J.P. Losman gets his road baptism as an NFL starting quarterback this week against one of the signature defenses in all of football when the Buffalo Bills visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The "Tampa Cover 2" is the trademark scheme that the Buccaneers have used to create a defensive dynasty. The Bucs' defense has ranked among the top 10 in the NFL eight years in a row. If Week One of the 2005 season is any indication, they are headed for nine straight. The Bucs went on the road and dominated the potent offense of the Minnesota Vikings, creating five turnovers in a 24-13 upset victory.
"It'll be a challenge, not only because of their style of play, which is fast and aggressive, but because it's pretty much a veteran group," said Bills coach Mike Mularkey. "They have a lot of leftovers from their Super Bowl year."
The Bucs, in fact, still have eight starters left from the unit that carried them to a Super Bowl rout of Oakland in January 2003. They also still have their defensive mastermind, coordinator Monte Kiffin, one of the most respected defensive coaches in the game.
Kiffin's Cover 2 has been frustrating quarterbacks ever since he was hired by Tony Dungy as Tampa's defensive chief in 1996.
"Their defense is based on not giving up the big play," Bills backup quarterback Shane Matthews said. "They want you to try to be patient and drive the length of the field. And eventually, they feel like the quarterback will make a mistake."
The Cover 2, or two-deep zone, is one of the base defenses of every team in football. Tampa, however, has played it better than any team. The free safety and strong safety each are required to patrol one-half of the deep zone. The linebackers cover three zone pockets in the underneath middle of the field. The cornerbacks generally are responsible for zone coverage in the flats.
The Bucs have such an athletic linebacker in the middle -- either Derrick Brooks or Shelton Quarles -- that he often cheats back into the deep middle of the field. This allows the safeties a better chance to cheat on corner routes toward the sideline, typically a good pass pattern against the Cover 2.
So the Bucs can make their Cover 2 play like a Cover 3 (three-deep zone) because of their athleticism.
"The middle linebacker essentially ends up being a free safety," Matthews said. "It's kind of deceiving. It looks good (to the quarterback), then once you let the ball go it looks like a disaster. You have to be patient. They make the quarterback take things underneath then they react to that. They want to punish the receiver or ball carrier once he catches it."
The Bucs' underneath zone defenders also do a better job than most teams of "looking and leaning." They read the quarterback's eyes and lean in the direction he's throwing. Young quarterbacks who lock in on their receivers can be victimized.
One way to counteract their zone defenders is for the quarterback to have a "full-field read" by standing in the pocket, scanning the field and looking off his wideouts.
"If you're looking one way they're going to be flowing that way," Matthews said. "Do you have enough time to get back to the other side of the field? If you do, your guy may be open."
Losman did a nice job of looking left then throwing right on the 42-yard pass to Lee Evans against Houston. It will be interesting to see how effective he is this week on bootlegs, which generally allow him to scan half the field.
In theory, the ideal way to attack the Cover 2 is to run at it. The Bills' offensive line is much bigger than the Bucs' front seven. With both safeties back, the Bucs have just seven to play run defense. However, it's easier said than done. The Bucs' linebackers are fast, and their underrated cornerbacks (Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly) come up to run defend as well as any duo in the league.
While the Cover 2 is the Tampa trademark, it's far from the only defense the Bucs run. Kiffin calls plenty of blitzes, particularly with Barber rushing from the slot position on third downs.
"They play a lot of single safety as well," Matthews said. "That's how they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. When they play single-high safety they usually blitz an extra guy. They mix it up well."
"I have to take a further look and later in the week I'll have more and more answers," Losman said. "But they come after the quarterback. So I need to know where my hot reads are going to be, where my sights (adjustments) are. If we pick everything up, you just have to stand in there. Good quarterbacks stand in there. They see the pressure coming and make a good throw downfield."
Losman and the receiving corps will have to be on the same page.
"With the Tampa 2 they pretty much double-cover both outside guys, so it's going to give both inside guys the chance to show their stuff and show that they can get open on one-on-one matchups, show they can read the hot read and get open and then make the guy miss and pick up the first down," Losman said.