Saddle Sage: Blitzing in a Tampa 2 scheme

The famed Tampa 2 defense in all its "Madden-like" glory


Many people in both the blogosphere and in mainstream media throw around the phrase "Tampa 2" when they talk about the now legendary NFL defensive scheme made famous by Tony Dungy. They assume it means one way of playing defense: Four down linemen, three linebackers, corners and safeties playing Cover 2 zone.The other assumption is that pressure on the opponent's backfield (which includes the QB and RBs) is created using only the four down linemen. Rarely, if ever, do Tampa 2 defense's blitz, according to accepted opinions by most NFL fans and pundits.

However, if you look closer at the recent play of several Tampa 2 teams, you will notice that blitzing is very much a part of what they do. And while blitzing is not a known "staple" of a Tampa 2, blitzes can be affective if they are done right. And contrary to many ignorant assumptions, when a Tampa 2 team blitzes they are not shunning the principles of Tampa 2. 

Just like anyone else in this league, if you need to blitz to get pressure, you should blitz regardless if your team is Tampa 2, 3-4 hybrid, or some other well-known defensive formation. without pressure on the offense's backfield, your team will lose. It is literally that simple. Here, we will talk about how certain Tampa 2 teams blitz, and how effective those blitzes are.

 

 

Currently, five teams run a Tampa 2-style defense. They are Indianapolis, Chicago, Minnesota, Atlanta, and now Seattle. Two other teams deploy Tampa 2-like defenses: Tennessee and Cincinnati. The two men who created the Tampa 2 (Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin) are retired from the NFL. You'll note that the place where Tampa 2 is coined is no longer on the list. That is because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are switching from a Tampa 2 defense this year to a Jim Bates-style defense.

From 2002-today, several other teams deployed Tampa 2-style defenses with varying levels of success, including Denver, Detroit, and the New York Jets. Up until this year, teams like Houston and Jacksonville ran defenses similar to a Tampa 2. Just like the current teams who run Tampa 2, each team has its own spin on how they run the defense. The reason being that each team has their own strengths and weaknesses, and Tampa 2 requires specific personnel with specific talents in order to be effective in its "purest" form.

If the "purest" form of Tampa 2 follows Tony Dungy's view, then a Tampa 2 would blitz roughly 11.4% of the time. In essence, that means blitzing hardly ever occurs. All pressure on the opponent's backfield comes from the front four, specifically the defensive ends and the under tackle (or three technique DT, because he lines up opposite the gap between the guard and center on the line of scrimmage). The other DT is uses to occupy blockers, freeing up the other DT and the DEs to attack gaps in the opponent's line. The three linebackers drop back in a zone, similar to a Cover 2. The main difference is the middle linebacker, or MIKE. 

In Tampa 2, the MIKE must get from three yards off the line of scrimmage to eleven yards back in almost the blink of an eye. This is often done back peddling. The MIKE's job is to cover the middle of the field, the gap in between the "Cover 2" zones the strong and free safety cover. One of the best "pure" Tampa 2 MIKE's is Gary Brackett. Brackett has excellent speed and quickness, enabling him to get from 3 to 11 yards at the snap of the ball. The MIKE's coverage gap is the most important in any Tampa 2 scheme. If no one covers the middle of the field quickly, teams will go "bombs away" on your secondary. Just ask the 2003 and 2004 Denver Broncos, who ran a Tampa 2-style defense with now-current Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer calling their defense. That team still has nightmares of Al Wilson blowing his MIKE coverage assignments and Brandon Stokley running like a wild man through their secondary.

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When it comes to Tampa 2, few MIKE's are better than Gary Brackett

 

So, in a nutshell, that is the "purest" form of Tampa 2. But, just like all other defensive schemes, tweaks and variations from the "pure" form are required based on a number of factors: Team talent, coaching philosophy, field conditions, match-ups with opponents, etc. Referring back to the 2003 Denver Broncos, they were a team not unlike the current team Lovie Smith coaches in Chicago. Just like the 2003 Broncos, the Bears struggle to get pressure on the QB using only the front four. The reasoning for this has as much to do with player injuries as it does with inferior pass rushing talent along the defensive line. In 2008, Chicago blitzed 38.6% of the time, utilizing their big, fast, aggressive linebackers in order to generate pressure. Another Tampa 2 team in 2008, the Detroit Lions, blitzed 31.1% of the time for similar reasons. 

To put it bluntly, if your team's front four in a Tampa 2 cannot pressure the opponent's backfield, they stink. The team must then utilize their linebackers and secondary to generate pressure. Without pressure, you might as well concede the game. Pressure on the offense is EVERYTHING in modern NFL defense.

