Here at Gang Green Nation, we're going to take a look at certain phrases you'll hear a lot from television announcers over the course of the season. Many of you will find these posts obvious, but a good number of you probably wonder what the announcer is talking about when you hear these phrases.
A lot of fans believe the terms Cover 2 and Tampa 2 are interchangable terms. They aren't. A Cover 2 defense means simply the two safeties play a deep zone on a passing play. The Tampa 2 calls for a distinctive kind of Cover 2. The Tampa 2 is a Cover 2, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
The Tampa 2 is an execution based scheme. There is not much variety relative to other defensive schemes. Think about the 2009 Jets. Opponents knew when Gang Green was going to run the ball. They just couldn't stop it. The Tampa 2 works the same way.
The defense puts a greater emphasis on speed and athleticism than size or strength. Defensive linemen are responsible for one gap each (A gap is the space between two offensive linemen standing next to each other). Bill Belichick's system requires linemen to handle two gaps. The idea behind the Tampa 2 front isn't holding offensive linemen to a standstill like Belichick's 3-4. It is for the linemen to win one on one matchups and penetrate. The scheme calls for relatively little blitzing. It puts a ton of the burden on linemen to generate pressure rushing four. Hence the focus on speed over size. Think of the Colts adding Jerry Hughes to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis up front.
The back seven drop into zone coverage on passing plays. The three linebackers are responsible for the middle of the field about 10 yards back. They need to be smart, able to diagnose whether they need to drop quickly into coverage or attack the run. They need to be fast enough to cover that much ground in such a short time. They need to be athletic enough to play effective zone coverage.
An extra burden falls on the middle linebacker, whose zone responsiblities entail defending between the line of scrimmage and the middle of the field back to where the safeties play, about 20 yards back. The middle linebacker is the premium position on the field.
The corners play zone outside the hashes between the line of scrimmage and the 20 yards to where the safeties play.
The safeties play deep zone 20 yards deep, covering the rest of the field. This makes it a Cover 2 defense. The Tampa 2 calls for this zone look underneath. Other Cover 2 looks can have man coverage underneath, a different kind of zone, and blitzes. Safeties also are ideally fast enough and have good instincts. Think of the way Bob Sanders helps the Colts against the run. It's easy for small lines to get engulfed by power running games. When the safeties can work their way up through traffic, it's huge.
The benefits of this scheme when run effectively are numerous. The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers rode the scheme to a title. When the front four generate a pass rush, the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly and has seven guys playing in coverage (Every single scheme no matter how different is made or broken by quarterback pressure). There is little chance of breaking a big play with a pair of safeties deep. The risks of missed tackles going a long way are minimal. It's a bend but don't break defense, which forces teams to execute on 10 to 15 plays to score a touchdown. That isn't easy to do. Players are taught to gang tackle with at least one going for the strip to force turnovers and mitigate yardage gained. Another of the main principles behind this scheme is the relative ease of finding quality zone pass defenders on the market opposed to man to man pass defenders. Teams can find a lot of quality starters on the cheap.
The downfalls when not run effectively are numerous. If the front cannot generate a pass rush, a quarterback has all day to pick apart zone coverage underneath. It can turn into death by 1,000 cuts. The small defensive front also leaves the unit at risk against big physical run games. Think about what would have happened had Shonn Greene not been injured against Indianapolis' Tampa 2 in the AFC Championship Game. Things possibly could have been different had Indy had to face Greene pounding them every play and wearning them down instead of Thomas Jones' less physical style.
This hasn't been a complete overview, but I hope I've provided a decent Cliffsnotes on the Tampa 2.