The Tampa 2 is the defensive strategy popularized by (and thus named after) the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the mid 1990s-early 2000s. The Tampa 2 is typically employed out of a 4-3 defensive alignment, which consists of four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. The defense is similar to a Cover 2 defense, except the middle linebacker drops into a deep middle coverage for a Cover 3 when he reads a pass play.
The term rose to popularity due to the execution of this defensive scheme by then-head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
The roots of the Tampa 2 system actually are in the Steel Curtain days of Pittsburgh football. “My philosophy is really out of the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers playbook,” said Dungy during media interviews while at Super Bowl XLI. “That is why I have to laugh when I hear ‘Tampa 2′. Chuck Noll and Bud Carson — that is where it came from, I changed very little.” Lovie Smith mentions having played the system in junior high school during the 1970s, though Carson introduced the idea of moving the middle linebacker into coverage. Carson’s system became especially effective with the Steelers’ addition of aggressive and athletic middle linebacker Jack Lambert.
During the 2005 NFL season, the Buccaneers, under defensive coordinator Kiffin, ranked first in the league in fewest total yards allowed, Smith’s Bears ranked number two, and Dungy’s Colts ranked eleventh. By 2006, the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, and Detroit Lions had also adopted the defense.
The scheme is known for its simple format, speed, and the aggressive mentality of its players. Tampa 2 teams are known as gang tacklers with tremendous team speed, and practice to always run to the ball. It also requires a hard hitting secondary to cause turnovers.
Tampa 2 description
The personnel used in the Tampa 2 are specific in position and required abilities. All positions in this defense place a premium on speed, and often the result is that they are all undersized by league standards. The defensive linemen in this scheme have to be quick and agile enough to create pressure on the quarterback without the aid of a blitz from either the linebackers or the secondary, with the defensive tackle in the nose position having above-average tackling skills to help stop runs.
The three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties are responsible for covering the middle of the field. The outside linebackers’ general zone is between the cornerbacks, covering the area of the field from the line of scrimmage to 10 yards back. The middle linebacker must have better-than-average speed, and additional skills to be able to read the play and either maintain his central position to help the outside linebackers cover short passes, drop behind the linebackers in coverage and protect the zone of the field behind the outside linebackers from 11-20 yards out, or run up to the line of scrimmage to help assist in stopping the runs. “It takes a special linebacker to do that, a guy with speed,” says Pete Prisco, senior NFL writer for CBSSports.com.The cornerbacks protect the sidelines of the field from the line of scrimmage to anywhere between 15-20 yards out. According to Prisco, they “don’t have to be great man-to-man cover players, but they have to be guys who can tackle.” An additional requirement for all of Dungy’s linebackers and cornerbacks is to be above-average tacklers, as they are usually the primary tacklers in the defense.
The two safeties are responsible for covering their respective halves of the field from 20 yards out and more. The safeties in the system are expected to be above-average cover men with the ability to break up passes, but each safety also is expected to have additional specific skills. The strong safeties, while not expected to be great tacklers, are expected to be hard hitters. The hard hitting strong safety protects the middle of the field from being exploited by small, fast receivers, and running backs on wheel route. The free safety will be called upon to do one of two things in certain situations: either blitz the quarterback, requiring him to have the skills necessary to beat a blocking halfback or fullback, or to assume the coverage zone left by a blitzing cornerback.
The Tampa 2 is particularly effective against teams who are playing with a lead, theoretically because it limits big plays. It forces offenses to be patient and to settle for short gains and time-consuming drives. This may be due to the nature of the “bend-but-don’t-break” 2-deep zone coverage scheme and responsibilities safeties play in the Tampa 2.
Teams that have been successful against this defense have managed to run the ball up the middle past the defensive tackles, or throw passes in the seams between the outside linebackers and the cornerbacks (often the most effective receiver against a Tampa 2 defense is a tight end, since they often line up against this seam). Other tactics that have shown to be effective are misdirection plays that take advantage of the defensive speed and rely on the defense ‘over-running’ the play (such as the middle linebacker rushing to the line of scrimmage on a play-action pass), or overloading the safeties by having multiple receivers running deep routes, creating more targets in a zone than defenders. Recently, some teams have also been able to exploit the seam between the cornerbacks and the safeties, when the quarterback can throw a pass to a receiver in that seam faster than the safety can rush up to close it and cover the receiver. A recent trend is for teams to send a receiver up the middle, creating a mismatch against the linebacker in coverage. The Tampa 2 means that offenses are now finding it effective to exploit the deep middle, where the safeties have to cover the most ground.
