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 the
Seahawks, who are facing third-and-14 on their own 40-yard line. Seattle lines
up 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 as
Tampa Two, so named because it took hold with coach Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay
Buccaneers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It has become the most popular
defense in the NFL, a bend-but-don't-break scheme that forces offenses to
execute down the length of the field five yards at a time. After a
season-opening shutout loss to Chicago, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett
Favre said, "I think [the Bears] are the best that's ever played that
On this play
Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck takes a five-step drop and throws toward slot
receiver Bobby Engram in the curl zone near the right hashmark 10 yards
downfield. The ball, Chicago nickelback Ricky Manning Jr. and linebacker Lance
Briggs arrive simultaneously. The pass bounces off Engram's hands as he's taken
down by Manning and Briggs. Incomplete. Fourth down. The Seahawks punt, and
they ultimately lose the game 37--6.
It is just one
play, but it is a prototypical Tampa Two stop, the defense functioning
precisely as designed. "From now on we're calling it Bear Two," All-Pro
linebacker Brian Urlacher says later that week. "Best thing about this
defense? It works, man."
It works, man,
because it is the result of more than three decades of defensive evolution. It
is the product of endless game study, athletic necessity and several tiny
sparks of genius.
neither as complex as calculus nor as simple as 11 bodies trying to assault the
man with the ball. It is in a realm somewhere in between, where offensive and
defensive savants design systems to manage the chaos. The sport is a game of
innovation and reaction. Tampa Two is the latest defensive ploy, and in the
decade since its birth (or, more properly, its rebirth), it has swept through
the NFL. No team plays the scheme on every snap, and even Urlacher estimates
that 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 32
teams play it" at some point in every game.
In simplest terms
Tampa Two is a zone with two deep safeties each covering half the width of the
field, two cornerbacks jamming receivers at the line, two outside linebackers
patrolling the short zones, a middle linebacker roaming from the line to as
much as 30 yards downfield, and four pass rushers. The Tampa Two came of age on
Jan. 23, 2000, when the Buccaneers held the high-scoring St. Louis Rams to one
touchdown in an 11--6 playoff loss.
"There was a
sense around the league that the Rams' offense was pretty much
unstoppable," says Dungy, who coached the Bucs from 1996 to 2001 and has
coached the Colts since. "This is a copycat league. People saw that game
and started doing what we were doing."
In addition to
the Bears (whose coach, Lovie Smith, was a Tampa Bay assistant under Dungy and
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin), the Broncos, Bills, Chiefs, Jaguars,
Lions, Saints and Vikings all play many snaps in Tampa Two. Chicago was in the
scheme extensively in Sunday's 10--0 road victory over the Jets (which raised
their record to 9--1), including on a critical Urlacher interception in the end
zone in the second quarter. Current popularity aside, however, the Tampa Two
has deep roots, extending back to one of the most famous defenses in NFL
There is no surer
means of starting a fight among football strategists than by proclaiming
someone--anyone--the creator of a system. But when digging through the
archeology of Tampa Two, one finds little disagreement among the cognoscenti
that Cover Two, the two-deep pass defense from which Tampa Two grew, has been
around for decades. "I played it in junior high school back in Texas [in
the '70s]," says Bears coach Smith.