The Cowboys New Defense: Breaking Down the Tampa 2


The Dallas Cowboys made a switch of defensive coordinators moving from Rob Ryan and his 3 – 4 pressure scheme to Monte Kiffin and the “Tampa 2” style defense. The change in schemes involves many different changes for the Cowboys involving personnel changes, position changes and schematic changes for the players in those positions. This week we will look at what the “Tampa 2” defense means, the responsibilities of each position and how the Cowboys current roster reflects those positions.

May 21, 2013; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin works with linebacker Sean Lee (50) and the defense during organized team activities at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The “Tampa 2” defensive scheme is a base 4 – 3 defense with 4 players occupying the secondary. The “Tampa 2” scheme is based off the defense perfected by Monte Kiffin in, you guessed it Tampa Bay, which is where the defense gets its name. The defense revolves around pressure from the front 4 without blitzing, allowing the linebackers and secondary to play zone defense behind the initial pass rush. The “2” in the name refers to the cover 2 style coverage scheme which means the safeties occupy the deep half of the field. Since the safeties are occupying the deep halves of the field, the rest of the coverage is designed to handle underneath routes in a zone scheme to cover an area rather than cover a direct man. Up front the defensive line is responsible for attacking the quarterback and occupying lineman to shut down the running game. The goal of this defense is to get pressure from the front 4 to force quick passes underneath and knock the ball down when it comes into the zone, or stop the ball carrier immediately before the desired line to gain. The defense relies on each player doing their specific job and having faith that the other 10 players on the defense are holding up their end of the bargain. The downfalls of this defensive scheme come when a player tries to over extend and cover more than their fair share, leaving a hole for the offense to exploit.

Like any defense, the creation of the “Tampa 2” scheme begins with the front 4, defensive ends and defensive tackles. Many defensive coordinators and analysts use different terms to describe the players in their scheme, so to make it easy on the reader I will use some universal terms that I use when creating a defense.


As discussed before the “Tampa 2” uses a 4 – 3 scheme, which means that there are 4 down lineman. Two of those down lineman are considered defensive tackles. Most analysts and defensive coordinators use terms like “3 Technique”, “1 technique” or “5 technique”. These numbers reflect the gap where the tackle lines up and the gaps in which those players are expected to occupy after the snap. The “1 technique” player refers to the gap between the center and the guard, while the “3 technique” refers to the gap between the guard and tackle and the “5 technique” refers to a lineman that occupies the gap outside the tackle and between the tight end. Some defensive lines refer to the “7 technique” as the outside rusher to show that that player outside the tackle box and the last line of defense on the outside.The odd numbers are used for the gaps, while even numbers such as 2, 4 and 6 refer to tackles that line up head up with a position player.

In my defensive schemes and instruction I like to use symbols rather than numbers to refer to the players. I use the symbols “N” and “T” for my designation of the tackles. I use “T” as my gap tackle which in this defense would act as the “3 technique” in the “Tampa 2” scheme. I use N to designate the Nose Tackle, or the defensive tackle that lines up heads up with the lineman infront of them.

The key player in the “Tampa 2” scheme is the “T” because they line up in the gap between the guard and the center. They have three main goals on every play. Their first job is to be active enough to split a double team and apply pressure on the QB up the middle. their second goal is to occupy a double team between the guard and center to allow the middle linebacker to roam free and make tackles. The third goal is to hold their line and force the running back to have to hesitate before finding the hole.

The other tackle, which I designate as the “N” will line up to the tight end side, or the strong side of the offensive system. The “N” will line up head up with the guard and take on a the blocker directly in front of them. Their job is simple, hold their ground and force the line backwards at the line of scrimmage. This player has to be strong enough to defeat the one on one block, but also have the ability to pick up any kind of double team on running plays to keep the linebackers free to do their thing.

Cowboys Players

The Cowboys starters right now at the defensive tackle position consist of Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher. In my humble opinion, both Hatcher and Ratliff fit as “T” because both are more pressure oriented players as opposed to being the big burly tackles to handle a heads up position with an offensive lineman. That being said, I would put Jason Hatcher at the “T” position, because he has the ability to beat a double team when applying pressure on the QB. Ratliff is the stronger of the two, and certainly the better player being a former Pro Bowler and because of his strength should be able to dominate in one on one scenarios in both the run and pass game making him the “N” when looking at my schematic of the “Tampa 2” defense.


The defensive ends in the “Tampa 2” scheme have 2 important roles. Their first role is the easiest to describe because it involves one objective, getting after the quarterback. The defensive ends in the “Tampa 2” have one goal on pass plays and that is to rush up the field and attack the QB. The best example of this is in the Tony Dungy days in Indianapolis, Dwight Freeny and Robert Mathis were the ends that wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. The second aspect of the defensive end in the “Tampa 2” is their role in the running game. Because the end is the outside most player in the front 7, the end acts as the last line of defense to keep the running back from breaking outside. This process is called “Forcing” and the end is asked to force the back to cut back inside to the rest of the defense. This is important because if the end gets too far up field, they take themselves out of the play, and if they are not prepared to “Force” the play back inside they can be easily trapped by a pulling guard or center, essentially making themselves useless to the defense.

