By Matthew Postins
I covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2004-07. During that time Monte Kiffin was the defensive coordinator. During that time the Buccaneers were one of the best defenses in the NFL, thanks to Kiffin’s use of the Cover 2 defense. Kiffin gets plenty of credit for the use of the philosophy. He helped craft it, along with Tony Dungy, during their time together in Tampa. Dungy credits the philosophies of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, teams Dungy played for, as the genesis for the Cover 2 we know today.
Anyone who uses the Cover 2, or the Tampa 2, as it became known in Tampa Bay, puts their own spin on it, and Kiffin is no exception. During my four years covering the team and interacting with Kiffin, I came away with a pretty clear idea of what Kiffin wants out of the defense. Below I break down the overall philosophy, how Kiffin approaches each position group and the types of players that made his version of the Cover 2 a success in Tampa Bay. In other articles I’ll analyze how the current Cowboys roster fits into Kiffin’s philosophy and write about how Kiffin’s way of doing things could be a breath of fresh air for this defense.
So what is the Tampa 2?
Well, it’s really not much different than the Cover 2. The Cover 2 philosophy is based out of a 4-3 set. If you want to get real basic, the philosophy boils down to the following tenets. The front four needs to dominate the line of scrimmage, create tackling lanes for teammates and create pressure on the quarterback with little or no blitzing. The linebackers and defensive backs then cover different areas of the field, keeping the action in front of them and limiting big plays. Against the pass the linebackers cover the shallows (0-10 yards), the corners cover the outside middles (11-20 yards) and the safeties cover the deep middles (20-plus yards).
The only significant difference in the Tampa 2 is that the middle linebacker is more involved in deep pass coverage in the middle of the field than in a normal Cover 2. The middle linebacker is considered the crux position in the defense. He’s the player responsible for that no-man’s land from 11-20 yards inside the hashes.
The way Kiffin coached the Tampa 2, and the way his players executed it, was based on being aggressive and opportunistic. It doesn’t sound like an aggressive defense. But the Tampa 2 allowed players to keep action in front of them, as opposed to chasing plays. It allowed players more reaction time and better opportunities to anticipate and create game-changing plays. Kiffin’s defenses featured above-average tacklers. Kiffin considered that a vital trait and demanded it from veterans and younger players alike. His prototypical players were quick, powerful players that could make athletic plays in space and down the field.
There is more to the Cover 2, but that’s the basic philosophy. That’s what Kiffin based his game plans around. He used use some 3-4 principles to mix things up. He blitzed when it was called for, such as when his defensive line struggled to get a pass rush. In those cases Kiffin used a nickel formation and moved his best pass-rushing corner into the slot and let him blitz. In Tampa that player was Ronde Barber, who to me is the prototype Cover 2 corner.
But when his defenses were humming, Kiffin didn’t have to get crafty. He just let his guys play.
This was a Top 10 defense for nearly his entire tenure in Tampa Bay. That’s Top 10 in total defense, scoring defense and takeaways. That’s a big reason why the Bucs were so successful under Dungy and Jon Gruden and why they won a Super Bowl in 2002.
So what type of personnel does Kiffin like? Based on what I saw in Tampa, here’s a primer.
From left to right, if you’re facing the quarterback, Kiffin typically stacks larger linemen on the left and quicker linemen on the right. The roles were clear. The left end and tackle were responsible for helping to stop the run, while the right tackle and end were responsible for pass disruption.
In Tampa Bay, the right end was Simeon Rice and Gaines Adams. They were two of the quickest players on the team. Opposite the right edge rushers were larger ends like Kevin Carter, who topped 300 pounds when he came to Tampa in 2007. The right edge rushers put up better sack numbers, but his left edge rushers put up better tackle numbers.
The Tampa 2 is what they call a one-gap system. In football nomenclature, that means a defensive lineman is assigned a gap in the offensive line (offensive line gaps are numbered. The 0/1 gap is over the center. Odd numbers are to the center’s left, even numbers are to the center’s right. The gaps are the space between offensive linemen). Whatever your gap, that’s what you attack.
The inside tackle beside the left end lined up in the one technique, or on the inside shoulder of a guard. This is the tackle that Kiffin counted on for run defense. When I was in Tampa this was Chris Hovan’s position. He was a capable run defender who was quick enough to fill the gap and disrupt blocking schemes. On the Bucs’ depth chart they called this position the nose tackle, and sometimes Hovan slid over and lined up right over the center. But the expectation is that the one technique doesn’t get up the field as often.
