The Rise, and Fall of the Tampa-2 Defense As We Know It

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The Rise, and Fall of the Tampa-2 Defense As We Know It
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
History: The Tampa-2 defense has it's origins from "The Steel Curtain" days of the Steelers from the 1970's. In fact Tony Dungy was quoted saying "My philosophy is out of the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers' playbook." In reality it came from head coach Chuck Knoll and defensive coordinator Bud Carson. I think one only has to look at all of the Steelers' Super Bowl wins during this period to see how effective it was. Carson was the one who introduced the idea of moving the middle linebacker into coverage, which became extremely effective with the addition of the very talented LB Jack Lambert.

No doubt Tony, who was assitant head coach, and the defensive coordinator for the Steelers at the time, seeing the success Bill Walsh was having in the '80s with the West Coast Offense, was working on ideas of how to beat it.

By the time Tony was named head coach in Tampa Bay in 1996, with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, he had come up with a plan to shut down the West Coast Offense. Make no mistake this is what the Tampa-2 is designed to do. The reason the Tampa-2 is so effective against the West Coast Offense is because the West Coast Offense eschews a running game for short passes, where the receiver is expected to get yards after the catch or Y.A.C.'s.
Don't confuse the West Coast Offense with the Run and Shoot offense where there is no running game. There is still a a running game in the purest form of the West Coast Offense but it's not the main focal point. So then why is the Tampa-2 so effective against the the West Coast Offense?

Why the Tampa-2 Works: The biggest tweak that Tony made to the Cover-2 zone defense is at the Mike linebacker position. In a typical Cover-2 system a linebacker is usually expected to play a hook zone over the middle or come up for run support. In the Tampa-2 the Mike is expected to cover the deep middle of the field. Basically this turns a Cover-2 into a Cover-3 except you're doing it with a LB instead of a DB. This corrects a flaw in the standard Cover-2 which is once you get past 10-15 yards there is a soft spot in the zone over the middle which a quarterback can exploit for a nice gain. By having the Mike drop back so far you cut off that opening. The Mike and the front four are integral to this system being effective. The Mike has to be quick in his read of run or pass. If it's run he's expected to come up and help in run support, if it's pass then he has to drop back fast.
The defensive lineman are expected to get off their blocks, penetrate their gaps, and either sack the quarterback or cause him to throw the ball before he wants to. This usually leads to all sorts of nasty things like interceptions, fumbles, or sacks for big losses.

The Tampa-2 is all about speedy, undersized players who can hit hard and tackle. It also relies on gang tackling and keeping everything in front of the DB's and LB's. The principal is that sure, we'll let you have the short stuff, but then we are going to hit you hard and take you down. You are going to have to work for every yard you gain because we aren't going to give up the big play. We are going to have a fast undersized DL that is going to pressure the quarterback, and we figure you are going to make a mistake on your long trip down the field.

The job of the cornerbacks is to jam the WRs at the line of scrimage, to prevent an outside release by the wideouts. This funnels all vertical routes to the safeties. Allowing an outside release in the Tampa-2 is a big no-no because it forces the safeties to cover a greater distance from their landmarks, plus it puts more pressure on the Mike backer versus vertical inside routes. If you think about this for a second it makes sense. If the safeties are forced to stretch out farther towards the side lines then the Mike has less help on the vertical routes in the middle.

Once the corners have caused an inside release, they drop back about 12 yards, which forces all the throws to go to the flats where they can run up and make a tackle for a minimal gain.
Remember in a zone scheme all the DB's are watching the quarterback vs. man coverage where the CB is running with the wideout. The corners know they have help over the top if the QB decides to throw to the outside receiver. This allows them to take a chance on intercepting the ball because they know the safety is over the top to cover the wideout. So against a zone scheme you tend to see more underneath throws where the DBs will then run up and make a tackle for a marginal gain.

Of course like any other defense it can be beat. One way to do this is having the offense go 4-verticals. This forces the safeties to move to the outside to cover the split-end and the flanker. This really puts the Mike backer in a bind because he now has to run with the two inside receivers. The QB then has the choice to throw away from the Mike who is covering the inside, or to one of the outside receivers if he catches one of the safeties cheating towards the middle.

Also, the Cover-3 zone (which the Tampa-2 basically is) has two seam routes that can be exploited. A seam route is usually 15 yards in from the sideline and about 3 yards wide. The seems extends from 14 yards to 25 yards. The seam is between the underneath coverage and the safeties. Often you will see the slot receiver or tight end run a fly route (also called a streak or go route), which is simply a vertical route straight towards the end zone. The idea is for the quarterback to get the ball to the receiver between the underneath coverage and the safeties and/or the extra DBs.
Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark are the masters at exploiting the seam in zone coverages. What's most impressive is they often run it from the Ace formation where you're only going three wide. That's why you see Clark take those big hits from the DBs after he catches the ball; the catch is made right in front of them.  

Of course there are a lot of other ways that defenses have figured out to beat the Tampa-2. One of the biggest things that has happened that has reduced the effectiveness of the Tampa-2 is that the West Coast offense has evolved. The West Coast offense that is run today is not like the one Bill Walsh came up with. Teams run the ball far more often now. Herein lies the biggest problem with the Tampa-2.

The Tampa-2 looks for guys who are fast, smart, and flawless tacklers. This means that the defensive lineman, linebackers, corners, safeties are all undersized compared to other defenses and opposing offenses. To make up for this they rely on speed and gang tackling.
Here is the problem: When you're a DL who weighs 285 to 295 lbs going up against an offensive lineman who weighs anywhere from 305 to 330 lbs you are going to have a hard time covering your gap, no matter how agile you are. If you can't get off your block when it's a running play, and the undersized LB makes a poor tackle, teams can, and will run all over you.

Remember, in the Tampa-2 each player in the front 7 is responsible for his gap. If one guy doesn't maintain gap control, and allows the running back through, then your in trouble. If this keeps happening then it destroys your whole zone scheme because now you need to bring your SS down into the box to stop the run. This basically leaves you with three coverages to run: Cover-0, Cover-1, and Cover-3.
The Colts D is not built for Cover-0 or Cover-1 on every down. Their corners are great at zone coverage and tackling. When they have to play man coverage their mediocre. If they're in Cover-3 then it's an easy read for the quarterback and he can make a pass for a big gain or run the ball.

What happened to the Colts was that teams in the division decided that they weren't going to get into a shoot out with them. They were just going to get big up front and run the ball down their throats. It's the same strategy that has been used against them in the playoffs. The easiest way to beat the Colts is to have Manning sitting on the bench for 12 minutes while you wear down that undersized defense running the ball.

The Colts defense was built to play with a lead. When that's the case they force the opposing team to give up on the running game and throw the ball. For the defense to be successful they need to keep the offense out of third and short. When it's third and long then Freeney and Mathis can do their thing.

This is why when Tony retired the first thing Polian and Caldwell did was show Meeks the door. Under Meeks the Colts were awful against the run, and terrible on third down.
Over the past seven years they have been averaging ten offensive possessions per game. This is two below the league average. Over the past four seasons they have been last in the league in offensive possessions per game. The fact that Manning has put up the numbers he has, and won a Superbowl, is amazing when you think about the aforementioned stats.

This is why the Tampa-2 as we know it in Indy is dead, and you know what? That's a good thing!
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