Vikings Have Cover-2 Covered

The Vikings now have the fifth-ranked defense in the league and most assume that their Tampa-2 defense is responsible for that. In part, it is, but it has become only a part-time defense for Minnesota. See what the players and even their opposition have to say about the Vikings defense.

When Mike Tomlin was named defensive coordinator of the Vikings last winter, the catch phrase in purple football circles instantly became "Tampa-2." This was the first time in months that the love boat scandal was not the most popular Vikings topic at the water cooler.

The Vikings were going to run a defensive scheme that had been successful for years in Tampa Bay, where Tomlin previously was an assistant coach under coordinator Monte Kiffin. Considering optimism in February does not have to even dwell in the same neighborhood as reality, which in the NFL calendar usually sets in now, the thinking by most was the Vikings defense would instantly improve.

So far, the critics have been wrong and even the optimists could not have expected such a mercurial rise by Tomlin's defensive unit. The Vikings are coming off the bye week with the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL. San Diego leads the league having yielded just 218 yards per game. Chicago, Baltimore, and Miami respectively round out the top four. The Vikings, who have given up a stingy 275.4 yards per game, are fifth.

Obvious conclusion: The Tampa-2 works, right? Not so fast.

The Tampa-2 version the Vikings defense was projected to run is a cover-2 defense with the safeties splitting the deep halves of the field. But it appears the Vikings frequently are sending a safety to the line of scrimmage in an aggressive move to either stop the run or help out on blitzes.

"We're not running the Tampa-2 as much as everyone thinks," safety Darren Sharper said. "We do have it in our arsenal, but we mix it up and don't let teams key in on us just doing the Tampa-2. We have that and can do it and run it well, but to consider us as, or to label us, a cover-2 team wouldn't be correct.

"It's the basis of what we like to do, but we have the ability to do so many other things that we don't have to just rely on cover-2."

Linebacker E.J. Henderson estimated the Vikings are running cover-2 less than half the time.

Any defense, safety Will Hunter says, must first stop the run. That is why the Vikings have strayed away from the Tampa-2.

"We're committed to stopping the run," Hunter said. "We do believe that seven in the box can get it done, but to make sure things go the way we want them to go and dictate the flow of the game we do bring a safety down."

Personnel, of course, is the ultimate dictator of how aggressive a defense can be.

"Different guys determine what kind of schemes you run," said quarterback Ronyell Whitaker, who used to play in Tampa. "In Tampa, you had Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and guys like that. We're still trying to learn each other as far as jelling. It's going to take a lot of time."

Whitaker called the Vikings' Tampa-2 a "smokescreen."

"Our scheme is the Tampa-2, that's our smokescreen," he said. "Of course we run a lot of things off of it. We're not going to go in and cover-2 you to death. We also have a lot of guys in the secondary and linebacker positions who can make a lot of plays. And the way our defensive linemen are playing, (Tomlin) can put us in a lot of single-safety defenses and a lot of man-to-man defenses because our defensive linemen are playing great."

The quality of cornerbacks allows the Vikings to stray from the cover-2 often. Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield have given Tomlin the opportunity to put more players near the line of scrimmage and blitz more than was anticipated.

That the Vikings defense yields less than 20 points per game hasn't been a cause of complacency, which is a good sign, especially considering they are not even one-third the way through the schedule. But how frequently the defense slides into Tampa-2 is not the concern.

"There's always room to improve," Whitaker said. "Great defenses give up single points – three, six, seven, nine. … That's it. That's what we're striving to get to."

Head coach Mike Holmgren, whose Seahawks host the Vikings Sunday afternoon, expects to see the Tampa-2 as well as myriad sets.

"What I've seen on film is the Vikings are mixing it up pretty good," Holmgren said. "You have to have a base, and there are philosophical bases of cover-2, but they do some things off of it. I think if you go in just thinking you're going to see that one coverage, I think you're making a huge mistake. They do a number of things and do it pretty well."

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