Tampa 2 run defense
To defend running plays, the Tampa 2 is a single gap defense where each player is responsible to defend his own gap. The assigned gap changes with game conditions and personnel.
Typically this style of defense utilizes smaller but faster linemen and linebackers with above average speed. Also, the defensive backs must be above average hitters.
The key theme in stopping the run from a Tampa 2 is directing traffic to the weak-side linebacker. It is therefore necessary to have a skilled tackler at the WLB position.
BREAK DOWN: BASIC COVERAGES EXPLAINED
Cover 0 is a strict man-to-man alignment where each defensive back covers one receiver.
Advantages: Cover 0 is an aggressive scheme that allows for numerous blitz packages, as it’s easier for players to drop off their coverage and rush the quarterback.
Disadvantages: The main disadvantage of Cover 0 is that there is no “help over the top” – if a wide receiver “beats” (runs past) his defender, there is no one left in the secondary who can make up the coverage on the receiver, which could result in an easy pass completion and possible touchdown.
Cover One is a man-to-man coverage for all the defensive backs except for one player (usually a safety) who is not assigned a man to cover but rather plays deep and reacts to the development of the play. Often the safety will remain in a pass coverage position and play a zone defense by guarding the middle of the secondary, reacting to runs or completed passes and double-teaming a receiver if needed.
In a traditional Cover 1, the free safety plays deep and all of the other defenders lock in man coverage to an assigned player for the duration of the play. Essentially, during the pre-snap read, each defender identifies the coverage responsibilities and does not change the assignment. Some teams play a variant of the Cover 1 called Cover 7. In Cover 7, the free safety still plays deep, but the underneath coverage is much more flexible and the defenders switch assignments as the play develops in an attempt to improve defensive positions to make a play on the ball. Examples of these switches include double covering a certain receiver and using defensive help to undercut a route to block a throwing lane.
Advantages: Cover 1 schemes are usually very aggressive, preferring to proactively disrupt the offense by giving the quarterback little time to make a decision while collapsing the pocket quickly. This is the main advantage of Cover 1 schemes – the ability to blitz from various pre-snap formations while engaging in complex man-to-man coverage schemes post-snap. For example, a safety may blitz while a cornerback is locked in man coverage with a receiver. Or the cornerback may blitz with the safety rotating into man coverage on the receiver post-snap.
Disadvantages: The main weakness of the Cover 1 scheme is that there is only one deep defender that must cover a large amount of field and provide help on any deep threats. Offenses can attack Cover 1 schemes by sending two receivers on deep routes, provided that the quarterback has enough time for his receivers to get open. The deep defender must decide which receiver to help out on, leaving the other in man coverage which may be a mismatch.
A secondary weakness is inherent in its design: the use of man coverage opens up yards after catch lanes. Man coverage is attacked by offenses in various ways that try to isolate their best athletes on defenders by passing them the ball quickly before the defender can react or designing plays that clear defenders from certain areas thus opening yards after catch lanes.
In traditional Cover 2 schemes, the free safety (FS) and strong safety (SS) have deep coverage responsibilities, each guarding half of the field.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and Detroit Lions all run or have run a variant of this defense called the Tampa 2. In the Tampa 2 defense, a third player (usually the middle linebacker) plays a middle zone, guarding an area closer to the line of scrimmage than the safeties but farther out from typical “underneath” pass coverages. The Tampa 2 defense actually originated, at least in its earliest variant, with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s.
Cover 2 can be run from any seven-man defensive front such as the 3-4 and the 4-3 defenses. Various kinds of “underneath” coverages played by cornerbacks and linebackers may also be implemented. For example, “Cover 2 Man” means the two safeties have deep coverage responsibility while the cornerbacks and linebackers follow their offensive assignment in one-on-one coverage. The San Diego Chargers inherited a base Cover 2 Man 3-4 from former coach Wade Phillips. Cover 2 can also be paired with underneath zone schemes: “Cover 2 Zone” refers to two safeties with deep coverage responsibility, but now the cornerbacks and linebackers drop into specific coverage zones where they defend passes only in their assigned area.
