Steelers insider: Origins of Tampa 2 run locally

Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, shown in 1983, was a key part of the 'Tampa 2' defense. (George Gojkovich/Getty Images file)
Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, shown in 1983, was a key part of the 'Tampa 2' defense. (George Gojkovich/Getty Images file)
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| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

They're not ready yet to bury the Tampa 2, the signature defense that helped make Tony Dungy famous, elevated Lovie Smith into a head coaching job and shortened the shelf life of the West Coast offense.

But the Tampa 2 in its base form is effectively down to two teams, the Bears and Vikings, although others use variations of the defense Dungy employed in Tampa and Indianapolis to throttle quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and John Elway and their receivers.

“You still see it,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “But not as much as a base defense.”

The Tampa 2 controlled the deep ball, transformed safeties into some of the biggest hitters in the game, created highlights aplenty for NFL Films and won multiple Super Bowls (see Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2003, and Indianapolis Colts, 2006). There once was a Super Bowl matchup of pure Tampa 2 teams: Dungy's Colts and Smith's Bears.

“Every team still has it in their package,” Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich said. “With all the different things people are doing offensively, they still have it as a package and it still works, but guys are being a lot more multiple.”

The Tampa 2 was so popular for a time, even casual fans could reference it and sound knowledgeable. Only six years ago, one-third of all NFL teams used it as a primary defense.

Too bad it was misnamed.

What Steelers fans might not know is the Tampa 2 should have been called the Pittsburgh 2. The player greatly responsible for its success was Jack Lambert. And, despite its roots, it couldn't serve as their primary defense today because the Steelers employ a 3-4 rather than a 4-3.

The Tampa 2 originated with former Steelers coach Chuck Noll and defensive coordinator Bud Carson. It was designed for the four defensive linemen (L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White) to pass rush almost exclusively and for the safeties to divide the deep passing zones about 20 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Their support came from Lambert, who is frequently compared to James Harrison but in reality was more the Troy Polamalu of his day, as Carson used him in essence as a third safety. (Lambert's career stats: 28 interceptions and, unofficially, 23 12 sacks, although sacks weren't an official stat for his entire career.)

With only four defenders pass rushing, as many as seven could drop into coverage, with the safeties and Lambert fanning across the deep zones to provide a formidable back end. Imagine the intimidation factor for a receiver going downfield and knowing he might get smacked by Lambert.

That uh-oh factor also played into Dungy's decision — Dungy was a Steelers safety in the late 1970s and served as their defensive coordinator in the mid-'80s— to reintroduce the defense in Tampa, hence its name. But Dungy actually began using it as Minnesota's defensive coordinator.

The Tampa 2 depends on a superior defensive line to create considerable pressure, which Warren Sapp did to perfection. (And, later, Simeon Rice and Sapp did together after Tampa Bay replaced Dungy with Jon Gruden and won the Super Bowl the very next season.)

The number in cover refers to the safeties' roles: Cover 0 is man-to-man defense; Cover 1 is the free safety playing as a center fielder; Cover 3 has three defenders splitting the top of the defense into thirds while four others protect against underneath routes.

“There were times when I first got into this league, you knew this team is going play (Tampa 2) and, if they don't play (Tampa 2), they're going to be in Cover 3,” Leftwich said. “Now it's 10 different versions of Cover 3 and 10 different versions of (Tampa 2). They're using all of them. It's the evolution of the defense and the evolution of the coaches.”

Leftwich, who watches a voluminous amount of opponents' tape, doesn't believe there is a dominant defense in the league today.

“It's more the coordinators,” Leftwich said. “The history of the coordinator calling the plays, that's what it's coming down to. Dick LeBeau is going to be Dick LeBeau no matter where he's at. … I've got to understand these defenses, so I've got to understand this coordinator who's calling them.”

Just as, nearly 40 years ago, offenses were trying to decipher the mysteries of the defense that changed the game.

The Pittsburgh 2.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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