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Whatever Happened to Textbook Tackling?

I’ve been using my NFL Game Pass to look at a lot of Green Bay Packers’ film lately – testing out various theories about the Packers’ performance in 2016. What struck me is how poor the tackling techniques of the Packers are, just like almost all other NFL teams.

Proper tackling technique can be pretty much summed up in a word: low. Tackle low, at the knees, at the shins, or at the ankles whenever possible. These techniques become more important as the weight advantage of the ball carrier over the tackler increases. A second element to good tackling skill is to drive through the runner, not just meet him at the point of contact.

Eddie Lacy and others like him, have done more for proper tackling techniques than has all the training that defensive coaches provide. When defenders meet 250-pound running backs, tackling low isn’t a technique, it’s a matter of survival. It’s also the reason why we’ve seen the LeGarrette Blounts, Le’Veon Bells, and Jonathan Stewarts of the world increasingly hurdling over guys, as tacklers are desperately trying to get underneath the helmets and shoulder pads of these huge men.

How many times in a game do you see Packers’ defensive backs use good tackling technique? Not enough for sure. The defensive backs, however, are masterful compared to most of the Packers’ linebackers. Players weighing around 225 to 250 seem to think they are strong enough to go shoulder-to-shoulder with, bear-hug or leap on the back of a runner. Going high, however, often results in the tackler being stiff-armed, shed by the runner or faked out by the more shifty ball carriers.

Does defensive coordinator Dom Capers or any of his assistant coaches spend much time during training camp drilling into defenders the best techniques for bringing down a ball carrier? If they are teaching these techniques, most of their students aren’t paying attention.

Packers Ranking As Tacklers

Just from looking at film, I would think the Packers are in the bottom third of the league in tackling ability. I’m not aware whether there are NFL teams known for their good tackling techniques. It seems to be a lost art.

Guess what. There are statistics kept on missed tackles. Pro Football Focus at times tracks the number of annual defensive snaps and missed tackles of each NFL team, and then produces a team’s percentage of missed tackles per snap. The stats I found are from 2015, but close enough. The Packers were calculated to have missed 120 tackles in 1,114 snaps, for a 0.108 percentage, ranking 20th. That’s barely better than the bottom third and well below the league average. Using these parameters, the top five tackling teams were the Browns, 49ers, Bears, Eagles, and Texans; the five worst were the Cowboys, Raiders, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and at the bottom, the Saints.

Here’s what else the PFF staff noticed. Thirteen of the top 19 teams are from the AFC, while 10 of the bottom 13 come from the NFC. Additionally, the eight teams in the middle of the rankings are eight of the 12 playoff teams from that year. Their conclusion: a team doesn’t need to be great in this category, but it is hard to be successful when you’re near the bottom of this list.

Best Textbook Tackler Ever?

Leaving the stats aside, one name sticks out in my mind as the best textbook tackler I’ve ever seen: Willie Wood. For you millennials, Wood was a Lombardi-era safety, 5’10” and 190 pounds. He was recognized as among the very best: eight Pro Bowls, first-team All Pro five times, on five NFL championship teams, and inducted into the Pro Football and Green Bay Packers Halls of Fame. You can read about him on the team’s web site under the Hall of Famers tab. Lombardi called him the team’s surest tackler and he gained the reputation of being one of the league’s hardest hitters. I’d pay an admission price to see a highlight reel of Willie Wood tackles.

Who are the best tacklers on the current Packers’ team? Based strictly on appearance, my top three would be Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and Jake Ryan. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is still too inconsistent to make my list. I would describe both Hyde and Ryan as hip tacklers, the next best technique. If you are a J.J. Watt, Mike Daniels, or Clay Matthews, however, proper technique doesn’t matter so much.

Who had the team’s best tackle on the season? It’s a two-way battle between a middle-of the-field up-high tackle made on the Cowboys’ 180-pound Cole Beasley during the playoffs, and a stunning tackle in week 8 that stopped Atlanta running back Terron Ward (5’7”, 201) dead in his tracks on the half-yard line. Both were by the same guy, whose toughness and aggressiveness make up for any lack of technique: 200-pound backup safety Kentrell Brice.

Mike McCarthy promises just about every other year to return to fundamentals. Tackling techniques might be a good place to start.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Howard February 17, 2017

    The Packers for several years have not been a good tackling team. Willie Wood and several of the Lombardi players took to heart what Lombardi preached.

    “Some people try to find things in this game that don’t exist but football is only two things – blocking and tackling. “Vince Lombardi. If players didn’t take those two fundamentals serious they were gone.

    Small guys can tackle and show some physical presence if they put their mind to it. I hate to promote a recent past Viking player but I was always impressed with Antoine Winfield as a small corner who would come up, take on blockers, and bring down ball carriers without help.

    I swear the current corners try as hard as possible to avoid making the tough tackle. Randall is the worst offender.

    1. Robster February 17, 2017

      The Seahawks have purposefully gone after large DBs: Kam Chancellor (6’3”, 225), DeShawn Shead (6’2”, 212), Earl Thomas (5’10”, 202). Richard Sherman, in contrast is thin at 6’3’, 195, and Jeremy Lane is both slight, at 6’, 190, and not very talented. They lost Brandon Browner (6’4”, 221) after the 2013 season, and when Thomas broke his leg in mid-season in 2016, that backfield became a shell of its former self.

      1. Howard February 18, 2017

        Don’t take me wrong. I think the Packers have gone to small at corner. If it was me the two outside corners would be at least 6 foot+ and be capable to jam receivers at the line. One of those taller corners also needs some speed, then you have some flexibility of how you play your safeties. You cannot allow receivers in passing offenses to do what they want for the first 5 to 7 yards of their route. Timing offenses will get comfortable and get rid of the ball to quick for even the best pass rush. In today’s game tall physical corners are a must.

        It is good to have size when tackling, but it takes a certain mindset to be a good tackler and most of the Packers perimeter guys do not have it. I can show you plays that Gunter avoided tackles on running backs during games and he is the biggest corner. Look at the second bears game in the second half.

  2. gman February 17, 2017

    as much as it pains me to admit it seems like the Seahawks are always sure tacklers.

  3. Zwoeger February 18, 2017

    Randall. When he isn’t jumping up and down like they do in Comedy Capers I tinik of a matador stepping aside letting the bull run by his cloth. That is if he’s near enough to his opponent to do so.

    1. Zwoeger February 18, 2017


  4. Gort February 18, 2017

    Proper technique absolutely applies to everybody, especially Clay Matthews. Proper technique maybe prevents dumb injuries, like broken thumbs.