The NFL is a copycat league. When a team comes up with a new way to maximize talent, competitors around the NFL race to incorporate that same play, formation, motion or wrinkle into their own playbook—while desperately trying to neutralize it on the other side of the ball.
Eventually, the wild new innovation which the original team shocked opponents becomes tame. With 31 other NFL teams watching film and drawing up coping mechanisms—not to mention running a variation on it in practice—that devastating new kind of football gets relegated to the old bag of tricks.
Eventually, every team has it in their playbook, whether they use it or not...waiting for the next innovator to make it powerful again.
In 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dusted off an old wrinkle on a basic coverage and paired it with an aggressive front-seven alignment. As a result, the formerly-hapless Bucs made the playoffs seven times in a 10-year stretch and won Super Bowl XXXVII. Bucs defensive coaches went on to lead three other teams to four more Super Bowl appearances and another more Super Bowl win.
"Cover [X]" is a way of describing how the safeties play the downfield pass, expressed in terms of zones. Cover 0 is strict man-to-man. In Cover 1, the free safety plays "center field," a single deep zone helping both cornerbacks.
Cover 2 drops both safeties into a zone covering their side of the field. In Cover 3, both outside cornerbacks drop into zones, while the free safety plays a much smaller center field. Cover 4, or "quarters," splits downfield coverage into four equal parts—one each for the corners and safeties.
These basic coverage schemes, and variants on them, are as old as the hills. Typically, a Cover 2 splits the deep part of the field into two halves, and the two safeties provide deep help for the outside corners. Underneath, the corners and linebackers split the fields into five short zones. The defensive line is responsible for generating pass rush.
As ESPN's Bob Davie explains, there are a variety of ways to attack the traditional Cover 2. If the receivers can get to the sideline with speed, the safeties will struggle to contain them. High-low combination routes can attack the gap between the corners and safeties. Flat routes and wheel routes can attack the gap in between the outside linebacker and cornerback. Most dangerously, slot receivers and athletic tight ends can split the safeties and get big gains down the middle.
In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson came up with a way to address many of these weaknesses: have athletic middle linebacker Jack Lambert drop back like a third safety on pass plays. This diagram, courtesy of Yahoo! Sports, shows how the middle linebacker splits the downfield coverage into thirds.
This small wrinkle allowed the Steelers to drastically reduce the susceptibility of the Cover 2 to attacks down the middle. It also shrunk the territory the safeties would have to cover, meaning they could cover the sideline more effectively.
The effectiveness of the system had a profound impact on one young member of the Steel Curtain defense—undrafted defensive back Tony Dungy.
Years later, as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Dungy and linebackers coach Monte Kiffin toyed with combining Carson's modified Cover 2 shell with Kiffin's aggressive one-gap 4-3 under front. The concepts, as used in Minnesota, were very effective together. But when Dungy and Kiffin were reunited in Tampa Bay in 1996, they got the talent to make their system sing.
The Cover 2, with or without the "Tampa" modification, relies entirely on the front four to generate a pass rush. With the linebackers fully committed to coverage, the front four must get at the quarterback or risk the zone coverage being picked apart.
With pass-rushers like Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, Kiffin and Dungy could run their scheme as intended without quarterbacks having the time to set up shop. Outside linebacker Derrick Brooks had the athleticism and skill to cover just about any tailback or tight end. Safety John Lynch could cover, as well as clean up any ball-carriers who happened to slip through the no-room-for-error run fits.
The Bucs' defensive power carried them back to respectability and ultimately to Super Bowl XXXVII (the year after Dungy was sent packing for not getting the Bucs offense past "respectability"). Bucs linebackers coach Lovie Smith was hired by St. Louis to coach opposite the Greatest Show on Turf—and his side of the ball made the difference in getting the Rams back to the big game.
Smith's performance in St. Louis got him hired as the head man in Chicago, where he eventually met his mentor, Dungy, in the Super Bowl. Dungy, then the Colts' skipper, beat Smith in Super Bowl XLI, finishing off what he started back in 1996. Dungy returned to the Super Bowl three seasons later but couldn't keep Drew Brees and the Saints from outscoring his own high-flying offense.
This was the beginning of the end of the Tampa 2's ascendance. At some point during the 2000s, the Bears, Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Lions, Rams and Vikings had all installed the Tampa 2. Today, only the Vikings and Bears run the Tampa 2 as their primary base defense. Though Chicago re-committed to the system in 2011 by naming Rod Marinelli defensive coordinator, the rest of the league has adapted, incorporated and moved on.
Yahoo! Sports' Doug Farrar named the Tampa 2 as a strategy "fading away" from popular use, along with the West Coast offense; rightly so, as the Tampa 2 evolved partly as a response to the ubiquity of the West Coast offenses' phalanx of short timing routes.
With today's proliferation of pass-first offenses working out of 3-WR and 4-WR sets, the Tampa 2 puts too much pressure on non-Derrick Brooks outside linebackers to run a majority of the time. But don't think the Cover 2 is going away completely; the coverage concept is still a fundamental part of the game.
Every NFL team has Cover 2 coverages in its defensive playbook, and the Carson/Dungy/Kiffin tweak fixes most of its fundamental flaws. It's commonly used in nickel packages as a safety net behind three corners playing man-to-man and two linebackers trying to cover everything else.
Until some innovator again makes it the most terrifying defense in the NFL, every football fan should know a Cover 2 when they see one.