By Jeff McDonald, Defensive Coordinator
While all defensive fundamentals are important to teach and drill, we have found a few in particular that are the most important when facing today’s offenses. With the spread and run/pass option RPOs taking over the landscape, tackling in space is a must. When offenses design a play to get a ball carrier in space, it is because he is athletic with the ability to make defenders miss. So being able to tackle in space is something that all positions need to practice. We teach a tackling progression that starts with pursuit. While our aim is not to miss any tackles, we know that will happen at times. When a missed tackle occurs, defensive pursuit to the ball is what will minimize the gain. Players need to know and understand not only the benefits of running to the ball but the extra “juice” they must have to do it every play.
The basics of a tackle are what we cover next – head and eyes up, two hard uppercuts, five hard steps to the latch.
Head and eyes up is obvious for safety reasons. We do not teach to lead with the head but instead we should finish belly button to belly button with the ball carrier.
The two hard uppercuts are for two primary reasons. First it is more likely to engage the ankles, knees and hips at the same time. What is normally called the Triple Extension, it is the finishing position for a lot of lifts including the Clean and Squat. This position is as powerful as the human body can be. The uppercuts are more likely to engage this then just hugging your arms around the ball carrier. The second reason is the possibility of causing a turnover with the uppercuts.
Finally, the five hard steps are to drive through the contact with the ball carrier. There is always a pause in contact between the ball carrier and the tackler – the next person to run his feet wins. We emphasize taking the five hard steps and driving your knees through the contact. At this point is when we talk about the Latch. Make sure to have cloth as “you turn the latch” and bring the ball carrier to the ground.
In an open field setting it is important to shorten your stride the closer you get to the ball. This should not be misconstrued as breaking down. We do not want our hips sitting down over our heels, but just enough weight forward that we do not over-run the tackle but still have enough in that direction to knock the ball carrier back.
Vision as we shorten our stride is the next important point. Our eyes should go to the near thigh of the ball carrier. Seeing the thigh will keep the peripheral vision on the waist and
avoiding the shoulder and head shake. It will also keep us in a good angle to prevent the ball carrier cutting back. From there it is head and eyes up with the two hard uppercuts as discussed previously following with the five hard steps to the latch to finish the tackle.
If the defender is in a position where they cannot get the two hard uppercuts then they must wrap and roll. Here the coaching point is to wrap for the waist and continue to roll as you get the latch and finish the tackle.
If they cannot get the uppercuts or the wrap and roll then they must sweep the ankle. Our aiming point here is the front ankle trying to get the ball carrier off his feet while continuing to roll.
Just like pursuit at the beginning, we always finish with talking turnovers. As we have the tackled latched, we now look to rip the tips of the fingers off the ball to force the fumble. The official may call the ball carrier down, but he may not. As we say all the time, make the official make the difficult call on whether it is a fumble or not.
Tackling in space has become one of the most important fundamentals you can teach vs. today’s offensive schemes. Have a progression and teach this fundamental to minimize gains and get your defense off the field. Some drills we use to rep these fundamentals with our players will be posted tomorrow. Feel free to email (email@example.com) or call (860-685-2909) anytime with any questions or feedback.
Defensive Coordinator & Recruiting Coordinator
Wesleyan University Football
Freeman Athletic Center
161 Cross Street
Middletown, CT 06457