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The Art of Tackling

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The 2020 Miami Hurricanes were one of the worst tackling teams I have ever seen.

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NCAA Football: Cheez-It Bowl-Oklahoma State vs Miami Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive football is built around three core principles: align, assign, finish. I’ve called finish “pursue” in the past but I think finish better sums up the expectation. In order to finish you have to pursue, in order to pursue you don’t have to finish (see: the rest of this post).

Align

Align means getting lined up right. If you watch Miami play, especially in the red zone, the defense rarely gets lined up 1- with any urgency and 2- with every gap accounted for. Above- you can see Miami struggling to line up against NCSU. Below, you can see the end result.


Assign

Assign means knowing your assignment. Do you actually know what the hell you’re supposed to do on any given call? Are you going to slant into the B-Gap not realizing that it leaves the C-Gap wide open? Or if you’re supposed to slant into the B, does the LB or safety know they’re supposed to gap exchange with you? Do you even understand how the coverage being called works?

Above- Guys get wide open because players don’t understand what coverage is called. This looks like quarters. The linebacker brought pressure, the safety keeps pedaling back... Sam Howell had a giant window to complete this pass.

Above- If you see a down block, and you don’t feel a kick out block coming, you have bad instincts. If you aren’t supposed to wrong arm you would hope that the linebacker would be playing hard inside.

If you are supposed to wrong arm and don’t, you’re giving up a lot as you can see above. It opens a massive hole inside when Jaelan Phillips doesn’t wrong arm and the pulling lineman is about to work up as a lead blocker for the running back.


Finish

And then there is finish. Finish can be broken into three pieces, as well. 1- The angle of pursuit taken. 2- The movement pattern, and visual-cognitive-motor ability of the player that is pursuing the ball carrier (we will go into this in more detail in another post). 3- Tackling aka the actual finish.

Above- You can watch Bubba Bolden take a bad angle, run out of control, have to run a semi-circle just to get remotely back into position. It’s bad, it’s really bad. I’m assuming this Coach Banda fella can recruit, but whatever product he’s throwing on the field leaves a lot to be desired.

Above- You can see a bad pursuit angle, someone that has poor movement patterns, and who can’t finish a play. I feel bad for Bolden because he’s kind of getting picked on here. But he’s a grown man, I’m sure he can take it. It’s not like people don’t crap on my job every three seconds.

Tackling

Since I will go into movement patterns, which greatly affect pursuit and tackling (finish), this will strictly be kept to tackling form. The art of tackling. Pete Carroll and his tackling expert of old (he has since moved on to ministry), Rocky Seto, have put out invaluable materials on the art of tackling.

Tackling isn’t as much about ‘violence’ as it is about confidence. Once the player believes they can make the play, they’ll be in a better position to make it. Not every player on your team is going to be a Mike Barrow, but they can be sure tacklers who get the job done, especially in this spaced out world of modern football.

Seto created materials for USA Football, and his “Hawk Tackling” video above, which teaches the art of rugby style tackling, is something of legend around the football internet. The day I saw this video I immediately did all of the research I could and adopted the drills into my own practices. I’m a firm believer in daily tackling circuits to work on some aspect of the game, including in the spring and summer.

Above- One thing Carroll and Seto harp on his tracking the ‘near hip’ of the ball carrier. This keeps the defender from over running the tackle in his pursuit of the ball. The beauty of these drills is that you can do them year round, no one is going to make substantial contact during most of the tracking drills they use.

From there how do you want a player to finish? You want the ball carrier on the ground using the least effort possible while also the highest rate of execution without injury. The Seahawks did their research and felt the rugby style was the best.

What are the coaching points of the rugby tackle?

1- Tacklers near foot and near shoulder should be used.

2- Head behind the ball carrier.

3- Eyes to the thighs / eyes to the sky.

4- Shoot and pull the knees.

5- Drive for 5 or take 5 hard steps through contact. (Hawk & Roll on larger opponents).

What does Miami show on the field?

What you see from Miami, the reason for the missed tackles at the rate of which you’re getting them, is a 3-pronged approach:

1- Miami has poor movement patterns. For all of the “South Florida speed” cliche, I just don’t see it. Maybe they can haul ass in the steeple chase, but the players certainly don’t play fast on the field, in pads, under the lights.

