“Some people try to find things in this game that don’t exist but football is only two things – blocking and tackling”
This Vince Lombardi quote dates back to the earliest days of the game, but it isn’t any less true today. Even in the modern game where dangerous aerial attacks like the air raid and various forms of the spread offense look to attack all areas of the field with the quick passing game, bubble screens, and Run/Pass Options (RPOs), blocking and tackling still hold their importance to the game. The problem, though, is that with all of the new, exciting, modern-day concepts and strategies at the forefront, sometimes coaches can lose focus on the fundamentals that sit at the root of any good football team.
Kirby Smart, head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, is not one of these coaches. Coming from a defensive background, he has his own ideas and concepts to stand up against the latest and greatest offensive strategies, but, on an importance scale, he keeps sound, fundamental tackling right at the top of his list. What makes Smart’s approach interesting, however, is not just the importance he places on tackling within the Georgia program but the unique approach through which he teaches and practices it.
Anyone who has played football in their youth, high school, or even in college probably remembers the old school angle tackling drills they participated in. Two players start off facing one another. One player with the ball races toward a cone or a landmark off to their side and the opposing defender scrapes across then takes an angle to meet the runner at the landmark and make the tackle. The one major flaw with this drill is that the defender knows exactly where the runner is going and that is very rare in actual game play. In a game, the runner often has a two-way go with the option to cut to either side of the tackler. To properly prepare his players for this, Smart tries simulate this environment in practice.
Being a head coach at a huge football institution such as Georgia definitely has its advantages. Smart is equipped with as many assistants and analysts as needed and puts them to good use. One such use is having analysts that chart every single one of the team’s tackles throughout the season. The tackles are sorted into categories to identify which types of tackles are the most and least common. According to Smart, approximately 94% of his team’s tackles fall within three categories: midline tackles, sideline tackles, and buddy tackles. Knowing this, Smart and his staff work hard to create drills that simulate these three types of tackles to better prepare his team for gameday.
The first type of tackle that Smart highlights is the midline tackle. This makes up approximately nine percent of Georgia’s tackles and is essentially just a one-on-one tackle in space. Midline tackles most commonly occur on quick screens or runs to the outside where the force defender closes off the edge forcing the runner to cut inside and turn the ball upfield. The safety must then get downhill and make a one-on-one tackle in the alley without the benefit of the sideline or other defenders.
Smart and his staff teach the defenders in this situation not to stop their feet. After getting down into position to make a tackle, players are often taught to “come to balance” or settle in position to make a proper tackle. Instead, Smart stresses that players shouldn’t stop their feet to come to balance, rather, he wants them to throttle down and keep their feet in “relative motion” as they await the runner’s next move. This allows them to keep momentum in their legs, react more quickly to cuts in either direction, and helps them bring some momentum into the tackle. If the defender were to stop their feet and the ball carrier tries to run through them, it gives away all forward momentum to the runner. If the runner were to cut to either side, the defender is then taught to take one flat step into the ball carrier and run his feet through the tackle. Smart makes sure to drill this type of tackle in practice, but tries to keep the time allotted to these drills proportionate to how often these tackles are made in the game.
The video below is an example of a midline tackle executed by Georgia defensive back Aaron Davis (#35) in an early season game versus Tennessee. The Volunteers run a split zone concept and running back Alvin Kamara (#6) takes his first read and breaks outside almost immediately. With slot cornerback Maurice Smith (#2) sealing the edge and forcing Kamara inside, Davis must fill in the alley and make a one-on-one tackle in space.
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With Davis initially pursuing Kamara to the outside, he does a good job halting his momentum, settling under control, and keeping his feet underneath him when Kamara cuts back inside. He then is able to react to Kamara’s movement, taking a flat step in his direction and bringing the runner down, saving Georgia from what could have been a much bigger play.
The next tackle Smart focuses on is the sideline tackle which, according to his analysis, makes up roughly 25% of the tackles his team makes. The sideline tackle, as the name implies, occurs out on the edges with a runner moving in the direction of the sideline and the defender pursuing from the inside out. Picture a toss sweep or a swing/bubble screen outside. The sideline tackle, in theory, sounds similar to the old angle tackling drills mentioned above, but Smart and his staff also give the runner the option to cut back inside when drilling it in practice. This ensures that the defenders are taking the proper angles and aiming points and not over-pursuing the ball.
With the ball carrier essentially having a two-way go, players are taught to take one of those ways away. They are taught to pursue the ball from the inside out and aim for the inside hip of the runner to take away the cutback option. As with all other tackles, they are taught not to stop their feet but rather scallop down as they approach the ball carrier. The play below, from Georgia’s season opener against North Carolina, is a good example as to why. Smith, coming from the slot, pursues the running back screen pass to the sideline with a good inside-out angle, taking away the cutback. When he gets to the point of tackle, though, he stops his feet which allows the runner to pick up a few extra yards along the sideline. The end result here wasn’t overly bad but those extra yards begin to add up over time.
