When the Steelers stepped up to the plate at the 2014 draft, they made a stand at pick #15. With cornerback and linebacker as the team’s most obvious needs, the Steelers passed on highly-touted CB Darqueze Dennard, choosing instead to take a linebacker to play inside with Lawrence Timmons. Rather than CJ Mosley, widely considered to be the best linebacker available, the Steelers selected Ryan Shazier out of Ohio State.
The pick was puzzling at the time, and still raises a few questions. Here’s mine: Did the Steelers take the smaller, faster linebacker because they’re planning to run more Tampa-2 on defense?
To answer this, we need to understand what the Tampa-2 defense is. The base defense is a Cover-2, in which each safety takes a deep half of the field. That leaves nine defenders around the line of scrimmage (seven if you assume the corners will be in pass coverage), good for stopping the run (which is important). The problem is that with only two defenders deep, the defense becomes vulnerable to big plays downfield.
The way that Tony Dungy and his staff addressed this weakness was with their linebackers. The Tampa-2 sends the middle linebacker to the deep middle of the field, between the two safeties. This creates better protection against explosive plays. The end result is a defense that doesn’t give up anything deep, instead taking risks with short plays underneath. When executed properly, the Tampa-2 forces offenses to take a long time to slowly drive down the field, and as the field gets shorter, the zones get tighter and the offense has to settle for a field goal at best.
Bend, but don’t break. Don’t give up the big play. Give up field goals instead of touchdowns. Any of this sound familiar yet?
The important connection lies in Mike Tomlin. Tomlin was the defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay from 2001-2005, including a championship in 2002. When he became the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, the Tampa-2 soon followed. And when he was hired as the head coach of the Steelers… well, the defense still belonged to Dick LeBeau, who stuck with his 3-4 zone blitz. The 2008 Steelers rode that dominant defense to another championship.
None of this is to suggest that Tomlin is trying to overthrow LeBeau and install his own system or anything like that, but that the Steelers, as a team, are preparing to incorporate more of that Tampa defensive style as part of the regular 3-4 base defense. The Tampa-2 is primarily designed around coverage, while the zone blitz is designed around the front seven. There’s no reason that the two philosophies can’t coexist as long as the defensive players are versatile enough to play the system.
I’ll leave you with some quotes, mostly compiled from the Wikipedia page on the Tampa-2:
“Typically, the players don’t have the prototypical size of other NFL defenders. Instead, stress is put on speed, smarts and flawless tackling. …the middle linebacker position is the straw that stirs the drink.”
“Dungy always expected his linebackers and cornerbacks to be above-average tacklers, as they are usually the primary tacklers in the defense.”
“The strong safeties, while not expected to be great tacklers, are expected to be hard hitters.”
“The free safety will be called upon to do one of two things in certain situations: either blitz the quarterback, requiring him to have the skills necessary to beat a blocking halfback or fullback, or to assume the coverage zone left by a blitzing cornerback.”
Sure, the safety positions are switched up, but the principles are there. The principles have been there. And when we think about dropping a linebacker into deep coverage with the safeties, wouldn’t it make sense to get a smaller, faster middle linebacker? Someone whose speed can be an asset in deep coverage, but whose nose for the football allows him to read running plays and step up to stop them?
Perhaps the coaching staff has a plan for this young man.