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How Well Does The Cowboys Defensive Personnel Fit Kiffin's "Tampa-2"?

Now that the Cowboys have hired Monte Kiffin to be their next defensive coordinator, its time to begin envisioning what we might see on the field in 2013. Kiffin, as you undoubtedly know by now, is the mastermind behind the famed "Tampa 2" defense. Here, we take a look at the basics of the scheme, and take an early stab at which current Cowboys might play where.

In Carr and Claiborne, might Dallas have an ideal pair of Tampa-2 corners?
In Carr and Claiborne, might Dallas have an ideal pair of Tampa-2 corners?
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

We'll begin with a little history: the roots of what has come to be known as the Tampa-2 system can be found in the old Pittsburgh Steel Curtain, in a defense developed by Chuck Noll and his defensive coordinator, Bud Carson. It is derived from "Cover-2," a basic coverage scheme in which both safeties line up deep, with each responsible for one half of the field, with the linebackers and corners manning five intermediate zones. The defensive line is entrusted to penetrate the backfield without the aid of blitzes.

Former Buccaneers and Colts head coach Tony Dungy played defensive back under Noll and Carson, brought the scheme to Tampa Bay (where Lovie Smith, his LB coach, served an apprenticeship before bringing it to Chicago) and, then to Indianapolis. Dungy gives Noll and Carson full credit for the scheme's basic principles - including the idea of moving the middle linebacker into coverage, which Carson was able to do once small but athletic (and, frankly, vicious) MLB Jack Lambert joined the team in 1975.

The scheme became known for its simple format as well as its players' speed and aggressive mentality. All positions in this defense place a premium on speed; as a consequence, Tampa-2 defenses tend to be undersized, especially along the defensive line, where players have to be quick and agile enough to penetrate gaps. Because they tend to be smaller - and therefore vulnerable to the run - successful Tampa-2 teams run to the ball and gang tackle. The scheme also places a premium on a hard hitting secondary capable of helping out against the run and, with their hard hits, causing turnovers.

Want more? Check out former Ravens head coach Brian Billick's lucid "chalk talk" on the Tampa-2 (as well as part II, on two- and three-deep defenses). Last May, our own IckesJb penned a comprehensive schematic overview and followed that up with a terrific post on how to find and exploit the Tampa Two's soft spots the next day. At the time, I strongly suggested that our members check them out; now that Kiffin is officially aboard, they are required reading. In the following, I'll try to cover the same ground that J-Ick does, and hope to do his fine work justice.

The Tampa-2 was designed to work against teams that ran a West Coast Offense specializing in is what is known as "zone exploitation," where defenses are forced to make a (wrong) choice about which nearby receiver to cover. The typical Cover-2 leaves defenses wide open to deep post patterns, seam routes, medium range hooks, and West Coast teams that like to flood zones. It's very difficult for a safety to cover an entire half of a field; because of how much ground the C-2 safety has to cover, deep passes, especially multiple vertical routes, can easily overload his zone.

The Tampa-2's innovation is to drop the MLB into a middle deep zone coverage as well. In a standard 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker covers short underneath routes and helps in run defense. In the T-2, he still provides run support, but must also have the wheels to drop into deep coverage in the middle or run with a slot receiver or tight end up the seam. In short, the MLB converts Cover-2 into a Cover-3, with three "safeties" across, which offers increased protection against the deep pass. Yes, the other two LBs and the two CBs have to cover slightly more ground, but one of the Tampa-2's primary motives is to delimit the big play and force opposing offenses to execute repeatedly in order to get points.

Lets take a look at the basic responsibilities of each position group under the Tampa-2:

The defensive line: although Dungy and Kiffin often get credit for the coverage innovation articulated above, perhaps a more important adjustment was in the way they aligned and deployed their defensive linemen by placing them in an "under front," which shifts the entire defensive line away from the offense's strong side. In the under front, one defensive tackle - the 1-technique - is shaded directly over the center as a de facto nose tackle; the other, usually more athletic, tackle plays a 3-technique, lining up in the B gap in a more traditional DE position (I could see either Jay Ratliff or Jason Hatcher succeeding in this position). Then, the team’s best pass rusher, the weakside end (hello, DeMarcus Ware), is free to rush from the extreme edge of the offensive line.

