The Replay Booth: How to Beat the Tampa-2

GLENDALE AZ - NOVEMBER 14: Quarterback Derek Anderson #3 of the Arizona Cardinals throws a pass against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium on November 14 2010 in Glendale Arizona. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Yesterday we talked a little bit about the Tampa-2 defense that the Seahawks are known to run. It's a defense that was developed by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay during the late 1990's and 2000's. There, as Jene Bremel put it, 

"The duo inherited Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch, all very well suited for their new scheme. In subsequent seasons, they added Simeon Rice, Ronde Barber and Donnie Abraham. The rest is history - nine consecutive seasons finishing among the league's top-10 defenses, seven of them in the top five, a Super Bowl title in 2002 behind the league's top-ranked defense and a far-reaching web of assistant coaches successfully taking the scheme around the league. At one time, 25 percent of the teams in the N.F.L. had head coaches or coordinators who were connected to the Buccaneer defensive coaching staff of the mid-1990s. It's a coaching tree rivaling that of Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells."

Keep in mind this was only about 10 years ago and the NFL Is very much a copycat and cyclical league. The 3-4 is en vogue right now but the 4-3 could make a triumphant return to prominence - hopefully spurred by the success the Seahawks have in their dynastic domination of the 2010's. (Right?)

I only bring this up because the Seahawks tend to run a Tampa-2 pretty often. Like any defense, it has it's weaknesses, and one of, if not the most glaring weaknesses involves attacking with a deep pass up the middle. This is not a novel concept for a lot of you, but at worst it's something to keep in mind when watching the Seahawks play defense in 2011. The main difference between a Tampa-2 and a Cover-2 is that a Tampa-2 isn't really two-deep coverage, it's a three-deep scheme. Instead of having one safety in the middle and two corners on the sides responsible for deep coverage as a traditional Cover-3 would feature, the Tampa-2 relies on two deep safeties to the sidelines and the MIKE up the middle deep. Because of this, Lofa Tatupu (or the middle linebacker) is tasked with dropping back into the middle of the field for deep coverage, typically against receivers and tight ends. A lot of the time these receivers and tight ends are faster than him, so he's forced to rely on his instincts and ability to anticipate where the ball is going. 

Here is what the Tampa-2 Nickel coverage (the defense the Hawks appear to be in for this specific play) looks like, as a quick refresher:

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The red zones represent the areas of responsibilities for the corresponding defenders; the yellow zones are the weakspots in this particular scheme. The one obvious weakspot that has been omitted is the deep middle, behind the MIKE linebacker. That is exactly what the Cardinals attack in a play that I want to use to illustrate this (WATCH IT HERE).

Here is the situation: week 10, Seattle leading 17-10 with 1:02 left in the first half. The Hawks have just turned the ball over on downs on a botched quarterback sneak that has managed to embarrass our line and break Matt Hasselbeck's wrist. The Cardinals take the ball on their own 15 yard line (yes, the Hawks turned it over on downs on the 15 yard line with a minute in the half up by one score.... sigh....).

(1:02 2nd Half) (Shotgun) D.Anderson pass deep left to S.Breaston to ARZ 48 for 32 yards (E.Thomas). 1st and 10

1_medium

I've included arrows to indicate the coverage zones for each defender. You'll notice that right now it's an even set with two WR on the left and two on the right. However, Steve Breaston, the slot WR on the right, is about to go into motion to the left.

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I've put a box around Steve Breaston after he's motioned to the near slot spot on the left. No Seahawks have followed him over there which gives the Cardinals a pretty clear indication that the Hawks are in a zone coverage scheme, in this case a cover-2. Once the ball is snapped, you can see Lofa drop into coverage in the deep middle field which indicates to me this is some variation of the Hawks' Tampa-2. 

3_medium

The ball is snapped and Derek Anderson really only has to make one read and that is "TATUPU" on our middle linebacker's back. Because he sees Tats running in coverage on a very speedy slot receiver in Steve Breaston, all he has to do is time the throw and drop it in over Tatupu's reach (remember that the two deep safeties will have drifted to the sidelines here and Lofa is responsible for the deep middle). I've included boxes around Breaston and Tatupu running with him; also Early Doucet in the other slot spot and Roy Lewis eyeballing him in the nickel spot.

As you see below, Anderson climbs the pocket and lets it fly. For his part he puts it on the money.

4_medium5_medium

You see Lofa a step or two behind, somewhat a forgone conclusion with this matchup, but the Cardinals have done a good job exploiting the defense and executing the play. The pass goes for 32 yards and puts them in a good spot to threaten before Halftime. Fortunately the Cardinals turn back into the Cardinals after this play and are forced to punt three plays later. The Hawks limped into halftime with a tenuous lead on the road.

The MIKE linebacker position is arguably the most important in this scheme and Lofa got beat on this particular play. I should note he's battled injuries that have slowed him as of late but I also think he's got some fuel left in the tank if he can get healthy this offseason. Here's to hoping to see a rejuvenated Tatupu out there in 2011. Frankly, the Seahawks need him.

UPDATE: Matthew Heuett from over at fellow Seahawks' blog Seahawks Addicts just sent me this message and I found it to be very informative and helpful. He said, "While I was reading your latest piece I was reminded of something I read in Brian Billick's book More Than a Game regarding the Mike linebacker in the Tampa-2 scheme that I thought you might find interesting:"

(From Billick:) "Even with a fleet linebacker covering deep, it is possible to get down the middle of the defense, the classic vulnerability to most Cover 2s. But that far away from the ball, often twenty or thirty yards downfield, the linebacker doesn't really have to cover the seam receiver closely. It can be enough if he appears to have him covered from the quarterback's perspective."

In other words, no linebacker is going to be as fast as a receiver or even some tight ends. Because of this, the linebacker must do a good enough job to make the opposing QB hesitate. In that hesitation, he's likely lost his window of opportunity to fit the pass in downfield between the MIKE and the two safeties over the top. Something to keep in mind as we go into this season. 

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