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Teams looking for versatility in the secondary

One of the most prevalent themes before Super Bowl XLI was that the Indianapolis and Chicago defenses were mirror images, units that specialized in the Tampa 2 scheme developed by Colts head coach Tony Dungy during his tenure with the Bucs and handed down to his former protégé, Lovie Smith.

It made for good copy. It made for hundreds of queries from the assembled masses looking for an easy angle. And it made for good laughs from the people who knew better.

"The people who watched us knew we weren't playing as much [Tampa 2] as everyone seemed to think we were," Indianapolis defensive coordinator Ron Meeks said. "I mean, just go back and look at the tape. The whole idea that it was like the 'Tampa 2 Bowl' … I can't speak for the Bears, but I know we weren't using it as much as people thought."

Truth is, the Colts evolved in 2006 into more of a Cover 3 defense while retaining the basic principles of the Tampa 2 scheme. The Bears, at least over the second half of the year, played nearly 50 percent man-to-man coverage in the secondary. It's simply the way things are in the NFL, where trends don't last particularly long, and coaches understand that if they aren't changing on defense, they probably aren't winning.

About 10 years ago, the zone blitz scheme, popularized by Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, was the rage. Teams still use elements of the zone blitz, which drops linemen off into the short cover zones and brings blitzers from all kinds of exotic angles, but more as part of a wider package. And the Tampa 2, while it remains the most deployed scheme in the league, is used more in conjunction with other strategies.

There simply aren't, Super Bowl XLI notwithstanding, many pure Tampa 2 defenses in the league anymore.

The scheme has been tweaked and bastardized, with coaches putting their own twists on it, to the point that not even the guys who created the principles of the scheme recognize some of the variations on the theme.

"It's just the natural order of things," Dallas coach Wade Phillips said at the NFL owners meetings last week. "Things change. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the 3-4 was the defense that was most popular around the league. Then people got away from it. Now you're seeing it more and more again. It's making a little bit of a comeback. But then something else will get hot and everyone will jump to that."

Indeed, the NFL is the ultimate copycat fraternity, a league in which thieves prosper by borrowing ideas from their coaching colleagues. If the NFL ever enacted a copyright law, a lot of coaches would be out of luck, and perhaps out of jobs, too. Said one general manager last week: "They say there's never anything new under the NFL sun. That's because it's all been stolen and repackaged."

So with the reduction in the prevalence of Tampa 2 schemes, what is the next hot trend on the defensive side of the ball?

A survey of coordinators and position coaches this week didn't elicit an overwhelming sentiment for anything dramatically new on the horizon. But the common denominator from many of the coaches was that changes continue to be made more in the secondary than in the front seven. For years, as the NFL toggled back and forth between the 3-4 and the 4-3 as the defenses of preference, the emphasis on change was up front. Now the focus seems to have switched to the secondary.

Clearly, the best pass defense is one that knocks down the quarterback before he can throw the ball. But there aren't many new blitzes or rush angles to be developed, and so the move is more toward camouflaging coverages.

"There's definitely a lot of emphasis on changing things up in the back end," Carolina coach John Fox said. "Sure, everything starts up front. But you're seeing so many more combinations and mixes [in the secondary] now. It's kind of shifted that way some, really. That's where the evolution is right now."

Actually, it's more a de-evolution, as teams rely increasingly on Cover 3 and man-to-man packages. And that means, of course, a shift in the kind of personnel that defenses want to employ. A priority for every defense now is a safety with some cornerback-type cover skills, a guy who can move out and take on a wide receiver aligned in the slot. And coaches are again seeking cornerbacks who can come up in press coverage and play man-to-man.

In the past five to seven years, the focus had been on Cover 2 cornerbacks, edge defenders who could play great run support and whose coverage deficiencies might be hidden a bit by the scheme. But the move now is back to the basics, from both a schematic and personnel standpoint. Simpler, it seems, is becoming better.

There will always be situational defenses, of course. But, in large part because of the increase in no-huddle offenses and audibles at the line of scrimmage, the defensive emphasis of late has been to get away from the mass down-and-distance substitutions of the past 20 years. The more teams can succeed in their base defenses, the better, and that means having safeties and cornerbacks with varied skill sets.

"I don't know if that's a trend or not, because you're always looking for guys who can do a lot of things for you," Meeks said. "But I think, especially in the secondary, we're looking for those guys more than ever. That's where the game is going."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.