In cover 2 the cornerbacks are considered to be “hard” corners, meaning that they have increased run stopping responsibilities and generally defend against shorter passes, although if two receivers run a deep route on a certain side of the field, that side’s corner has deep coverage responsibility as well. It also relies heavily on the “Mike” (Middle) linebacker’s ability to quickly drop deep downfield into pass coverage when he reads a pass.
A variant of cover two is the Inverted Cover 2, in which either right before or after the snap the corners “bail” out while the safeties come up – in effect switching responsibilities. This strategy may be employed to trick a quarterback who has not correctly interpreted the shift. The main drawback is that the middle of the field is left open, a disadvantage that allowed Larry Fitzgerald to score a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII against the Steelers.
Advantages: The advantage of cover 2 is that it provides great versatility to the defense as the corners can play run, short pass, and deep pass with the confidence that they have support from two deep safeties.
Disadvantages: The main weakness of the Cover 2 shell occurs in the middle of the field between the safeties. At the snap of the ball, many times the safeties will move toward the sidelines in order to cover any long passes to quick wide receivers. This movement creates a natural hole between the safeties that can be attacked. By sending a receiver (usually a tight end) into the hole, the offense forces the safety to make a decision: play the vulnerable hole in the middle of the field or help out on the wide receiver. The quarterback reads the safety’s decision and decides on the best matchup (i.e. which mismatch is better: tight end vs. safety or wide receiver vs. cornerback).
Another disadvantage of Cover 2 is that it leaves only seven men in the “box” (the area near the ball at the snap) to defend against the run. In contrast Cover 1 and Cover 3 usually leave eight men in the box.
A potential problem with the Cover 2 is that defensive pressure on the Quarterback must be provided nearly exclusively by the front linemen as all other defenders are involved in pass coverage. If the defensive linemen do not provide adequate pressure on the Quarterback, the offense is afforded plenty of time to create and exploit passing opportunities. Blitzing in the Cover 2 often creates greater areas of weakness in the defense than other coverages. Thus, unsuccessful blitzes can prove to be more productive for the offense than in other schemes.
In cover 3, the two corners and free safety each have responsibility for a deep third of the field, while the strong safety plays like a linebacker. This coverage is generally considered to be a run stopping defense as it focuses on preventing big pass plays and stopping the run while giving up short passes.
On the snap, the CBs work for depth, backpedaling into their assigned zone. One safety moves toward the center of the field. The other safety is free to rotate into the flat area (about 2-4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage), provide pass coverage help, or blitz.
Advantages: One of the biggest benefits of the cover 3 coverage scheme is the ability to walk the strong safety up into the box with minimal to no changes in the coverage due to the pre-snap center field position of the free safety. This enables the defense to play both man and zone coverage out of an 8 man front while cover 2 schemes allow only for man coverage with 7 man fronts.
Disadvantages: Cover 3 schemes are susceptible to short, timed passes to the outside due to the hard drop of both cornerbacks. This puts pressure on the outside linebackers to react to pass plays and get into their drop quickly if they need to cover a receiver.
Another disadvantage of cover 3 schemes is they are relatively easy to diagnose by opposing quarterbacks. Because of this, teams will often employ slight wrinkles in their coverage to confuse offenses. An example of this includes employing man coverage on one side and zone on another or swapping coverage zones between defenders.
Cover 4 (Prevent Defense)
Cover 4 refers to four deep defenders, each guarding one-fourth of the deep zone. Cover 4 schemes are usually used to defend against deep passes. (i.e., Prevent defense).
The most basic Cover 4 scheme involves two cornerbacks and two safeties. Upon snap, the cornerbacks work for depth, backpedaling into their assigned zone. Both safeties backpedal towards their assigned zone.
As with other coverage shells, Cover 4 is paired with underneath man or zone coverage in its most basic form.
Advantages: The main advantage of a Cover 4 defense is that it is extremely difficult for even the best quarterbacks to complete long passes against it. Therefore, this coverage is generally used as a prevent defense to be used near the end of a game or half, meaning that the defense sacrifices the run and short pass to avoid giving up the big play with the confidence that the clock will soon expire.
