What Is: Tampa 2

Submitted by Seth on October 21st, 2016 at 10:33 AM

A lot of top FBS coaches made it there by being experts or even the originators of a concept. Iowa didn’t invent Cover 2, but Ferentz’s teams have run it for so long that his players have instinctualized most of its nuances, and his coaches know the fastest route to teaching it. Rich Rodriguez built the zone read option into the spread ’n shred offense. He can run it against anyone because he knows a million ways to tweak it to deal with whatever defenses try to do to stop it. Same with the pattern-matching variant of cover 3 that Saban and Belichick created for the Browns. Rocky Long is going to run a 3-3-5, or run his 3-3-5 stuff out of different looks. Bud Foster is going to hit you with quarters all day. Tracy Claeys is going to play man.

Michigan’s next opponent is one of those guys. Lovie Smith built a good NFL coaching career by running the Tampa 2 defense, and Illinois is currently experiencing the growing pains of that conversion. Smith’s defensive coordinator is Hardy Nickerson Sr., who imported his eponymous son from Cal to play the crucial middle linebacker role—that is not going well. Last week against Rutgers they blew up the depth chart, sitting longtime starters at all levels for freshmen redshirted and not. When you decide what you want the rest of your life to be, you want the rest of your life to start right away, no matter how long Taylor Barton has started for you (or Brian’s Draftageddon team).

This baby version gives us football laymen an interesting opportunity to see Smith’s scheme in Rodriguez 2008 mode, when the skeleton of the thing is there and untainted by all the things its practitioners will learn to do to make it good. So once you see the concept, it should be uniquely easy this Saturday to pick it up on the field.

[Hit THE JUMP to watch it run so badly you can see exactly why it’s run]

Good ol’ Cover 2

I expect you know what Cover 2 is, since if you’re of age to be reading this site chances are most of your football-watching life came during its heyday, which arrived with the Steel Curtain and hasn’t gone away. You’re also probably used to some of its lessons, because the current and last generations of football announcers tend to think in its terms.

Cover 2 is still the safest base defense against X offense. Your corners and linebackers are all lined up across the midzone, just far enough from the line of scrimmage that they can cover everything an offense can attack before pass protection is a factor, and close enough to react to anything shallow, e.g. the running game. That leaves you two luxurious safeties to patrol over the top and keep things from getting out of hand. Its major downsides are that it takes a long time to get good at it (Cov 1 and Cov 3 are relatively easier to install), it takes a lot of speed, it’s relatively passive, and it’s so ubiquitous that every offense has long-practiced ways to attack it.

Here’s Iowa running a basic Cover 2 against a highly modern Indiana run-pass-option. I want you to find and watch the middle linebacker:

That MLB shot up into his gap when he read run blocking. Instead, Sudfeld pulled and knew right where a guy would be open:



The middle linebacker is a primary run defender, and has a short zone he should be able to defend while handling that running hole, unless he totally jumps out of it.

Cover 2 maximizes all the benefits of zone coverage: your players are all facing the play and in a position to react, creating interceptions and jarring hits. With so many guys in coverage it’s hard to find room to pass, especially if the offense isn’t running concepts specifically designed to stretch those zones.

Your cornerbacks can help in edge defense too, since they’re not just staring receivers. The holes between zones are in places that aren’t easy to attack, like on the sideline 25 yards downfield, and can be mitigated or totally erased with speed and quick reaction time. And if there’s a run, all seven box defenders are hanging out right there to attack their gaps.

The biggest downside is it puts a LOT on the safeties. They’ve got to help corners over top, and stay over vertical-releasing inside receivers, and cover post and in-routes where the receiver naturally has position. Linebackers reacting to the run leave safeties in horrible positions all the time, and the safeties themselves still have to help against the run. And one safety breakdown is for all the yards.

A Little 3 in Your 2


The Tampa 2 gives them some help from the middle linebacker, who gives up some run defense to cover that nasty hole between the safeties. At the snap, the Tampa 2 MLB will turn his hips toward the passing strength of the offense and gets depth to cover a short middle third of the field.

That frees the safeties up from their most terrifying responsibilities so they can play aggressively against the other stuff. With more safety help in the deep thirds the cornerbacks can play more aggressively underneath. And if the offense does attack the space the MLB abandoned, well, you’re right smack in the middle of the defense—somebody is going to close that down quickly.

The tradeoff is you’re still taking strength away from the middle, both in giving the OLBs/nickel more space to cover, and moving a run defender out of the box. Tampa 2 teams are nearly always running a 4-3 gap scheme up front, and commonly send their DTs hard upfield at the snap to dissuade offenses from running at that weakness.

When given a middle linebacker who can handle all of that vertical space and still come down super-fast on any attack in the middle, this defense can be devastating. Look no further than the 2006 Chicago Bears, coached by Lovie Smith, with once-in-a-generation luxury of Brian Urlacher in the middle.

That was an age when everyone in the NFL was running the West Coast Offense, which was fine-tuned to attack the space between the linebacker and safety level. Mixing that up took away a lot of those crossing routes and posts and ins that everyone was best at.


Ace clipped this to show how bad Hardy Nickerson is but it’s a good example too of Illinois running their base coverage.


The Cover 2 CBs carry their WRs deep if #2 inside targets aren’t attacking their side of the field. You can see they’re staying above those receivers, but looking in. The one on the top of this shot is watching the TE’s release—when that goes to the flat the CB signals to the nickel/SAM on the hash mark that the TE’s his.

That OLB got on top of the slot receiver’s route initially, because those quick seams are always the first concern a defense has to deal with. But now that’s dealt with, it’s time to hand the slot receiver off. The receiver goes inside, and the SAM tells his MLB, who should be right there, that the slot’s going inside.

