Zoned Out

REMEMBER BACK in the day when fearsome defensive backs roamed the secondary with reckless abandon? It wasn't all that long ago. The Colts had just won Super Bowl XLI using Tony Dungy's cover 2 safety-based zone scheme. They beat the Bears, who'd converted to the same defense under Dungy acolyte Lovie Smith. The Bucs led the NFL in total defense in 2005 using the Tampa 2, their version of the D devised under former coach Dungy. And at least four other teams made the switch that season. The cover 2, which began taking hold across the league in the mid-1990s as the antidote to the West Coast offense, looked like the defense of the 21st century.

Now, just six years later, only two teams -- the Bears and Vikings -- consider the cover 2 to be their base defense. Most teams are switching to more combination man coverages, in part to combat the two-tight-end sets growing in popularity (see sidebar). But an even bigger reason for the demise of the cover 2 is the rapid rise of defensive penalties called for big hits. The scheme relies heavily on having two hard-hitting safeties down the middle, each patrolling half of the field. Prototypical decleaters like John Lynch of the Bucs and Bob Sanders of the Colts were trained to run right through receivers at the point of the catch and separate ball from man.

According to Stats Inc., however, the number of defensive personal foul calls in the NFL jumped from 250 in 2008 to 388 in 2011, a 55.2 percent spike. The uptick can be attributed to the introduction of launching and defenseless-player penalties, plus increased enforcement of helmet-to-helmet and unnecessary roughness calls. "You just can't afford to build your defense around guys who are going to always be getting 15-yard penalties, fined and suspended," an NFL scout says. "Those kinds of intimidating defensive players almost aren't worth the trouble now."

The flags, fines and suspensions aren't just changing the game; they're forcing coaches and players to reimagine the safety position. "Now safeties are trying to make a play on the ball because you can't play the man as hard," ESPN analyst and former Colts president Bill Polian says. As evidence, Polian points to the play of the 2011 season, when Giants receiver Mario Manningham beat the Patriots on a miraculous 38-yard grab down the left sideline as safety Patrick Chung made an awkward, rules-conscious lunge in the general vicinity of the ball. Eight plays later, New York scored the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI. "If the Pats jar that ball loose," Polian says, "it's a whole different outcome."

The cover 2 remains a part of most defensive playbooks and likely will never entirely die. "The idea is as old as organized football," says Tampa Bay defensive back Ronde Barber, who has played the scheme for 15 years. Under Dungy's tutelage, Barber and the Bucs helped transform the specialized zone from chalkboard changeup to coverage cornerstone. In addition to intimidating safeties, the defense required tough, physical corners who could run-support and linebackers who could drop and cover the deep middle. After a completed pass, Tampa defenders Lynch, Barber and LB Derrick Brooks were expected to come up and try to dislodge the ball. When Dungy left for Indianapolis, he took the Tampa 2 north and installed Sanders into the Lynch role.

The Vikings, one of the two teams that still use the cover 2 as their base defense, were looking for exactly that type of player when they drafted hard-hitting Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith with a first-round pick in April. After allowing 28.1 ppg last season, second worst in the league, and finishing 26th in pass defense, the Vikes expected Smith to bring an edge to a soft unit. The rookie drew raves throughout the preseason but was flagged in the third game for an unnecessary roughness call that got him a $21,000 fine.

Even physical cornerbacks like Atlanta's Dunta Robinson create headaches, literally and figuratively. Robinson, who in 2010 signed the second-largest DB contract in NFL history, is a Ronde Barbertype hitter with impressive coverage skills. But he's also been flagged for two of the nastiest hits in recent years, on Eagles receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The bottom line: Most teams are in the midst of a philosophical overhaul on defense. "Before, you'd kill the guy," Barber says. "Now it's a flag."

As the cover 2 drifts further toward change-of-pace scheme and away from base defense, perhaps the most surprising change has occurred in Tampa Bay. By Barber's estimate, the Bucs will play the cover 2 only about 20 percent of the time in 2012. Meanwhile, Barber, at age 37, is making the transition to safety.

Talk about learning a whole new position.

Infographic built by Ronik; Designer: Linda Pouder

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