Steelers Film Room: Facing The 46 Defense

By Alex Kozora

Throughout the rest of the offseason, we’ll examine specific plays from the Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 season. We won’t be focusing so much on individual play, though that inevitably comes with any breakdown, but instead, we will focus on concepts used in the pro game to show not just what happened, but why it happened.

This will be an X’s and O’s series focusing on both sides of the ball. The good and bad of the Steelers of last season.

Today, we’ll look at how Ben Roethlisberger reacted to eight in the box against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Two.

Personnel: Regular

Defense: 46

Result: Eight yard completion

2nd and 7 for the Steelers on their own five. Roethlisberger comes to the line and sees the Bengals in a traditional two deep shell.


The call in the huddle is a run for Felix Jones up the left side. Against a two high look with only seven in the box, a run is the “safe” and traditional call.

But as the Bengals and then defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer loves to do, the safeties rotate. George Iloka, #43, steps down into the box. Reggie Nelson rotates to the middle of the field as the single high safety.


It’s called the 46 defense. It isn’t coined for defensive alignment but for the uniform number of the first safety, Doug Plank, to make a home near the line of scrimmage. Plank was utilized aggressively in the Chicago Bears defense, led by Buddy Ryan.

Plank explains it in a book I’ll likely reference a ton through this series; Tim Layden’s Blood, Sweat, and Chalk.

“So this one day [Ryan] puts this defense up on the board where I move up from free safety to middle linebacker, along with some other shifts and changes. We’re getting ready to leave the room, and one of the guys says, ‘What are we going to call this one?’ Well, Buddy was always drawing up packages but never drew them up with peoples’ names or with X’s and O’s. He would always just write numbers.” Ryan circled Planks number 46 several times, over and over, and then said, “We’ll call it ’46.’”

Ryan explains the driving force behind the concept.

“In ’79, when I first started with the 46, it wasn’t really a scheme at all, it was just something we tried. We had to do something. And it did mess up some of their blocking patterns.”

That’s one of the goals. To put it simply, the line doesn’t have the manpower to block with the extra defender entering the mix. Teams that don’t check out of the run are going to have a difficult time running the football. Especially a Steelers’ offensive line that was awful the first half of the year.

Roethlisberger makes the cerebral play. He checks out of the run, opting to throw a smoke screen to Antonio Brown.

How does he convey this on the fly, not making it clear to the defense that he’s changed the play? The subtle signal of grabbing his facemask, a symbol to Brown for the audible. You can see Ben turn his head, see the safety, and immediately grab his mask.



None of the nine other offensive players know the signal, the only way to ensure the defense doesn’t recognize the change. On the snap, the line still run blocks and Jones is anticipating a carry.


With Brown one-on-one with the corner, the play is effective. He’s a playmaker that is at his best after the catch. If he gets past the corner, it’s a huge play. And even if the cornerback makes the tackle, odds are good you’ve gained more than you would trying to run against a stacked box.

The corner is able to make a shoestring tackle against Brown but it still goes for a gain of eight and a first down. Low-risk play with a lot of upside that beats the alternative of running into a brick wall. It’s a safety valve Roethlisberger has all the time, and an option he went to repeatedly throughout 2013.

Little things like this that can separate quarterbacks. And keep teams out of 3rd and long.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Tony Richards

    Ha. All this time I thought he was just adjusting his helmet.

  • Michael Stover

    Very cool post. But, should we be giving away the Steelers secret signals???

  • Steelers12328882


  • Diesel

    He’s just telling them that he is switching to the audible, not necessarily what the audible play was, I believe.

  • Johnny Loose


  • 20Stoney

    If Kozora can pick up the signal I’m sure defensive coaches see it watching film. Actually I think I recall one of the TV guys mentioning Ben doing this last season.

  • srdan

    Ab is at full speed in two steps. And he even made a cut. Nelson is happy that corner held on or that could’ve gone for 95

  • bonairsfavoriteson

    This is an example of how ignorant some steeler fans are with all the, BEN IS DUMB, CAN’T READ DEFENSES, CAN’T DO THIS AND THAT, ETC. The only thing that seems to be a given in Steeler nation is, there are some mighty ignorant steeler fans out there.

  • SteelersDepot

    enough already.

  • mem359

    Very nice series of articles.

    I noticed that the CB covering Brown took a step backwards before reacting to the quick throw. I’d be interested if there are any plays where the CB charges forward at the snap, Ben pump-fakes the smoke screen, and Brown blows by the defender for a down-field throw.

  • srdan

    If you really feel that way, why then frustrate yourself by blogging on a site where most members see the black and gold cup as half full? Can I suggest the dawg pound or bungle jungle? I’m sure you’ll find their objective criticism refreshing.

