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The Tampa 2 Bugaboo

My apologies for the sparse posting this week. There are times, unfortunately, when the demands of real life get in the way of my quest to become a superstar blogger. Unfortunately, this was one of those weeks.

Since the Saints' previous two games have been sizable defeats at the hands of Tampa 2 defenses, and since the Saints have played Tampa 2 defenses four times over the past two seasons -- not a large number, but equivalent to a quarter of a season -- I thought it might be useful to break out the table maker and look at some numbers. After all, the Saints will play Tampa Bay twice this season, and Chicago once.

First, a brief introduction to the Tampa 2 defense, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Tampa 2 typically consists of four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. The scheme is known for its simple format, speed, and the aggressive mentality of its players. Although it lacks the complexity of other defenses, it instead relies heavily on the attitudes of its players and tremendous team speed. Tampa 2 teams are known as gang tacklers and practice to always run to the ball. It also requires hard hitting secondary to cause turnovers. The term rose to popularity due to the installation and excellent execution of this defensive scheme by then-head coach Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and then-linebackers coach Lovie Smith.

The defensive linemen in his scheme have to be quick and agile enough to create pressure on the quarterback without the aid of a blitz from either the linebackers or the secondary, with the defensive tackle in the nose position having above-average tackling skills to help stop the run.

The three linebackers and two cornerbacks are responsible for covering the middle of the field. The outside linebackers general zone is between the cornerbacks covering the area of the field from the line of scrimmage to 10 yards back. The middle linebacker must have better-than-average speed, and additional skills to be able to read the play and either maintain his central position to help the outside linebackers cover short passes, drop behind the linebackers in coverage and protect the zone of the field behind the outside linebackers from 11-20 yards out, or run up to the line of scrimmage to help assist in stopping the run. The cornerbacks protect the sidelines of the field from the line of scrimmage to anywhere between 15-20 yards out. An additional requirement for all of Dungy's linebackers and cornerbacks is to be above-average tacklers, as they are usually the primary tacklers in the defense.

The two safeties are responsible for covering their respective halves of the field from 20 yards out and more. The safeties in Dungy's system are expected to be above-average cover men with the ability to break up passes, but each safety also is expected to have additional specific skills. The strong safeties, while not expected to be great tacklers, are expected to be hard hitters. The hard hitting strong safety protects the middle of the field from being exploited by small, fast wide receivers, and running backs on 'Wheel' routes, by intimidating them to not run their routes in that direction. The free safety in Dungy's system will be called upon to do one of two things in certain situations, either blitz the quarterback, requiring him to have the skills necessary to beat a blocking running back or fullback, or to assume the coverage zone left by a blitzing cornerback.

  • The safeties and middle linebacker cover the deep third: areas of the field usually extending from about 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to the endzone, divided into thirds by the middle of the field). The middle linebacker drops into deep coverage, making what first looks like a Cover 2 into a Cover 3.
  • The cornerbacks cover the flats: the area of the field extending about 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, and from the last man on the offensive line to the sideline.
  • Outside linebackers cover the box: the two outside linebackers split the middle of the field consisting of the area within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage and in between the two flats into halves.

Lo and behold, a quarter-season's worth of data against defenses coached by Kiffin, Dungy and Smith:

Saints Against Tampa 2 Under Sean Payton
YPG Rush YPG Rush YPC Pass YPG YPA PPG
Season 391.5 110.1 3.7 281.4 7.98 25.8
NO 24, TB 21 314 143 5.7 171 5.2 24
NO 31, TB 17 363 49 1.4 314 9.8 31
NO 14, CHI 39 375 56 4.7 319 6.5 14
NO 10, IND 41 293 106 4.1 187 4.6 10
T2 Average 336.25 88.5 3.975 247.75 6.525 19.75

A couple of situational notes on the data: The Chicago game was essentially only close for a short period, early in the game and just after the half when Reggie Bush scored his infamous touchdown to make the score 16-14 Bears. The Saints moved the ball well on the ground, in what was essentially a blowout, and were justified in eventually abadoning the run (they finished with 12 attempts). The Indy game was also a blowout, but at the half the Saints had 58 yards rushing with an average of 4.1 per carry. The Saints essentially doubled this in the second half, which led me to believe that the numbers didn't need to be adjusted.

Not once in the four games did the Saints match their season average in yardage. So, in this respect, the Tampa 2 defense did exactly what it was intended to do.

In the first Tampa game, the 24-21 victory, Deuce McAllister essentially accounted for the team's rushing total, carrying the ball 15 times for 123 yards, including a spectacular 57-yard run. In fact, remove that run from the data and the stats become:

Numbers Minus McAllister's Run
YPG Rush YPG Rush YPC Pass YPG YPA PPG
NO 24, TB 21 257 86 3.6 171 5.2 24
T2 Average 322 74.25 3.45 247.75 6.525 19.75

It's not a surprise that the Tampa 2 negatively affects the Saints' passing game; after all, that's the point of the defense, to eliminate the deep passes, then force the offense to string-together plays without losses, penalties, incompletions or turnovers getting in the way.

It's more surprising -- and disconcerting -- that the Saints' rushing numbers have been so poor against the Tampa 2. Logically, the Saints should be able to run-over the undersized defenses, dominate the time of possession and win the game by controlling the clock. That's not happening, and it's not the result of any sort of "Martzian Tendencies." As evinced by the second Tampa game (35 carries for 49 yards), Sean Payton was willing to persist in running, even when the team was clearly ineffective. The rest of the totals: 25 carries, 12 carries (the Chicago game) and 26 carries. Had Mike Martz been calling the plays, the rushing would have stopped at about 7 carries.

Clearly, the Tampa 2 defensive scheme accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish. And more.

The Tampa 2 bugaboo: what would you do?