The Tampa Two Era Is Over In The NFL

T.P. Grant@@TP_GrantAnalyst INovember 26, 2009

In 1996 Tony Dungy took over the much maligned Tampa Bay Buccuners franchise, bringing with him Monte Kiffin as a defensive coordinater. The results was one of the most explosive and dominating defenses of the era. Under Dungy and later Jon Gruden, the Tampa 2 defense took over the NFL in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Tampa Two, or the Cover Two defense, is a zone defense that is based around a bend but don't break idea. The zone defense allows defenders to keep everything in front of them and to prevent big plays. Short passes and short gains are a fact of life in the Cover 2 and the one thing that this defense cannot allow is yards after catch or after contact.

As a result, one of the basic skills of a linebacker or defensive back in the Tampa 2 is near perfect tackling. Another key aspect is closing speed, keeping short gains from turning into larger plays, and as a result the back seven of the defense are undersized by NFL standards.

The safeties split the field in half and take away the over the top pass, and the two large zones is what gives the Cover Two its name. The corner backs stay close to the line of scrimmage and take away the quick catch—and—run passes to the wide receivers.

What really sets the Tampa Two apart from the classic Cover Two is the middle linebacker. In the Cover Two all three linebackers drop back into a mid—zone, taking away crossing and slant routes. While effective, the Cover Two leaves the center of the field wide open to a tight end running a deep post route.

The Tampa Two demands a little more from its middle linebacker. While the outside linebackers still drop back to a mid depth to take away slants and crosses, the middle linebacker drops back almost 10 yards into a deep zone, covering tightends and wide receivers trying to attack the center of the field. The linebacker has to have the speed and athletic ability not common to the position. Brain Urlacher has proved to be the ideal fit for this defense because of his amazing coverage skills and speed.

The trade off of speed for size in the defense results in a lack of consistent blitzers in a Tampa Two defense, the linebackers are often overwhelmed by the Offensive Line's power and size. So it falls to the defensive line to apply pressure and control gaps.

And gap control is the watch word for a Tampa Two defensive line, each tackle and end must fulfil their assignment on each play because they often are not getting extra rushers.

The defense ends are ideally pass rush specialists who proved excellent speed off the edge to force quarterbacks up in the pocket and into the waiting hands of the tackles. The tackles must be able to pressure up the middle and control the running gaps.

It was, in short, an answer to the West Coast offense. Take away the ability to run after the catch and force the dink—and—dunk offenses of the late 1990s and early 2000s to fight for every first down.

The Tampa Two defense dominated for a time, taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Superbowl in 2002, as well as the Bears and Colts to the 2006 Superbowl but as all things in the NFL, offenses have been evolving.

Every year the shotgun spread becomes more and more a part of NFL offenses, tight ends have become more athletic and offensive coordinators find new ways to exploit the zone coverage.

Quarterbacks and offensive coaches have had over a decade to study the Tampa Two, and the increased use of slot receivers, trips formation, bunch formations, wheel routes, wide receiver screens, and explosive tightends have become banes of Tampa Two defenses.

The weaknesses of the scheme have been badly exposed over the last 14 years, the side line is often unguarded and the middle of the field is still venerable even with the middle linebacker covering deep. Any modern NFL Quarterback worth his salt can find these classic soft spots in his sleep. And combine the new offensive plans with the new wave of explosive, pass catching tight ends like Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates and the middle linebacker is now normally insufficient in coverage.

To compound problems defenses that use the Tampa Two are far too reliant on a single star defensive lineman to help create havoc up front and draw double teams. If lost, often the defense will struggle mightily because the opposing quarterback will have a secure pocket to survey the field.

The Bears defense, which was a Tampa Two defensive force in 2006 has struggled mightily since Tommy Harris' effectiveness was robbed by injuries. Also the defending champion Indianapolis Colts defense was hobbled in 2007 when injury ended Dwight Freeney's season early. The undersized nature of the backers just does not allow for them to deliver consistent pressure through blitzing, and as a result a single injury or poor season can cripple a defense.

But even when a Tampa Two defense is healthy and effective in limiting big plays, the fact of the matter is that the bend don't break nature of it results in long drives for the opposing offense that.  Even when the plays do not result in points, they shift the time of possession, so the Tampa Two defense is a disadvantage when playing from behind. 

Now this is not always true, as the Indianapolis Colts are the perfect storm for the Tampa Two. The defensive personnel were hand picked by the architect of the Tampa Two, Tony Dungy, and they have a quick strike offense led by Peyton Manning. With an offense consistently spotting the defense a lead, the Colts use the Tampa 2 in an ideal situation.

When a team is forced to pass and push the field against the Cover Two, the defense becomes effective, especially when you have defensive ends like the Colts. But the Colts have fallen victim to teams who get early leads and then ball control the Colts to victory.

And for teams like the Chicago Bears, who rarely play in front, the Tampa Two makes almost no sense as base defense any more. Once a team is behind, they are forced to commit defenders to stop the run and then the undersized corner backs that the Tampa Two uses are manned up on larger and faster wide receivers. With sutch a mismatch in the passing game, defenses find themselves at a big disadvantage.

The results that last few years have not been pretty and many Tampa Two teams have abandoned the defense in favor of more aggressive schemes. The simple fact of the matter is that the NFL is a quarterback and wide receiver league and pressuring the quarterback is key to victory.

The Tampa Two as a base defense is too passive, and unless you are the 2006 Giants, a four man rush just isn't enough to disrupt quarterbacks. Just look at the Bears since the far more aggressive Ron Rivera left and Lovie Smith imposed a strict, Tampa Two philosophy. The Bears have been little more than a .500 team with a weak defense, yet it is the same players that carried the Bears to a Superbowl.

Cover Two plays will be part of the NFL forever, but building an entire team around a zone coverage no longer is practical. Undersized coverage linebackers have been shunned in favor of larger, pass rushing linebackers. Safeties like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu have made the position more about versatility and ball skills than being able to take away a deep route.

As a Bears fan, I fully expect to see the Tampa Two defense to be shown the door along with Lovie Smith at the end of this season in Chicago. While the Colts may end up being one last hold of the Tampa Two, the league will shy away from this defense in favor of more aggressive schemes as it has just simply been passed by NFL evolution.


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