Nov. 27, 2006
Nov. 27, 2006

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Nov. 27, 2006

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The Cover Two defense has a storied lineage that runs from the Steel Curtain in the '70s to today's stifling Chicago Bears unit. Here's where it comes from, how it works--and how to beat it

Consider a play,just one from among the thousands run in the NFL this season: Sunday night,Oct. 1, Soldier Field, Chicago. Late in the first quarter the Bears lead theSeahawks, who are facing third-and-14 on their own 40-yard line. Seattle linesup in a four-wide offensive set, the Bears in a 4--3 with two deep safeties.Chicago will defend the play in the conservative Cover Two zone scheme known asTampa Two, so named because it took hold with coach Tony Dungy's Tampa BayBuccaneers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It has become the most populardefense in the NFL, a bend-but-don't-break scheme that forces offenses toexecute down the length of the field five yards at a time. After aseason-opening shutout loss to Chicago, Green Bay Packers quarterback BrettFavre said, "I think [the Bears] are the best that's ever played thatstyle."

This is an article from the Nov. 27, 2006 issue Original Layout

On this playSeattle's Matt Hasselbeck takes a five-step drop and throws toward slotreceiver Bobby Engram in the curl zone near the right hashmark 10 yardsdownfield. The ball, Chicago nickelback Ricky Manning Jr. and linebacker LanceBriggs arrive simultaneously. The pass bounces off Engram's hands as he's takendown by Manning and Briggs. Incomplete. Fourth down. The Seahawks punt, andthey ultimately lose the game 37--6.

It is just oneplay, but it is a prototypical Tampa Two stop, the defense functioningprecisely as designed. "From now on we're calling it Bear Two," All-Prolinebacker Brian Urlacher says later that week. "Best thing about thisdefense? It works, man."

It works, man,because it is the result of more than three decades of defensive evolution. Itis the product of endless game study, athletic necessity and several tinysparks of genius.

Football isneither as complex as calculus nor as simple as 11 bodies trying to assault theman with the ball. It is in a realm somewhere in between, where offensive anddefensive savants design systems to manage the chaos. The sport is a game ofinnovation and reaction. Tampa Two is the latest defensive ploy, and in thedecade since its birth (or, more properly, its rebirth), it has swept throughthe NFL. No team plays the scheme on every snap, and even Urlacher estimatesthat the Bears play Tampa Two no more than 35% to 40% of the time. However,Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz estimates that "30 out of 32teams play it" at some point in every game.

In simplest termsTampa Two is a zone with two deep safeties each covering half the width of thefield, two cornerbacks jamming receivers at the line, two outside linebackerspatrolling the short zones, a middle linebacker roaming from the line to asmuch as 30 yards downfield, and four pass rushers. The Tampa Two came of age onJan. 23, 2000, when the Buccaneers held the high-scoring St. Louis Rams to onetouchdown in an 11--6 playoff loss.

"There was asense around the league that the Rams' offense was pretty muchunstoppable," says Dungy, who coached the Bucs from 1996 to 2001 and hascoached the Colts since. "This is a copycat league. People saw that gameand started doing what we were doing."

In addition tothe Bears (whose coach, Lovie Smith, was a Tampa Bay assistant under Dungy andBucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin), the Broncos, Bills, Chiefs, Jaguars,Lions, Saints and Vikings all play many snaps in Tampa Two. Chicago was in thescheme extensively in Sunday's 10--0 road victory over the Jets (which raisedtheir record to 9--1), including on a critical Urlacher interception in the endzone in the second quarter. Current popularity aside, however, the Tampa Twohas deep roots, extending back to one of the most famous defenses in NFLhistory.


There is no surermeans of starting a fight among football strategists than by proclaimingsomeone--anyone--the creator of a system. But when digging through thearcheology of Tampa Two, one finds little disagreement among the cognoscentithat Cover Two, the two-deep pass defense from which Tampa Two grew, has beenaround for decades. "I played it in junior high school back in Texas [inthe '70s]," says Bears coach Smith.

Cover Two wassimple enough. Two safeties split the field. As with any zone defense, therewere holes: between and outside the safeties. Defensive strategists beganconcocting ways to fill those holes. One was to roll the cornerbacks up closeto the wide receivers, physically disrupting them at the line of scrimmage tothrow off their timing and allow the safeties more time to react.

"Late 1960s,I was [a quarterback] with the 49ers, and we're playing the ClevelandBrowns," says South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, the passing-game guruwho played in the NFL from 1967 to '75. "John Brodie was the starter, andhe used to love to throw the quick out. Five yards, zip it right in there. Ifthe cornerback rolled up on one side, John would throw it the other way. Inthis game John sees one corner rolled up, looks the other way, and that corneris rolled up too. He comes over to the sideline and says, 'They can't do that!'I said, 'Well, they just did!'"

