Demise of a Defense: Heyday Is Over for Tampa 2

True innovation in the NFL can be tough. Successful schemes breed imitations and force opponents to adjust. Eventually, even for the soundest of systems, the code is bound to be cracked.

Consider the case of the "Tampa 2" defense.

"You're not going to shock people when you throw out the Tampa 2: 'Oh, my gosh. How do we attack this?' Because that's all they've been doing for quite a few years now," said Dallas assistant coach Monte Kiffin, who directed and perfected the defense under Tony Dungy with Tampa Bay.

When Minnesota replaced Leslie Frazier with Mike Zimmer as head coach this season, yet another team discarded the Tampa 2 as its basic strategy. The Vikings gave up the most points in the league last year, and some veteran players complained about predictability.

"Sometimes we'd line up and Aaron Rodgers is calling out our defense as we're lining up," defensive end Brian Robison said.

The Vikings installed the Tampa 2 in 2006, when Detroit (Rod Marinelli) and Kansas City (Herm Edwards) were also getting it going with new head coaches. Chicago was playing it well under Lovie Smith, as was Tampa Bay with Kiffin, the defensive coordinator. During that pinnacle season, Dungy guided Indianapolis to a Super Bowl victory over Smith's Bears.

Kiffin and Marinelli still teach it with the Cowboys, and Smith and Frazier have returned it to the Buccaneers, but evidence of the Tampa 2's use around the NFL these days is scant.

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.

Smith, Marinelli and Edwards were Buccaneers assistants in the late 1990s under Dungy and Kiffin, who took the system south after developing it together in Minnesota. The catchy nickname for this derivative of the Cover 2 zone strategy, defined by two safeties splitting the deep halves of the field in pass coverage, stuck during Tampa Bay's time as an NFC power.

The roots, however, traced to Pittsburgh with head coach Chuck Noll and defensive coordinator Bud Carson two decades before that. Dungy was a young defensive back then for the Steelers.

"People identified it with Tampa, but there was nothing different. We didn't make any changes from the 1975 playbook," Dungy said. "There isn't too much new in the game of football that hasn't been done before."

With tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch, those Buccaneers teams had quite the backbone.

"You can have the blueprints, but if you don't have the parts they don't work," Brooks said. "Players play the game. Systems don't."

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.

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