Let's Speak Technique: Form Tackling and Rugby Tackling

A new trend is taking over football in the form of a tackling technique known as "the rugby tackle". Popularized initially by Pete Carroll out in Seattle, it was recently adapted by Ohio State's Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash prior to the Buckeye's 2014 run to the national title.

In this article, I want to discuss the techniques of what I term "form tackling" and "rugby tackling". I am of the opinion that form tackling is a sound, safe, an efficient form of playing defensive football. I also believe rugby tackling to be highly effective. So what is my preference? Between the two, I personally don't have one; my preference is for safe, technically sound tackling that prevents the ball carrier from picking up yards and getting my defense off the field. It is my conviction that the importance lies in the technique and the ability to get your players to buy into that importance. So let's start tackling this subject (that pun had to happen, I apologize).

What Form Tackling Isn't
We aren't going to spear. We aren't going to launch ourselves. We're not going to have our eyes toward the ground. We aren't going to be stupid. We aren't going to set ourselves up in a concrete room, put a blind fold on, and attempt to run the crown of our head into hard things.

Why? Because that's not good form. If you believe tackling is head-hunting, body throwing hits, then we are on a different page. That's not how you tackle. It's not safe and it's not effective, so don't do it.

Form Tackling

The big thing that is being pushed these days is "heads-up football", and that's absolutely correct. The head should always be up and the eyes should always see what it hits. This starts with the angle to the football and through the tackle, so we start there.

Always track the hips, as the hips don't lie. Because the eyes are taking the defender in front of the ball carrier, we want him to track his outside hip. If his outside hip changes position, the eyes are up, and he can adjust our head location to compensate.

Breaking Down
Now, let's talk about how he maximizes strength: think about it like how a dead lift exercise is performed. That is, the legs start so that the inside of the foot is about even with the outside of the shoulder, giving the player a great base. The back should be kept flat with a forward lean of about 45 degrees. The power is generated through the legs, so the defender needs to get low and get in that dead lift form when he breaks down.

Now, it's important his feet keep moving; not wasted movement, but movement with a purpose so that he can change direction and keep his body in a position to make play. The player that allows his feet to go stagnant in football will always lose, so he needs to stay on his toes and keep those feet quick and ready to react, keeping his shoulders square to his target and body in front of the ball carrier.

Now that he's maintained a proper position to the ball, his helmet always wants to be in front of the ball carrier. If he's coming straight on to a player, try to "bite the ball" so that your faskmask lands right where the ball carrier is holding the football (typically the outside arm).

He wants to get good squat strength through his legs, so he's going to get low, maintaining his flat back with about 45 degree forward lean. Step with the foot in the direction the head is going (so if head is going right, step forward with the right foot, and vice versa). The legs should be at about a 45 degree angle on contact so that his eyes are looking slightly up at the football. Then he wants to explode out of his stance forward and up so that your eyes meet the football and the front of his shoulder pad blasts through the the core of the ball carrier (the aiming point is behind the ball carrier, accelerate through the tackle).

Make sure he brings his arms, wrapping them around the ball carrier violently right below their butt or hip if you're coming in from the side. He needs to try squeeze the muscles out of their legs (pop the muscle) tight against his lower chest and abdomen. This is what is termed "a perfect fit". Note that some will wrap the arms a bit higher to help the tackler hit with his chest. "Grab cloth" is part of the mantra and there is a bit more focus on the upward rip. I prefer to put more focus on stopping the leg drive if he can.

While his feet continue to drive and his body is propelling itself forward and up, we want him to wrap and rip his arms upward and drive the player down to the ground, his eyes seeing what it is hitting the whole way through.

Coached Up

Rugby Tackling
So far, we're doing much the same as we were doing before. We want to keep the head up and eyes on the target. "See what you hit".  This starts with the angle to the football and through the tackle, so we start there.

