Finding a Good Fit for the Tampa 2 Defense

Hannah Foslien

Let's take a look to see if we can uncover some deeper problems with what is turning out to be one of the worst defenses in the history of the NFL.

We have a bad defense. This is an undeniable truth that can be verified by looking up any of the basic team statistics at any number of websites. We currently rank 30th in yards allowed per game, and are worst in the league in points allowed, with an average of 32 points allowed per game. We've also allowed the most 3rd down conversions in the league and have the fourth highest 4th down conversion rate. We are ranked 11th worst in yards allowed per play (5.6 yards) and if that trend continues, it would be good enough for 32nd worst in NFL history dating back to 1970 (out of 1,265 possible defenses). Not only are we bad compared to other teams this season, but according to Pro Football Reference, if the trend continues of allowing an average of 32 points per game by season's end we would have the WORST defense in the history of the NFL since the 1970 merger in allowing points. In other words, we can't seem to stop anyone from scoring points, or getting off the field on defense. So, why is this? Is due to personnel? Is it scheme? Maybe injuries? Coaching? All of the above? Let's take a look to see if we can uncover some deeper problems with what is turning out to be one of the worst defenses in the history of the NFL.

First off, as many well know the Vikings defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, comes from the Tony Dungy coaching tree and previously worked with Leslie Frazier while they were together in Indianapolis. He was brought here to maintain the 4-3 alignment and "Tampa 2" philosophy that Leslie Frazier previously ran when he was the defensive coordinator of the Vikings from 2007-2010. The Tampa 2 is a variant of the general "Cover 2" style of defense which relies on having two safeties cover the deep part of the field. It actually doesn't get its roots in Tampa Bay, rather it originates from the 1970s style of football during the days of the Pittsburgh "Steel Curtain" defense. It's an older style of defense, but can still be effective in today's NFL with the right personnel. It's typically a difficult defense to score points on (really?) because of the "bend don't break" philosophy that tightens up when the field shrinks in the red zone.

In the Tampa 2 scheme each position requires very specific skill sets in order to effectively execute the scheme. You can't just throw any ol' football players in there and expect it to be run effectively. For example, the defensive line must be able to generate pressure from the four down lineman without having to commit other linebackers and corners to blitz. Those middle 5 players are needed to cover zones in the middle of the field, due to the fact that there are 2 safeties playing deep coverage. The scheme requires defensive ends that are quick and agile that can get to the quarterback, as well as a nose tackle that can take on extra blockers and help stuff the run.

The middle linebacker is one of the most important positions on the field since he has to read the opposing offense correctly and decide if it's a run play or a pass play. His responsibility is dramatic, as he has to either shoot the gap in run defense, or drop back in coverage and man the middle of the field behind the outside linebackers. It requires a middle linebacker with elite speed and a heady player that can quickly diagnose plays. Therefore, if the MLB is caught out of position it generally leaves the middle of the field wide open. The outside linebackers are generally responsible for covering their zones around the hash marks (inside the cornerbacks) to about 10 yards deep, but also need to be able to cover their gaps in run defense. They have a similar responsibility as the MLB, but aren't required to cover nearly as much of the field, nor do they make the primary calls and reads of the opposing offense.

The cornerbacks cover the sidelines, and because the outside linebackers are responsible for zone coverage, this scheme requires the cornerbacks to be effective tacklers in run support. It is why a player like Antoine Winfield thrived in this scheme: he was an elite tackler. A cornerback in this scheme doesn't have to be an elite man-to-man coverage corner, as the deep zone safeties provide a "safety blanket" (pun intended) in coverage breakdowns, but they do have to be elite tacklers because there is not much help against runs to the outside.