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In the next two plays, the defender shows proper form taking the cutback option away from the runner, keeps his feet moving and makes the tackle by driving through the inside hip of the runner. The first also came in the season opener versus the Tar Heels and this time Smith executes his assignment to perfection. Watch as quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (#10) throws a late screen out into the flat on the far side of the field forcing Smith to travel a long way to make the tackle.
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Smith does a great job getting downhill, taking an inside-out path, throttling down but keeping his feet moving and aiming for the inside hip of the ball carrier which takes away the cutback inside. If the receiver was able to cut back inside, there was a ton of green space in front of him but Smith was able to hold him to a short gain.
The next play came in the game against the Ole Miss Rebels. Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly (#10) throws to his tight end, Evan Engram (#17), on a quick out route and Bulldog linebacker Natrez Patrick (#6) does a good job minimizing the gain and bringing Engram down along the sideline.
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Patrick gets beaten by Engram on the out route but takes a good angle to the tight end’s inside hip and stops him when he tries to cut back inside. Now, technically this play would be considered a success for Ole Miss and this tackle ended up meaning very little to the outcome of the game. Patrick did prevent the first down, however, forcing the offense to come back and play another down. Doing this consistently throughout a season adds up and can be the difference between an average and good defense.
The final tackle that Smart and his staff focus on teaching is the buddy tackle. This tackle is much like it sounds and is simply when two defenders tackle the ball carrier together. This will occur most often in zone coverage situations on short passes thrown underneath the defense. According to Smart, this accounts for over 60% of his team’s tackles. For a team that runs primarily man coverage, this tackle will be far less prevalent, but for any zone coverage-based defense like Georgia, the buddy tackle is very common.
To properly execute the tackle, each defender will take a leverage to the ball carrier’s right or left, leaving the runner with no place to go. The key point that Smart and his staff preach in buddy tackling is for second tackler to maintain his leverage on the ball carrier. It is extremely rare for both defenders to converge on the ball carrier at the same exact moment. In most scenarios, one defender makes contact with the ball carrier first, redirecting the runner’s momentum. If the second tackler simply maintains his original path to the runner, he could give up his leverage and potentially give the runner a free path and/or knock the first tackler off of the runner. As such, the second tackler is taught to stay patient and never give up his leverage. If the inside defender gets the first hit on the runner, redirecting him outside, the second tackler must ensure that he maintains leverage and doesn’t give the runner a path outside.
The play below, again from the opener versus the Tar Heels, is a good example of this coming to life in game action. On this play Trubisky throws to slot receiver Ryan Switzer (#3) who adjusts his route outside when he sees his quarterback under pressure. Switzer makes the catch and takes the ball outside toward the sideline where he is met by two Georgia defenders.
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On the surface, there is nothing special about this tackle. In fact, Switzer technically stepped out of bounds himself. Pay attention to Bulldog linebacker Roquan Smith (#3), though, and the patience he displays on the play. He pursues Switzer to the sideline from the middle of the field but does a great job staying under control at the point of tackle. He sees defensive back Juwuan Briscoe (#12) coming downhill to make the tackle. Briscoe makes first contact, so Smith waits patiently to ensure that he gets the proper leverage on the tackle. If Smith would have just charged in out of control for the big hit, both defenders would have ended up on Switzer’s inside leaving him with a path down the sideline. They may have even collided and cancelled each other out all together. Smith displays great patience though, and works back outside after Briscoe makes the initial hit to ensure he maintained leverage on Switzer and forced him out of bounds.
The game of football has constantly evolved, both offensively and defensively, especially within the past 10-15 years. Despite this, one thing has never changed, the importance of sound, fundamental tackling. A good tackling team forces more third downs by stopping those quick screens on 2nd and 7. It can turn field goals into punts and touchdowns into field goals. It is very rare for a defense to be able to completely shut down an opposing offense, especially in the offensive-oriented game we see today. As such, it is those little differences that give a team a chance to win, and those differences are created through sound fundamentals.
This is especially true for a team like the Bulldogs, who, in 2017, will be led by a young quarterback. Regardless of who lines up behind center, whether it be sophomore Jacob Eason or true freshman Jake Fromm, it is imperative for the Bulldog defense to keep the pressure off of him. They can do that by limiting the opponent’s offense and avoid asking him to put a ton of points on the scoreboard. Luckily for the Bulldogs, Kirby Smart understands this and seems to have them focused on the right things.