When Lovie Smith took over as Chicago's head coach last year, one of the first steps in installing the Tampa 2 defensive scheme was to change the way the Bears practiced. If a ball lay on the ground, Smith wanted his players to swarm to it like ants to a crumb, pick it up and carry it to pay dirt. And not just fumbles, mind you, but incomplete passes as well. (Per the rules of football, incompletions cannot be returned.)
"Sometimes you'll see us do it in games," Bears Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown said of the defense's take-it-to-the-house mind-set. The Bears have a league-high nine interception returns for touchdowns in Smith's two years as head coach. "It's our mentality."
Good defenses think alike -- aggressively. Before a recent practice in Indianapolis, Ron Meeks, the Colts' defensive coordinator, was asked how Indy's version of the Tampa 2 defense evolved in one season from the team's perceived weak link into a confident, physical group that carried the club through the first quarter of the season, before the Colts' high-octane offense got in gear.
"We play with so much energy and speed," Meeks said. "When the ball is thrown, we're like piranhas. We're attacking the ball carrier, attacking the receivers, trying to inflict as much pain and play with as much energy as we can. A lot of it is an attitude."
That aggressive approach is the foundation of the Tampa 2, the style of Cover 2 defense made popular by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tony Dungy, starting in the mid- to late-1990s. Actually, it all started in the 1970s with Bud Carson's Steelers defenses, for whom Dungy played defensive back. Dungy learned the Cover 2 from Carson. In Cover 2, two safeties play zone (area) coverage, each of them responsible for half of the field. Dungy's Bucs had great success dropping a speedy middle linebacker (the "Mike") down the middle of the field to defend the pass, creating a three-deep look, while four often undersized but quick defensive linemen rushed the passer. And so, the Tampa 2 was born.
So, too, was a trend. Nowadays, most every defense in the league has some form of the Tampa 2 in its package. But no one is making the Tampa 2 do what it does better than the originators -- Dungy in Indianapolis, Smith in Chicago and longtime coordinator Monte Kiffin in Tampa. The Bears and Colts are division champions, and the Bucs a victory away from making it three-for-three for Tampa 2 teams.
The Bears' defense has had a season for the ages, drawing comparisons to Da Bears of 1985. Chicago is on pace to break the 19-year-old record for points allowed in a 16-game season (187). Chicago went 43 quarters without allowing more than seven points in one quarter, the second-longest such streak in the last 70 years. The Bears allowed the fewest points over eight home games (61) in league history. Naturally, Chicago's top-rated defense leads the league in fewest points allowed per game at 11.2. The Bears were 21st in total defense a year ago.
The Colts' defense also made a dramatic jump, in Dungy's fourth year, from 29th in 2004 to ninth this season. Indianapolis held its first five opponents to 10 points or fewer -- the third team since 1970 to do so -- and seven foes overall to 10 or fewer. The Colts rank second in points allowed per game (15.6). And like the Bears, they're playing with virtually the same personnel.
Meanwhile, Tampa has the NFL's No. 2-rated defense, having allowed 16 or more points only four times. The Bucs will finish in the top 10 in total defense for a ninth consecutive season.
It seems the Tampa 2 is an ideal scheme with which to turn around a defense virtually overnight. In 2001, Smith's first year as St. Louis' defensive coordinator, the Rams improved from 24th the previous season to third. Meeks was Smith's secondary coach that year, before going to Indianapolis with Dungy in 2002.
The secret to the Tampa 2 system? There really isn't one.
Less is more in this case. The brilliance of the scheme lies in its simplicity. What the Tampa 2 teams have figured out is that it isn't what they're doing, as much as it is who is doing it and how. Whereas success in defenses designed by the Bill Belichicks, Romeo Crennels and Nick Sabans place a great deal of faith in the players' aptitude, the Tampa 2's effectiveness has more to do with their attitude.
"There's no magic formula," Dungy said. "We don't do a whole lot, other than play hard and play well. Whether it's Pittsburgh or Tampa or Chicago or here, we're going to be fundamentally sound and try not to give up big plays and play hard and play smart. It's that more so than the X's and O's."
The Tampa 2 is quite player-friendly. Each player is assigned a gap, and he is to attack it. Chicago, Indy and Tampa like to stop the run with eight players near the line of scrimmage, and on passing downs drop into their Cover 2 zone. They like to play it safe in this scheme, so it doesn't call for a lot of all-out blitzing with zero coverage (no safety in the middle, corners one-on-one), instead preferring to rely on the defensive line to apply pressure on the quarterback. "We play the odds a lot is what we do," said Smith, Dungy's linebackers coach in Tampa from 1996 through 2000.
They're always hustling in the Tampa 2, gang tackling ball carriers. It helps that the players have an idea where the ball is going. The Tampa 2 asks the corners to reroute the outside (also the most dangerous) receivers, delaying the release and buying the line more time to get to the quarterback.