Cover 4 also has the advantage of using safeties in run support as opposed to cornerbacks as would be the case in a Cover 2 scheme. This gives the defense nine in the box and the ability to stop the run with an extra defender on either side. The play-side safety would come up in support on a running play while the back-side safety would be responsible for the middle third of the field and the cornerbacks would have the deep outside thirds.
Disadvantages: The main weakness of Cover 4 shells is the large amount of space left open by the retreating defensive backs. Since the defensive backs are working for depth, short pass routes underneath can enable the quarterback to make short- and medium- length passes, as well as isolate a defensive back on a wide receiver near the sideline with little help.
Cover 6 (Hybrid Cover 2 and Cover 4)
Cover 6 refers to three deep defenders. However, unlike the ‘Cover 3′, the field is not split equally. Most teams that use Cover 6 are 3-4 Defenses, call offensive strength to the Field instead of to the offensive formation or front, and organize personnel by Field-side player and Boundary-side player. The position of the ball on the field therefore dictates strength of the offense. In Cover 6 the field safety and field corner cover fourths of the field, and depend on a field outside linebacker to support underneath them. The free safety covers the boundary-side deep half and the boundary corner plays the flat. Thus the field side of the coverage is quarters, and the boundary side is cover 2.
The Cover 6 gets its name from the fact that it combines elements of the Cover 2 (the strong safety covering half the field) and the Cover 4 on the opposite side. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a Cover 6 team. The quarters play of the strong side safety, like the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu, allows him to support on runs quickly. The Tennessee Titans have also been known to use it.
Advantages: Cover 6 blends the best of Cover 2 and Cover 4. On the boundary, Cover 6 uses a Cover 2 corner. The boundary corner sits at 5-7 yards and is in excellent position to attack flat passes and wide runs, as well as blitz from a short field position. The boundary safety plays at 12-15 yards and supports the boundary corner, providing good pass defense over the top, as well as being able to assist on any vertical release by a 3rd receiver from the field side. The Field safety plays a hard read technique from 7-8 yards, reading first for run. He will fit hard and fast on run plays. He defends the pass by squatting or dropping over the #2 wide receiver. He will then play vertical patterns and out patterns by #2, passing off inside patterns. The Field corner plays a quarters deep coverage from 7-8 yards, reading the #1 wide receiver and playing all vertical and inside patterns.
Disadvantages: Cover 6 has the disadvantages of both Cover 2 and Cover 4. The Field side is generally soft on flat coverage. The Field side corner can be left in single coverage deep as well. On runs, the field side may be spread by a tight end and 2 receiver formation, offering an advantage on the edge. The Boundary side is soft behind the corner to the sideline, as well as in the seam between corner and linebacker.
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Diagram: The 4-3 Base
“A&M is running a 3-4 scheme on defense that Oklahoma State isn’t used to” was the explanation given by the broadcasters as to why the Cowboys went scoreless for almost the entire first half of the Thursday night’s Texas A&M vs Oklahoma State game (2010). While the 3-4 Defense is not currently the norm in college football (schemes come and go), it is becoming more popular these days as seven teams made the switch in 2010, including Texas Tech, who the Cowboys faced two weeks later. Luckily for Oklahoma State’s offense, they familiarized themselves rather quickly and made second half adjustments, which led to 21 unanswered points and ultimately a win.
In addition to Texas A&M and Texas Tech, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Houston, Notre Dame and Stanford all made the switch to the 3-4 Defense in 2010. Combining that with the already established 3-4 Defenses run by Alabama, Air Force, Army, Navy, BYU, California and SMU, there were a total of 14 FBS teams who used 3 down Linemen and 4 Linebackers in 2010.
Diagram: The 3-4 Base
But what is the 3-4 Defense and how does it compare to the more popular 4-3 Defense? As its name implies, it is a defensive formation that puts three men on the defensive line and four men behind them as linebackers. The defensive linemen are often referred to as down linemen, or the ones with their hands in the dirt, and they are directly at the line of scrimmage. The linebackers stand behind them and have more options in terms of positioning as they can stay back or even move up to the line of scrimmage.
