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Zone 101: The Difference Between Traditional Zone Defense and the Tampa 2

December 10th, 2010 at 5:24 PM
By Dan Benton

This is a guest article written by long-time Giants 101 reader and New York Giants fan Mike D'Emo (aka demo3356)

Since the hiring of Perry Fewell this off season there has been much discussion and concern around G101 about the Tampa 2 defense and its implementation with our beloved New York Football Giants. Many fans have been concerned -and rightly so- with the amount of zone defense the Giants would play under Fewell after the team had won a Super Bowl under Steve Spagnuolo, a very aggressive Defensive Coordinator that relied on elaborate Blitzes and a lot of man press coverage, while struggling under more passive zone based Defensive Coordinators like Tim Lewis and Bill Sheridan.

One reason for this is that the Giants defensive backs are bigger stronger DB's and more fit for man press coverage's than they are for zone where speed is the key. One example of this is Corey Webster who played at a Pro Bowl level from late 07 through the 08 season under Spags yet looked like the second coming of Elvis "Toast" Patterson while trying to play zone based schemes under Tim Lewis and Bill Sheridan. As this season has went on there has been a lot of venting and lamenting of Fewell's use of the Tampa 2 defense when in reality the Giants have played minimal Tampa 2 defense this season. Thus far Fewell has used a mix of coverage schemes, utilizing man and a few different zone schemes. I thought it would be good to take a moment and break down the differences between the various zone coverage's and explain what exactly the Tampa 2 defense is to put many of the misconceptions on this site to bed.

 As for playing zone, there are basically 5 traditional zone coverage's on defense.

1. Cover 1 – Is basically man to man across the field with one deep free safety playing center field. The free safety has one responsibility in cover one, he has to stay as deep as the deepest receiver and break on the ball.

2. Cover 2 – Basically means you split the field in half using the center as the middle. Each safety has deep halves (deep as the deepest receiver on their half of the field). The corners have the flat, the OLB's have  hook to curl, and the MLB has what I call the short hole (the void left when the OLB's bail out to the curl). All NFL teams play some form of cover 2 some of the time. As for the dreaded Tampa 2, the only difference between it and the Cover 2 zone is how deep the MLB has to play. In a Tampa 2 the MLB drops 10-15 yards into coverage to take away the cover 2's biggest weakness, the deep middle.

3. Cover 3 - Is the most common coverage, basically you are cutting the field into thirds. One safety and the two corners all have deep thirds (three deep). The all stay as deep as the deepest receiver in their zone. The other safety has the weak side curl and the MLB has the strong side curl (usually the TE side). The two OLB's have the flat; they have buzz the flat to get underneath the X and Z receivers because the corners are bailing out to get deep.

4. Cover 4 – This used as a prevent coverage; it's the same as Cover 3 except the field is now divided into quarters and the corners and safeties are all deep quarters players. Everyone underneath the zone is in some form of man to man. 

5. Cover 0 – This is just as it sounds, no one deep, everyone is playing man to man all over the field. Most teams will play this coverage so they can blitz a linebacker or safety. The Eagles (under Jim Johnson) and the Jets currently are two examples of teams that utilize this ultra aggressive approach.

The Tampa 2 term was coined in the late 90's when Tampa Bay had tons of success leading to a Super Bowl title running primarily the old Steelers cover 2, but adding a twist with a speedy MLB playing the deep middle. This defense is the definition of bend but not break, as it takes away the deep ball and forces teams to be patient as they work well from 20 yd line to 20 yard line but then struggle when the field shrinks as they near the red zone. The hope is that somewhere along the line the offense will make a mistake or the speedy defense will cause a turnover. The key to the Tampa 2 is speed in the back seven as the DB's and LB's have lots of ground to cover. Teams also have to be able to both create pressure with only their front four and be able to stop the run with just their front seven. Many teams (Tampa, Chicago and Indianapolis) have had much success running primarily this defense the last 10-15 years but as everything in the ever changing NFL, all good schemes meet their match. Much like the Bears 46 defense was exploited and exposed by the West Coast Offense nearly 20 years before, the Spread Offense in today's NFL has proven to be The Tampa 2's Kryptonite. With so many Teams going three, four and five wide the Tampa 2 has been exposed to where it can no longer be relied on as a team's only form of defensive scheme.

Traditional Cover 2                                          Tampa 2

As for Perry Fewell and the New York Giants, I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are not a Tampa 2 team and have only played Tampa 2 sparingly (usually when they have a big lead or on 3rd and forever) this season.