We still track the hips because the hips don't lie. But now, because of a difference in head location on the tackle, we are going to track the inside hip. If the inside hip moves laterally, we can adjust so that our helmet still fits where it should on the tackle. Because our eyes are taking us in front of the ball carrier, we want to track his outside hip. If his outside hip changes position, our eyes are up, and we can adjust our head location to compensate.

Breaking Down
Things are still pretty similar. We still want to maximize strength, but more so, we want to maximize our mobility here. Because there is such an emphasis on bringing the body from behind the ball carrier, it is of the utmost important that he can adjust his position to make a play. Because of this, he should stay a little bit higher (upright, legs should still have a good bend) as he initially breaks down before he really get into his squat stance. Keep his feet moving and on his toes, and keep his eyes locked on the near hip of the ball carrier.

Now we get to the primary change. As I've made reference to several times already, the helmet is going to fit behind the ball carrier. "Eyes through the thighs" to an aiming point just behind the offensive player. We want him to get low but maintain a straight, flat back; getting low is again done through the legs. Then we want to wrap and squeeze, similar to how it is done in a form tackle, but with less upward thrust; remember, his shoulder and chest are contacting the ball carrier's thigh, so your body will tend to be a bit more perpendicular to the ground, putting a greater emphasis on the wrap and squeeze portion to bring the ball carrier down. And while we'll lift, it will generally be a more vertical lift than a lift and drive.

Because he has essentially wrapped and fired through the ball carrier's legs, they tend to go down immediately, but in the event they don't, "drive for 5", meaning he needs to drive the ball carrier back 5 steps and plant them into the ground. If he's coming in from the side, he's going to want to wrap and roll at the thighs, known as the "roll technique".

What I'm describing is the Hawk technique and the roll technique of the video, but there is more included below.

Notice in neither of the descriptions above did I emphasize that this was a "shoulder" or "chest" tackling technique. That's because they both are. In neither case is the helmet, head, or neck, a primary tackling part of the body. Yes, in "form tackling" we want the face mask to find the football; but the face mask should not strike the body. We do not want the neck to be contorted or the crown of the helmet to make contact with with the core in either case. That's is why I emphasize now the similarity between the two; it is often misconstrued that form tackling uses the head as a battering ram, which it is not.

Note also that both emphasize wrapping up. If you aren't wrapping up then you are doing yourself and your team a disservice. Ball carriers aren't static, in fact, they tend to prefer to keep moving, so wrapping up helps prevent them from slipping out of your form fit and allows you to have a controlled, effective technique.

Major Differences
The major differences are placement of the helmet and placement of the shoulder/chest.

Form tackling: Facemask on the ball in front of ball carrier; shoulder in the gut, wrap arms underneath thighs, lift, and bury

Rugby tackling: Facemask behind ball carrier's thigh, wrap and roll; shoulder/chest through the ball carrier's thigh, wrap, squeeze, and bury or roll.

Why It's Successful
Form Tackling
Like in boxing, form tackling is a great way to punish ball carriers bodies. The repeated impacts in the core are draining for offensive players, and the form tackle allows the defender to maximize the power on impact.

Because of that, and the way form works to take down a ball carrier, you generally prevent yards after contact because you are driving and planting a guy either backward or directly sideways.

Rugby Tackling
Rugby tackling stops leg movement for the ball carrier. If a guy can't move his legs, he can't gain many more yards. Because of the aiming point and the emphasis on wrapping, it becomes easier to have the correct form upon contact and still bring the ball carrier down. It does, however, tend to allow ball carrier to fall forward.

When It's Not Successful
Form Tackling
When the technique isn't performed correctly there are two severe consequences: it is unsafe because the head is down or gets too high; when the head is down or too high it prevents you from wrapping, driving, and planting, allowing YAC or resulting in missed tackles.

The misconceptions and the lack of player buy-in (or the preference to be head hunters) prevents this tackling technique to work as designed. With your helmet in front, if your eyes aren't up, a ball carrier can cut against the grain and leave you reaching with only your backside arm. If you're too high, you don't have the power to generate lift and you end up hugging a ball carrier, allowing him to carry you because he has leverage or fight through your arm tackle.

