With newly minted head coach Lovie Smith at the helm, one of the biggest downsides to the upcoming football season is the uncertainty of a brand-new defensive scheme. The Illinois Fighting Illini will install a variation of Smith’s ‘Tampa 2’ defense, which is something he’s been known for running since he was with the Buccaneers in the late ‘90s.
The Tampa 2 is a slight mutation of the traditional Cover 2 scheme. The difference in the former, however, is that a middle linebacker is deployed into deeper coverage, creating something more akin to a Cover 3 on the fly. One reason why Lovie’s defenses in Chicago were so effective was that he had a middle linebacker that played safety in college, Brian Urlacher, who was very comfortable dropping back.
In terms of personnel, we’ll typically see four lineman, three linebackers, two corners, and two safeties on the field for a majority of defensive snaps. A Tampa 2 defense relies on speed and aggression to make up for a lack of physical size. Therefore, every level of the defense needs to be operating fast, including the defensive line, which will be a point of emphasis in recruiting going forward.
One of the most critical areas of the Tampa 2 is making sure that you can pressure the quarterback without blitzing. With this as your base defense, you need to be able to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands while rushing just four players. With Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, the Illini should have a fearsome pass rush that allows them to cause havoc in the backfield while keeping seven defenders in coverage.
With a Tampa 2 formation, you typically see two things: a lot of gang tackling and a high amount of energy. When it’s working correctly, the unit will concede short passes over the middle for minimal gains in order to take away deep passes. While elite quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers can surgically pick apart this defense with 15-play drives by dinking and dunking all over the field, it’s much harder to do at the college level.
The addition of linebacker Hardy Nickerson this offseason adds a key figure into the mix. While Nickerson wasn’t exactly known for his speed at California, he looks like a prime candidate to fill a Jonathan Brown-type role -- not very athletic, butalways in the right spot.
So how will opposing defenses try to attack the Tampa 2? There are many of the same "weak spots" as the Cover 2 in pass defense, primarily up the seam between the hashes and vertically down the sidelines. It’s no wonder Lovie adores big, physical cornerbacks because they need to get a solid jam on the outside wide receivers in order to give the safeties time to get outside the numbers. Also look for teams to run a lot of horizontal passing plays, such as bubble screens. It forces your outside linebackers to make a play on the perimeter.
While the Tampa 2 was generally successful in the NFL, how it’ll adapt to a more wide-open college game remains to be seen. The secondary will have a lot of ground to cover, so look for opposing offenses to run ‘4 Verticals’-type plays in order to overload safeties down the field. Teams that run a pass-happy spread, such as Indiana, will force Lovie to pivot away from the Tampa 2 into a ‘Quarters’ style defense (both corners and safeties each have a deep 1/4 of the field) in order to match up better with vertical routes. I would also expect that Lovie will transition more from a 4-3 defensive front to a 4-2-5 look that gets even more speed and coverage ability on the field.
This Illinois roster is thin on both sides of the ball, and the playmakers that are on the team will need to step up and know their place on the field. Having said that, this scheme could work very well in 2016 if Illini can manage to keep their defense fresh. The Big Ten, especially the West Division, is filled with teams that operate a pro-style, run-heavy offense, such as Wisconsin and Iowa, which plays into the strengths of the Tampa 2.