SI Vault
Tim Layden
November 27, 2006
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
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November 27, 2006

Two Tough

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

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Cover Two was simple enough. Two safeties split the field. As with any zone defense, there were holes: between and outside the safeties. Defensive strategists began concocting ways to fill those holes. One was to roll the cornerbacks up close to the wide receivers, physically disrupting them at the line of scrimmage to throw 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 Cleveland Browns," says South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, the passing-game guru who played in the NFL from 1967 to '75. " John Brodie was the starter, and he used to love to throw the quick out. Five yards, zip it right in there. If the cornerback rolled up on one side, John would throw it the other way. In this game John sees one corner rolled up, looks the other way, and that corner is rolled up too. He comes over to the sideline and says, 'They can't do that!' I said, 'Well, they just did!'"

The giant leap forward was initiated by Bud Carson, defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s. Carson came to the Steelers from Georgia Tech in '72 and installed the Cover Two with wrinkles that would change NFL history. In addition to splitting the Steelers' safeties and rolling up the cornerbacks, Carson had his middle linebacker drop deep into the void between the safeties instead of sitting close to the line of scrimmage. This move would prove 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 by his ferocity. "Bud came in one day, drew it up on a chalkboard, we started playing it. We just loved it from the first day," says Mike Wagner, the strong safety on those Pittsburgh teams.

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


Dungy's playing career ended after the 1979 season, but by '81, at age 25, he was back in the NFL as an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. He was the Steelers' defensive coordinator 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 a jones 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 an answer.

"Tony and I had both used a lot of the theories that became what everybody calls Tampa Two," says Kiffin, who remains the Bucs' defensive coordinator. "He had learned some things with the Steelers, and I had been playing some of it when I was coaching in college [at Nebraska, Arkansas and North Carolina State from 1966 to '82]. We put them together."

With the Vikings, Dungy and Kiffin used Jack Del Rio (now coach of the Jaguars) in the vital middle linebacker spot and ran a rudimentary Tampa Two for four years. From 1992 to '94, Minnesota ranked eighth, first and fifth, respectively, in the NFL in total defense. In '95 Kiffin left for the Saints, and the following year Dungy was hired as the Bucs' head coach and brought in Kiffin as his coordinator. Together they refined the Tampa Two into a defensive force. In the 10 years since Kiffin arrived in Tampa, the Bucs have finished lower than sixth in the NFL in total defense only twice. In 2002 they were first in passing defense and total defense and won the Super Bowl. "What Monte and Tony did in Tampa was to almost revolutionize defense," says USC coach Pete Carroll, who worked in basic Tampa Two schemes with Kiffin as an assistant at Arkansas in 1977. "They took a good, simple system and made it very, very precise."


Tampa Two's core philosophy is to force an offense to settle for short gains on underneath dump-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 is offensively proficient, like Dungy's Indianapolis clubs. "There are not a lot of big plays against this defense," says former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, who played from 1987 to 2004. "You have to be patient and take four-, five-, six-yard plays and work your way up the field. That's something coordinators and quarterbacks don't always enjoy doing."

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