Trends in the game: Is the Tampa 2 getting fazed out?

Each week I will discuss a trend in the game that looks to be evolving from my discussions with coaches and players, video tape study and observation. Let's start off the 2007 season with the famous "Tampa 2" coverage that has been the rage of NFL defenses for the past few years.

As the Tony Dungy coaching tree expanded so did the number of teams using the Tampa 2 as the foundation of their defense. There are Dungy disciples in Kansas City (Herm Edwards), Detroit (Rod Marinelli), Pittsburgh (Mike Tomlin), and, of course, Chicago (Lovie Smith).

It was Super Bowl XLI, when Dungy went up against his own defensive scheme in the Bears, that caused me to investigate the Tampa 2 scheme. As a background note, the Tampa 2 tries and plays the run game with seven defenders in the box instead of the traditional 8 in the box. It also asks the middle linebacker when he reads pass to take a deep drop down the middle of the field to free-safety depth. No one in the league could achieve the depth required quite like the Bears' Brian Urlacher. A former safety in college with rare size made him the perfect candidate to run the scheme originally developed by Dungy and Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay. But Dungy wanted to win a Super Bowl with his Colts, and that meant attacking his own defensive scheme.

The Colts were challenged to attack the No. 5 defense in the NFL and the No. 1 defense in average gain per pass play. What Dungy did exposed the Tampa 2 coverage being used by more than half the teams in the NFL. He triggered that deep pass drop with a pass key. As Urlacher dropped with great speed while reading his pass key, the Colts ran a draw play vs. six in the box and the end result was a Colts offense that gained 191 rushing yards in 42 carries and another 74 yards throwing the check-down route to the backs, which essentially is a delayed draw.

No one thought the quick-strike Colts would hold the ball for more than 38 minutes in the Super Bowl, but they did. Since then every coach has gone over that game tape looking for the ways to break down Tampa 2 coverages around the league. I asked one coach if he is worried about not having Peyton Manning to carry out the plan. "Most teams," he replied, "don't have a middle linebacker like Urlacher running the scheme."

A number of defensive coaches told me they will not be running the pure Tampa 2 as much as they have in the past. Instead, they will be blending in a lot more safety-down-in-the-box looks and man schemes to change the look of the Tampa 2. As one defensive coach said, "The quarterbacks in this league are getting too many looks at the Tampa 2 coverage and they know what to do with the ball. We have to change it up more than ever."

Besides what the Colts were able to do, there are a number of teams running an over/under principle on the Tampa 2 coverage: Drive a seam route down the middle -- usually by a tight end -- and trigger the deep drop by the Mike, or strongside middle linebacker, and then run a 12-yard dig route by a wide receiver under the tight end and in front of the Mike. The big stretch by the deep route can produce a nice hole in the middle of the field.

Finally, I remember how many assistant coaches got head coaching positions by claiming to be disciples of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense and over time it was hard to recognize all the different variations of the West Coast offense. Jon Gruden's version is different than Mike Holmgren's. Brad Childress doesn't run the same version that he ran with the Eagles.

So, the Tampa 2 scheme is getting ready for a big change in the NFL this season. One team that regularly gets described as a "Tampa 2" team hardly ever plays the coverage anymore. After I watch some of the late-season game tapes from 2006, I asked the coach what happened to his famous coverage. "Can't play it anymore," he said. "It lost its competitive edge from overuse."

Sounds to me like the Tampa 2 is being phased out around the league as a core defense.

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