Since I coined the term “inverted Tampa 2” to describe Iowa State’s defense I’ve been getting questions regularly on how this newfangled anti-spread scheme works. Particularly since Baylor essentially stole it and made it a major part of their package while turning their bust-prone defense into a unit that paved the way for an 11-1 season and a shot at the Big 12 title.
The Tampa 2 defense is pretty well known for the NFL variety that helped produced Super Bowl champions in Tampa Bay (2002) and Indianapolis (2006, over fellow Tampa 2 team Chicago). The scheme also produced a number of other top defenses in that era, including the Lovie Smith Chicago Bears and the Mike Tomlin Minnesota Vikings. Many may not remember that the St. Louis Rams and their “greatest show on turf” offense were nearly stopped in 1999 by the Bucs. In response to that they hired Lovie Smith from Tampa Bay to install the Tampa 2 as their new DC. That took them to another Super Bowl in 2001 where they were big favorites before running into a fellow named Tom Brady.
Nowadays the Tampa 2 is not as popular a scheme in the NFL but generally just a component within different defensive systems. Monte Kiffin is probably one of the main godfathers of the system and he’s currently a halfway retired assistant to his son at FAU these days. Monte’s adopted son Pete Carroll has built on the 4-3 Under elements to the defense while embracing traditional cover 3 and other coverages. Mike Tomlin went to the Pittsburgh Steelers and embraced their tradition as a Dick Lebeau, zone blitz team, Tony Dungy retired from coaching, Lovie Smith is now the head coach at Illinois.
The Kansas State Wildcats currently run a defense that can be traced to the NFL Tampa 2 and still includes that scheme within the overall playbook. Like some of these other teams, the Tampa 2 coverage is just a component at this point and not an every down call.
The inverted Tampa 2 is philosophically similar but it has a different history to it. I thought it might be helpful though to trace the scheme and idea behind it in one place.
The O.G. Tampa 2 defense: Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain
The moniker “Tampa 2” wasn’t one that Tony Dungy chose, it was given to his Buccaneer defenses because their brand of cover 2 was so different from how other defenses played it. The big difference was that the middle linebacker would drop down the middle so that it was almost more like a cover 3 scheme:
In one sense this is a perfect GIF because it illustrates how little of these schemes and tactics were visible back in the day because of how zoomed in the camera angles were.
In another sense, it’s obviously a terrible GIF because it’s hard to see what’s actually happening. But you can tell that the middle linebacker is in frame only briefly before dropping out to play the deep middle.
Dungy always maintained that this “Tampa 2” defense was just an imitation of what he’d done as a player back in the 70’s under Bud Carson with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The “Steel Curtain” that Pittsburgh played in the 70s was one of the greatest NFL defenses of all time, with multiple hall of fame players involved and four Super Bowl Championships to their name. They beat Fran Tarkenton’s Vikings (1974), Roger Staubach’s Cowboys twice (1975, 1978), and then finally a LA Rams team in 1979 that didn’t have any players I recognize.
One major key to the Steel Curtain was the front four, a legendary DL anchored by “Mean” Joe Greene (6-4, 275) who dominated inside. Then the Steelers also had some other HOF talents, most notably linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
Lambert was the heart and soul of the team, even if Greene was perhaps the best talent, and has an interesting story. He played at Kent State where he mostly sat on the bench until later in his career when another talented linebacker ahead of him finally graduated. At Kent State he had a couple of teammates you may have heard of named Gary Pinkel and Nick Saban. Lambert came out of college at about 6-4, 200 or so and worked his way to 6-4, 220. He was fairly skinny and pretty quick which combined with his ferocity and intelligence made the early “Tampa 2” dimension to the Steel Curtain possible.
For the most part, the Steelers didn’t really play as much Tampa 2 looking calls as you might think, if only because it wasn’t that often that Lambert would end up dropping deep. Looking back at the actual film from that team and you see an interesting 4-3 defense with the LBs outside the DEs and up on the line at the snap before reading for run or pass. Lambert was the sole stacked linebacker, reading plays and fitting gaps behind Joe Greene.
You can see him here, reading a play and smashing the RB in a cutback lane behind a nice stunt by Green and the other DT.
And here, from that alignment, dropping into the deep middle in their cover 2 scheme:
So on the chalkboard, that looks like this:
Obviously they played closer up on the line of scrimmage in the 70s and weren’t afraid of being able to drop into position as necessary against the slower developing passing schemes that were prominent before the West Coast offense took hold. Again, Lambert’s height at 6-4 and his quickness were crucial ingredients to making this work. Perhaps what was most impressive though was how fearless and tough he was between the tackles with his gangly frame.
