Zulgad: Antiquated Tampa-2 deserves blame for defensive shortcomings
The Chicago Bears had won the NFC North with an 11-5 record in 2005 when the Minnesota Vikings fired coach Mike Tice after a 9-7 finish and began the search for his replacement.
It didn't take long for two things to happen.
One, ownership was so enamored with Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress that they didn't let him leave town and quickly hired him as their coach.
Two, the Vikings' front office types saw what the Bears had accomplished on defense and decided they needed to pursue a coordinator who ran the same Tampa-2 system that helped Chicago finish second in the NFL in total defense.
The Vikings hired Mike Tomlin, who had spent the previous five years as the defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That meant Tomlin had learned this version of the Cover-2, the Tampa-2, from the two men who originated it, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin.
Dungy's last season as the Bucs coach came in 2001, Tomlin's first year with the organization. Kiffin was the Bucs' defensive coordinator when Tomlin arrived and was still going strong when he left.
The NFL is the ultimate copy-cat league so the Vikings' desire to emulate the Bears came as no surprise. But seven years later, it appears almost certain the Tampa-2 is in its final days, or games, in Minnesota.
The time for change has come.
Tomlin, of course, was the Vikings' defensive coordinator for only one season before the Pittsburgh Steelers hired him as their coach. Anchored in the middle of the defensive line by the combination of tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, the Vikings gave up only 61.6 yards per game on the ground and finished first in the NFL in rushing defense in 2006.
Leslie Frazier was hired to replace Tomlin after that season because he had a complete understanding of the Tampa-2, having worked on Dungy's coaching staff in Indianapolis. When Frazier was promoted to head coach in 2011, Fred Pagac moved up from linebackers coach for one season.
The move didn't work as Frazier and Pagac had different ideas about how to run a defense and that resulted in Alan Williams being hired away from the Colts' to take over as the Vikings' coordinator in 2012. Williams and Frazier had spent two seasons coaching together with the Colts and Williams was in tune with how his new boss wanted the Tampa-2 to work.
The Vikings improved from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6, and earned a playoff berth, in 2012 with a defense that finished in the middle of the NFL by giving up 350 yards per game. The passing defense was 24th but the Vikings were 11th against the rush and tied for 14th, allowing 21.8 points per game.
This season, the defense has taken a huge step backward. The Vikings are 29th out of 32 teams in total defense, giving up 401.2 yards per game, and are 30th against the pass (282.5 yards), 22nd against the run (118.8 yards) and 31st in points surrendered (30.4).
So what has gone so wrong?
Former Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter, appearing on ESPN Radio this week, said it's very simple. Reacting to how bad Kiffin's version of the Cover-2 defense looked in Dallas' 45-28 loss to Chicago last Monday night, Carter made it clear the system no longer works.
"You cannot play Cover-2 in the NFL anymore," he said. "Unless you have an edge rusher who can get to the passer, or unless you have Warren Sapp as a 3-techinque ... that is why they put in Cover-2 because the 3-techinque could dominate. ... He can defeat a double team and put instant pressure on and also negate the run. ... You could take away center field with the middle linebacker."
Let's apply what Carter is saying to the Vikings.
The Vikings' best edge rusher is Jared Allen but at 31, and with a lot of wear and tear on his body, he's slowing down and has only seven sacks in 13 games. Allen has had six consecutive seasons with double-digit sack totals but that streak is in jeopardy of ending.
There was a time when Kevin Williams was the dominant 3-techinque that Carter is talking about but he's 33 years old and in his 11th season. It's likely his final year with the Vikings. It didn't hurt Kevin's performance when he had big Pat Williams alongside him at the nose tackle, either. The Vikings haven't been able to find a quality replacement for Pat since he departed following the 2010 season.
Strike three for the Vikings is they have not had a quality Tampa-2 middle linebacker since E.J. Henderson suffered a broken leg late in the 2009 season. Jasper Brinkley wasn't the answer and why the Vikings thought Erin Henderson would be able to make the move from the weak side to the middle was perplexing from day one.
Audie Cole has taken over for Henderson in recent weeks and while he has played well at times, you can't overlook the fact that Joe Flacco's winning touchdown pass to Marlon Brown with four seconds left last Sunday in Baltimore's victory over the Vikings came over Cole. Brown also caught a 35-yard pass that went over Cole that put the Ravens in Vikings' territory on that drive.
The job of the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 is to be able to direct traffic and drop into coverage to break up those exact types of plays.
If the Vikings had a cornerback designed to play in the Tampa-2 it was veteran Antoine Winfield, who was released last spring. The Vikings don't spend all of their time in this system, but it makes no sense that a guy like rookie corner Xavier Rhodes isn't playing more man coverage and a lot less zone.
Even if the Vikings had the best personnel possible to play Tampa-2, Carter doesn't think it would work. Not in 2013.
"You can't have the quarterback (have) that much information before the play because the quarterbacks in most offenses have access to almost every play in the playbook," he said. "So if you give them the information that only four people are going to rush, they're going to play Cover-2, the corners are going to be 5 to 6 yards (off), the weak side linebacker is a fast-flow guy, the middle linebacker is dropping in the middle, you can pick apart the zones because you know exactly where they are going to be because there are too many plays called at the line of scrimmage."
It's likely that the Vikings' disappointing season will cost Frazier and his coaching staff their jobs. If that is the case, when they walk out the door at Winter Park, they likely will be asked to take the Tampa-2 scheme with them.