[size=18px]Tackling an epidemic[/size]
Posted: June 1, 2006
There is nothing as disgusting on a football field as nonchalant tackling. If football games were cups of soup, sloppy tackle attempts would be hairs. And sometimes there are enough to braid.
We've all seen the quivering cornerback. The linebacker who tackles as if his hands were stuck in his pockets. The head-down safety who flies past his target.
And we've cringed at the results of their handiwork: big plays, touchdowns and defeats.
More and more players are coming out of college with poor tackling skills. Part of the problem is college coaches have been restricted to 20 hours per week of practices and meetings with their players, so they don't have time to teach proper technique. Another issue is tackling isn't as important in college because of all the wide-open offenses. Defense in college has become more about trying to chase down butterflies than about trying to stonewall rhinos.
Scouts were concerned about the tackling of a number of highly regarded defenders in this year's draft, including Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway, taken by the Vikings in the first round; Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams, (Falcons, second round); Nebraska safety Daniel Bullocks, (Lions, second round); and USC safety Darnell Bing, (Raiders, fourth round).
The good news: There is hope for these and other players with tackling issues. As long as the player has it in his heart to commit the unnatural act of colliding with a large, fast, moving man, his tackling can be improved. One general manager's litmus test -- or at least part of it -- is whether the tackler is willing to go high against a running back.
"You can make him a tackler if he wants to tackle," Dolphins coach Nick Saban says. "First, you have to have a certain element of toughness; you're willing to do it, you want to be a good tackler. Most guys who aren't good tacklers, it's not a physical characteristic that's limiting their ability to be a good tackler. It's more of a mental, emotional or competitive characteristic that they really don't want to stick their nose in there like they need to.
"There are guys who have limitations physically that affect their ability to break down or change directions. They might never be as good a tackler regardless of how you coach them. But I do think you can become a better tackler through good technique if you want to."
The case study is Derrick Johnson. The former Texas linebacker was the Sporting News college defensive player of the year in 2004 and also won the Butkus and Nagurski awards, yet he fell to the 15th spot in the first round because he had missed so many open-field tackles. The Chiefs drafted Johnson, and coordinator Gunther Cunningham brought him back to square one as a tackler.
The Chiefs tackle almost every day during training camp. This time of year, they have defenders using sleds to learn to sink their hips. They use mirror drills for tacklers. They stress keeping eyes and hips up so tacklers are in position to explode into ballcarriers. They do half-line passing drills, which call for defenders to fill lanes with precise execution. They emphasize lower-body strength, which helps tacklers drive through ballcarriers.
When the Chiefs hired Don Blackmon as linebackers coach this offseason, Blackmon was shocked at how much progress Johnson had made as a tackler since Blackmon had studied him at Texas. "He pulls the trigger when he has to now, whereas before he really didn't see the target before he pulled the trigger," Cunningham says. "He overreacted to the play, which caused him to be in bad position and play with bad angles. But he's learned to adjust his angles, see the game better. He's able to control his body better. He's learned to bend his knees better."
A good coach can improve a defender's tackling from the ground up. "A lot of it is footwork," Patriots coach Bill Belichick says. "If you don't get your feet positioned, you're never going to be a good tackler, no matter how tough you are and all that."
A tackler also has to use what's inside his helmet. Tackling is about discipline and anticipation as much as it is about chest pounding and brute force. Of course, some players might be a little too smart to be good tacklers.
"Some guys just like to tackle, some don't," Steelers coach Bill Cowher says. "Some guys will tackle when they have to. Other guys enjoy it. There's a difference you can tell in a player's mentality."
Tackling an epidemic