And finally, the two deep safeties are probably the 2nd most important position in the scheme. It requires two safeties that have elite speed, with above-average coverage abilities. They are required to cover exactly half of the field at least 20 yards deep. But even more important is having two players with different skill sets: one that excels in either a "strong" capacity (ie, to deliver big hits across the middle of the field and tackle well) or "free" capacity (ie, to slide over and cover the responsibility of a blitzing cornerback, or blitz the quarterback himself).

It should start to become clear that the Vikings lack players that fit this scheme either due to injury or poor planning during the last off-season. We can get into who's at fault later, but for now let's break it down using Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus stats, starting with the defensive line.

Defensive Line

As was mentioned we need defensive ends with elite speed who can get to the quarterback. Jared Allen used to be extremely good at this, and he nearly broke the single season sack record 2 seasons ago. He's still pretty good at pressuring the quarterback, but he's not quite the elite Top 5 player he once was. Among 50 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends, he's currently tied for 11th with six sacks, tied for 7th with 10 QB hits and 19th in quarterback hurries. This is still good, but not awesome. Brian Robison on the other side is not quite as good as Jared Allen, but can still generate some pressure. He's tied for 20th with 4 sacks, tied for 18th with 6 QB hits and is surprisingly ranked 1st by a mile with 45 QB hurries. He's essentially "almost" getting to the QB a ton. Even Everson Griffen, who only sees the field in rotation as a backup is graded positively by Pro Football Focus in every aspect of his game, except for coverage (which doesn't really matter much for a defensive end). That said, our defensive tackles have not been very good at generating much pressure, ranked by Pro Football Focus in the bottom half of the league in pass rush defense. Letroy Guion is particularly bad at rushing the QB, and Kevin Williams has lost a lot in that department when it used to be the strength of his game. Fred Evans is quite good at stuffing the run, but Letroy Guion is not. In a nutshell, this is a unit that is inconsistent. Football Outsiders ranks the defensive line middle of the pack (14th) in run defense, but 24th in adjusted sack rate. In short, the problem seems to stem primarily from the defensive tackle position. The ends appear to be doing their part to generate pressure, but the tackles aren't getting it done, especially Letroy Guion (generally) and Kevin Williams (as a pass rusher).

Linebackers

As most of us know, Erin Henderson was moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker this past offseason. While he had the middle linebacker responsibility last year in nickel situations (obvious passing downs) when Jasper Brinkley went to the sideline, playing as an every-down middle linebacker is a different animal. This is because he's responsible for a much larger portion of the field, and he's responsible for calling the defense. According to Pro Football Focus, playing coverage was probably the weakest part of Henderson's game last year. He has never been a great coverage linebacker, although he did well in 2011 replacing Ben Leber when he had to cover a much smaller part of the field. This makes the move of Henderson from outside to the middle questionable, especially considering that his 40 time at the combine was abysmal: 4.73. For comparison, Luke Kuechly (one of the best 4-3 MLB to come out of the draft in recent memory) timed out at 4.58. So we took a slow linebacker who isn't that great in coverage, and made him the middle linebacker where his responsible is to use speed to cover a larger portion of the field (brilliant!). This year, Pro Football Focus has Erin Henderson ranked 40th overall among 53 qualifying inside linebackers. His one strength is in run defense (which has been a strength of his game all along). He's ranked 20th in run defense by PFF, and 15th in stops (solo tackles that result in a failed play). It should have been clear from the beginning that Erin Henderson would not succeed at an elite level at the middle linebacker position, based on his strengths and weaknesses as a linebacker the previous two seasons as a starter.

