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Tampa-2 defense leads Vols' revival

Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin
Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin

South Carolina free safety Chris Culliver enjoys playing football video games, where he gets a chance to call his own defensive schemes.

One of Culliver's favorites? The Tampa-2, the scheme popularized by Monte Kiffin, the coach leading the Tennessee defense against Culliver's Gamecocks on Saturday.

"I choose that a lot," Culliver said of the Tampa-2. "I'm expecting (Tennessee) to play that a lot. That's his defense."

Well, yes and no.

Kiffin often gets credit for the Tampa-2, named that because of the success he had utilizing it as the defensive coordinator for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kiffin left Tampa after last season to lead the defense at Tennessee and work for his son Lane.

Monte Kiffin, who turns 70 in February, has extensive coaching experience in the college and pro ranks. He was an assistant at two colleges and head coach at N.C. State for three seasons. He was an assistant for six other NFL teams before joining Tampa Bay.

USC coach Steve Spurrier said this week that Kiffin "invented" the Tampa-2. But Kiffin has pointed back to Tony Dungy, the former Buccaneers coach.

For his part, Dungy has played down his role, saying the basic tenets date back to the 1970s Steel Curtain teams in Pittsburgh.

The Tampa-2 has taken hold in the pros. Three different Super Bowl champions this decade - Tampa Bay in 2003, Indianapolis in 2007 and Pittsburgh in 2009 - have run it.

"A lot of NFL teams play that," Spurrier said. "A lot of college teams play that, probably not as many as they used to."

In fact, Tennessee does not seem to be using it as much as Kiffin did in Tampa. Kiffin's main priority is to stop the run, which is pretty much what every SEC defense schemes to do.

So what makes the Tampa-2 different from the Cover-2?

The Cover-2 is a simple scheme: The two safeties drop back, splitting their coverage duties in half. But the Tampa-2 twist is that the middle linebacker is shifted back too, guarding passes to the middle of the field.

"(The Tampa-2) took away some of the areas and some of the throws against a standard Cover-2 defense that were always there," said Todd Blackledge, the ESPN color analyst who will work Saturday night's game. "It forces you as a quarterback to kind of read the defense differently and kind of go through the coverages differently."

Blackledge, a former Penn State and NFL quarterback, said he has noticed one similarity between Kiffin's best Buccaneers teams and the 2009 Volunteers: how he uses his star safety.

Tennessee's Eric Berry is an All-America candidate with an NFL future. John Lynch, the safety for those great Buccaneers defenses, may be a future Hall of Famer.

"Eric's a safety, but he's got corner-coverage skills, he might even be a corner in the NFL, I don't know," Blackledge said. "But he's tough enough and strong enough at the point of attack to be versatile. So Monte's got him playing in a bunch of different spots."

But the use of the middle linebacker may be what is different. While Kiffin could use the small but speedy Derrick Brooks as a quasi-safety in Tampa Bay, he may not want to do that with the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Savion Frazier, his middle linebacker at Tennessee.

The main key for the Tampa-2, Kiffin has said, is speed. But some of it could be due to how college offenses play.

"It's getting to where a lot of teams don't want their middle linebacker with his back turned running down the middle," Spurrier said. "And basically, that's sort of the way (the Tampa-2) is."

However Kiffin does it, the Volunteers are succeeding. Tennessee ranks third in the SEC and 10th in the country in total defense. Its pass defense is third in the SEC and sixth in the nation.

"Coaches always look good when they have good players," Kiffin told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in August. "It's a good scheme, obviously, but you need the players. No scheme is anything without good players running it."

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