Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tackling the issue head on

As a final follow up to the whole issue of dangerous hits in the NFL, it's time to look at tackling in general. If players are to avoid penalties then they must learn to tackle properly. This is something that has actually been a pet annoyance of mine for some years now. Top defensive players earn huge sums of money, therefore it would seem callous of them not to learn how to tackle properly. Seemingly few of them share this point of view. One of the reasons the Colts gave up so many yards to Redskins RB Ryan Torain last week was their inability (and seeming lack of desire) to actually tackle Torain properly. So, just how do we make such tackles? Well there are five major types of tackle: 1) The Head-on tackle 2) Tackling across the ball carrier 3) Tackling the defenseless receiver 4) Tackling from behind 5) The Secondary or "finishing" tackle Before we delve deeper into these, we need to solve a problem of terminology. See, in recent years the terms "tackle" and "hit" have become separated. You now "hit" a player with the full force of your body in a suicidal lunge, usually led with the shoulder. Whereas "tackle" suggests a much slower moving affair, involving grabbing the ball carrier and pulling him down. We first need to address this problem. All tackles are hits. Or should be. It is difficult to do so when tackling from behind, but otherwise, all tackles should be considered hits. The purpose of a tackle is not to softly caress the ball carrier down to the ground with a well placed hug. The purpose of the tackle is to halt the ball carriers momentum in a sudden strike, and then to bring him to the ground. The Head-on tackle is the best example of this: The Head-on tackle: This is the ultimate expression of the tackle in football. The tackler and the ball carrier meet either in a hole between blockers or in the open field. Due to circumstances on the field, the ball carrier has been forced to head "North/South" and the tackler is now in a position to make the play. He must stop the ball carrier, or at the very least significantly impede his forward progress so as to allow pursuing defenders to make the final tackle (you do teach pursuit drills now, don't you?). The key to this tackle is to keep the weight low, but going forward. The back must be kept a few degrees higher than horizontal and the head should be up, eyes on the ball carrier. The knees are bent and the tackler now shortens his step, almost to a forward shuffle. He should be on his toes, ready to explode into the ball carrier at a moments notice. Here is where "hitting" and "tackling" converge. The goal should be to aim the shoulder into the upper thighs/groin area of the ball carrier and deliver a powerful strike that checks the ball carriers forward momentum, before driving him backwards. The hands and arms will then be used to scoop the legs of the ball carrier and ensure that he his brought to the ground. It is important to understand that the tackler must be going forward at the moment of contact. He must not let the ball carrier collide with him and knock him backwards. If this happens, the chances of making a successful tackle drop dramatically and the potential for injury to the tackler goes up. This picture, taken during a Rugby game and found on Google images, demonstrates the point in exemplary fashion: In the correct Head-on tackle, the tackler should be pushing off his toes and firing forwards into the ball carrier. He should place his head to the side and drive the shoulder into the opponent. Ideally the ball carrier should drive at a slightly upward angle, helping to lift the ball carrier from his feet. This approach should be tempered with a warning not to try and lift the ball carrier vertically. This places a lot of strain on the tacklers lower back and is hardly an ideal way to tackle. A slight rise as the ball carrier is forced back is sufficient. The final component is now to wrap the legs, but again this causes problems. "Wrapping up" all too often seems to get translated as "flail ones arms loosely at the opponents legs". That is not tackling. The use of the arms should be considered an aggressive strike. Speed is the key. The hands and forearms should seek out the back of the knees and deliver a sharp, powerful blow that whips the ball carriers feet from the ground and traps his legs against the tacklers body. For the more narcissistic players on a team, they now have a perfect excuse for all those chin ups and bicep curls (though they had better be great tacklers as a result). The end result of all this should see the ball carrier driven backwards forcefully, almost approaching the horizontal as his legs are swept up from beneath him. It's also surprisingly difficult for a ball carrier to actually keep hold of the ball during such a tackle. With the tacklers helmet off set to the side there is an increased risk of head-to-ball contact which will jar it loose, not to mention that when struck and unseated from the ground in such a violent manner, it is only human to flail out the arms and attempt to avoid a serious fall. The two best examples I could find on the web of a perfect looking tackle are now presented for you. It should be noted that not only were these practically the only two examples I could find, but that only one comes from football. I think this is a reflection of the state tackling in the NFL and even many lower leagues today. Tackling across the ball carrier This tackle normally happens in a chase to the sideline. The ball carrier is usually trying to get outside so he may "turn the corner" and sprint up field. The other major example of this is a player running up the sideline as the tackler comes in from midfield; in this case, a safety is the most likely tackler. In both situations the tackler and the ball carrier are closing at an angle to each other, usually headed in roughly the same direction (towards the sideline, towards the endzone). The primary difference between this tackle and the head-on tackle is the difficulty generated by the angle of attack. The tackler cannot afford to aim at his opponents near hip and expect to make a clean tackle. What you will end up with is the tackler coming up short and flailing to try and grasp his opponents ankles. This is due to the same phenomenon seen in both shooting and throwing the football to a receiver on a crossing pattern known as "lead". The potential tackler must "lead" his target. This is one of the biggest mistakes seen in modern football. Tacklers taking good angles at a ball carrier running along the sideline often ultimately fail because they do not properly lead the target. The aiming point is dependent