However, when you start sending LBers and the secondary into the offense's backfield on blitzes, you are opening yourself up to getting burned by big plays. The main strength of a "pure" Tampa 2 is it prevents big plays. With three players covering the back zones, the opportunity for long pass plays is limited because the deep wide receiver targets are likely double covered. With linebackers and, possibly, safeties not there you are opening yourself up to getting burned. So, if you blitz out of the Tampa 2 you sure as hell better get to the quarterback. If not, you're giving up 6 points.

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Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs

 

It is because of this that Tony Dungy was so steadfast about not blitzing. Logically, it makes sense. He had the best defensive end tandem in football when he coached, and for several years he had a revolving door of strong DTs like Corey Simon, Booger McFarland, and Ed Johnson. Consistently, since 2005, the Colts have had a top tier pass defense. Key to understanding pass defense is not to look at too many "silly" stats, like sacks and sack percentage. Too often, simpletons look at blitz percentage, compare it to sacks totals, and draw conclusions from that. A better indicator is yards allowed per pass play.

Yes, I admit that it is a much more boring statistic. Sacks are "cool." Passes batted down, QBs pressured into incompletions, and other mistakes generated by pressure that do not result in sacks are not as "cool." But, this is football. What is considered "cool" by many a shallow, casual "fan" is often not the difference between winning and losing. In 2008, the Colts allowed only 188 passing yards a game. Teams averaged 6.2 yards per pass play against the Colts for only 6 total TDs (an NFL record) and 15 INTs. QBs against the Colts averaged a rating of 78.

That is outstanding pass defense, no matter how you slice it.

Pass defense of that kind only happens with consistent pressure on the team's QB. Yet, if you look at team sack numbers, the Colts are right smack dab in the middle of the league, ranked 16th in team sacks with 30; more proof that if you just go by sacks you are an ignorant person who doesn't know squat at how football is really played.

Now, let's switch focus back to the "blitz happy" Bears. Despite their best efforts to get to the QB using blitz pressure, they surrendered 22 passing TDs in 2008 with two of them resulting in 99 yard TDs. The reason their opponents QB rating is so low is because they snatched 22 INTs, but that stat is left nearly meaningless when you see the high amount of TDs allowed and the alarming number of big plays permitted. They surrendered 43 pass plays of 20 yards or more. So, while the Bears clearly felt compelled to blitz in 2008, it seemed to do very little to help their overall pass defense. Maybe that is why Lovie Smith removed the defensive play-calling duties from coordinator Bruce Babich. When Smith was the DC in St. Louis several years ago, the Rams rarely blitzed and had some formidable defenses under his tenure. Perhaps Chicago will return to that.

Now, all this stat craziness is not an attempt on my part to bash Tampa 2 teams that blitz. Take a look at the starting defensive line for the 2008 Bucs and Bears. It features guys like Adewale Ogunleye, Alex Brown, Kevin Carter, and the very underwhelming Gaines Adams. Not exactly guys who strike fear into opposing QBs when it comes to pass-rushing. Guys like Ogunleye are solid players, but they are not Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, or Simeon Rice when he was in his prime. Without players like these on the d-line, pressure must often come from blitzing.

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One reason why Tampa Bay blitzed more in 2008 was because DE Gaines Adams has not played well.

 

So, knowing all this, why would the Colts consider blitzing more in 2009?

Well, all indicators from new coordinator Larry Coyer say the Colts won't blitz much. Coyer is someone known for his unique blitz packages in Denver, but the reason he needed those packages is because he had scrubs like Courtney Brown on his d-line. In Indy, he has multiple pass-rushing options along the d-line front. If he were to consider blitzing, it would likely come from a Cover 3 look, with Bob Sanders down in the box. This would allow either the safety to blitz, the SAM backer to blitz, or two linebackers (or one LB and the box safety) to blitz while the MIKE backer is allowed to drop deep into his zone. Rarely in a Tampa 2 will you see a corner blitz for the simple reason that corner blitzes rarely work. When a corner blitzes, that means there is a WR out there with a LB or safety on them. Smart QBs will find that mismatch and exploit it.

Blitzing in a Tampa 2 is not uncommon, and can sometimes result in some good things. The key thing to note is that blitzing should only work if you are trying to exploit a mismatch. Often, Tampa 2 teams that blitz are trying to compensate for the lack of pressure generated by the front four. For the Colts, and teams like the Vikings and perhaps the Seahawks, the front four are good enough to generate pressure. It is only when the front four fail to generate pressure when teams Tampa 2 teams start resorting to blitzes.

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