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The Tampa 2 defense is not the problem for the Buccaneers

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got beat down by the Tennessee Titans, and mostly by the defense's complete inability to stop Marcus Mariota from completing pass after pass after pass. Naturally, fans rushed to blame the supposedly outdated Tampa 2 -- something that's been said ever since the Bucs won their Super Bowl, even though every team has that coverage as a core concept in their playbook.

Yes, Lovie Smith's defense was absolutely horrendous. It wasn't horrendous because of the Tampa 2, though, because the plays on which the Bucs got beat were generally not the plays where they were running that concept, as Stephen White pointed out repeatedly yesterday.

As hard as it is to believe, the problem isn't that the scheme is poorly designed. The Tampa 2 could have stopped a lot of what happened yesterday, but it requires players to execute their tasks meticulously and the front four to consistently get pressure. The Bucs couldn't do either yesterday -- and that's why they got beat. Yes, it would be so much easier if the Tampa 2 was the problem. Then they could just stop playing that coverage and be fine. Unfortunately, easy fixes are rarely the correct answer in the NFL.

A quick refresher on what the Tampa 2 actually is. It's not any play where the team is playing two safeties. Although Cover 2 (distinct from Tampa 2) is generally used to refer to any play with two deep safeties, that can happen with a variety of coverages: you can have man coverage underneath a two-deep shell, or a zone coverage that is not a Tampa 2. You can blitz underneath a two-deep shell, or you can rush just three players. Teams drop back two safeties all the time, and it tells you very little about the overall responsibilities in the secondary.

Tampa 2, on the other hand, is one specific coverage: two deep safeties, four pass rushers, four shallow zone defenders, and a middle linebacker dropping deep down the middle of the field to take away the deep third -- a soft spot in a "normal" Cover 2 zone. This is roughly what it looks like, tough you may want to check out the basic explanation by our Lee Caswell for more in-depth information.


The Bucs didn't play that coverage on the first big pass they gave up -- on that one, they sent five pass-rushers (including Kwon Alexander) and had no one dropping down the deep middle. On the first touchdown they gave up they had two deep safeties, but they didn't have the middle linebacker dropping to the deep middle -- if they had, they wouldn't have given up the touchdown.

That happened throughout the game. A key pass to Justin Hunter on the second drive came against what looks like a single-high safety with man coverage underneath. Kwon Alexander's near-pick came on a big blitz. The completion that got the Titans in position to score their third touchdown came against man coverage. On and on it goes: the Bucs aren't just playing Tampa 2 (or even mostly), and they're not getting beat because the Tampa 2 is outdated.

Of course, part of the reason for that is that no one plays Tampa 2 on every snap and no one ever did. Leo Howell did a terrific story on the Tampa 2 last year, interviewing former Lovie Smith player Matt Bowen to understand what makes it work. And the key point from that story is that it's not about just playing Tampa 2 coverage, but about a mentality: limit big plays and force quarterbacks to dink-and-dunk their way down the field. Eventually, they'll make mistakes on those dinks and dunks -- and that's where you capitalize.

So how did the Titans beat the Buccaneers over and over again? Well, they got the ball out quickly -- generally well before the pass rush could ever become a factor. When they did need to drop back further, they kept in extra blockers and successfully gave Mariota time to look for an open receiver. But the biggest problem for Tampa Bay's defenders was their complete inability to not bite on run-action over and over and over again -- it doesn't matter what coverage you're playing if your coverage players are stuck on the line of scrimmage. That's something Lovie Smith is going to have to fix immediately, or they're going to get beat that way every. single. week.