In a league where schematic complexities are preached, simplicity stood tall as Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin dominated offenses with a scheme known as the “Tampa 2″ that would eventually find a page into all NFL defensive playbooks.
Dungy was a quiet, religious football coach whose words rang loud once spoken. When he met Kiffin in the early 1990s, it would be the start of a beautiful marriage. The two defensive masterminds collaborated to form the Tampa 2, which had defensive linemen aggressively attacking downhill and accounting for a single gap (as opposed to two, which was often seen at the time), with a variation of Cover 2 played behind it with seven pass defenders. The latter approach especially stood out, as it was a collision course of sorts which closed down passing windows on a weekly basis.
Developing the coverage
The Tampa 2 concept is a philosophy that was initially introduced by Bud Carson of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid-1970s, as Sports Illustrated author Tim Layden explained in his book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk:
“Carson’s core philosophy was to force an offense to settle for short gains on underneath dump-off passes, requiring the offense to show sustained execution, clock consumption and, perhaps most significant, patience.”
The Steelers defensive coordinator placed the burden of coverage on his linebackers and safeties, while the cornerback, typically a man coverage defender in this era, would align on the line of scrimmage and jam the wide receiver at the snap of the ball. The cornerback’s goal was to aggressively re-route the pass catcher inside the middle of the field in the direction of the linebackers and safeties before settling — known as “buzzing” in football parlance — in the flats.
Meanwhile, the defenders had specific areas of the field — often called “landmarks” — that they were assigned to reach. The aim was to stay disciplined and force an underneath pass by the opposing quarterback. The key to the pass coverage, as Layden noted, would be the middle linebacker (MIKE) who would cover anywhere between 15 and 25 yards down the middle of the field (the “pipe” or “seam” as some call it), which was an area of the field offenses wanted to control.
Putting the Tampa in “Tampa 2″
After brainstorming with Kiffin in Minnesota, Dungy would be hired to his first head-coaching gig by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a league where wins are equivalent to capital, the Buccaneers were in poverty with 12 consecutive losing seasons leading up to the hiring of Dungy. However, this would be the start of a new era in Tampa that would ultimately climax with a Super Bowl win led by a dominant defense.
The defense relied heavily on the coverage and a mixture of the Over (weak side Guard uncovered) and Under (strong side guard covered) to apply pressure on quarterbacks. Two of the most notable games when potent offenses were slowed down were the 2000 NFC championship game against the St. Louis Rams, and Super Bowl XXXVII against the Oakland Raiders. Safety Dexter Jackson was named the MVP during the Bucs’ win over Oakland — only the second safety ever to get the honor and third defensive back overall.
Because of this success, many teams looked to the Buccaneers for defensive concepts.
League-wide use of the Tampa 2
The Tampa 2 scheme is still in use today, with teams like the Chicago Bears heavily relying on it. But it’s more multiple nowadays, with teams using several different fronts to accompany the coverage. Because of the multiplicity of the scheme, many defenses are separating the coverage from the front and are simply referring to the Cover 2 variation as the Tampa 2. It’s not wrong to identify it as such, even though the coverage was originally known as a base defensive scheme.
As noted, the Bears rely heavily on the coverage aspect, using it in as much as 44 percent of their defensive snaps, per NFL Films producer Greg Cosell, and they aren’t the only team to put it into use. While they may not do it as much as the Bears, every NFL team utilizes the coverage with an array of fronts that range from one defensive lineman to four.
The Lions, led by former Titans defensive coordinator and now head coach Jim Schwartz, put the Cover 2 variation into use often, and they did it last week against the San Diego Chargers. The Lions came out in a 1-high safety shell, suggesting that it could be either Cover 1 or Cover 3, against the Chargers’ 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) spread personnel. But it would all be a part of their Tampa 2 coverage disguise that would reveal itself at the snap of the ball.
As you can see in the image below, the Lions’ pre-snap coverage responsibilities are identified. At the top and bottom of the screen, the two flat defenders — the cornerbacks in this case — make up two of the four underneath defenders in the Tampa 2 coverage. The other two underneath defenders are the outside linebackers, and they get to their landmarks located between the numbers and hash marks at roughly 10 yards while the middle linebacker and two safeties drop back into deep coverage, splitting the field into thirds.
This coverage is one that the Lions frequently turn to when they’re attempting to put a lid on the vertical passing game.
The Tampa 2 scheme has been one of the most dominant in the recent history, despite its simplicity in a league that’s filled with multiple fronts and a plethora of coverages in the defensive backfield. As Cosell said, it’s simply an “execution defense,” and the reason it’s had so much success is because the players do exactly that: execute.