Chad Greenway is having perhaps one of the most disappointing seasons of all the linebackers, seeing as how he was a 2-time Pro Bowler the previous two seasons. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL (35th out of 35 qualifying players). His abilities in coverage are downright terrible this year as he's allowing the 4th most average yards per completion, 2nd most yards after the catch, most TDs allowed in the NFL and the 5th highest passer rating against him. This is surprising considering that he ranked 13th in coverage by PFF both last year and in 2010, and was 2nd best in coverage in 2009. He has a history of being a very good Tampa 2 outside linebacker, especially as a coverage backer. But perhaps his injury history and age are finally catching up with him? He will turn 31 in just a few short months. The Tampa 2 requires linebackers with speed, and it seems that Greenway has lost his speed. And lastly Special-Teamer-Turned-Starter Marvin Mitchell has performed essentially as a league replacement option: not terrible, but not great either. He's ranked as the 21st best 4-3 OLB linebacker (again, out of a possible 35). It's pretty clear that the linebackers are a major problem and are completely failing in their ability to play coverage, likely due to a lack of elite speed, which is priority #1 for linebackers in the Tampa 2 scheme.

Secondary

As was mentioned, the Tampa 2 requires cornerbacks who can tackle. Our two starters are bad at making tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Josh Robinson was tied for 11th for most missed tackles, and Chris Cook was tied for 25th (out of 107 qualifying CBs). Tackle totals aren't necessarily indicative of much, because it's simply a by-product of having an opposing offense run plays in your general direction, as evidenced by Josh Robinson's leading "stops" metric (solo tackles that constitute an offense failure) and relatively high tackle totals. Teams have been targeting Josh Robinson (because he's bad) all year. Looking instead at run defense grades, PFF grades Chris Cook 104th and Josh Robinson 72nd. It's pretty clear that our starting corners have not been able to execute their primary responsibility in the Tampa 2 scheme: proper tackling and run defense. But even as cover corners, they are still not very good. PFF grades Robinson as the 98th best corner in coverage and Cook as the 66th best in coverage. Xavier Rhodes and Marcus Sherels both have higher grades than Cook and Robinson in most metrics, but both are relegated to backup duty. In a surprising turn of events, Marcus Sherels is our highest rated cornerback overall according to Pro Football Focus, and that should tell you all you need to know.

At the safety position, Harrison Smith was performing at an average level before his season was cut short. He was our "free" safety, responsible for covering the sidelines on a cornerback blitz, or moving up to rush the passer. However, as a converted linebacker in college his instincts for hitting hard and tackling seem to make him a better fit as a strong safety. As a free safety, in 5 games he recorded 0 sacks, 0 QB hurries and 1 QB hit, as he wasn't utilized to blitz the passer much at all. But the next man up is Andrew Sendejo (known by most as that guy who always torpedoes his way into the pile at the end of a play). He's doing about as well as can be expected of a backup, ranked 49th out of 89 qualifying safeties. He's doing ok in run defense, but his coverage is lacking a bit. Like Smith he can deliver the big hit, and due to his experience on Special Teams he seems better suited to be a "Strong" safety. He too has had no impact as a blitzer recording 0 QB sacks, hits or hurries. He's a backup and as expected is a downgrade from Harrison Smith.

Jamarca Sanford entered the year as the starting "Strong" safety, responsible for delivering big hits and making secure tackles. He's another hard hitting safety who has been doing just that. Despite missing a decent amount of time due to injury, he's still ranked 39th out of 85 safeties in total tackles. He fits the scheme well, but is just not that great at executing, especially in coverage. He has stone hands and just can't seem to make an interception even when it's thrown right to him. His coverage scores from PFF are particularly bad. His backup Mistral Raymond is undersized and doesn't really fit the mold of "strong" safety at all. In fact Raymond has missed half as many tackles as he's made. The one area Raymond excels at is in rushing the QB, a trait needed of the Free Safety...not Strong.

So, in order to boil all this information down, and because this article has gone on long enough without one of my patented tables, I wanted to break down more clearly how well our players on defense are executing their responsibilities in the Tampa 2 scheme. So looking at the specific ratings on Pro Football Focus and comparing them to their primary responsibility in the Tampa 2 scheme, I've given each player that has seen at least 200 snaps or more a grade of "succeed" "mixed" or "fail" depending on how their ratings pan out relative to their position responsibility (their grades to date are provided in parenthesis).

