Tackling is the most important of the fundamentals – and the most obvious. Probably 90-95% of tackling is mental. You have to want to work on it and want to hit people. It is usually the one that you don’t have to bitch at linebackers about getting right, as most are playing the position because they like rattling somebody’s brains. It is important to have worked hard on pursuit first though, because you have to take the right angle and get to a guy before you can hit him and bring him down.
There are a few subtopics to cover on this one
- The base must again be set and worked on. Just a bit different emphasis than before.
- Hat placement
- Rolling the hips and clubbing arms
- Causing/recovering fumbles the correct way
Setting the base and focusing on the right part of the ballcarrier is the first step. In confined areas, particularly when you’re stuck between two 300lb offensive linemen, it is hard to set the base. The feet must be at least shoulder width, but preferably a step wider. He must get his shoulders down, but keep his eyes up. Most guys run to the ball; not through the ball. The goal is to get chest to chest on the ballcarrier or at least shoe-to-shoe and continue running through him, never stop moving. Never stopping your feet is something that applies to every position on defense and in theory you would think it would be easier to instill, but in practice it is usually what separates good defenses from great ones.
To properly bring someone down the center of gravity should be ahead of the feet, meaning you should be leaning forward. You cannot tackle well on your heels. A 250lb linebacker who attacks flat-footed will not be as good a tackler as a 190lb guy who launches his chest and shoulders into the ballcarrier.
Focusing on the right part to hit is also important. The eyes of the linebacker should be on the numbers. You don’t watch a RB’s hips or head, he’ll fake you out. Some might even have C.J. Spiller-like moves in their hips, and you all know how that works out. Wherever his jersey numbers point is where you set your pursuit angle.
In the ‘80s I recall them saying to plant the top of your head in the guy’s numbers when you want to tackle. You wrapped your arm around his waist and dragged him down after that. This is not what should be taught any longer. Aiming your crown into his chest can lead to neck injury, and in many cases is illegal now. The correct way is to see your eyes into his numbers. You tackle with your head UP, and if you can, you slide the top of your facemask to the ball to jar it. This is why many coaches teach defenders to "see your face into his armpit".
We mentioned rolling the hips in setting the base, its important again here. To tackle the ballcarrier you sink your hips (never just bend at the waist) low, and explode upwards in a motion similar to the power-clean exercise. The defender simultaneously wraps his arms around the carrier and carries him to the ground, locking the hands around him and grabbing jersey. Here is a place where the upper body strength does play a bigger part; long arms with strong muscles throughout can slow an opponent down if all you can do is club him with them. A strong grip (read: hand exercises) can help him get a grip on a jersey if he failed to set his base in front of the ballcarrier or if the runner is just so strong that he can pull free.
There is also a proper way to miss a tackle. We all know it happens, even to the best players. Playing defense is about knowing where your help is. That sentence is always true, and to put this in context here, one must think about where guys line up pre-snap.
Recall that defensive alignments and defenses in general are based on getting the right leverage. A defensive end does not simply line up directly across from the offensive tackle – he lines up off his shoulder more often than head up. This gives him outside (or inside) leverage if he’s meant to rush the passer from the outside (inside). When he lines up outside, he must know that his help is inside. The outside linebacker must know the same thing. For instance, the Under front we employ uses outside leverage on the line of scrimmage and DE and SLB. The Bandit end lines up outside the weak OT, the strongside end lines up outside the strong OT, and the SAM backer outside the TE on the strong side. Their help is inside and they know that if they miss one, they must at least not let the runner get outside to the boundary. Conversely, the inside backers (which the WILL really is in a true Under front) pursue from the inside-out and never let the runner cross their face inside their position.
Stripping the ball is the last thing to worry about in tackling. You have to get the guy wrapped up before you ever should attempt to strip, other than a desperate situation (i.e., down by 7 with :10 left). Most of the time, faults come from getting this backwards. Defenders, usually the defensive backs, who try to strip first and go for the ball on contact, usually get flattened by a big running back. The correct way to strip is to wait until the first tackler to make contact has wrapped the guy up, and then the second defender goes for the ball. He does this by punching it, raking the arms from behind, or just grabbing it and tearing it from his grasp. This is why tackling drills that emphasize turnovers use 2 defenders and one carrier.
After the strip is made, the recoverer should assume the fetal position and bury the ball in his abdomen, using one leg to also protect it. If you fall on top of it, you expose yourself to injury when a scrum ensues. You don’t want an oblong football in your stomach when you get piled on by 300lb linemen.
If the chance arises where you can possibly advance the fumble, and recall its more important to steal it than score a TD or advance, then only certain players should be allowed to do it. Lumbering guys who have poor dexterity and huge feet shouldn’t be trying it too often. It’s more likely they’ll kick it away from themselves or fail to grab it, and the offense may recover. The correct way is to aim your toes to the side, bend over, and pick the ball up beside yourself.
Tackling drills are usually punishing on everyone, and there are several different drills to work on specific areas such as alley tackling, tempo, goal-line situations and confined spaces, and sideline tackling (without getting penalties). Tackling is worked on mostly on Mon/Tues and almost never on the day before the game. Later in the season it generally is worked on less, but that depends on how much the coach decides they need. Open dates are the primary time for increased emphasis here. I’ll only cover a few drills here that I know.
Setup is easy for this one. Take 4 flat practice mats/bags and line them up parallel to each other, but stagger them towards the RB. The RB stands behind a cone 5-7 yards away from the first bag, and the LB stands behind that bag. The 4 bags simulate 4 running lanes for the RB to take upfield, and we stagger them towards him to simulate the OT, OG, and TE being pushed backward and to allow the LB to press a gap and make the play behind the line. On the whistle, the RB goes sideways and determines which gap he wants to hit. The LB practices his shuffle-step and stays on the backside hip of the RB (to prevent cutbacks). When its apparent the RB has picked the gap, the LB presses and makes a form tackle onto the bag.
The video below describes the drill without staggered practice mats.
Inside and In-front Drills
This drill teaches two things: keep the ball to your inside and keep it in front of you. This one is also used on special teams coverage, so it serves two purposes to use it. The setup is to have a two columns of tacklers 15-20 yards away from the ballcarrier. The runner starts moving laterally on the whistle. They sprint to the runner, who is waiting for them to commit and square up to him to hit. Once they commit, he changes direction at his discretion with the intention of getting outside and crossing someone’s face. Eventually they’ll front up to him and make contact. He doesn’t need to be put to the ground.