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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 style."
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.
Football is 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 history.
I THE BEGINNING
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.