Mike Tomlin entered the NFL as a 29-year-old defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001, hired by Tony Dungy at the same time Lovie Smith was heading out the door to become the defensive coordinator in St. Louis.
Smith was on the fast track to becoming the coach of the Bears, and Tomlin was a fast riser, as well, stopping in Minnesota as defensive coordinator in 2006 after five seasons with the Bucs, and then being tabbed by the Rooney family in 2007 as only the third coach in franchise history since 1969. Tomlin cut his teeth in the league on the Tampa Two scheme. It's what he implemented in one season with the Vikings, too, a defense now run by ex-Bear Leslie Frazier.
But when Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, he assessed his roster of players and coaches, and knew he was better using the 3-4 scheme in place that was being run by Dick LeBeau. Another Lombardi Trophy later for the Steelers, he made the right decision. Tomlin was asked on a conference call today about the Tampa Two and whether or not its losing popularity. Can you even call it the Tampa Two any more? Raheem Morris put an end to it with the Bucs when he hired Jim Bates as defensive coordinator.
"I don't know that that defensive philosophy or approach will ever go out of style,'' Tomlin said. "Things kind of moves in cycles in the NFL and I think people are gravitating toward the 3-4 defense at this present time, but there is nothing broken with that system. It's tried and tested. It requires a great deal of attention to detail and discipline, and if you're committed to it, no question you can play top quality football with it.''
The Bears had a solid defensive effort in the opener at Green Bay, allowing only 227 yards and getting four sacks. So the subject was taken a step further with Tomlin. If he was transplanted to a new city tomorrow and allowed to build his program from scratch, the ground up, what defensive scheme would he put in place?
"Really, I'm always guided by the people I am working with,'' he said. "I think that ultimately you have to play to the strengths of your players, and that's what I am doing here. We have top quality 3-4 people so that is what we're going to do. It depends on the nature of the athletes in the city that I landed in whether I played in this system or played in Tampa Two.
"Really, they're very similar at the end of the day when you think about it. It requires great discipline, attention to detail, having an understanding of what is going on around you, how what you do fits into the big picture. Once you get past who is drawn where, the things that make great defenses go regardless of scheme are very similar. It would have been very foolish for me to try to fit a square peg in a round hole [in Pittsburgh].''