The giant leapforward was initiated by Bud Carson, defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh'sSteel Curtain defenses of the 1970s. Carson came to the Steelers from GeorgiaTech in '72 and installed the Cover Two with wrinkles that would change NFLhistory. In addition to splitting the Steelers' safeties and rolling up thecornerbacks, Carson had his middle linebacker drop deep into the void betweenthe safeties instead of sitting close to the line of scrimmage. This move wouldprove prescient two years later with the arrival of Jack Lambert, the 6'4",220-pound future Hall of Famer whose freakish athletic skills were matched byhis ferocity. "Bud came in one day, drew it up on a chalkboard, we startedplaying it. We just loved it from the first day," says Mike Wagner, thestrong safety on those Pittsburgh teams.

The Steelers wonSuper Bowls after the 1974 and '75 seasons. In '76 they gave up just 28 pointsin the final nine games of the regular season and pitched five shutouts butlost to Oakland in the AFC Championship Game. Before the '77 season Pittsburghsigned University of Minnesota quarterback Tony Dungy as a free agent andconverted him first into a wide receiver and then a safety. He played two yearsfor the Steelers, including '78, when they won their third championship. Healso paid attention. "Everything we do now you can find in my PittsburghSteelers playbook," Dungy says. "I did keep it all thoseyears."


Dungy's playingcareer ended after the 1979 season, but by '81, at age 25, he was back in theNFL as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. He was the Steelers' defensivecoordinator from '84 to '88 and assumed the same position in '92 in Minnesota,where he met up with Kiffin, a then 52-year-old coaching journeyman with ajones for defense and some of the same ideas Dungy had been carrying around.With the rise of the West Coast scheme, the run-and-shoot and the no-huddle,offenses were getting better, faster and more sophisticated; defenses needed ananswer.

"Tony and Ihad both used a lot of the theories that became what everybody calls TampaTwo," says Kiffin, who remains the Bucs' defensive coordinator. "He hadlearned some things with the Steelers, and I had been playing some of it when Iwas coaching in college [at Nebraska, Arkansas and North Carolina State from1966 to '82]. We put them together."

With the Vikings,Dungy and Kiffin used Jack Del Rio (now coach of the Jaguars) in the vitalmiddle linebacker spot and ran a rudimentary Tampa Two for four years. From1992 to '94, Minnesota ranked eighth, first and fifth, respectively, in the NFLin total defense. In '95 Kiffin left for the Saints, and the following yearDungy was hired as the Bucs' head coach and brought in Kiffin as hiscoordinator. Together they refined the Tampa Two into a defensive force. In the10 years since Kiffin arrived in Tampa, the Bucs have finished lower than sixthin the NFL in total defense only twice. In 2002 they were first in passingdefense and total defense and won the Super Bowl. "What Monte and Tony didin Tampa was to almost revolutionize defense," says USC coach Pete Carroll,who worked in basic Tampa Two schemes with Kiffin as an assistant at Arkansasin 1977. "They took a good, simple system and made it very, veryprecise."


Tampa Two's corephilosophy is to force an offense to settle for short gains on underneathdump-off passes, so that moving down the field requires sustained execution,patience and time. It's particularly effective when a team has a lead or isoffensively proficient, like Dungy's Indianapolis clubs. "There are not alot of big plays against this defense," says former NFL quarterback RichGannon, who played from 1987 to 2004. "You have to be patient and takefour-, five-, six-yard plays and work your way up the field. That's somethingcoordinators and quarterbacks don't always enjoy doing."

Think of these asthe Five Commandments of Tampa Two.

1. The front fourmust be able to rush the quarterback, because that allows the linebackersfreedom. "If you get four men who can rush the passer, you can play CoverTwo, Tampa Two, all day," says Jack Ham, Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame outsidelinebacker. "But you can't play it without a pass rush. It's a zonedefense, and there are lots of holes if the quarterback can sit back andwait." The Steelers applied the rush with Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood,the Buccaneers with Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice; the Bears are doing it withTommie Harris, Alex Brown and a deep posse of solid defensive linemen. (HereCarroll adds, "Any defense works a lot better when you pressure thequarterback.")

2. The middlelinebacker must be able and willing to drop deep into coverage, filling thecrossing zone between the safeties and leaving the glamour plays to the outsidelinebackers or the nickelback. "My primary purpose in that defense,"says Urlacher, "is to run back to the huddle and congratulate somebody formaking a play while I was running down the field with the tight end."

In truth,Urlacher has redefined the role played by Lambert, Del Rio and Tampa Bay'sShelton Quarles. At 6'4" and 258 pounds but with the speed of a runningback (he was a college safety at New Mexico), Urlacher sits on the line ofscrimmage longer than most Tampa Two middle linebackers, allowing him to readrunning plays before bailing out. Yet he is still able to drop 30 yards intocoverage and disrupt pass plays. "He's a freak," says Chicagoquarterback Rex Grossman. "Trust me, I play against him every day, and Itest him. You can't throw over him in the middle."