Player

Position

Primary Responsibility

Execution

Jared Allen

Defensive End

Rush the Passer

Succeed (+0.9)

Brian Robison

Defensive End

Rush the Passer

Succeed (+7.6)

Everson Griffen

Defensive End

Rush the Passer

Succeed (+3.8)

Kevin Williams

Defensive Tackle

Stuff the Run/Rush the Passer

Mixed (+1.6/-1.2)

Shariff Floyd

Defensive Tackle

Stuff the Run/Rush the Passer

Mixed (-2.9/+0.8)

Letroy Guion

Nose Tackle

Stuff the Run/Rush Passer

Fail (-2.0/-4.0)

Fred Evans

Nose Tackle

Stuff the Run/Rush Passer

Succeed (+6.5/+0.4)

Erin Henderson

Middle Linebacker

Call Defense, Cover Middle, Run defense

Mixed (-7.1/+0.8)

Chad Greenway

Outside Linebacker

Cover Right Side, Run defense

Fail (-8.0/-12.7)

Marvin Mitchell

Outside Linebacker

Cover Left Side, Run defense

Mixed (+1.1/-2.4)

Chris Cook

Cornerback

Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Fail (-4.1/-2.3)

Josh Robinson

Cornerback

Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Fail (-0.7/-10.2)

Xavier Rhodes

Cornerback

Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Mixed (+0.4/-5.5)

Marcus Sherels

Cornerback

Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Fail (-0.1/-1.0)

Harrison Smith

Free Safety

Coverage, QB Blitz (pass rush)

Fail (-1.4/-0.2)

Andrew Sendejo

Free Safety

Coverage, QB Blitz (pass rush)

Fail (-2.2/-0.1)

Jamarca Sanford

Strong Safety

Hit Hard, Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Fail (-0.6/-2.0)

Mistral Raymond

Strong Safety

Hit Hard, Tackle (run defense), Coverage

Fail (-4.2/-2.1)

Totals

Succeed = 4

Mixed = 5

Fail = 9

In short, I would argue that the only players on defense who are effectively succeeding at their job in the Tampa 2 scheme are the defensive ends and Fred Evans (who has only seen about 1/3 of the snaps at nose tackle). The two most important positions in the scheme: middle linebacker and safety are either outright failures, or have resulted in mixed performances. This, in my opinion is the primary reason our defense is not working. We simply don't have the personnel at the two most important positions to effectively execute the Tampa 2 scheme, and exactly half of the players on defense are failing to execute their primary role on defense in even an average or league replacement way. Additionally, we have had complete collapses at cornerback and outside linebacker by two players who many thought would be mainstays and veteran leaders of this defense: Chad Greenway and Chris Cook. It's true that injuries to Letroy Guion, Harrison Smith, Chris Cook and now Josh Robinson are thrusting young, inexperienced players like Marcus Sherels, Chase Baker and Andrew Sendejo into starting roles some weeks. But the fact is, none of the starters were graded very highly by pro football focus to begin with, and even in the first 5 games when all of them were on the field, the defense was not in synch and playing sound football. So it's not just the fact that we have had a lot of backups starting on defense that explains the issues, the starters themselves haven't been very good either.

A History of Personnel Issues

So, how did we get here and who's ultimately to blame for this? Well, it all starts by looking at the transition from 2012 to 2013. One of the biggest defensive needs of the last offseason was to find a starting caliber middle linebacker when we let Jasper Brinkley go in free agency (which I was fine with, because he was one of the worst tacklers in the league and had to come off the field in obvious passing situations). While we did sign Desmond Bishop at the last minute, he was brought in primarily to provide competition and depth at outside linebacker. We did not draft an inside linebacker higher than the 7th round (and Michael Mauti still had to complete rehab well into training camp), and we didn't sign any other free agent linebackers. Essentially, Rick Spielman made the decision that Erin Henderson would be a good fit at middle linebacker, and even said as much to the media prior to the draft. Many questioned the move during the off-season, but after 10 games it seems pretty clear that was a poor decision. Perhaps Michael Mauti is our middle linebacker of the future, but for now, we're stuck with Henderson the Younger. If you're looking for someone to blame about the linebacker situation, look no further than our General Manager Rick Spielman.

