Breaking Down if the Dallas Cowboys fit the Tampa Cover 2
Dallas Cowboys Defense
After the season ended, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones promised there were “uncomfortable changes” coming to Valley Ranch, and he delivered on that promise.
Jones fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after his defense allowed the most yards in franchise history, and has apparently decided that the team would be better suited by returning to a base 4-3 defense.
On Thursday, the Cowboys were reportedly looking into acquiring Monte Kiffin, a defensive mastermind and father of the Tampa Cover 2. Kiffin, who at the ripe age of 72 is trying to make a coaching-comeback in the NFL, was, most recently, the defensive coordinator at the University of Southern California under his son and head coach Lane Kiffin.
The Tampa Cover 2 scheme was created by modifying the original Cover 2 defense as a response to the West Coast Offense because receivers would get behind the linebackers creating uncovered spots in the defense. The Tampa 2 eased some of those problems by having an athletic middle linebacker drop into coverage making it more of a Cover 3 defense.
However, the Tampa 2 isn’t just a coverage scheme anymore, it has evolved into a base defense and was the heart and soul of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ championship run in 2003. Most recently it was employed by and brought back to light under former Buccaneers’ head coach Raheem Morris.
So, what is it about Kiffin’s defense that intrigues the Cowboys?
Well, for that we’d have to take a look at the Tampa Cover 2 philosophy. The Tampa 2 defense has widely been regarded as of the “more simple” defenses in the league, and that may be just what the Cowboys need.
Speed is one of the basic fundamentals of the Tampa 2 defense. In particular, Tampa 2 linebackers must be fast, and agile enough to cover receivers in certain sets. The Cowboys have some of the fastest linebackers in the NFL in Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and DeMarcus Ware. Assuming that Ware remains a linebacker in the 4-3 scheme, I would say the Cowboys’ linebacking corps fits this scheme pretty well.
Disruptive Defensive Front
When the Tampa 2 first started both defensive tackles were 1-gap guys. These behemoths would be space eaters often forcing teams to run the ball towards the edges. However, since then the Tampa 2 has evolved to where one defensive tackle plays the 1 Technique, and the other can play anywhere from a 0-3 technique. Your 1-gap guy is more of a nose-tackle type of player responsible for plugging up the run while the other defensive tackle is a speed rusher. The defensive ends are almost always a 5 Technique or higher and are quite often excellent pass-rushers.
The Cowboys would have to shift some things around, but I think Marcus Spears’ career could be resurrected by playing the 1-gap in the 4-3, while playing Jason Hatcher or Jay Ratliff at the 3. The Cowboys would almost certainly have to acquire 4-3 pass-rush defensive ends in free agency or the draft, but could try DeMarcus Ware and Tyrone Crawford at ends. Because attacking the quarterback and causing turnovers is one of the main focuses of the Tampa 2, it is crucial that the Cowboys find speed rushers who can get to the opposing signal caller.
Multitasking “Mike” Linebacker
I touched on the importance of having speed at linebacker earlier, but in order for the Tampa 2 defense to work it must have not only, a middle linebacker that can drop into coverage, but one that also excels in play recognition. Because the “Mike” linebacker doesn’t immediately drop into coverage, his first step must be reading the offense and determining if it's a run or a pass play. Typically the “Mike” will start off closer to the line of scrimmage than people think and drops back depending on what he reads.
The Cowboys have one of the best young, middle linebackers in Sean Lee. He’s a proven defensive leader, and is capable of play recognition. However, in the 3-4 he wasn’t asked to do much zone-coverage, but after having multiple interceptions a couple of seasons ago, I’m pretty sure he’ll do ok, as the “Mike” linebacker.
In the Tampa 2, it is imperative that the cornerbacks be physical at the line of scrimmage against opposing wide receivers. If, a cornerback doesn’t get a jam against the receiver, it makes it more difficult for the safeties behind them to cover the field. The cornerbacks must also be physical enough to shed blocks and come up in run support. Due to the Tampa 2’s multiple defenses from one look scheme, very rarely will the defense change personnel. This is intended to keep offenses from adjusting the play calling according to what defensive personnel is on the field, and so the corners play a big role in stopping the run to the outside.
The Cowboys invested a lot of money into press-coverage corners last season, and while Brandon Carr is a bigger cornerback, I don’t know that kind of run support he can offer. Morris Claiborne would have to bulk up a bit, or learn to hit because very rarely was he asked to initiate contact in the 3-4, and him being a smaller guy I don’t know how much or if he can play the run.
The safeties have to be the most athletic guys on the field at all times because their responsibility in the Tampa 2 requires they cover the deep halves. They must also be able to see the whole field and know whom they’re responsible for on offense to keep from getting burned deep.
The Cowboys do not have athletic play-making safeties so they must address it during the offseason. I’m left scratching my head about the possible switch to the Tampa 2, because if this was indeed the Cowboys’ plan all along, why did they trade up to draft Morris Claiborne, when they could have drafted a Cover 2 safety in Mark Barron?