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The Tampa 2 defense is so named because it rose to prominence in the 1990’s under Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Tampa 2 is a variant of Cover 2 that asks the middle linebacker to cover the deep middle area of the field, a vulnerable area in a more traditional two-deep scheme. This requires the middle linebacker to possess safety-like speed, while still having the necessary instincts and toughness to be effective against the run.
Prototypical examples of Tampa 2 middle linebackers are Jack Lambert of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Brian Urlacher of the 2000’s Chicago Bears, and Luke Kuechly of this decade’s Carolina Panthers.
The Dallas Cowboys line up with trips right and use a variant of the dagger concept to stress the deep middle area ‒ the zone for which Kuechly (#59) is responsible. Tight end Jason Witten (#82) runs vertically up the seam and wideout Terrance Williams (#83) runs a deep dig to the vacated area. The play initially develops as planned, with Kuechly ‒ reading 2 to 1 ‒ following Witten up the seam. As Kuechly sees Williams cut, the MLB hands coverage of Witten to safety Roman Harper (#41) and jumps Williams’s dig route for the interception. With the help of a few blocks, Kuechly returns the interception for a touchdown.
The deep middle linebacker creates a hole in the middle of the field underneath and stresses the four shallow defenders to cover more area, creating a hybrid defense that resembles Cover 3, with three deep defenders and four underneath). Here, Pittsburgh is attacking the underneath middle of the San Francisco 49ers’ Tampa 2 coverage:
The Steelers empty the backfield with 11 personnel using trips to the left and slot formation on the right. From the slot side of the field, DeAngelo Williams (#34) runs a quick out from the inside while Antonio Brown (#84) runs a slant route ‒ aiming for the open space underneath the MLB Michael Wilhoite. As the MLB drops deep, the WR comes under him for the completion.
This underneath hole in coverage means the outside linebackers need to have exceptional range to cover wide areas underneath. Outside linebackers who have starred in Tampa 2 systems include Jack Ham of the 1970’s Steelers and Derrick Brooks of the 1990’s Buccaneers. Since the linebackers tend to be fast and small, Tampa 2 teams almost always use four-man defensive lines to keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers. The 1990’s Bucs featured a 4-3 under front ‒ keyed by exceptional 3 technique DT Warren Sapp ‒ that funneled run plays to Brooks. The cornerback and safeties are not asked to cover as much ground as in most other coverages but to be successful in a Tampa 2 system they must be willing and capable tacklers.