The Lost Art Of Tackling In The NFL

It’s no surprise that five of the twelve teams that made the NFL playoffs are in the top ten in total defense.  These teams have gotten here mainly because of stellar defense with a complementary offensive attack that has been able to score points when necessary.  In 2011, you can say that the star of the game is the quarterback, but I’m here to say otherwise.  In 2011, the name of the game is and was defense.  Defense has been a major reason why these playoff teams are here today and there is one key statistic that has fueled these defenses: missed tackles.

Looking at statistics for the 2011 season, one can gather that there is a correlation between success and a defense’s ability to tackle.  Of the twelve teams that made it to the postseason, six are in the top fifteen in missed tackle percentage.  This statistic gathered by Pro Football Focus, sheds a new light on true success of a defense.  Let’s put it in perspective, shall we?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the league’s 30th ranked defense.  They gave up the most points in the league, gave up the most rushing yards, and were 21st against the pass.  They were ranked 18th in takeaways.  The most telling numbers?  The rushing yards and passing yards allowed.  These numbers would be directly influenced by tackling, good or bad.  Guess what?  According to Pro Football Focus, Tampa had the most missed tackles out of anybody in the league by far, through Week 11.  Out of 592 tackles attempted, they missed 92 giving them a 15.5% missed tackle percentage, tops in the league.  Not a good thing by any means.

Above are examples of how missed tackles can affect the outcome of a game. 8 missed tackles leading to a score, directly changing the game.

The Buccaneers were blasted in the middle of the year by their ex-head coach Raheem Morris.  Morris specifically called out Gerald McCoy for his tackling woes.  McCoy was injured about half way through the season when Morris publicly noted that the reason for his injury was because of “arm-tackling.”  This specific example goes to show the kind of season that Tampa had.  Players were getting hurt, people were missing plays, missing assignments, and not tackling.  Another example is the Green Bay Packers, the 32nd ranked defense.  However, Green Bay had a prolific offense to carry them as well as a ball hawk secondary that tied for the league-lead in takeaways.  New England didn’t have as many missed tackles as the Packers and they were 31st in total defense.  Correlation?

A success story for this telling statistic would be the San Francisco 49ers.  It has been a long time (probably since the dominant Tampa defenses back in the 1990s and the early 2000s) since I have seen a team tackle so well.  Through week 11, Tampa missed 92 tackles while San Francisco missed only 30! There are eleven players on defense and collectively they’ve only missed 30 tackles.  That’s less than 3 missed tackles per person!  Even playing New Orleans last week, it was evident that San Francisco has put together a group of guys who can tackle.  Defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore don’t put as much emphasis on tackling as do the 49ers and its evident.  The Steelers rely on complex blitz packages, coverage schemes, and big hits.  Baltimore relies on coverage skills, combined with instinct, and players trying to make big plays.  San Francisco provides a defense that combines what Baltimore does along with a focus on consistent play.  In order to be consistent, the absolute basics need to be addressed.  Defense begins with knowing how to tackle.

In 2010, the 49ers weren’t a bad defense with missed tackles, but they have consistently gotten better and thus have climbed the ladder in terms on defense.  This defense could actually prove the mantra that “defense wins championships.”  The defense coupled with a well-balanced consistent offense will win the 49ers a Super Bowl.  Jim Harbaugh has these guys in position to do plenty of damage in the National Football League.  They may not win the Super Bowl this year, or the next, but they sure are close.  A few more pieces on the offensive side of the ball and this team will be set.

In today’s game, offenses are reliant on the quick pass, the smaller, agile receiver, and the gargantuan tight end ( aka Rob Gronkowski).  They take advantage of the missed tackle.  In today’s game, defenses will get torched if they do not know how to properly wrap up and take a guy down.  Why aren’t defenses tackling as well as they had in the past? It could be the offenses but I believe that it’s because guys are growing up watching players lay hits on each other gaining attention and praise.  Also, more recently, players have had to alter how their approach to tackling because of the new rules in regards to bringing down the quarterback, horse-collar tackles, and the defenseless player.  Either way, the increased number of missed tackles results in higher, almost impossible numbers put up by offenses.

The key to successful teams over the next few years will be the art of the tackle, something that seems to have been lost with most teams.

–Will Fairbanks is a blog contributor for Gold Star Games, a cornhole games and cornhole bags company.