By Jonah Bronstein
ORCHARD PARK — There’s perception, and then there’s reality regarding the Buffalo Bills defense.
After ranking second in the NFL in total yards allowed two years in a row, the Bills perceived themselves to be one of the best defenses of all-time heading into 2005. Linebacker Takeo Spikes even predicted that the unit would play to the level of the legendary ’85 Bears.
In reality, Buffalo was 29th in the league in yards allowed last season. With and without Spikes — who tore his Achilles tendon in September — the Bills defense struggled to get off the field and keep teams out of the end zone.
Going into this offseason, most observers thought the team needed to acquire a mammoth interior lineman to replace the departed Pat Williams and improve a run defense that was second-worst in the league, statistically, in ’05. This school of thought led to mock drafts predicting that Buffalo would select a defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata in most cases, with the eighth pick in the draft.
Yet on draft day, the Bills selected a safety, Donte Whitner, with their first pick, and then traded back into the bottom of the first round to draft John McCargo, a quick, penetrating defensive tackle. His skill set is similar to Larry Tripplet, the Bills biggest free-agency signing.
Coupled with the subtraction of two slowing veterans — Sam Adams and Lawyer Milloy — these additions signal that the Bills are putting together a roster suited to play the Cover 2 defense variation known as the Tampa 2.
New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell last worked in Chicago under Lovie Smith, a disciple of the Tampa 2’s originator, Tony Dungy. Most assume Fewell will install this defensive scheme in Buffalo.
But, according to Fewell: “That’s perception more than reality.”
Speaking on Thursday after the Bills concluded their last organized team activity of the spring, Fewell indicated that his defensive game plans this season will not exclusively employ the Tampa 2.
He said the Bills will use a variety of coverages in ’06. In the Tampa 2 scheme, the defensive backs and linebackers play mostly zone in passing situations.
“It comes down to how we teach our concepts and technique,” Fewell said.
Head coach Dick Jauron shared Wednesday on Sirius NFL Radio the sentiment that the recent success of Tampa 2 defenses like the Bears, Buccaneers and Colts can’t be imitated by merely copying their play books.
“Whatever your scheme is, if you’re disciplined enough in your coaching of it ... and you’ve got players that are good enough, you’re going to win,” he said.
Cornerback Terrence McGee said Thursday that Fewell’s principles aren’t much different than those of previous defensive coordinator Jerry Gray.
“To me, [the scheme] is really the same, besides the terminology,” McGee said.
Gray was known to employ heavy blitzing and man coverage in his game plans. But McGee said that wasn’t always the case.
“We did a lot of the same stuff last year that we’re going to do this year” he said.
According to McGee, the Bills played Cover 2 often last season — notably in trying to slow down Carolina’s Steve Smith in Week 12.
Despite the fact that the Bills have acquired pieces that fit well in the Tampa 2 puzzle, McGee said the Bills’ play book won’t look like it was created by Dungy.
“We’re not running as much 2 as you think,” he said.
Fewell and McGee could be indicating that the Bills won’t be playing a Tampa 2 system this season — when in fact they will do just that — in order not to tip their hand to opponents. If that’s the case, then the newest Bill, linebacker Courtney Watson, acquired this week in a trade with New Orleans, hasn’t been briefed on the strategy.
“From what I've seen here so far, it's going to be a lot more zone, read and react, and get a chance to make plays on the ball,” Watson said Thursday. “ I definitely like this. I've always been a big proponent of zone defenses like Tampa and Chicago, with Cover 3 and Cover 2.”
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TAMPA 2 DEFENSE
What is it?
A variation of the Cover 2 defense developed in the mid-’90s by Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Who does what?
All four defensive linemen are expected to penetrate their assigned gaps, putting pressure on the quarterback on pass plays and forcing running plays to the outside.
Linebackers must be fast in the Tampa 2, in order to chase and tackle ball carriers and cover their assigned zones on passing plays. Generally, the middle linebacker runs back to cover the deep middle on passes.
Safeties in the Tampa 2 cover the deep sideline zones and are expected to quickly get to the ball on running plays. Cornerbacks cover the short sideline zones and try to redirect receivers to the safeties covering the deep zone.
Strengths and weaknesses
Speed is a premium in this defense, which is why it’s very effective against the pass. But faster players are often smaller, and thus less suited to stop power running attacks.
Contact Jonah Bronstein at 693-1000, Ext. 111 or firstname.lastname@example.org