"That's where the rush and the coverage come together," said Mike Tomlin, the Bucs' secondary coach and one of the league's top coordinator prospects. "The way you attack it is vertically. But in order to do that, you have to protect, or you have to get a bunch of people out to stress us. If you get people out, we've got one-on-one with the guys up-front. If you keep guys in to protect, we've got enough people in pass defense, and guys are in position to see the ball come out."
"It allows them to play fast," Tomlin said.
The concept behind the Cover 2 is to prevent the big play by keeping everyone in front of the safeties and, when possible, making big plays. Simple.
It's more of a mentality than it is mental.
"[Pittsburgh coach] Bill Cowher, when we played them, he had to laugh," Dungy said. "He said they had an extra day, because it was Monday night, and they had all this extra time. 'But you guys only have one defense. We couldn't even utilize it.'"
When Colts owner Jim Irsay and team president Bill Polian hired Dungy four years ago, they knew, with the players Indy has on offense, they wouldn't have much salary cap space to allot for the defense, meaning the Colts would have to build that side of the ball through the draft and not free agency. Dungy and the Tampa 2 defense he taught were perfect for the Colts and their home stadium, the RCA Dome, with its artificial surface. "He brought a defense that fit completely with the kind of players we had here and the salary cap approach that we were forced to take," Polian said.
In recent years, Indianapolis has lost linebackers Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington to free agency, and after the Patriots pushed the Colts around for a second year in a row in the playoffs, fans and media wanted to see the Colts spend money on free agents for the defense, even at the expense of retaining franchise (and franchised) running back Edgerrin James. But Dungy knew it would only be a matter of time before his young players matured in the system.
"That was the trepidation: 'How are we going to get better because we didn't go out and get five or six new guys?'" Dungy said. "We felt the guys we got, [former Eagles defensive tackle] Corey Simon and [first-round cornerback] Marlin Jackson, were going to help us, but we knew that most of our improvement would come from Mike Doss, Bob Sanders, Cato June, Raheem Brock, playing more in the system and playing better because they knew what they were doing."
Simon calls the Tampa 2 a "man-whoop-a-man" defense. "If you can't beat your man," Simon said, "you're going to find holes in our defense. It's simple and sound. It's not real complicated."
Dungy raised quite a few eyebrows, but he knew precisely what he was doing when he drafted undersized end Dwight Freeney in the first round of his first draft with the Colts. He was getting his version of Tampa's Simeon Rice, a premier pass rusher, a key component of the Tampa 2. Smith has two terrors coming off the edge in Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown. Sanders, taken in the second round last year, is the intimidator at safety, the Colts' version of ex-Buc John Lynch. For the Bears, that's Mike Brown.
The parallels in the blueprints don't stop there. Before Anthony McFarland took over, the Bucs had Warren Sapp as their dominant defensive tackle. The Colts have Simon; the Bears Tommie Harris, Smith's first draft pick. Lance Briggs is to the Bears what Derrick Brooks is to the Bucs, what former sixth-round pick and college safety June is to the Colts, the playmaking weak-side linebacker. Chicago has Brian Urlacher in the middle. Back in the day, the Bucs had Hardy Nickerson running the defense; now that guy is Shelton Quarles. Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher, Smith says, possesses the ball skills of Tampa's Ronde Barber.
What all of those players have in common is that they can move quickly. Along with an aggressive attitude, the Tampa 2 places a premium on speed. "I'm sure we don't emphasize [running to the ball] any more than anyone else does, but it's easier to fly to the ball when you have fast guys that can run," Dungy said. Speed often comes at the expense of size, though not always, as Smith discovered. "When I went to St. Louis," Smith said, "I was looking for those same body types. What I've since found out since I've been in Chicago, just looking at our linebackers, is you can have speed, quickness and size." Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera grade their players on loafs, or how many times they don't hustle to the football.
At some point this season, the Bucs, Bears and Colts defenses were carrying their respective teams, some more than others. The Bears are an 11-win team despite infrequent contributions from their 31st-ranked offense. At the very least, Tampa 2 players don't have to carry huge playbooks. The Tampa 2's hallmark is execution rather than ingenuity.
The league's three Tampa 2 teams all have a legitimate shot at reaching Detroit and Super Bowl XL. Not coincidentally, Tampa, Chicago and Indy model their defenses after General Motors. They do one thing and they do it well.
"I tell guys it's like McDonald's," Dungy said. "If you like cheeseburgers, [the Tampa 2] is OK because the cheeseburger's going to be the same everyday, all the time, whatever city you're in, ask for a cheeseburger and fries, it's going to be the same. That's what we are -- the cheeseburger and fries that's the same way every week in every city."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.