Who’s Afraid of the Tampa 2 Defense?


Thursday night’s primetime national-TV flogging of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons may have marked the exact moment when the “Tampa 2” defense, once the league’s most popular and puzzling scheme, became played out.

To be fair, the Bucs’ defense was just part of the team’s problem in the 56-14 loss. The special teams allowed Atlanta’s Devin Hester to return a punt for a touchdown, and Tampa Bay QB Josh McCown threw a pick-six to Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael. But the Bucs’ D was undeniably lit up by ground and by air. Part of it was obviously a talent/personnel issue, but the game plan didn’t do the players any favors.

Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith re-introduced the Bucs to the Tampa 2 defense when he took over the job in January 2014. Smith was an assistant for the Bucs in the late-1990s under head coach Tony Dungy, who learned the basics of the Tampa 2 when played defensive back and won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach Chuck Noll in the 1970s. Joining Smith on that Bucs’ staff was Monte Kiffin, Herm Edwards and Rod Marinelli, and as they all moved on to different teams around the league, they took the Tampa 2 with them. Smith used the scheme to guide the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI in 2007, where his team lost to Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts, who of course also used the Tampa 2.

Today, however, the Tampa 2 as a base defensive scheme is almost extinct.

The Minnesota Vikings used it under head coach Leslie Frazier, another product of the Chuck Noll coaching tree. The Vikings also had the worst defense in the league last season, after which Frazier was fired. He is now the defensive coordinator under Smith in Tampa Bay, where they run the Tampa 2. The Dallas Cowboys have Kiffin and Marinelli on staff, and while their defense has been solid in the early stages of this season, America’s Team has generally had one of America’s worst defenses in recent years.

So how did the Tampa 2 go from brilliant to busted? The Associated Press explored the issue in an article that ran in USA Today before NFL’s opening day:

Ten years ago, this was an ideal base defense.

Teams could rely on a four-man pass rush up front more than blitzing. In turn, outside linebackers and cornerbacks dropped into coverage zones, with the middle linebacker backpedaling into the crease between the safeties to make deep passes difficult. Sure tacklers from the back seven were assigned to gaps in the line for run support, freeing the front four to focus on one each. Scoring against a Tampa 2 was going to require patience.

“We did a lot of things that were simplistic. We never worried about the size. The defense was built on quickness,” Kiffin said.

The Bucs also had Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Hall of Fame outside linebacker Derrick Brooks and nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch. Dungy had ’07 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders playing safety in Indianapolis behind future Hall of Fame pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, while Smith’s Bears had superstar linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs on the roster along with Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman. In any scheme on either side of the football field, the importance of talent cannot be understated.

But pro offenses also adjusted and evolved to combat the Tampa 2, and they got some help from the suits at NFL HQ. From USA Today:

Seams in the coverage, though, were easier to exploit without Hall of Fame players like Sapp and Brooks defending. Dungy and Edwards moved from the sideline to the TV studio. The increase in three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets, plus elite quarterback play, minimized the effectiveness of the Tampa 2.

Then there was the rule changes designed to stem head and neck injuries, with stiffer penalties for hits on defenseless receivers. Opponents, thus, became more emboldened to run routes across the middle without an enforcer like Lynch waiting to punish them.

“Lynch would knock the hell out of you,” Sapp said. “You can’t do it anymore. That’s the question I have for Lovie. How do you plan on doing what we did to take away the middle of that field?”

It’s not like Tampa 2 will ever cease to exist. It’s fundamentals come from the basic Cover 2, which every team will run at least occasionally even if it’s not their base defense; if nothing else than to give opponents a different look. But the scheme that once stymied so many offenses around the NFL has seen its glory days come and go. Perhaps it’s fitting that the retirement party will be held in Tampa.

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