Here are some of the main principles from the Steel Curtain “Tampa 2.”
-They really played to control the interior with their DTs, who lined up occasionally in the Under and also in some tighter alignments that allowed them to stunt, and then Lambert. Tackle stats weren’t well counted back then but evidently Lambert was typically the leading tackler for the team and watching the games that’s easy to believe. The OLBs were primarily keeping the ball contained inside for Greene and Lambert.
-On pass reads they were playing to keep the ball in front of them and then make punishing hits.
-There was a lot of speed on the field. Greene was the biggest guy out there but he wasn’t a slouch, Lambert and Ham were both about 220 and pretty mobile. They weren’t necessarily undersized given the era but Tommy Nobis was around back then and playing MLB at 6-2, 240, so they weren’t particularly big either.
On the surface, the philosophy and tactics of the Tampa 2 defense would seem to go perfectly with the spread era. Contain the ball, keep the offense in front of you, play speed everywhere with safeties over the top, and lean on your DL and a single LB to control the box. Ultimately it would prove useful, but only after first being shelved.
The return of the Tampa 2
Around most places, the Tampa 2 fell out of favor as the favorite scheme in either the NFL or college game. For college in particular, which is of course of particular interest to this blog, spread formations made something like the traditional Tampa 2 an iffy proposition.
The demands it puts on the MLB to play an A-gap and then get back into the middle of the field are too stringent when offenses have <4.6 slot receivers flying up the seams. When you have spread play-action and RPOs? Even worse. The MLB in the spread era has it bad enough as it is, you can’t ask him to handle all that space and conflict, so you are left to either modify the defense, make it a smaller component of the system, or else abandon the scheme.
For the most part, teams elected to abandon the scheme or make it strictly a third down package in favor of quarters coverage, which arose during the Miami “U” days. Quarters defense got pretty sophisticated with time and modern spread tactics evolved in large part to give offenses ways to attack that defense. Spread spacing and RPO/play-action tactics have created similar dilemmas for safeties and corners as the Tampa 2 MLB would have trying to be an A-gap defender and a deep middle zone dropper.
Chris Klieman and Scottie Hazelton managed to adapt the Tampa 2 to remain a component of their program. One way was to hybridize it with quarters:
The middle linebacker is dropping to the deep middle as a pass-first defender at the snap, but on the boundary the corner is playing deep rather than underneath and the safety is dropping down to help the remaining LB account for interior gaps. Basically the MLB and FS both become S/LB hybrids and trade roles from snap to snap with one dropping and reading pass-first while the other plays the run as the sixth man in the box.
Klieman and Hazelton at their various stops have also mixed in lots of cover 3 (common to Tampa 2 teams) and will use DL stunts to try and clog interior lanes and bounce runs so that they can get away with playing with 5.5 defenders in the box (four DL, one ILB, and then a late coming corner or safety).
Elsewhere in college football, the Tampa 2 started to return. Perhaps starting with Rocky Long at San Diego State. The Aztecs would play quarters coverage from a three-safety defense with the middle safety or “Aztec” position manned by a bigger box safety who’d often drop late and unaccounted for into the box as a pseudo-linebacker.
Evidently independent of the San Diego State system, Matt Campbell and Jon Heacock have fleshed out this 3-3-5 system with a fully developed version of what I’ve named the inverted Tampa 2:
The middle linebacker is back to being a box player, focusing on gaps in between the tackles (although in this instance in the Cyclone scheme he’s a C-gap player first). Then you add a middle safety, which Iowa State calls their “star” safety and Long calls the “Aztec.”
What Iowa State is doing is trading out having the 3-technique/weakside end pairing that has long defined the Under front Tampa 2 teams love to play in exchange for getting an extra DB on the field and dividing the Tampa 2 MLB position into two entirely new positions. The WDE/DT role is now just one player while the stressed out MLB is two.
They’ve ultimately inverted the O.G. Steel Curtain design, playing the contain players and middle defender deeper off the ball and asking them to close against the run rather than playing them up tight on the line before dropping them against the pass like Pittsburgh did.
When the Cyclones first unveiled this it became an every down call for them, since then they’d tinkered with it and added blitz components and cover 1 changeups much like NFL Tampa 2 teams did in the early 00s.
The basic structure they’ve settled on that is diagrammed above plays a nose tackle and a 5-technique DE across from the ball like the Under fronts that original Tampa 2 teams preferred. On the backside rather than playing a 3-technique and a weak side end they play a DE in a 4i-technique. The three DL and two ILBs will handle five of the gaps up front and then defense can also bring a sixth and/or seventh defender from the boundary corner, free safety, middle safety, or sam linebacker.
