Ever since the Dallas Cowboys hired Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator, I've been trying to get a handle on what kind of defense the Cowboys will running in 2011 (assuming there is a 2011 season). I knew we'd still be a 3-4 base team, but how different would the scheme be compared to the one-gap attack of Wade Phillips, or the "dancing bears" two-gap responsibility of the Parcells' tree. And what about the "46" defense pioneered by Rob's father, and Cowboys arch-enemy, Buddy Ryan? How much of a role would that play?
My voyage of discovery included asking Randy White about it, since he played against the elder Ryan, and Sean Lee, who has already conversed with Rob Ryan about it, and doing some research around the Internet. I think I've come to some basic conclusions about where this is going. Of course, a lot will have to do with the Cowboys defensive personnel, and what Ryan thinks they're capable of. For instance, can these corners withstand a lot of man-to-man coverage, or will he have to go with a zone/robber scheme.
In Oakland, he had Nnamdi Asomugha, so he could run man-to-man, or rotate his coverage into helping the other side. If he doesn't think Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman can lockdown in a man-to-man scheme, and there's ample evidence that they struggle with that, he could run a Man Under/2-Deep concept with the free safety playing a 'robber' position. This site about the '46' defense talks specifically about the Ryan's running a Man Under/2-Deep scheme and how the 'robber' concept plays into it.
We shall see, but in general, Ryan prefers an aggressive approach in terms of getting after the quarterback, and he can do that from the base 3-4 by running blitzes at the offense, including some creative blitzing from the secondary. One thing that Ryan says himself is that he views the '46' defense more as a nickel defense, and that his father only ran it as a base because of the great personnel he had that year.
Based on what I've read, here are some hallmarks of a Rob Ryan defense.
"We want to be multiple and we want to have multiple players who can play different spots and cause confusion. That’s where we want to get to. Right now, the first thing is to be able to line up and play with good technique. That’s where we are starting. That’s what we tried to emphasize in the OTAs and the minicamp. I was impressed with how hard the guys were working and picking things up. As soon as you get a grasp of your basic concepts, the sooner you can be multiple and be more effective."
--- That concept leads into the next hallmark: Confusing the offense (i.e. the QB). He accomplishes this by showing pre-snap reads, then rotating coverage to put players in positions where the QB thinks they won't be. From the Bengals coaching staff on playing a Rob Ryan defense:
"No. 1, you've got to make sure you button up and protect the quarterback," [Marvin] Lewis said. "No. 2, that you don't throw the ball into where you think is a hole and it's kind of a trap coverage. They do an excellent job in the red zone. Those are the challenges."
I think there's a lot to this defense, there's a lot of looks, and I think he's going to make sure to give a lot of looks and it will be a pain for the offense. He's going to make sure we're in the best situation on defense that we can be in, and he's going to make sure that we are going to get after them.
--- Physical defense with attitude. This stems from Ryan's persona. Again, from several Bengals coaches:
"I think [the Cowboys defense is] going to be very physical," Lewis said.
"He does a great job scheme-wise and he does a great job of getting his players to rally and play very hard," Bratkowski said. "They play very physical, they play with a lot of emotion, and his schemes are really good.
--- A free safety who can read offenses and play deep middle or a 'robber' position. When using a '46', you need a free safety who can read the offense, especially concentrating on the slot receiver and reading his pattern. That dictates whether he drops into a man-to-man (for vertical routes) or drops into a 'robber' coverage in the underneath interior. Ryan confirms this:
"I like our corners here with Cleveland. In Oakland [man-to-man] was our style of play. It was how the team was drafted, to play with a middle-field safety.
--- Pressure the QB. Any defense that runs elements of the '46' are looking to get after the QB while simultaneously stopping the run. The trick? Having pass-rushers who can get to the QB before the secondary gives way. It can be feast or famine. Randy White on Buddy Ryan's '46':
Those guys were good and it was a philosophy that they'll outnumber you on the line of scrimmage, and force your quarterback to find the open guy before they can get to you. And that was pretty tough to do.
[Rob and Rex] wrap it in different packages but it's the same thing.
Sean Lee on the aggressive defense:
And we're going to be on the attack, and I like that, I think that's how a defense needs to play.
And the other thing you always hear about Ryan and his defense? That guys love to play for him, they feed off his enthusiasm and his demeanor.
Jason Garrett found this out while talking to people about Ryan.
"I think he creates an atmosphere where it's hard, it's tough, guys work at it, but at the same time they enjoy playing football for him," Garrett said. "A lot of different people told me that."
Resources used for this article.
Great press conference transcript from Ryan when he took over in Cleveland. Good information about his philosophy and how he'll use personnel.
Good work from the mothership in talking to the Bengals staff about Ryan.
A primer on the '46' defense, with some mention of the Ryan's philosophy. (Rob and Rex)