Rugby Tackling
Missed tackles are awful missed tackles. Essentially, if you don't have good technique, you look like you are simply reaching your arms out to try to actually stop a player, which is extremely easy (and quick) to run through. Likewise, because of the aiming point, it is a bit easier for the defender to stop moving his feet when going in for contact. You can often get away with it because you wrap at the thigh, but if you misjudge your aiming point or when you should get into contact, it can leave you on the ground and the ball carrier upright.

The second issue is players putting too much emphasis on tackling with their arms. They reach out and try to grab players by the hips to bring them down instead of attacking with the shoulder to the thigh. What this means is that ball carriers are running through extended arms, which can lead to shoulder and arm injuries.

In reality, form tackling and rugby tackling aren't all that different when done correctly; the bigger issue in my opinion is kids not form tackling correctly.

Why Rugby Tackling is Taking Over
I do think there is something that is safer about tacking the head almost completely out of the tackle by moving it behind the ball carrier, so I'll say that first.

But let's get down to the other major reason. Upon reading this article about rugby tackling and Chris Ash from 247 Sports (note: several other OSU sites also made reference to rugby tackling previously) points to two things that stand out to me.

We spent an insane amount of time trying to work on our ‘blow delivery’ with the whole football team; not just the defense. And when you can watch guys get good inside hand position and get off blocks like we did late in the year, you’re going to be a better defense. 
And second:
And then the way that we changed the way we teach tackling – and not only teach it, but the way we drill it and practice it with live reps all throughout the year. We were three days away from the national championship game and we were still doing live tackling drills. So, it’s how we coach it, it’s how we drill it and how we do it consistently throughout the whole year that led us to become a really good tackling team.
They spent time working diligently on the fundamentals of getting off blocks and the fundamentals of tackling. That was what was lacking from OSU before. They needed that refocus on fundamentals to get better; the change in tackling technique essentially worked as an excuse to have that dedicated focus.

To the first point, getting off blocks is essential to putting yourself in a position to have good technique on your tackles (not to mention get to a point where you can make a tackle to begin with). More teams need to focus on their blow delivery and hand placement and how to handle blocks at all levels, IMO.

Secondly, it was a dedicated focus on tackling technique that often lapses with teams that do the same-old-same year-after-year that they assume players have been doing for years and thus already are fine at it. This is a mistake. Tackling technique, drills, hitting, all of that, need to be repped and repped repeatedly throughout the season. I know we like to mitigate the amount of hits our players take, but if we don't want them through the fundamentals and ingrain in them the technique, then those fundamentals lapse and we have issues. That not only effects player safety, it impacts the ability of our defense to make hits, get ball carriers down, and get our defense off the field.

I don't think either, when done correctly, is better than the other. I do think Rugby tackling is safer in general because tackles don't happen in a vacuum where you can have perfect form every time. I do believe form tackling is more powerful and intimidating, and when done correctly takes away more hidden yardage (rugby tackling stops feet but often allows ball carriers to fall forward); but you need to get your players to buy in, something that may be easier when teaching rugby tackling.

In my opinion, the biggest issue with "form tackling", is that it's become too much of a head-hunter mentality and coaches have lapsed in their responsibility to drill it throughout the year and even before the season. You even read it with what Ash says in the piece linked above: "You watch most people talk about teaching tackling in the old-school and it’s head-across-the-body, up high, wrap-and-squeeze". You don't want your head up high, the head should only be as high as it's allowed to be while still wrapping with your arms and planting; but the helmet has kept going higher and higher and now it's the head-hunter mentality.

Safety needs to be important for the future of the sport. Tackling needs to be sound if you want to succeed in the modern, offensive-dominated era of football. There is generally a more significant focus on solo-tackles and playing in space, if you want to succeed in football and you want football to succeed, let's speak technique and tackle the tackling issue with good, sound fundamentals.