Back in the day, Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards would glance upon the practice field at One Buccaneer Place and smile.
There, on the outskirts of the sun-drenched runways at Tampa International Airport, was the Cover 2 defense at its finest. Derrick Brooks racing from sideline to sideline. John Lynch punishing receivers as they turned to head upfield. Warren Sapp tossing aside linemen to crash the pocket.
In Tampa, Dungy, the head coach, and Edwards, the assistant head coach and secondary coach, had developed the perfect personnel for their scheme. Now, in 2004, both are head coaches elsewhere – Dungy in Indianapolis and Edwards in New York. And while both have found defensive success harder to come by, they are still loyal to the Cover 2.
The old saying is you can't make potato salad without the potatoes. The Bucs had some serious potatoes in Brooks, Lynch and Sapp, not to mention cornerback Donnie Abraham, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and others. But after a slow start, the Colts' defense is starting to play the kind of defensive football Dungy likes to see (just ask the Texans).
And the Jets? Heck, they've been relying on the defense the way the Bucs used to, especially in recent weeks with quarterback Chad Pennington sidelined.
"At the end of the day, what had to happen for us was the defense had to go play," Edwards said. "And when that happens, I address the defense. I don't generally go in there. I spoke to them. I said, 'This is what the deal is. We got to pick it up now. It's our turn to pick it up. It was the offense's turn to pick it up earlier in the season. It's the defense's turn when the quarterback went down.'
"The players responded. I'm going to keep it on their shoulders, to be quite honest. Just keep it on their shoulders. They've handled it well so far. They got to continue to handle it."
New York ranks seventh in the league in scoring defense and is tied for third in points allowed. Over the past eight weeks, the Jets have yielded the fewest points in the NFL (107). And looking closely at their personnel, you begin to rub your eyes and see shades of pewter and red.
Rookie linebacker Jonathan Vilma is racing around like Brooks. Second-year defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson is holding the point like Sapp. And the Jets might just boast the best pair of defensive ends in football.
"Those guys are all impact players," head coach Dom Capers said this week as the Texans prepare to head to the Meadowlands. "They've got a defense that can go out there and be aggressive and set the tone and take the ball away."
The Cover 2 is designed to keep the offense in front of the defense and take away the big play. It's not for everybody because it's built for speed. You need fast linebackers to run sideline to sideline. You need fast defensive backs to blow up plays in space. And perhaps most importantly, you need a disruptive front four to rattle the quarterback.
"The Jets play Cover 2 with a four-man line," offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. "What they like to do is have their two excellent ends put a great deal of pressure on you when you throw the football. What we have to do is try to get into the voids in attacking the two-deep."
Think of those voids as gaps in a zone defense. Left to right, there are three of them. The Jets are teasing you with open spaces knowing that they can either get to your quarterback or close quickly enough on your receivers that the gain is minimal.
Left end John Abraham, a two-time Pro Bowler, leads the team and ranks second in the NFL with 9 ½ sacks. Right end Shaun Ellis, who the Jets locked up long-term this week, has 4 ½ sacks. Robertson has 2 ½ sacks and veteran nose tackle Jason Ferguson has 3 ½. In all, 20 of New York's 25 sacks come from its front four.
"Their front four is probably the best front four we'll play all year," quarterback David Carr said. "Our offensive line is going to be challenged this week. We have to run the ball effectively, just like we want to do every week. But this is probably one of the games where we can't get into obvious passing situations because their front four can disrupt the entire football game."
While he was at Miami, scouts wondered if Vilma (6-1, 230) was too small to make a huge impact at the pro level. But he's perfect for this scheme. Vilma is quick enough to drop back and cover the center void or race to the sideline to corral a running back. Former Raider Eric Barton has also been a nice addition this season, leading the team with 88 tackles.
"One of the greatest differences, I think, is their linebackers," Capers said. "They've got more speed and athletic ability at the linebacker position. Their linebackers are very active. I think what they're doing, they're playing aggressive."
Edwards had Abraham in Tampa and Abraham is still going strong, leading the Jets with 14 passes defensed and returning his one interception for a touchdown. Veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley joined the Jets as the nickel corner and leads the team with three picks.
New York's safeties will often vacate their two-deep positions to give help to the cornerbacks along the sidelines, again helping to limit potentially huge gains. Strong safety Reggie Tongue and rookie free safety Erik Coleman are hard hitters. Both Coleman and backup Jon McGraw have two interceptions.
In fact, the Jets rank second in the NFL with a turnover margin of plus-14. (Dungy's Colts lead the league with a plus-17 margin.).
So how do the Texans attack on offense? One way is to create ways for wide receiver Andre Johnson to get open. Johnson is fast enough to elude tacklers and physical enough to shed them if they get there. The Jets will no doubt double Johnson, but that might create more avenues for wide receiver Jabar Gaffney and tight end Billy Miller, who caught his first touchdown in over a year last week against Tennessee. Of course, if Houston has difficulty containing New York's front four, you might not even see Miller since Mark Bruener is the better blocking tight end.
"A lot of teams the last couple weeks have been doubling (Andre Johnson), doubling our receivers," Carr said. "We've had to use the tight ends a lot more in pass protection than we have in the pass so it's really been an uphill battle for us. Getting (Miller) involved and keeping the game to where we can still use the tight ends and use the rollouts and the boot legs and stuff to where they were involved it really helped our offense and we were able to come back using those guys."
And there's always running back Domanick Davis, who gained 199 total yards against the Jets in last season's 19-14 loss. Davis could become a very viable option should Carr get pressured.
"The question is, can we get back and get the ball off before their defensive front gets to us?" Palmer said. "Are our wide receivers going to be able to get down and get into this hole? Is our tight end going to be able to get into this hole? And our backs will have to control to flair control of the corners.
"It becomes a chess match."
One the Texans can win if they can uncover the openings in the Cover 2.