Base 4-3 defense: In the most popular base 4-3 defense that NFL teams run, the defensive tackle lines up over the strongside guard, meaning all four defensive linemen are situated on offensive linemen who can get a good blocking angle on the pass rushers.
“Big on big is always the preference for an offensive line, and blocking the 4-3 gives you the best chance,” said an offensive line coach. Offensive linemen want to block defensive linemen, hence the term “big on big.”
Base 3-4 defense: But in the base alignment of a 3-4 defense, a defensive end is in position to prevent the offensive tackle from consistently stepping out and blocking an outside linebacker.
The best pass blocker is usually the left tackle, but if he struggles to clear the defensive end in order to get to the outside linebacker, he’ll give up sacks. Porter, Ware, and Harrison all rush from outside and have a defensive end occupying the left tackle in the base look.
The differences between the 3-4 and the 4-3 mostly concern the personnel and their responsibilities. In the 4-3, the linemen are responsible for putting pressure on the quarterback and specifically the defensive ends will have the majority of sacks in this scheme. The linebackers stop the run and drop back into pass coverage (although they will also join in adding pressure on the quarterback in blitz plays).
In the 3-4 the linebackers are responsible for pressuring the quarterback and specifically the outside linebackers are the primary pass rushers. Any of the four linebackers will rush the quarterback on a given play, but those not putting pressure on the quarterback will need to stop the run and be speedy enough to drop back into coverage, depending on what the play calls for.
In the 4-3 the interior linemen (the defensive tackles) need to be big enough to take on multiple blockers, but because of their pass rushing duties they shouldn’t be so big that that they can’t fluidly move through the offensive linemen to the quarterback.
In the 3-4 the nose tackle needs to be even bigger than the defensive tackles in the 4-3, because he is the only defensive tackle and he will always be taking on multiple blockers with one less player on the line to assist him. Finding the right nose tackle is one of the most challenging aspects of this scheme. Alabama’s defense was among the country’s best in 2008 and 2009 because nose tackle Terrence Cody was so hard to block (he is currently playing in the NFL). Because their main responsibility is to take on blocks with 2-Gap assignments (defending the space on both sides of him), the linemen won’t produce the impressive stats they might get playing in a 4-3. Their job is to free up the linebackers to make plays.
The 3-4 gives you versatility, creates confusion and makes it harder for offenses to predict where the pressure is coming from. This unpredictability is one of the biggest advantages of the 3-4 scheme as it hinders offenses who run the OPTION and who need to react quickly based on what they see from the defense in order to determine which option to use. Any of the four linebackers can blitz on a given play, or one of the outside linebackers can move to the line of scrimmage as a stand-up defensive end.
According to Al Groh (former Virginia head coach hired as Georgia Tech’s Defensive Coordinator in 2010 to switch them from the 4-3 to the 3-4): “I like the flexibility of the defense…It provides different options to play against all of the spread formations that we are dealing with. When you have four players [linebackers] standing up and able to make adjustments, it gives you more options than if you only had three linebackers standing up.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban says “From a schematic standpoint, the 3-4 keeps quarterbacks, offensive linemen and offensive coordinators guessing before the snap. Any one of the four linebackers can rush the passer at any time.”
The top three pass rushers this season are outside linebackers from 3-4 defenses. Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (19), Miami’s Joey Porter (17.5) and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison (15) have 51.5 sacks between them. The top three pass rushers from 4-3 defenses — Atlanta’s John Abraham (15.5), Minnesota’s Jared Allen (14.5) and Carolina’s Julius Peppers (12.5) — all are defensive ends and have 42.5 sacks between them.
The 3-4 defense offers flexibility in looks, features quicker athletes rushing from the outside and forces offensive adjustments that empty the backfield. Not many teams want to be in a 4-3 defense when the opponent has a 3-by-2 empty set with no one in the backfield except the quarterback. However, 3-4 teams are ready for that adjustment with a three-man rush while many four-man fronts have to pop out a lineman into coverage.
The NFL’s top two defenses (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) are 3-4 teams. The top two defenses in sacks (Dallas and Pittsburgh) are 3-4 teams. Therefore, it might be time to consider the 3-4 a better package against modern offenses.