Critics wonder if Eagles' Ryan should deep-six his decade-old '46' defense

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- When Buddy Ryan sprung the "46" defense on the National Football League more than a decade ago, opposing offenses were as confused as an out-of-state driver at a New Jersey traffic circle.

"My second year in the league [1980], I remember every time we'd line up in the '46,' the other team would have to call timeout," said Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Al Harris, who spent six seasons playing Ryan's Doberman defense with the Chicago Bears. "Especially when we played AFC [American Football Conference] teams. They didn't know what the heck was going on. At least the NFC [National Football Conference] teams had seen it a couple of times.

"We played Dan Fouts and the [San Diego] Chargers when they had the aerial circus there, and it took them until about the fourth quarter before they figured out what was going on. It caused a lot of problems early on because nobody had seen much of it."

Ryan's "46" defense clearly was the defense of the 1980s. It helped win a Super Bowl for the Bears. It helped win a division title for the Eagles. And it helped make many a Sunday afternoon a black-and-blue nightmare for NFL quarterbacks.

But has it outlived its usefulness? Have the league's offenses finally caught up with it? Has more than a decade of playing against it and watching it on film and dissecting it on blackboards and yellow legal pads turned the "46" into a dinosaur?

Despite a 1-3 start during which the Eagles have given up 95 points in 16 quarters, Ryan and his defensive first-in-command, Jeff Fisher, say no. Absolutely, positively no.

"The game changes," Fisher said. "Offenses change. Defenses change. We've made the adjustments within the ['46'] package to stay sound.

"People may say they don't have much respect for it anymore. But the fact of the matter is, people still are scared to death when we line up Reggie White over the center. He had two of his three sacks Sunday [in a 24-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts] when he was over the center [in the '46' defense]. The defense still is very productive for us."

But others around the league aren't so sure. They say that the emergence of three- and four-wide receiver formations has all but taken the teeth out of the "46" defense.

As recently as three years ago, there were at least a half-dozen "46" imitators around the league. Now, while several clubs still have the "46" as part of their defensive package, none relies on it as much as the Eagles.

"It's just not as effective anymore," said Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson, whose club uses the "46" primarily on running downs. "It's like any other defense. It can be beaten. People have seen more and more of it over the last three or four years in various forms. Offensive coaches are smart also. They've found ways to hurt it."

Said Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers coach who now is an NBC analyst: "It was a very innovative defense that has had an impact on the game, no question. But the more you see of something, the easier it gets to beat it.

"A lot of teams still use a form of it on first down. And I think it can still hold up well in those situations when teams are looking to run. But the three- and four-wide receiver formations have pretty much made it ineffective against the pass."

Ryan and Fisher pooh-pooh that kind of talk. But even they admit that the Eagles don't use the "46" defense as much as they used to.

"Someone said we were in the '46' too much against the Colts, that we're playing it too much," Fisher said. "I think it was [Ron] Jaworski [the former Eagles quarterback who hosts a postgame show on WIP radio]. Well, the truth is we'd been in it just 16 percent [of the defensive plays] until Sunday. And against the Colts we ran it something like 18 percent.

"Do we still stay in the '46' against three and four wide receivers? Yeah, we do. We don't necessarily stay with eight men up on the line of scrimmage. We bring people up. Reggie's on the nose. But we've made adjustments."

Another reason the Eagles haven't been using the "46" as much is that they haven't felt the need. Their front four, led by White, in recent seasons had been doing an excellent job of pressuring enemy quarterbacks by themselves without the aid of blitzing linebackers and safeties. Last season, 47 of the club's 62 sacks were registered by the down linemen.

This season, however, the pass rush of the front four has been inconsistent. Underrated Mike Pitts has been lost, probably for the season, with a knee injury. Clyde Simmons has been hampered by a sore Achilles' tendon. Jerome Brown has been playing with one eye on last year's press clippings and the other on the nearest McDonald's. That has left White, the best defensive player in the game, to carry the load largely by himself.

"We've got to get more pressure up front," Fisher said. "[Offenses] are keeping people in. They're keeping the tight end in, keeping the back in.

"We had a couple of times against the Colts where we brought our defensive backs and linebackers on blitzes and we were blocked by [running back Albert] Bentley. You can't have that. You have to come. You can't have a back drop you, whether you're a defensive back or a linebacker. If you're one-on-one, you've got to beat the back."

Buddy Ryan's "46" defense was successful in Chicago for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that he had some awfully good people playing it.

"The group Buddy had there in the mid-'80s may have been the best defensive unit of all time," Walsh said. "The very best. It was composed of some brilliant athletes who were ideally suited for that defense. But very few teams in football have that kind of talent that's ideally suited for that defense."

Many observers have questioned whether the Eagles have the kind of talent to play Ryan's "46." When it has been good the last four years, it has been very good. It led the league in turnovers last year and was second in sacks. But when it has been bad, it has been very, very bad. No team in football has given up more long balls [pass plays of 40 yards or more] the last three years than the Eagles.

"A lot of people felt, and still feel, that the way Buddy Ryan runs it is unsound," Peterson said. "You put a great deal of pressure on your secondary, and you'd better have a couple of corners who can cover man-to-man and can cover well and long. If you don't, you're going to give up some big plays. And they have as long as he's been there. It's a feast-or-famine thing.

"He might have had the good corners in Chicago. But I don't think he's ever had them in Philadelphia."

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