  • Axe Skot

    Great breakdown, Alex. I know these articles might be more time consuming than others, but this is what sets this site apart.

  • patrick Mayfield

    great read, thanks

  • patrick Mayfield

    It’s one play…

  • superfan

    Good question. The only problem there is, with this audible the O-line is still run blocking. Ben might not have the time to pump-fake, and then throw it down field.

    You can see in the GIF that DeCastro walls Harrison off, away from the called run, which was a good block for the running play, but Harrison would have gotten to Ben in another step or two. So they really only had time for the smoke screen.

  • Alex Kozora

    Yeah, Ben used it multiple times during the year. Probably common knowledge. But one of those things that as a defense, is easy to miss. Happens for just a second and if you’re looking elsewhere, you miss it. Any corner that is trying to peek in the backfield pre-snap is going to eventually get burned.

  • Alex Kozora

    We’ll be covering that very soon! The Steelers do have a play working off of this and it’s pretty effective in small doses.

  • Jones

    Very nice article. Looking forward to reading this series!

  • mem359

    I agree they couldn’t have done that on this particular play.
    Alex’s response was what I meant. After showing a few smoke screens, throw in something different to get the defenders confused & thinking, instead of responding.

  • charles

    Really did not care for all the quick reciever screens last year. Thanks for letting us know what was going on. That does seem to be something Haley has influenced Ben on: the strategic thinking. Once we understand the tremendous athleticism on both sides of the ball, then we see the twelfth man stepping up. Offense, counter ofense, counter counter offense. Was it Louis Pastuer who said ‘chance favors the prepared mind’ ?

  • walter mason

    Notice Brown faking a step forward.

  • Big White

    This is absurd. The 46 was a 3 down defense that should be honored in the proud history of the league. It is not a situational defense. The 86 bears were the greatest D of all time because they took chances and were willing to live with the results. Block us or burn us. The only time they lost that roulette wheel in 86 was Dan the man Marino down in Miami. The Bengals may use a few “looks”, but Kazora has no business using it as an implied staple of the Bengals. To me this is like calling the 4-3 the Steel Curtain Defense. In a Buddy Ryan 46, everyone, and i mean everyone was on the line of scrimmage, minus two corners and a safety that was “floating” depending on the offensive show. The corners were always in press, they almost never gave 5-10 yards. Too much time on someone’s hands to type.

  • Alex Kozora

    Never did I imply it was a staple of their defense. The concept has varied over time, as they all do, but its core principle is still the same (Ryan himself says it’s called “eight in the box” today – which is what the Bengals have).

    Also, pro-tip. Spell someone’s name right before you try and insult them.

  • walter mason

    Alex is a great asset to Steelers Depot and I enjoy reading this stuff.

  • Big White

    No one is insulting you, it’s a strong disagreement and I backed up with a thorough response. If you can handle a different opinion, maybe your should find another hobby.

  • Alex Kozora

    And I responded to it. Never did i imply it was a staple of the Bengals.

  • unfurious

    You can’t change the play from run to pass between only the QB and WR and use an elaborate route. With run blocking called an actual route would have gotten Ben killed or, if he got the pass off, there would have been OL too far down field. This was a quick adjustment to get positive yards and frustrate a D. If the CB tried to jump the screen, he risks a 98 yd td if he’s guessing wrong and it’s a pass play.

  • Jonas

    It is a really short and nice audible, I like it!

    We don’t have to worry about it as a code. It is comparable to ‘Omaha’. It can mean and change a lot of different things in regard to the personel, the original call and perhaps the repeat of the grab..

  • Jonas

    Exactly, a quick effective adjustment.
    Often the 46 defense uses bump and run to limit this exact danger of quick passes, but that wasn’t the case here.

    Nice to watch is the CB.. he first takes the step back in coverage, then to the run/LOS and finally to AB – everything in ONE second. Possibly gets him out of leverage..

  • Jonas

    Or to look further, it creates space for the tailback or AB on the other site..

    With a stout running game AND open field mismatches, easy yards are in sight!

  • Jonas

    Louis Pasteur, indeed.
    Kudos to you, a nice fitting quote for football!!

  • Louis Mayall

    Moving a safety into the box doesn’t make it the 46 defense. In cover 1/cover 3 the SS is often in the box. The hallmark of the 46 was the shift of the the two tackles and an end to be heads up with the centre and both guards, making it almost impossible to run up the middle or pull a guard to get outside. Making Doug Plank a hybrid SS/LB in the box was part of this commitment to stop the run, but it was onloy part of the package. The Bengals just rotated their coverage , they didn’t run the 46.