Cowboys Players

The Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer as their ends. Both players have shown exceptional ability to attack the quarterback when left to their own devices. The questions will be if they can hold their own in the running game and accept the punishment that comes with forcing the blockers back to force the running back back into the heart of the defense.


The outside linebackers in the “Tampa 2” scheme are the basis for play calling on the defensive side. The outside linebackers have 2 designations, strong side linebacker or SAM, and weak side linebacker known as WILL. The SAM lines up on the strong side of the offensive line or to the strong side of the field, based on how the team lines up. Because offensive teams use motion to shift the strength, both linebackers have to know how to play both styles since things can change instantly within the course of a pre-snap configuration. The SAM linebacker usually lines up heads up with a tight end and has multiple responsibilities based on the defensive plays called. In a base system the first job of the SAM is to get hands on the tight end and knock them off their course, whether that is a passing route or a blocking scheme. The second job is to scrape and fill the hole to attack the running back. The third option is to drop into what I call a shell, and occupy the short middle of the zone coverage scheme. A fourth option is to blitz the QB, but that is only on desired play calls by the defensive coordinator. The WILL linebacker has the same responsibilities and the SAM, but he lines up directly behind the weakside defensive end and folds inside or outside based on the play of the end.

Cowboys Players

In the outside linebackers on the roster are a mix of trouble for the Dallas Cowboys. Bruce Carter will likely play weak side linebacker, and the questions will be who fills in on the strong side. At this moment Justin Durrant looks to be the opening camp starter, but Ernie Sims a veteran and rookie DeVonte Holloman should provide a chance to push for the position.


The middle linebacker in the “Tampa 2” scheme is a tough position to master. However when mastered it can make a person into a Hall of Famer much like Derrick Brooks in Tampa and Brian Urlacher in Chicago. The middle linebacker is asked to scrape and patrol the field and attack the running back once they decide on a direction to go. This means the linebacker has to understand how to avoid blocks from lineman and take pursuit angles and be a sure tackler in space. In the passing game the MLB must be agile enough to cover the entire middle of the field. Since the safeties are split on the hash marks covering their halves of the field, the MLB sits as the enforcer over the middle to protect the deep throws down the field splitting the two safeties.

Cowboys Players

Sean Lee when not injured is becoming one of the better linebackers in the league. He is the perfect MLB for the “Tampa 2” system. He is great in pass coverage and he has the ability to find the ball and make tackles when needed. The only problem with Lee besides the injuries the last two seasons is his size. He has the speed to patrol side line to side line, but he can be engulfed by larger linemen, which could be the cause of his injury issues.


The cornerbacks in the “Tampa 2” scheme have a very important job not just in coverage but in their positioning as well. The cornerbacks are asked to play the outside flat, which means they do not need to take a deep drop, they pretty much stand their ground and look for anything coming short and to the outside. They do this by pressing the outside receiver and not allowing a direct release to the outside. They have to make sure to keep that receiver from breaking outside because the safeties are on the hash so an outside release would put the defense at a disadvantage on deep throws down the sideline. The basic idea is to funnel the outside receiver towards the zone linebackers in the middle, while keeping themselves open to plays coming underneath.

Cowboys Players

Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are good corners and played man coverage last year. This season they will be asked to sit in coverage and make plays on the balls in the air. The best example of the play making ability of the corners in the “Tampa 2” system is the amount of turnovers the Chicago Bears were able to force in their version of the defense last season.


In the “Tampa 2” system the safeties are the most important and last line of defense. The safeties must be able to cover any deep threat on their half of the field. Most of the time they sit about 10 yards deep and keep getting deeper with the deepest guy on their side of the field. They are responsible for anything from their hash to the sideline, so they must be able to run, change direction quickly and stay with receivers down the field. They must be able to make plays on the ball and be sure tacklers if the ball happens to be caught.

Cowboys Players

Barry Church is the only left over from the Rob Ryan era. The Cowboys will hope he is able to play in this defense better than the man coverage scheme applied under Ryan. Will Allen is a veteran player who has been brought in to replace Gerald Sensabaugh as a better coverage player. The Cowboys drafted JJ WIlcox, but he is not ready for the NFL yet but hopefully he can become the heir apparent to one of these safety positions.

The Cowboys are going through a transitional period, so it is up to us as fans to understand the responsibilities of the new “Tampa 2” system. This is a defense that relies on players to do their jobs, or others will be at fault when big plays happen. The key for all of us is to understand the ideas behind the scheme so that we can properly assess the defense moving forward. Hopefully the change in defense will result in more turnovers forced by the Dallas defense and put people in the right positions to make big plays in the 2013 season.