Among the myriad problems leading to the Minnesota Vikings' demise in 2010 was the near futility of Leslie Frazier's Tampa 2 defense. Though noticeable last year, the problems were magnified this season when the Vikings were forced to use a legion of players in the secondary, most of them not properly equipped to play the Tampa 2 defense. The fall of the Vikings' defense might be further fuel for the Vikings' ownership group to reconsider the merit of hiring current interim head coach Leslie Frazier on a permanent basis.
The premise of the Tampa 2 defense is that individuals with speed, strength, and sharp tackling skills can overcome any offensive scheme. That premise has best worked for defenses compromised of solid cornerbacks, adept safeties, and superb middle and outside linebackers. Failing any of these assets, the Tampa 2 is less appealing.
Unfortunately for the Minnesota Vikings, their current roster is missing at least four of the requisite Tampa 2 pieces. Minnesota has a very good middle linebacker and one good, healthy cornerback. What they do not have is either safety or a second cornerback. They also lack a strong-tackling weak-side linebacker and a linebacker who drops in coverage--Henderson is very good going forward and has progressed greatly dropping in coverage, but he is not yet a strong dropping linebacker.
The result for Minnesota has been a run defense that does not always make the plays on the weak side when the run has been redirected to that side and a pass defense that neither covers nor tackles when Winfield is not part of the play.
The rub for the Vikings, of course, is that Tampa 2 might be the lesser of all evils defensively speaking. Playing the Tampa 2 allows the Vikings to employ a simple defense that permits numerous substitutions--great for a team dealing with injuries. A read and react defense, the type favored by many NFL players and for which former Viking Darren Sharper loudly lobbied as he headed for New Orleans, requires players not only to maintain their assignments, tackle, and keep the play in front of them, but also to read the offense and anticipate the play. Given the Vikings' numerous injuries this season and the questionable skills of three of four members of the 2010 Vikings' secondary, a read and react defense likely would look little different from Denny Green's prevent defense, except that it would give up more points more often.
Leslie Frazier's greatest liability thus might also be his greatest excuse. For, while Frazier inherited Darrell Bevell and the remnants of one of the most poorly conceived West Coast offenses of all time, he also inherited the weak safeties and fell victim to defensive injuries that made a transition out of the Tampa 2 nearly impossible--assuming Frazier wanted to go that direction anyway.
The sticky wicket for Frazier, if given the option, will be what to do with the Vikings' defense next season. With the anticipated return of Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield and an opportunity to once again check out the free-agent market, the Vikings could not help but find at least one safety more capable than one of their current starters and Henderson probably will continue to evolve, but with the expected loss of Pat Williams and Ray Edwards, the Vikings will find run defense even more difficult.
This might be the ideal time for the Vikings to switch to a 3-4 defense, but that would mean bringing in someone familiar with the 3-4 defense and that, along with recent troubles, might further signal the end to Frazier's run in Minnesota.
Vikings' issues aside, it seems clear that the Tampa 2, with one or two exceptions, has run its course in the NFL. In the current climate, most teams are loathe to spend big dollars on the secondary; the rules greatly favor the offense and money invested in three offensive players is deemed desirable to large money spent on safeties and cornerbacks. Moreover, offensive coordinators long figured out how to attack the Tampa 2--short passes in front of corners to build a lead then deep passes when the corners start cheating up. It never really was a mystery, it was just more difficult to do against the likes of Ronde Barber and John Lynch than against what most teams opt to payroll in the secondary these days.
For the Vikings, a team presumably committed to building around key offensive players and retaining most of the front end of their defense, this all suggests that it is time to reconstruct not only the defense but the defensive philosophy. The question will be who will lead the charge?
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