3. The outsidelinebackers must be smart and athletic enough to cover receivers in the middlezone or rally to runs at the line of scrimmage. "You're not looking foryour old-fashioned linebacker who makes tackles in a phone booth," saysDungy. "You're looking for an open-field tackler and athlete." Theyalso have to jam tight ends and slot receivers to keep them from releasing intothe middle zone vacated by the dropping middle linebacker.

4. Thecornerbacks must be physical enough to jam wideouts at the line and also tackleballcarriers. In Tampa Two the corners are not expected to run down the fieldwith receivers but rather to disrupt them and pass them along to the safeties."One of the big reasons Tampa Two developed was to take pressure off thecorners in terms of coverage," says ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterbackRon Jaworski.

Yet disruption isvital. "Our job is to get our hands on the receiver and knock him off hisroute," says Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. "That little bit of abump can change the whole play." Mel Blount, the Steelers' 6'3",205-pound Hall of Famer, was the prototype in the '70s. It's hard to imagine amore perfect Tampa Two corner.

5. The safetiesmust be smart and quick enough to break properly on balls in the air andphysical enough to create--and survive--violent collisions with wide receiversor backs after running as much as 25 yards from a deep starting position."This defense is the reason you see so many penalties on safeties like [theBroncos'] John Lynch," says Ham. "They're out there to createcollisions."


Two ways. First,with the running game. "You've got to be able to run the football againstit because there are two defenders [the safeties] that are 15 yards off theline of scrimmage," says Al Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach."If you can't run the ball, you're in for a long afternoon." If you canrun the ball, the defense is forced to bring a safety closer to the line ofscrimmage, sitting in a gap and helping tackle ballcarriers. From this positionthe safety cannot play Tampa Two.

Second, protectthe quarterback and throw passes into the weak spots. Recently Jaworski stoodin a doorway at NFL Films' offices in New Jersey and watched as Greg Cosell,executive producer of NFL Matchup, cued up a play from the Lions-Rams game inWeek 4. St. Louis's Mark Bulger dropped five steps and found wideout IsaacBruce 19 yards deep on the right sideline, behind the corner and just beforethe safety arrived. "That's the sweet spot--18, 19 yards on thesideline," Jaworski said. "Any less and the guy is still jammed, anymore and the receiver's in the hospital. And it takes a great throw."

Another weak spotis the deep middle (unless the linebacker is Urlacher). "That guy will beopen on the post," says Spurrier. "But it takes time--that's theproblem."

One other method:Get ahead. When the defense is playing Tampa Two, the offense is forced to burnthe clock, which no trailing team can afford. When the Bears fell behindArizona in October, they abandoned Tampa Two almost entirely.

Back to SoldierField now, to that October play. It was, in fact, a Tampa Two symphony. CornersTillman and Nathan Vasher got solid jams on Seattle's outside receivers.Urlacher ran straight down the middle with slot wideout Darrell Jackson.Nickelback Manning locked on Engram, and Briggs floated between Engram andreceiver Deion Branch. By watching Hasselbeck's eyes, Briggs correctly guessedhe wasn't going to throw left to Branch. Just as Hasselbeck started to make hisreads, the pocket began collapsing as Harris attacked up the middle and Browncame from the outside. With no other choice, Hasselbeck went to Engram; even ifthe pass had been completed, the play would not have been a first down. Onesmall victory in a game of endless battles.

The fightcontinues long after the game ends. "I guarantee you, people are all overthis defense in their film study," says Carroll. "They're figuring itout." And the next innovation awaits.

mi SI

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Read Peter Kingon the Ravens' Adalius Thomas, the most versatile defender in football,

In the Zone

The ubiquitous Tampa Two defense will have a majoreffect on December's playoff races. Keep an eye on these four Tampa Two--heavygames.


Tom Brady, who's had success in the past against TonyDungy's schemes with the Colts, matches wits against Brian Urlacher and thebest Two defense in the NFL.


The Seahawks should have Matt Hasselbeck and ShaunAlexander back to try to pick apart Denver's Tampa Two, anchored by safety JohnLynch and middle man Al Wilson.


Dueling Tampa Twos: Watch Peyton Manning try to findholes in the Jaguars' zone while Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew attempt togrind it out against the Colts' run D.


Best way to beat Tampa Two: run the ball. LaDainianTomlinson tore up Denver's zone last week in the Chargers' 35--27 stunner andwill try for a Two-fer against another AFC West rival.

Urlacher has redefined the role played by Lambert."He's a FREAK," says Grossman. "Trust me--you can't throw over himin the middle."
Against the Jets, Urlacher (highlighted) dropped back between the safeties andmade a key interception.
In the Two scheme, outside linebackers like Briggs crash to the ball to shutdown tight ends and slot receivers.