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Our guess is that almost all teams in those games will use the Eagle/Bear (46)/Cheat or whatever they called it in every game.

It is used to this day, almost all teams will use it if their usual run defense is not doing the job and the three inside blockers being 'covered-up' discourages runs to the middle. However, smart quarterbacks will usually try and check out of a run and thy to throw against this 8-man version and thus the game of cat and mouse continiues as it has since the 1950s Eagles, to the 1966 Dolphins to the 1980s Bears to 2017.

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