Although the Cowboys certainly have a collection of quick, undersized defensive linemen (300 lb. DTs; 260 lb. DEs), this is the position group with the most square pegs for round holes. Who in the current roster might be the best fit at the 1-tech? Who would play the strong side end?

The linebackers: The keyword here is speed - and more speed. It's particularly important with the Tampa-2 because, with the MLB in a deep zone, the two OLBs have to cover more ground than those in other schemes. The Will and Sam Backers shift their zones as they read the quarterback's eyes, anticipating the throw. This is particularly true of the weakside 'backer, who can jump routes coming from the strong side (think TEs on short crossing patterns) based on the QBs read. Indeed, this was how future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks made his living playing in Kiffin's scheme.

Although the outside guys have to cover a lot of ground, the most pressure is on the Mike, who has to stick to receivers running vertical routes, knowing he won't get safety help until the QB has released the ball. As J-Ick writes of the MLB:

He has to be an elite athlete who can both step up and play big against the run...and run with an athletic TE down the middle of the field. As soon as the Mike reads pass, he turns his hips to face the strong side and runs to his deep middle alignment with his head back to the QB. This assignment essentially becomes man coverage if there is an immediate vertical threat by the #2, or inside receiver or TE on the strong side. Here think Brian Urlacher in Chicago a big athletic LB with speed.

Although a lot of pundits are already declaring Sean Lee the MLB, thus designating Bruce Carter as this defense's Brooks or Lance Briggs, I wonder whether their respective skillsets might be better deployed the other way around. Carter is the athletic freak, a la Urlacher, and Lee has shown a kind of genius at dropping into short zones and picking off passes. Also, given that the defense is designed to funnel plays to the WLB, wouldn't you rather have Lee, the tackling machine, in that position? Lastly, who plays the Sam? Wilber? Albright? Your guess is as good as mine...

The cornerbacks: Even with the MLB dropping into the deep middle, the Tampa-2 has a couple of vulnerable areas. One of these is the sideline behind the corners and outside the safeties. To counter this, the system needs two physical corners capable of re-routing receivers inside, towards the safeties. In addition, they are asked to close quickly on any passes in the short zones and to be very physical playing the run. Because the scheme requires smaller players, it is vulnerable to the run. This can be overcome if the corners play tough on the edge - in a sense, setting the edge - allowing the front seven to collapse inside and concern themselves less with getting outside of off-tackle and end runs.

The twitterverse has been filled with moans and groans about the Cowboys "wasting" the 2012 offseason;s beg investment in "cover" corners. But I'd argue that neither Mo Claiborne nor Brandon Carr is a classic cover corner, a la Terrence Newman early in his career. Rather, both are like Newman's running mate in 2005-'07, Anthony Henry: big, rangy physical guys who are capable of re-routing receivers and supporting against the run. In addition, Claiborne has superb ball skills; in this defense, when he's able to keep plays in front of him, I think he'll be more likely to get turnovers than he was with the quarterback to his back.

In fact, I think Carr and Claiborne are such good fits for this kind of system that it wouldn't surprise me if their collective presence on the roster wasn't one of the primary reasons for the philosophical switcheroo.

The safeties: As suggested above, each of the safeties is responsible for a deep half. Each will line up about 15-18 yards deep - more or less on the numbers - and protect against any deep routes. If two vertical routs are run in the safety's zone, he gets deep, keeping equidistant between them, and reacts only on the throw. In short, they must keep everything in front of them, at all costs. In addition, T-2 safeties, like corners, must be physical guys who offer an undersized front seven strong support against the run.

Who on the Dallas roster fits this bill? When I picture Barry Church and Gerald Sensabaugh playing deep halves, I can see it working beautifully and I can also envision nightmare scenarios: bad angles, missed tackles, a lack of deep get the picture. Given that so much is asked of safeties in this system, it's the safeties currently on Dallas' roster - moreso than the DTs - that give me the most pause.

But hey, its early in the..wait for it...process. I'm sure all of this will become much clearer as we wind our way through free agency and the draft. Until then, I'll be hanging on every word coming out of Valley Ranch.

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