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Cowboys Magazine: Wade Phillips and the 46 Defense

[Ed Note]: BTB will be running a series of posts over the next few weeks highlighting some of the articles in the new magazine Maple Street Press Cowboys Annual. I did the editing and Rafael did a lot of the feature writing for the magazine that will go on sale July 21st in outlets around the country. You can pre-order the magazine for delivery by visiting the Maple Street Press website. Besides getting a great magazine with 128-pages of Cowboys goodness complete with plenty of analysis and photos, you'll also be supporting Rafael and I along with BTB. So go pre-order now.

Today's feature article is by Rafael Vela entitled: Who's Your [Football] Daddy? Wade Phillips and his Two Football Fathers. I'll let Rafael do the set-up for the article and tell you more about it.


Wade Phillips dusted off the 46 scheme he learned from Buddy Ryan to rescue his season.  Dallas played the 46 close to half the time in the Redskins rematch win and used it a lot down the stretch.  Dallas has an improved coverage secondary this year, with a lot more speed at the safety position.  For this reason, I expect Phillips to blitz much more heavily this year.  With a trusted -- and bigger -- Keith Brooking playing MLB instead of Zach Thomas, I think Wade Philips will unleash the Bear package and its blitzes a lot, lot more this year.

-- rv

[Excerpt from the actual magazine article]:

Dallas limped into its bye having surrendered 439 rushing yards in its previous three games. Good teams were out muscling Dallas's front seven. On the line, only Ratliff played consistently good ball. His backup Tank Johnson, either played very well or hardly at all. The same was true of right end Chris Canty, who could dominate for a series or a quarter, and then disappear for equal amounts of time. Left end Marcus Spears was playing better football, but he lacked big play ability.


Phillips then made a tactical switch, elevating the 46 from a change-up, third down defense to his primary scheme.

Buddy Ryan created the 46 scheme on the philosophy that the defense should dictate play to the offense. It modifies a base 4-3 scheme to maximize interior pass rush, create rush mismatches on the edges, and put eight men within five yards of the line of scrimmage to create numerical edges for the defense against running plays.

The first change involved moving the best pass rusher from end to nose tackle. In Chicago, Ryan lined up Dan Hampton between his defensive tackles. In Philadelphia, Reggie White lined up on the nose. The thinking is to put your best rusher on one of the line's weakest pass blockers one-on-one. Because two defensive tackles are playing over the offensive guards, neither one of them can help the center. On the strong side, the 46 deploys two linebackers, one on each side of the tight end. One or both of them can rush, creating an overload on that edge if the tight end releases on a pass route. On the weak side, the speed rusher lines up wide and gets to duel the tackle in space.

The scheme plays to Dallas's strengths. Dallas's best rushing lineman was already on the nose, but putting two tackles alongside him meant he could not be double teamed. DeMarcus Ware was already playing the Richard Dent/Clyde Simmons role, only from a two point stance instead of with his hand down. Bradie James emerged as a rushing linebacker in 2008 and lining him up next to Greg Ellis gave offensive coordinators headaches. Both of them finished with eight sacks and an opponent could not be sure if one or both of these skilled rushers would attack the quarterback on any given play.

The 46 also covered up the Cowboys rush weakness at inside linebacker. With three defensive linemen parked over the three interior offensive linemen, Dallas could play a smaller, speedier middle linebacker and let him float to the ball. Dallas had such a player in the 227-pound Kevin Burnett. He had excelled in coverage as Dallas's nickel backer but the coaches had been reluctant to play him on first and second downs. The 46 made him an every-down player.

What's more, the Cowboys could shift easily from set to set. They could deploy in their base set and then slide both defensive ends inside. James would then walk from his strongside inside linebacker slot to the gap vacated by the end and the 46 was in place.

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