Breaking Down the Art Form of Tackling in the NFL

Marc Lillibridge@NFL_BridgeContributor IMay 10, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 30: Trindon Holliday #16 of the Houston Texans takes a hard hit from Tim Shaw #59 of the Tennessee Titans on a kick return at Reliant Arena at Reliant Park on September 30, 2012 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

With concussion litigation taking place all over the country from former NFL players, the league has changed the rules to take shots to the head out of the NFLRecently, the NFL passed a rule where running backs are going to be penalized for lowering their heads.

As a former player who had my share of concussions, I do not want the NFL to turn into a powder-puff league either. Big hits sell, and each player that straps a helmet on knows the risks that are associated with the sport.

What bothers me most is the hypocrisy that takes place in the NFL. All the networks will show a commercial advocating the proper way to tackle and then follow it up with a highlight of a wide receiver getting smashed going across the middle.

Fans want to see car wrecks, hockey fights and violence. It is why MMA has taken off across the country. We as a society are drawn to football and the NFL in particular to watch grown men knock each other down. 

As a former linebacker, I would like to say I was a solid tackler—but then I would be lying. I was horrible at wrapping my arms around the ball-carrier. I wanted to hit the man with the football as hard as I could.  When force meets force, sometimes the tackler gets bounced off. That happened to me more times than I would like to admit.

Players much more successful than I was will tell you that proper tackling is all about angles. When I was in junior high school and high school, the form that was coached was to put your facemask into the chest of the ball-carrier. Then you were supposed to slide your head to the slide, “grab cloth” (the back of the jersey) and roll your hips. 

Great in theory, hard in practice. If you were to interview 100 NFL football players, maybe a handful would tell you they have ever executed a “perfect tackle.” 

Even current players in the NFL who I would deem as solid tacklers have a hard time using proper techniques. Safeties like Ed Reed and Ryan Clark are two players I consider very good tacklers. But from their position so deep on the field, the angles and speed at which they must track the ball-carrier is a science.

It is easy on the practice field to tackle a dummy with proper form. But in a game, the ball-carrier is doing all he can NOT to get tackled. They are not just standing still waiting for the hit.

The key to being a good tackler is to watch the midsection of the ball-carrier. Again, easier said than done. That is why you will see a lot of players tackle the runner at their legs.

If you are facing running back Ray Rice, for example, with his power and low center of gravity, it is hard to focus on his midsection to make a proper tackle. He also does not expose his chest much, so to get him to the ground, a defender must knock his feet out from under him if possible.

At the speed the game is played, head shots are bound to happen, and even if they try to fine players, they will still take place. No NFL player is looking to hurt his opponent, but if a player has a chance to knock another down, they will. That is what they are paid to do.

I know youth football clinics around the country are pushing the mantra “see what you hit.” As a father, I love the idea. But in the heat of battle, instincts kick in and sometimes practice goes out the window. As a defender, your job is to get the ball-carrier to the ground and keep your opponent out of the end zone. Sometimes that involves will over technique.

Proper tackling technique is, for that reason, an art. It is a rare and beautiful thing if you are fortunate enough to see it in action. But more times than not, you will see a defender jump on the back of the ball carrier or cut him down by at the knees. I am not really sure how much light I actually shined on the way to tackle properly because I really do not think there is a right or wrong way. 

I applaud the NFL and NFLPA for putting programs in place to coach better tackling fundamentals. But in the middle of the battle, when the game is on the line, a competitor will do whatever he can to make the tackle, good form or not.