There is a ton of wasted effort and some of that could be scheme (Phillips being seven yards upfield even against his 15th counter in a row) but some has to be inability to read and react to stimuli.

2- Miami is extremely poor at pursuing the football. Whether it’s the defensive line, linebackers or defensive backs- there are issues with angles. Amari Carter, Zach McCloud, and Bubba Bolden are some of the most obvious pursuit issues.

3- Miami has poor tackling form before and during the tackle. Part of tackling is putting yourself in a good position to make the tackle. Tacklers need to run under control, come to balance near the point of contact, and then use form to take down the ball carrier.

Above- You can see Seto teaching head behind, while Miami uses a head across method. This is a great way to take a thigh pad off your temple and miss the tackle. It’s harder to pull knees and roll (great open field technique to use) when your head is being banged off of someone’s knee at full speed contact.

Above- Another ‘head across’ tackle. The smaller Te’Cory Couch should be using a hawk and roll method more than anyone. Track the near hip, head behind the play, shoot the knees and roll. Instead he gets abused (and Bolden find a way to hit the turf).

Above- When meeting a ball carrier in the phone booth, Seto teaches a “profile” tackle. The head is still opposite of the ball, eyes are up, arms shoot the hips, you drive for 5 (steps) and wait for back up. Then you can see Miami’s LB. His head isn’t to the side, his arms are way too wide, and he drops to a knee rather than driving for 5.

Above- you can see the mistake of shooting too high. Gilbert Frierson is one of the best movers on the team. He runs beautifully. But there are times where he really struggles to finish, especially in space. He ‘goes high’ here, up around the shoulder pads, that often leads to a stiff arm and the tackler grasping at air. “Eyes to the thigh” is the better technique.

Above- There’s bad, and then there’s ugly. While the top left is the least egregious, the other three are horrible. Butt out, eyes down, arms out wide, and the bottom right he’s bent completely down where one wrong knee and he wouldn’t be walking.

The Good

So what do you want it to look like? For as many times as I’ve seen Bolden completely over run a play and whiff on a tackle, he does have a great example on the top left below.


“Hit some bodeeee”

The typical fan in the stands, Uncle Jebediah that coaches your kid up (Urban Meyer calls him ‘the third uncle’), and 90% of the idiots I’ve coached with have yelled, “Hit some boddeee” or “TACK-L!” at some point during some game. It happens all across America, at all levels. I even receive texts from former players who say, “I just heard some fan behind me yell, ‘block some bodeee!’” In the end, the most efficient way to tackle isn’t making too many NFL Films Biggest Hits VHS tapes.

I have been teaching this technique for nearly a decade. It works. It’s safer for the players, and it’s safer for the game of football. Would you rather have a tackle made like below, or the disaster of Bolden over-running the play and Gurvan Hall attempting to be on disability from above. Also, some five-foot-five, 155 pound future computer tech can tackle a five-foot-eleven, 205 pound hoss that plays FBS football in the SEC. I’ve seen it, we’ve done it.

Perfecting the fundamentals like tackling takes the discipline of the head football coach. If you read the book, 4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection by Phil Savage (thanks Marsh!), you’ll see the word fundamentals show up on nearly every page. As a head football coach I scheduled fundamentals into every practice: blocking circuit, tackling circuit, and turnover circuits were done at least once a week, if not twice.

Coach Saban teaches blocking the exact same way that I do, starting from the knees up to work on things like hips and hand placement. That’s also how I’ve always started teaching tackling. I learned that from Vernon Hargreaves when he was still the linebackers coach at Miami.

What makes someone great? They don’t get bored with the fundamentals. They don’t get bored with practice. They don’t get bored practicing one kick 10,000 times. Coach Saban doesn’t get bored harping on the small stuff. I’ve been around a few ACC programs and I’ve seen the difference between practice and purposeful practice, even at the Power 5 level. Some coaches practice, and some coaches practice with purpose.

I’m scared to know what a scrimmage on Greentree must look like at this point. Here’s to 2021 and practicing with a purpose.