One way you can be sure is by the fact that Antrel Rolle has spent so much of his time down in the box helping in run support and taking away the backside cuts. He has also blitzed a ton from different spots around the LOS. I have noticed Kenny Phillips playing a lot of "Single High" or Cover 1 where he is like 20-25 yards deep in center field. Fewell, in my opinion, has done a great job of mixing different looks, schemes, coverage's and packages this season so far and I believe this unit will only get better as he gets a feel for what his guys can and can't do and the players get more acclimated to what he is asking them to do. Keep in mind this is the Giants fourth Defensive Coordinator and therefore fourth different system in five years. I'm not sure the term he uses for it but Fewell has spent a lot of time using Deon Grant as a pseudo linebacker which makes it so amazing that the Giants are as good versus the run as they are with him and Michael Boley who is closer to safety size then linebacker size playing so many snaps together. It goes to show how dominate the front four has been in not just putting pressure on the QB and stopping the run, but in keeping blockers off the smallish linebackers..

I hope this helps. I tried to make it simple as this is the way I explain it to the kids. As their football acumen increases I can get into more detail and play with the coverage's where maybe I combine Cover 2 and Cover 0. There are many Defensive Coordinators that mix coverage's up on a play by play basis to keep offenses from exploiting what they are doing and in this day and age as complex as offenses have gotten, they need to. If an NFL team was to play any one scheme they would eventually get torched.

Tags: Antrel Rolle, Bill Sheridan, Corey Webster, Deon Grant, Football, Kenny Phillips, Michael Boley, New York, New York Giants, NFL, Perry Fewell, Steve Spagnuolo

102 Responses to “Zone 101: The Difference Between Traditional Zone Defense and the Tampa 2”

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  1.  BigBlueGiants says:


    This was a great and interesting read for all those not in the attention of the differences between the two.

    Personally, i’d like to see some more play analysis on G101. I think it would better educate some people on football!

    Great job. Standing O.

  2.  Remy says:

    Finally it hits! Very straight forward and concise Demo, easy to see why you’re coaching.

  3.  Nosh says:

    Good read.

  4. Abbott Stillmanfanfor55years says:

    Excellent job Demo. It was getting annoying hearing about how stupid it was of Fewell to play Tampa 2 when he does nothing of the sort.

    Now here’s a little subtle addition for all the followers of Giants 101. For most of this season Fewell has had Grant playing the equivalent of linebacker, and as a result has frequently been using only two linebackers in his base set. Under that circumstance he has had Michael Boley (the most athletic of Giants’ linebackers) dropping into the middle area where normally the Cover 2 zone would be handled by the MLB.

    But if you noticed how they played over the last few games they went to a much greater degree with their 3-linebacker package. In those instances the middle zone coverage responsibility falls to Jon Goff when he reads pass. I am sure they were concerned about how he would do since he is known as a thumper much more than a cover guy. In fact, he did a terrific job against both Jacksonville and Washington, losing coverage only a few times and for all practical purposes shutting Cooley out.

    Watch for that on Sunday because against Peterson they’ll be using three linebackers a lot and will depend upon Goff to read the play properly and then help prevent Shiancoe from killing them on play-action. That will be a battle-within-the-battle. Should be a good one, especially because Fewell will probably mix it up and sometimes have Boley or Bulluck drop into that zone just to keep the QB guessing.

    In any case, this was one of the best articles done on Giants 101 in a long time. A real service to the crowd. Congrats.

    •  demo3356 says:

      I am very intrigued to see what Fewell cooks up this Sunday for the Vikes..Now that it looks like Harvin is a no go and Favre is banged up to all hell, I bet the Vikes try and force feed AdP the ball. I would imagine we will see the “Big Base” alignment he used vs Carolina where he put Kiwi in at Sam to help shut down the Panthers power running game. I’ll be interested to see if he uses Sintim at Sam or if he uses Bullock..I’m pretty sure after the way that MJD and the Jags carved us up 2 weeks ago that he wont have Grant on the field unless it is an obvious passing down

  5. Rick Hanshi says:

    Demo – Well done. Something really must be wrong with me, I keep catching myself agreeing with you… oh no! Lol, just kidding, nice job.

  6. Drew Rigsbeearigsbee says:

    Great job Demo! Really thorough analysis, and easy to comprehend.

  7.  GiantKnuckleGame says:

    I rarely post but felt obligated to give props to Demo on this article….way to go

  8.  jimDB says:

    Demo, great read. We need more info like this….Thx.

    You said:

    “As for Perry Fewell and the New York Giants, I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are now a Tampa 2 team”

    I know you meant NOT……not NOW

    Secondly, the term used in blitz packages were the safety is up in the box is I beleive”NASCAR”; a bit lame seeing I’m from Daytona (Hate the stuff) but understand the terminology the need for speed.

  9. jared Garthjared says:

    Great post. I wish we could see more of these. Giants101 could probably attach clips with diagrams on how these schemes are executed.

  10. Simon Garron-CaineSimonGC says:

    Bravo, Mr. Demo…

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