on the speed of the ball carrier, but typically should involve the tackler aiming ahead of the opposite hip of his opponent. The end result should see the tacklers shoulder make contact with the near hip, with his head crossing in front of the ball carrier. Again, the tackler should first break down as he did for the head-on tackle and then drive slightly upwards and through his opponent. The arms should again enclose the ball carriers legs and be brought in sharply, striking a blow at approximately knee height. If the tackler misjudges his tackle or even the angle on approach then he must focus instead on delivering a firm sweeping strike with his arms to the opponents legs. Tackling the defenseless receiver This is the tackle that has drawn the most controversy of late, but is rather simple to execute correctly. The ideal tackle on a defenseless receiver -- who is usually crossing the field -- should be made using the same break down and drive technique as the Head-on tackle. Typically the tackler is now coming "downhill" at a slight angle to the potential receiver. Similar then to the tackle across the ball carrier, the tackle on the defenseless receiver must be "lead" a little. The goal should be to strike the nearest hip of the receiver with the nearest shoulder of the tackler, with the head passing across the front of the receivers body. There is not as much need to drive slightly upwards with this tackle, as the receiver will usually be in the air anyway. The primary goal is to strike a fearsome blow that will a) disrupt the receivers concentration on making the catch, b) effect his body positioning to make the catch and c) dent the confidence of the receiver in making catches over the middle, forcing him to be more hesitant in future to the extent of concentrating more on potential hits than catching the football. Once more, players should also be aware of the need to deliver a sharp, wrapping strike to the legs, in order to better prevent a receiver from making yards after the catch. It is also worth cautioning players against leaving the ground early to make the hit. When jumping to make such a hit, a defender sacrifices much of the stability and leverage gained from his initial low stance; he also expends a large amount of energy leaping almost vertically off the ground. Tacklers should focus more on keeping their shoulders down and driving near laterally behind these. The better balance and body position of the tackler should prevail. Tackling from behind The tackle from behind is vastly more difficult than any of the others. The key problem for a would be tackler is that all notions of delivering a "hit" are now out of the window. The tackle from behind is a matter of judging distance, timing and strong use of the arms. The tackler must know how far he can dive while at top speed, must make sure he does not dive too early, and then he must remove the ball carriers feet from under him. The biggest problem seen at the professional level when tackling from behind, is the obsession with causing fumbles. As a result we often see players who have a great opportunity to make a touchdown saving tackle sacrifice this in favour of trying to cause the fumble; either by striking down from above or patting the ball upwards from below. The point that should be made is that even the worst offenders among those who carry the ball lazily (ahem, Adrian Peterson, I'm looking at you) still only give up about 7-8 fumbles per year. Causing fumbles is something the second tackler does, not the first. The job of the chasing tackler is to save the score. That is the priority. Thus, the most critical part of this tackle becomes the use of the arms to snare the ball carriers legs. As with all the other tackles it should not be approached with the mind set of wrapping the arms around the legs and then squeezing with ever increasing pressure until the ball carrier comes down. It should be seen as an attack, as a strike. The two arms should be seen as delivering simultaneous blows from either side to knock the ball carriers legs from under him, followed by a vice like grip. The secondary or "finishing" tackle Finally we come to the secondary or "finishing" tackle (also referred to as the "follow-up" tackle and a host of other names). The purpose of this tackle is -- surprisingly enough -- to finish off a ball carrier who has already been stopped or partially tackled by a team mate. This can occur when the original tackler has a hold of the ball carrier but is unable to bring him down; either through a deficiency in strength or a deficiency in leverage/technique. Alternatively, the original tackler may have hit the ball carrier and checked his momentum, but subsequently slipped off the tackle, maybe due to a spin move by the ball carrier. Now it is the job of the secondary tacklers to bring the man down. The preferred approach is to use the Head-on tackle method, but this is not always possible. Only when the ball carrier is standing erect and trying to escape can this method be used. When a ball carrier is entangled around the legs by the first tackler he is often ducking, making the head-on method unsuitable due to the risk of helmet-to-helmet contact. The new approach should be to use an upper body tackle. Here we begin to see the introduction of ball stripping techniques. The secondary tackler should break down as normal and the target should now be the torso of the ball carrier, with a view to making chest-to-torso contact. The arms should now encase the upper body and again strike firmly. The tackler should look to pass his head over the opponents back and drive him downwards to the turf, using his weight and forward momentum as a bludgeon. If the ball is being held in the arm nearest to the secondary tackler then the recommended method is to first hit and wrap up the opponent to ensure he will go down. Then the arm that passes across the front of the ball carriers body can be used to violently strip at the ball carrying arm. If the ball is on the opposite side to the secondary tackler then he must try to knock it loose in the process of wrapping up the ball carrier with his arms. The initial blow with the arms should -- as always -- be made firmly; a sudden, sharp strike. The key is that the secondary tackler has the advantage of being able to strike somewhat downwards, knocking the ball carriers arms towards his waist. This opens the angle between the forearm and bicep, increasing the likely hood that the ball will come loose in the process. Well, that's all for now. I'll be back later for the infuriating and largely futile process that is known as my weekly picks. Until then, Have a great day everyone.

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