What is the Cover 2 Defense?


The Cover 2 Defense is one of the more talked about defensive strategies in the NFL, and throughout the game of football on every level. It’s great to talk about the Cover 2 Defense, because it is an extremely effective and common defensive formation, but the problem is that most broadcasters don’t take the time needed to really explain what it is. They namedrop “Cover 2 Defense” and then move on without really explaining how it works or why it’s so important. Let’s delve into the popular origin of the Cover 2 Defense – The Tampa 2 Defense – and figure out what the Cover 2 Defense really is.


The terminology of Cover 2 simply comes from the tactic of dividing part of the field into two halves. Specifically, the deep part of the defense, at roughly 15 yards out from the line of scrimmage is split up into two halves, each representing a zone. So, the Cover 2 Defense is a zone defense that stems from two deep zones, each of which is covered by one of the safeties.


The Cover 2 DefenseThis original scheme came from NFL defensive mastermind Bud Carson, the architect of the Steel Curtain defense of several decades ago. In his setup, the defense would play out of a 4-3, meaning four defensive linemen and three linebackers. The four linemen would rush the quarterback and the three linebackers, along with the two cornerbacks, would split the shallow part of the field into five small zones, in front of the two, larger and deeper zones.


This Cover 2 formation had one flaw, you could find a large opening in the deep middle of the field and exploit it for huge gains. The NFL, in a constant state of evolution, began improving on the original Cover 2. Tony Dungy played for Bud Carson on the Pittsburgh Steelers and learned the Cover 2 Defense. With one Super Bowl ring and the legacy of another Super Bowl team left behind him, clearly Tony Dungy figured something out.


His new configuration became called the Tampa 2 Defense, because he installed it as coach of the Buccaneers. One of the reasons the Tampa 2 Defense was created was to combat the effective, chip-away West Coast Offense. The West Coast Offense consists of short passes, crisp route running, less reliance on the running game and precise timing. Against the original Cover 2 Defense, if a wide receiver would run a slant route 10 yards downfield, he’d have plenty of slashing room for big gains if he could escape the first man assigned to him. (See: Rice, Jerry).


The main alteration to the original Cover 2 is that the middle linebacker’s zone became expanded. It was no longer one of the small underneath zones, rather it would extend deep into the center of the field, closing up that gap that could be exploited in the Cover 2. The Tampa 2 DefenseThe Tampa 2 is in this way actually more like a Cover 3 than a Cover 2, because the deep part of the field is split into three different ones.


With the middle linebacker anchoring the middle of the field with his all-over playmaking, the cornerbacks in a Cover 2 system will generally try to funnel the receivers in their area towards the center of the field, where more of their defensive partners await. Today’s ultra-athletic linebackers are more able to drop into pass coverage and therefore the Tampa 2 can be pulled off by more teams around the league.


One flaw of the Tampa 2 Defense is the middle-depth sideline areas. This soft spot is between the shallow zones of the cornerbacks and the deep zones of the safeties on each end of the field. A second flaw of the Tampa 2 Defense or original Cover 2 Defense is that it relies entirely on the four defensive linemen for defensive pressure. But no scheme is without its flaws, especially in the NFL where you can exploit anything. With the right defensive personnel, these flaws and openings in the Tampa 2 Defense can be reduced significantly.


That leaves one way to beat the Tampa 2 and Cover 2 defenses: a rumbling, pounding running attack. A strong running game will force the middle linebacker to trend towards the line of scrimmage rather than the deep middle zone of the field. The safeties may have to adjust in the same fashion, edging closer to the line of scrimmage, losing precious time and space when defending a deep passing route. The offense can then capitalize with play action passes. If the defense doesn’t adjust, and your running game is successful, you can ride your backs all the way down the field, a small chunk of yardage at a time.


The Cover 2 Defense, and its descendant, the Tampa 2 Defense, have become the most popular defense used in the NFL. For many teams in the league, the Cover 2/Tampa 2 is the base of their entire defense. For others, they deploy the scheme in certain game situations. The NFL is a constant coaching battle; back and forth schemes adjust and counter to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Only time will tell what kinds of new offenses will emerge to combat the Cover 2 and Tampa 2, and in turn, what new defenses will rise up in their place.