Except the MLB isn’t in his zone.


Notice the two OLBs are about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage and just inside the hash marks. Either one of them can handle anything thrown between them, and they’re both in position to come down against anything in the box, and either tackle or chase anything in the flat to help.

There’s also an MLB between them. He is useless there. He isn’t in his Tampa 2 zone—he’s playing this like a regular old fashioned Cover 2. So when the slot receiver’s post route goes to the VERY SPOT THIS DEFENSE WAS DESIGNED TO TAKE AWAY. Armstrong sees it and doesn’t miss.


So they’re not good at it yet. Video:



October 21st, 2016 at 10:39 AM ^

analysis and explanation!  I like to think I know football, but honestly suck at X's and O's.  These types of pieces by you guys really help me to better understand what I'm seeing each week!




October 21st, 2016 at 10:48 AM ^

Watched with no sound but I dig the idea.

For coaches, what should happen after the play in terms of communication and fixing it? It looks like the OLB (12) just walks away from the MLB (10) after the play--have they probably finished yelling at each other by then, or what?


October 21st, 2016 at 2:28 PM ^

As a Bears fan... dude was an absolute freak. 6'4", 260lbs - I'd take him over any MLB during his era including Ray Lewis.

He was perfect for the Tampa 2 because he had the speed to patrol the deep middle and react to the run. The only seasons he had that weren't dominant were when the Bears' DTs couldnt' keep him clean.

In college he was a freak athlete who returned kicks (!!)

Look no further than how Mike Vick did against the Bears to see Urlacher's impact. He legit could spy Vick.


October 21st, 2016 at 11:12 AM ^

Thanks, this was awesome.

I seem to remember reading that Tampa-2 was hard to learn, and therefore maybe not the best choice for a college defense, where guys pass through the system so quickly. Any thoughts on this?

snarling wolverine

October 21st, 2016 at 11:30 AM ^


Rich Rodriguez built the zone read option into the spread ’n shred offense. He can run it against anyone because he knows a million ways to tweak it to deal with whatever defenses try to do to stop it


He does?  

It looks to me like he's running the same offense as he always did and it's not nearly as effective now as it once was.  Arizona  is winless in Pac-12 play and hasn't scored more than 28 in any conference game.



October 21st, 2016 at 11:37 AM ^

I haven't watched any Arizona this year (and boy does it feel good for them to be irrelevant to me) but I suspect the issue is players. And the point is not the flawlessness of the scheme (Cover 2 has its flaws too, of course) but that his system is so ingrained in the program that coaches don't need to cook up a new package of plays in week 8 to deal with a problem.

The coaches and players have been practicing most of the different techniques and counters they have needed for years. So if a defense unveils an unexpected run blitz package, well, they already know how to adjust and deal with it.


snarling wolverine

October 21st, 2016 at 11:44 AM ^

He may well have inferior personnel (not hard to believe given his iffy recruiting history), but the handful of times I've watched his Arizona teams I haven't really noticed any creative wrinkles he's thrown out there, either.  They look largely indistinguishable from the other 50 teams that run spread-to-run systems.  The line that he can "run his offense against anyone"  seems outdated.


October 21st, 2016 at 12:19 PM ^

I don't think anyone would argue RR's system is cutting edge in the way it was a decade ago. The argument is that his system has continuity and longevity with the players and staff at Arizona. Because of that, they are "ready" for most common defensive looks without the need to drastically change their playbook every week. It's not a call to how effective his offenses are today, so true or not, there's really no need to bash the guy any more than he already has been. 


October 21st, 2016 at 1:36 PM ^

Exactly right. In fact, one could take it further and suggest that such continuity exists because of an absence of creativity. RR is, probably, using basically the same concepts he used at West Virginia and Michigan. The upside here is that a guy who has been in his program for five years has practiced the basic counter to, say, a scrape exchange for five years. That's what Seth is talking about. 

The downside is that defenses know how to deal with the counter, too.

Rodriguez was creative and revolutionary in how he developed his offensive system. However, it has now been his offensive system for over a decade, and defenses have caught up, and he has not invented much that is particularly new in recent years. The problems that the RR and Chip Kelly offenses have (vulnerability to overpowering DLs, eagerness to tip plays, relatively weak through the air) are no longer obscured and outweighed by their strengths. That doesn't mean they can't still be useful or effective, as other systems have remained (West Coast, Triple Option, Air Raid, etc) but teams also know how to deal with them. 


October 21st, 2016 at 11:30 AM ^

Good stuff. I would like to note, though, that there are often going to be people who are new to the blog, for whom this may be their first taste of technical football. Cover 2/Tampa 2 have been common terms in football parlance for many years, and many fans have learned what they mean, but people have to start somewhere. 

And that place may be here, which answers the question "what is it." Just saying, the assumption at the beginning is mostly true but might not be true for all. 

Good rundown on some important elements and important differences, though.


October 21st, 2016 at 1:49 PM ^

Just to confirm your comments -- I've been watching football nearly 40 years now, started two years of high school varsity football, had Michigan season tickets for 14 years after that, and I had no clue what Cover 2 was.  I don't even really remember hearing the term before this season, to be honest.


October 21st, 2016 at 12:10 PM ^

So, this was pretty useful and all.  BUT...

I have a recommendation for future ones.  Did you see the movie "The Big Short"?  They explained far more complicated stuff in much easier ways.  And here's how:


There, do that, and these will be better.  Ok, Selena Gomez at a bar is a weak back-up plan.  You can lose the astrophysicist, though.