Falcons working on the lost art of tackling

One of the major problems for the Falcons last season — and they had several while going 4-12 — was missed tackles.

The Falcons missed 126 of them, which was the ninth-most in the league, according to profootballfocus.com. The issue has not improved during the exhibition season with notable missed tackles in all three games against Miami, Houston and Tennessee.

But missing tackles in not strictly an Atlanta issue.

In part because of recent rule changes regarding targeting and the reduced amount of contact in practice, some contend that tackling has become a lost art in the NFL.

“I don’t think there is any doubt,” Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said. “I don’t think that there is any doubt that the way of tackling has always been taught the right way, but it’s the press that has always blown up the big hits. (That led to an rush to) get on SportsCenter with this thing, leading-with-the-head hit all through the 80s.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith, a former college linebacker who once racked up nearly 200 tackles in a season at East Tennessee State, doesn’t believe that tackling is a forgotten science.

“You talk to the historians about football and especially in the NFL, and they say it’s a lost art,” Smith said. “I don’t believe it’s a lost art.”

Smith points to the decrease of practice time and the death of two-a-day practices, which changed with the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Less practice time has led to the shoddy tackling league-wide.

Tampa Bay led the league 146 missed tackles last season, followed by St. Louis (145), Minnesota (143), Washington (143), Oakland (135), Chicago (135), Dallas (130) and Cleveland (130).

New Orleans (77), Seattle (78), New England (84) and San Francisco (92) were the league’s top tackling teams.

“It’s very difficult because of the size and the speed of the players,” Smith said. “We have to come up with ways to be able to simulate it, but not put the stress on our players.”

This training camp, the Falcons have used new methods to work on tackling. They have varied from live tackling in the traditional Oklahoma drill to walking through form tackles in slow motion.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the offseason to try to figure out ways to be a better tackling team,” Smith said. “It’s very difficult.”

Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, one of the league’s top cornerbacks, believes targeting rules have slowed defenders down

“Guys have to be a little bit more cautious when you’re going to tackle guys, leading with your head, the crown of your head, defenseless players and things like that,” Peterson said. “It’s a little different than it was back before they implemented the new rules.”

The league clearly wants to see more form tackling, which breaks down to a hit, wrap and lift.

“We definitely want to go back to form tackling,” Peterson said. “I believe that the coaches are in a position right now where they have to adjust and teach us in a different way. That’s what we have to do right now, is adjust to the new rules.”

Former Falcons quarterback D.J. Shockley, now a broadcaster, gets to watch both the college and the NFL game.

“I don’t think the guys are confused,” Shockley said. “I think the guys are worried. They are more worried about injury. They are more worried about getting fined. Those are the biggest issues.”

While coaches point to how tackling is taught, Shockley doesn’t believe that’s the issue.

“Guys know how to tackle,” he said. “Especially once you get to the league, if you don’t know how to tackle, then that’s an issue. But most guys know how to tackle, but know there is a lot of thought going on. Will I get fined? The possibility of getting injured and all of that kind of stuff.”

In Smith’s first season in 2008, the Falcons missed only 64 tackles. Last season, the total was nearly double. Under Smith, missed tackles has increased every season from 64 up to 72, 100, 101, 126 and 126 again last year.

Linebacker Paul Worrilow, who led the Falcons in tackles last season with 137, acknowledges that the team’s tackling can improve.

“You are taught ever since you’re little to wrap up and run your feet,” Worrilow said. “That’s kind of the key thing. Not diving. You don’t want to launch and shoot out. You want a good form tackle where the first guy wraps up and runs his feet. The second guy (to the ball) can try to strip the ball. Those are the basics.”

In order to make sure he hones his skills, Worrilow has made adjustments.

“Because we don’t get to tackle a lot out here, visualization is a big part of it,” Worrilow said. “You have to visualize yourself making the tackle.”

In practice, players pursue to the ball but when they reach the ball-carrier, they will hit him and keep on running. The practice is called “whizzing by” or “thudding” the ball carrier.

“You want to kind of feel like you are approaching, getting closer and right before you would wrap up and run your feet, in practice you have to let go,” Worrilow said. “That visualization really carries over well to the game.”

There is hope that contemporary players can adjust and make sound, fundamental form tackles.

“It’s coming back because there is such an emphasis on lowering the striking zone,” Arians said. “It’s our job as coaches to enforce that and get it taught.”