In addition to playing the inverted Tampa 2 scheme, having three safeties over the top before the snap affords the defense a lot of flexibility to move them around just before or after the snap to play various forms of quarters, cover 3, man, or to blitz. Iowa State in particular was very effective playing two-deep/four-under zone blitzes from this look in 2018 and Baylor made a living mixing in some man-1 blitzes from the defense in 2019.
The biggest plus from playing inverted Tampa 2 though has been having those three safeties in position to deny the vertical route combinations that make spread offenses so deadly these days. The concerns of old cover 2 teams about defending the deep middle are the same for quarters teams trying to defend that space. Having a middle safety that can play crossers or post routes by slot receivers and free up the other safeties to stay over the top from outside receivers is essential.
The passing windows down the field are all very difficult with defenders either playing over the top in more confined spaces, because there three starting from the hash marks, or dropping underneath.
The inside LBs can focus on matching the RB on a check down, dropping to help underneath, spying the QB, or joining the pass rush. It’s a highly flexible alignment.
These deep, adjustable routes by the slot were the main focus of the Art Briles offense that dominated the league and have been an increasing focus of Air Raid teams and increasingly large numbers of teams. Those are what have ultimately burned quarters teams and forced the return of the Tampa 2.
So the main principles of the new inverted Tampa 2 work as follows:
-It denies access to the deep field by positioning deep defenders on top of the routes.
-It forces teams to play in the box against tightly packed defenders with extra run stoppers coming from changing angles over the top. That leads to more of a “bend don’t break” approach that necessarily limits the efficiency of offenses that are designed to blow you up with big explosive gains.
-It affords extra flexibility in shading coverage, pass-rushers, or run stoppers from multiple directions without giving away the look to the offense before the snap.
The Jack Lamberts of the inverted Tampa 2
Most innovative defensive schemes were developed in order to maximize the abilities of particular, difference-making athletes. The O.G. Tampa 2 made the most of Jack Lambert’s range and height, the Tampa 2 of the 90’s and 00s helped force QBs to hold the ball so that Warren Sapp could get to them.
This new scheme is still young and concentrated primarily in the Big 12 but its usage is expanding. Difficulties include the lack of a role (as of yet) for a traditional edge-rusher unless that player can also utilize a heavy technique as a strongside end or 4i-technique. Baylor found a player that could do those things in the 6-3/290 pound James Lynch, which is a major reason why they are competing for the Big 12 title. He’s a blend of your classic weakside rusher and Warren Sapp, all in one.
Lynch finished this season with 34 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, and 17 run stuffs. In other words, he was dominating the line of scrimmage and making it easy for Baylor to flood the back end with eight speedy, aggressive off ball defenders. It’s very likely he won’t get enough credit for this season.
The middle safety is another star role. Back in the day, the Bucs used to play strong safety John Lynch down in a role like the middle safety but in cover 3 calls they’d mix in on standard downs. From there he was able to join the action against the run or rob the middle of the field in coverage. This defense has been very friendly to guys named Lynch.
An exceptional middle safety in the inverted Tampa 2 can rack up tackles coming free over the top, inflict TFL when he comes unblocked against screens, or deflect/intercept passes from the deep middle. In 2018 a healthy Greg Eisworth dominated in this role for Iowa State with a team-leading 87 tackles, four TFL, one sack, one INT, five pass break-ups, and two forced fumbles. In 2019 he was hurt most of the year so they played him further back as a free safety. Baylor utilized Chris Miller here in 2019 and he showed some promise. Texas has seen multiple safeties put up big numbers from this spot but never fully committed to the scheme or having a particular safety specialize in the role.
The nose is essential in this scheme but he plays a typical, glory-less role eating blocks and space in the middle of the field. There’s opportunity for the original middle linebacker to focus on owning the box between the tackles, freed from the normal stresses that come from playing spread offenses and having to cover lots of space. We haven’t fully seen this materialize into a big time season but we’ve seen glimpses from Clay Johnston and Terrell Bernard’s impact at Baylor, what Mike Rose did as a freshman in 2018, and how O’Rien Vance picked up sacks this year.
Then there’s the sam and will linebackers, the free and strong safeties, and the cornerbacks. Their roles are all made easier by this scheme since they can help each other out more often. We’re going to see this scheme come alive in a future season when someone has a big statistical season playing in an easier role in one of those spots or else making the middle safety or middle linebacker position into a Heisman-type role by having an enormous statistical impact wreaking havoc in the middle of the field.
Clemson has flirted with using Isaiah Simmons in the middle safety role and if they do that effectively in these upcoming playoffs, you’ll see the inverted Tampa 2 explode in notoriety.
Just remember you read it here first: