Tackling in football becoming lost art

Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, monitors college football more closely than most individuals.

That means the former Baylor coach has seen his share of missed tackles in a season that heads into Saturday's games with 11 of 120 FBS schools averaging more than 40 points per game and 27.5 percent of all teams (33 of 120) topping the 35-point mark.

"As one who placed great value on defense, I'm shocked," Teaff said, summing up the state of tackling in today's wide-open college game. "But the game has changed. Offenses spread defenses out from sideline to sideline. That makes open-field tackling harder."

It also magnifies mistakes, which wind up today with the ball in the end zone rather than being stopped by someone at the next defensive level after a dive play from the I-formation.

No. 15 Texas (8-2) has had multiple games this season with double-digit totals for missed tackles, based on videotape reviews by coaches and data compiled by ESPN Stats and Info. Although figures are unofficial, an ESPN count last month showed Texas with 91 missed tackles through eight games (11.4 per game), most among Big 12 schools.

A realistic goal, in the estimation of college coaches, is a maximum of seven or eight per week.

But the Longhorns' worst day, when an ESPN review showed 16 missed tackles in a 63-21 loss to Oklahoma on Oct. 13, pales in comparison to the total shared by Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson after the team's 38-13 loss to No. 8 Texas A&M on Nov. 3. Wilson told reporters that the Bulldogs (7-3) missed close to 30 tackles in that game, with roughly 300 of A&M's 693 total yards coming after initial contact.

"You're seeing poor tackling across the country," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "It's concerning to all coaches. ... You're seeing heads down, seeing guys lunge. We've all got to do a better job of trying to teach tackling."

'Lost art' in NFL

The issue extends to the NFL, where the Atlanta Falcons (8-1) share the league's best record but coaches have harped about missed tackles throughout the season.

In a 23-20 victory over Oakland on Oct. 14, the Falcons allowed 100 of the Raiders' 474 yards after contact. A Comcast Sportsnet report charged the New England Patriots with 25 missed tackles, accounting for 159 yards after contact, in Sunday's 37-31 victory over Buffalo.

A missed tackle by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick proved pivotal in helping the Falcons extend a game-clinching, fourth-quarter drive in a 19-13 victory over Dallas on Nov. 4. But Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said the issue is not as prevalent with his team as opponents he studies on film.

"They miss them all over the damn place," Ryan said. "We don't miss them that often."

Yet no one questions that missed tackles are more prevalent today in an NFL marked by limits on padded practices, 53-player rosters and fines for helmet-to-helmet hits, even if the hit is not penalized by game officials. Emphasis on stripping the football in quest of turnovers, rather than being satisfied with stopping the ball-carrier, also elevates missed tackle totals.

Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr described tackling as "a lost art" in a league that allows just 14 padded practices during a 17-week regular season under terms of its latest collective bargaining agreement.

Although the NFL does not track missed tackles as an official statistic, the Elias Sports Bureau counted 299 pass plays that covered at least 40 yards last season, an increase of roughly 25 percent from 2007. Such statistics support Carr's premise about tackling in today's NFL.

"We don't practice it nearly as much as we used to," said Carr, a fifth-year pro. "It's kind of a lost art, I guess. It's something you've got to work on on your own.... Everybody's bigger, stronger and faster. It's that much harder to make the tackles on these guys."

Although Carr and others acknowledge that tackling fundamentals are still being taught in youth football, the amount of film study and recognition work required to succeed at the higher levels of the game limit the amount of time spent tackling in practice. That applies to college and professional football, thanks to the advent of today's spread offenses with multiple formations.

"When we came into the league in 1960, there were two formations: red and brown," said Gil Brandt, former Cowboys vice president of player personnel (1960-88) and now an analyst for "That was it. Nobody ran motion. Nobody did any of that stuff. Now, if you script the first 15 plays, there's probably 12 or 13 different formations in the first 15 plays. And the defense has to prepare for all of them."

Brandt also wondered if 7-on-7 drills, a staple to boost coverage skills and a summer competition option for Texas' high school players, could be a culprit because players "don't really tackle" in that setting.

"We play so much 7-on-7... I think guys now, they can defend against the pass but they don't tackle," Brandt said. "And we have put the better athlete on offense, across the board, to increase the scoring of the game. And in trying to increase the scoring of the game, I think tackling is one of the things that has suffered."

Matchups, rule changes a factor

At the college level, teams are limited to 20 hours of practice each week under NCAA rules.

They also defend more plays in a typical game than NFL teams, increasing the opportunities for mistakes. That does not excuse poor tackling, said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. But it creates choices for coaches.

And Swinney chose to tweak his team's practice habits after a 49-37 loss to No. 10 Florida State on Sept. 22. The 11th-ranked Tigers (9-1) went to full-contact practices leading into games against Boston College (Sept. 29) and Georgia Tech (Oct. 6) to try to minimize fundamental tackling errors.

Clemson still struggles with missed tackles but will carry a six-game winning streak into Saturday's game against North Carolina State. Swinney said coaches must use different standards to define quality tackling in today's era of spread offenses designed to create one-on-one matchups in space.

"Not everybody is playing in a phone booth any more, like we used to," Swinney said. "There's a lot more one-on-one matchups, and that's been an issue with some of the tackling. You get a great [offensive] skill player, and he's able to win most of those types of matchups."

College players, like their NFL counterparts, have been urged to curb helmet-to-helmet hits in recent seasons or face consequences. For college players, it's a 15-yard penalty. NFL players can be fined. Either way, players said adjusting their strike zone while trying to tackle at full speed creates indecision, an unwanted commodity on the field.

"When you're going 100 miles an hour, any delay is going to hurt you," Cowboys inside linebacker Dan Connor said. "That takes away from certain guys. I've played with some safeties who were big-time hitters and I know it hurt their game a lot."

Carr said: "You've got to be smarter now when you're tackling guys. The gray area is a fine line."

The gray area extends to the college game, where missed tackles remain an issue for most teams. Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has seen more than he would like this season, although the Longhorns are coming off improved defensive efforts in victories over Texas Tech (31-22) and Iowa State (33-7) in their past two outings.

The biggest motivator in getting players to improve tackling skills?

"At some point, the bench has to talk," Diaz said. "You have to just not be able to play if you can't tackle."

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram