The Mysterious New Defense

Earlier this spring the Gamecocks' Defensive Coordinator Chris Cosh and his defensive staff visited with Monte Kiffin, defensive coach for the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kiffin coached with Lou Holtz at Arkansas and is a Holtz protégé. Does this indicate that the Gamecocks will employ defensive schemes similar to Kiffin's Tampa Bay defense? Read on if unraveling the mystery of the Carolina's new 4-3 defense intrigues you ...

The 2003 Super Bowl was hyped as the match-up of best offense (Oakland) verses the best defense (Tampa Bay). During the season, Kiffin's Tampa Bay defense finished first in pass yardage, allowed the least yards per play, and gave up fewer first downs than anyone in the NFL. Adjectives used to describe the Tampa Bay defense include nasty, marauding, and suffocating. It is an attacking style of defensive football. Kiffin's defenses have been so special that Tampa Bay has produced top three defenses four times since 1997.

The Super Bowl itself, of course, was no contest. The Tampa Bay defense scored three touchdowns and picked off Oakland's star quarterback, Rich Gannon, five times. Leading Tampa Bay's 48-21 rout, the defense deflected 11 passes, sacked Gannon five times, and held Oakland's No. 1-ranked offense to a mere 62 total yards and three points in the first half. So let's take a look at this ferocious Tampa Bay defense in more detail.

Technically speaking, Tampa Bay's 4-3 defense is a gap-control, cover 2 defense, sometimes referred to by experts around the NFL as the Tampa 2 defense. Huh? Wha? Casual fans like me have no clue about the meaning of these terms? In fact, I had to research them. We will get more technical in a second, but first a bit more of an introduction for this Tampa 2 defensive scheme.

During the 2003 season there were at least seven NFL teams--Bears, Colts, Bucs, Rams, Jets, Panthers and Ravens--that used some version of the Tampa 2 defense. The Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said, "It's a successful scheme and you're seeing more and more of that."

The defense itself is not new. Indianapolis Head Coach, Tony Dungy, the former Tampa Bay Head Coach credited with its design, said, "every aspect of the defense was borrowed from the playbook written by Chuck Noll and Bud Carson."

OK, now we're talking about something I remember. Who can forget Pittsburg's dominating Steel Curtain Defenses, maybe one of the greatest defenses of all time. Names like Mean Joe Green, LC Greenwood, Jack Lambert, and Jack Ham resonate defense. Here's something maybe you didn't know about those defensive legends; they operated in a 4-3 defense and ran the same plays that Gamecock defensive coaches are now studying..

Now, let's get technical about some of the terms. The numbers "4-3" refer to the defensive formation. Obviously the 4 refers to the four defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage, and the 3 to three linebackers just behind them. You are with me so far.

What about the terms "gap control"? As I understand it, these refer to run-stopping responsibilities along the line of scrimmage. Up front in the trenches each lineman and linebacker have a gap to cover or control. The gaps are the spaces between the offensive linemen. In other defenses, like the 3-3-5 defense of years past, defensive linemen and linebackers might have several responsibilities depending on the offensive formation, situation or pass coverage. Defensive linemen love the Tampa 2 set-up because it is simple and therefore allows players more freedom to relax and just become aggressive, attacking and making plays. Already, since this new defense was implemented, George Gause has given thanks for his new freedom. Read Gause's comments in The Latest Rumblins and Ramblings From Within (Gamecock Insiders 5/14/03).

Let's discuss the meaning of "cover 2." Those terms refer to the deployment of defensive backs, the zone defense pass coverage. Er, in other words, in a cover 2 there are two defensive safeties that provide each cornerback help in case of a deep pass. The safeties play what is referred to as "halves." In this alignment, cornerbacks frequently close in and jam wide receivers disrupting their routes. They know they have a safety to back them up if the wide receiver gets past them on a deep pattern.

The beauty of the cover 2 defense is that it doesn't require elite cornerbacks. An effective man-to-man defensive scheme requires cornerbacks that are very fast as well exceptionally athletic. On the other hand, cornerbacks in cover 2 defense have help from safeties. Rather than pure athletic talent, the cover 2 plan places a premium on reading, discipline, instincts and technique."For the cover 2, you don't have to get the Fred Smoot type of ability," said Tampa Bay's director of player personnel, Tim Ruskell. "You have a wider pool to choose from. You need players with ball skills and intelligence who are good tacklers."

Because the safeties provide deep help against wide receivers, the cover 2 makes it difficult for offenses to make big plays by throwing over the top, or behind the defense in deep patterns. Thus, the cover 2 is regarded as a relatively safe defense. It is the ideal antidote for a team with big-play receivers.

Since the cover 2 is designed to stop outside threats and significantly reduces the chance of a big passing play, most teams attack the defense by throwing to tight ends, slot backs, and running backs. Long sustained drives based on the short pass in the middle of the field is the most inviting option for quarterbacks staring into a cover 2 defense. For this reason, the Tampa 2 defense requires excellent linebackers. They must be good seam droppers, and tacklers. In fact, the middle linebacker is the key to the Tampa 2. In the Tampa 2, the middle linebacker must drop into coverage like a free safety whenever the slot receiver or tight end runs a vertical route. Against offenses that attack the Tampa 2 by testing the linebackers' pass coverage abilities, defensive linemen must get their paws up to bat balls into the air to deflect passes, and linebackers and defensive backs absolutely must be able to cover backs and tightends. Everyone must be punishing and efficient tacklers, promoting interceptions, dropped balls and fumbles.

Running the ball against a Tampa 2 defense is an inviting option. First, the Tampa 2 removes the two safeties from the box, and they are playing deep. Second, the linebackers tend to be somewhat undersized since speed and quickness are at a premium for pass coverage responsibilities. And third, sending the tight-end or backs on a vertical route forces the middle linebacker to drop deep into pass covergage. Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis Head Coach, says, "Every place I've been, the (opponent's) theory is run the ball at them." Therefore, defensive linemen must be very strong against the inside run. Missed tackles by defensive linemen are not acceptable in this defense.

As mentioned earlier, run stopping is accomplished by assigning the defensive linemen and the linebackers the gaps. If the gap coverage is played as it should be, then running backs will tend to bounce out to the edge. It is on the edge where running backs meet the Tampa 2 cornerbacks. Cornerbacks in the Tampa 2 must be able to shed blocks and tackle the opposing runners one-on-one. Therefore, Cornerbacks, like the rest of their defensive mates, must be physical tacklers with the ability to bring down running backs who try to scramble outside on runs.

The defense sounds complex but players love it because it's actually very simple. The Tampa 2 requires quickness and agility more than brawn because of its mandate of attacking and pursuing the ball. The true success of the scheme lies with the personnel. When asked about his defense, Monte Kiffin stated: "I always want us to play hard and be aggressive," Kiffin said. "But the biggest things for me are hustle and effort. Give me guys who may be a little undersized, but guys who have good motors and hustle. Those are the guys I want."

By all accounts the Gamecocks already have the personnel to run this defense. Judging from the depth chart, it appears that the strength of the 2003 defense are the team's defensive linemen and linebackers. See Closing The Gap - Part 2 of 5 - The Defense (Gamecock Insider, 11/21/02).

The Tampa 2 certainly seems to be a great match for the personnel on the Gamecocks defensive roster. I think fans will have a great time this fall watching the nasty Gamecock defenders marauding around in a Tampa 2 suffocating the Bulldogs, Vols, Gators, and Tigers of the world.

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