The other tackle is a three technique, who lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard and must get up the field to disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage. This was the Warren Sapp position, and no one played this gap better in the Tampa 2. Sapp was gone when I arrived, so Kiffin made do with poor man’s versions like Jovan Haye, Anthony McFarland and Ellis Wyms. This player doesn’t have to be lean, as evidenced by Sapp. He just has to be quick and powerful.
I wrote a bit ago that the middle linebacker is the crux of the defense. That’s true. But the weak-side linebacker is the superstar. Or at least that’s how it worked with Derrick Brooks.
Brooks was the prototypical Cover 2 weak side linebacker. Brooks was 6-foot, 235 pounds, when I saw him play. That’s right around the size Kiffin likes for all of his linebackers.
The weak-side linebacker is the chaser. He lines up on the side with the fewest offensive players and must be a great tackler because part of the goal of the Tampa 2 is to funnel running plays to the weak side. Brooks was so prolific because of his quickness and anticipation. His closing speed was phenomenal in his prime. He defended his pass area well and helped create turnovers. This position is critical to stopping the run.
The middle linebacker, meanwhile, is critical to stopping the pass. Remember this is the one variance in the Tampa 2. The middle linebacker will drop into deeper pass coverage much more often than in a normal Cover 2. The middle must be quick, physical and able to help his fellow linebackers when needed. When I was in Tampa Shelton Quarles was the starter and he played the position exceptionally. He was also only 225 pounds. When Quarles was cut, the Bucs promoted Barrett Ruud, who was bigger (241 pounds) and was, perhaps, not as good a pass defender. But he was always the team’s leading tackler when he started and was an above-average run defender. This is the position that requires the most versatility.
Kiffin’s strong-side linebacker was a capable run defender but wasn’t a dynamic pass defender. He just needed him to account for his area. At times the middle linebacker would provide help. During my time in Tampa Kiffin used undersized linebackers like Ryan Nece (224 pounds) and Cato June (227 pounds) at the position. He wants quickness, but I think, ideally, Kiffin would want that strong-side backer to be a little bigger.
Quickness and fundamental tackling are the keys at this position group, no matter how big or how small. I remember when the Bucs signed Jeremiah Trotter during the 2007 season when they needed depth. Trotter, then at 262 pounds, barely played. Any linebacker over 250 pounds will have a hard time playing for Kiffin unless they’re exceptionally fast.
Barber, whom I mentioned earlier, was 5-foot-10, 184 pounds, when I saw him play. Brian Kelly, the other corner, was 5-foot-11, 193 pounds. That’s close to the size Kiffin likes. Corners in the Tampa 2 don’t have to be exceptional man-to-man defenders in the traditional sense. In fact, much of the time Kiffin didn’t call for his corners to play bump-and-run, though he employed it a bit more when the Bucs signed Phillip Buchanon in 2006 because Buchanon was adept at it. He wants his corners to, first and foremost, be physical, whether it’s inside the five-yard chuck area or when the ball comes their way. He wants them to keep plays in front of them. He wants them to be aggressive on the ball. And, he wants them to herd plays and players to the sideline. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Barber take a receiver out of a route because he made the receiver do what he wanted and not the other way around. Positioning is key in the Tampa 2. In my experience covering the team Barber was exceptional and could play anywhere.
The safeties are going to be bigger, but that’s nothing new in most defenses. What Kiffin needs out of his safeties, however, are above-average cover skills. The reason is that they’re defending one-on-one in deep coverage. They don’t get help that often. So the Bucs put an emphasis on safeties with coverage skills. Jermaine Phillips was their main safety when I was in Tampa and he could usually be counted on for two to four interceptions a season. In fact, Phillips led the Bucs with four interceptions in 2007.
Kiffin expects his strong safety to be a better hitter and his free safety to be a better coverage player. That’s why, in 2007, the Bucs drafted a Cover 2 corner, Tanard Jackson, and converted him into a free safety. Jackson has two interceptions his rookie season. Some teams don’t value cover skills in corners, or consider it a necessary evil. It’s vital that both safeties can defend the pass in the Tampa 2, in addition to covering the run.
So that’s what I saw when I covered the Bucs and Kiffin was the defensive coordinator. Will he do the same things he did in Tampa Bay? At the core, yes. But Kiffin was adept at taking what he had, even if it wasn’t prototypical, and adjust. Kiffin proved to be a flexible, player-friendly defensive coordinator who got the most out of his players, superstar and backup alike.