Early in the game, with Washington facing a 1st and 10 at the Dallas 20, Wade Phillips called a special package, in an attempt to break the Redskins' rhythm. After lining up in their base 3-4, DEs Marcus Spears and Chris Canty slid inside, facing up to the Washington guards. At the same time, Bradie James walked from his inside linebacker position to a spot on the line of scrimmage inside of SOLB Greg Ellis.
In an instant, the Cowboys had moved from their "Phillips 3-4," with speed and gap control, into Buddy Ryan's old "46" scheme, which terrorized defenses in the mid '80s and early '90s. Ryan called it for the '85 Bears, who are considered one of the best defense ever. He built another fearsome version in Philadelphia, with Reggie White anchoring a stellar unit.
Phillips needed a schematic adjustment to help his run defense, which had been ripped by Clinton Portis, Stephen Jackson and the Giants runners in the last six weeks.
Phillips learned the scheme first hand. He was Ryan's defensive coordinator from '86 through '88. The scheme creates mismatches along the line of scrimmage. It's core concept is to take your best pass rusher and put him between the tackles in a 4-3 line, putting three defensive linemen over the three interior offensive linemen.
The smallest and weakest pass blocker on a line is usually a center and the 46 matches him up against your best rusher without help; with the guards covered they can't slide inside. Your star then has the most direct path to the QB. End Dan Hampton thrived in this scheme at Chicago and White tore up pass pockets for the Eagles.
To replace the DE who has moved inside, Ryan moved both his outside linebackers to the strong side, placing one on each side of the tight end. He then rushed both of them frequently. The overload compromises a team's passing options. Teams can use their tight end to block one linebacker and their strong side OT to block the other. If the tight end goes out on a pattern, however, the running back has to cover the rusher, meaning that the left tackle has not help.
This is the other key rusher in the 46 front. Richard Dent played this spot for the Bears and Clyde Simmons made several Pro Bowls for the Eagles in this role.
When Dallas make the adjustments it placed its best rushers in one-on-one match-ups. Ratliff got to rush against Casey Raback and Demarcus Ware went solo against Chris Samuels. The only difference is cosmetic: Dent and Simmons played with their hands down, while Ware plays in a two-point stance.
The scheme paid immediate dividends. Ratliff wasted Raback the first time the scheme was called and sacked Jason Campbell for an eight yard loss. Campbell was rushed into incompletions another couple of times. Washington beat it only once, when Zorn called for an eight-man, max-protection scheme in the 3rd quarter and sent out just two receivers in a post/deep in combination. Antwaan Randle El beat a gimpy Anthony Henry for 23 yards on the play, but in every other instance the matchups favored Dallas.
The last key personnel switch came at middle linebacker. The scheme calls for an all-purpose pivotman, who can chase down running plays, drop into the deep middle on zone calls and turn and track tight ends when the secondary plays man-to-man. Dallas used Kevin Burnett in Zach Thomas' place, because he's the team's best coverage 'backer. He blanketed Chris Cooley. The tight end caught several passes, but they were against other packages and were for very short gains.
Burnett lists at 232 lbs. which is light for a 3-4, especially one that lacks a massive nose tackle. (Ratliff and Tank Johnson list at 290 and 305 respectively.) With three linemen covering him, his weight is not an issue. Burnett is free to chase running plays wherever they go.
The 46 was a simple changeup last night. I counted eight plays where Dallas used it. Because it worked so effectively, I think we'll see it more in the weeks to come.
Tomorrow: How Terence Newman improved the Cowboys' run defense.