Another big defensive need during the offseason was at cornerback. Again, many of us questioned the move to cut Antoine Winfield, one of the best cornerbacks to don the purple and gold in recent years, especially in the Tampa 2 scheme. He was playing at an extremely high level just last year despite his age and it's possible that Spielman's original plan was to simply resign him for a lower amount of money (we'll never know). But either way, it didn't work out and we drafted Xavier Rhodes as a replacement, moved Josh Robinson into a starting role as a replacement. Either way, neither of them holds a candle to Antoine in his ability to tackle and provide run support: the primary job of a corner in a Tampa 2. What we have left are a bunch of corners that don't really fit the scheme. Cook and Robinson aren't good tacklers, aren't good in coverage, and Xavier Rhodes is more of a man-to-man corner, something that the Tampa 2 scheme really doesn't need (although he is doing pretty well in run defense). Our secondary was one of the worst in the league last year, and it's mainly because the cornerbacks aren't a good fit for the scheme without Winfield. Again, if you're looking for someone to point a finger at, look no further than General Manager Rick Spielman. It was his plan to cut Winfield, and look how well that is working out for us?

And the last big problem with the defense is at the defensive tackle position. Pat Williams was a perfect fit for our defensive scheme. He was a big NT that commanded double teams, and he could almost single-handedly stop the run. When he retired after the 2010 season, we tried to fill the void with free agent tackle Remi Ayodele in 2011. That didn't work. Then we tried to transition Letroy Guion from a backup 3-tech pass rusher to a 1-tech nose tackle in 2012. He was dreadful as a starter last year and has looked equally bad this year. I think it's safe to say that didn't work. Fred Evans is quietly having a great year as a run-stuffing nose tackle and in my opinion really should be the starter. But now that Guion is apparently healthy for next week's game against Green Bay, coach Frazier has anointed him the starter again when healthy (I really don't understand that one). Kevin Williams is getting old and has clearly lost a step. He is no longer a dominant pass rusher out of the 3-technique position and the hope that he might be able to be effective for one more year has not really panned out. Shariff Floyd has not been playing at a high level yet, but his strength is pretty clearly as a pass rusher. Pro Football Focus has Floyd already ranked ahead of Williams as a pass rusher, but before he can truly ascend he'll need to work on his run defense too. But I'm left wondering why we haven't addressed the nose tackle position adequately. I don't put this one on Spielman as much as I do Leslie Frazier and Alan Williams. It seems like the best rotation is for Fred Evans and Kevin Williams to rotate at Nose Tackle and for Shariff Floyd to start at the 3-tech position (and potentially slide Letroy Guion back to his more natural 3-tech position as a backup). I can't help but think that we miss Christian Ballard as another rotational player. But hey, I'm just a blogger, what do I know?

So there are no clear answers here. If we are to keep the Tampa 2 style of defense, it will need to be rebuilt. There are still a few pieces to work with here, but there will need to be some pretty major changes at every level of the defense if we want to see dramatic improvements next year. The fact remains that this season we don't even have 11 players on defense that have either been successful or provided mixed results at executing their primary responsibility on defense. Until we can find 11 players that can do at least that our defense will continue to suffer. I've offered at least one off-season plan already that addresses many of these issues on defense, and I'm sure I'll be working up another one in the coming weeks. But this defense needs a major overhaul and in my opinion there aren't 1 or even 2 players that could immediately turn it around. It will require attacking both free agency and the draft in order to find players that are a good fit for the Tampa 2 Defense, because we are lacking those kinds of players this season.

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