Tackling is football’s most fundamental skill. Before the forward pass, before there was even blocking as we now know it, football was a game of rugged men dragging fleet ball carriers to the ground.
Tackling is sometimes football’s forgotten skill, as anyone who has ever watched a cornerback launch at a receiver’s ankles can attest. It can also be overlooked by experts and analysts: We get carried away breaking down schemes and matchups, forgetting that the difference between winning and losing is often as simple as breaking down, wrapping and driving the runner down.
Last year’s Giants won the Super Bowl, in part, because they were the best tackling team in the NFL. The Panthers, despite an offense that produced 6,237 yards, failed to crack .500 because they were one of the worst tackling teams in the NFL. The Panthers’ fate this year is wrapped up in their ability to wrap, and the Giants’ title defense will fail if they keep tackling the way they did in their season-opening loss to the Cowboys.
Table 1 lists the five defenses that allowed broken tackles on the highest percentage of plays in 2011. It also shows the Giants, who allowed the lowest broken-tackle percentages in the NFL. All statistics are courtesy Football Outsiders:
Table 1: Broken Tackles Allowed
|Rank||Team||% of Plays with Broken Tackles|
Opponents broke 71 tackles against the Panthers, but just 41 against the Giants. The average play with a broken tackle in the NFL gains 13.9 yards, while the typical NFL play nets just 5.6 yards. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but a quick-and-dirty estimate of 8.3 yards allowed per broken tackle (13.9 minus 5.6) means the Panthers’ defense cost itself about 250 net yards, when compared to the Giants, simply because of poor tackling.
It is no surprise that the Buccaneers, last year’s not-so-extreme pillow fighters, top the list by a wide margin. The Bucs faced both the Giants and Panthers this season, and Greg Schiano’s emphasis on the basics of tackling clearly paid off against the Panthers, who were held to just 10 rushing yards. Tackling was not the main problem for the Bucs against the Giants either, and even in defeat they clearly demonstrated that their back-to-basics approach has made them a better team than they were in 2011.
Can the Panthers expect a similar improvement? Let’s take a look at just who missed all of those tackles. Table 2 shows three Panthers defenders who were among the league leaders in missed tackles, plus two other Panthers defenders who were among the surest tacklers in the NFL among starters:
Table 2: Panthers' Defenders
The Panthers’ three missed-tackle leaders were all defensive backs, which is not too surprising because most broken tackles occur in the open field, not near the line of scrimmage. Martin, the worst offender, is no longer a starter; Haruki Nakamura has replaced him. That upgrade alone should help the Panthers’ defense.
The two linebackers who each missed just one tackle (while making a combined 111 of them) are also no longer starters; Connor is not even with the team anymore! But parting with Connor and demoting Senn back to special teams can help the Panthers, even though they were the team’s surest tacklers. The Panthers got starters Jon Beason and Thomas Davis back from injury at linebacker, and they drafted Luke Kuechly, one of the most prolific tacklers in NCAA history. While Senn and Connor brought down the ball carriers they reached, none of the tables above count the players that linebackers didn’t reach. When linebackers don’t get to the ball carrier, safeties must make the tackle, and when Martin and Godfrey were forced to make multiple tackles, bad things happened. The rebuilt linebacking corps (Beason and Davis were limited in practice this week but should play on Thursday) can prevent missed tackles in the secondary before they happen.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Giants learned a hard lesson about the effect of missed tackles against the Cowboys. Running back DeMarco Murray spun away from both Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck in the backfield, then raced up the sideline for 48 yards for the game’s signature play. Kiwanuka had just two tackles broken in 2011, and Tuck has missed only a handful of tackles in his entire career, so their sloppy efforts against the Cowboys were highly uncharacteristic.
The Giants’ tackling was better against the Buccaneers, interception returns excluded. It will have to be better still against the Panthers, whose offense was eighth in the league at shedding tackles last year (the Giants were 15th). Running back Jonathan Stewart broke 21 tackles on just 189 touches, a very high ratio, but the guy everyone is worried about is Newton. Newton broke 13 tackles last year; only Michael Vick and Tim Tebow broke more as quarterbacks. Eight of Newton’s sheds came past the line of scrimmage, when he was thundering downfield for extra yardage.
Newton is a fine pocket passer, but opponents know that his rushing ability allows him to break down defenses and turn negative plays into positives. Newton rushed for just four yards against a Bucs defense that focused specifically on techniques for tackling a 240-pound man in the open field. Newton rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown against the Saints, and when he ran free, so did the Panthers offense.
The message is clear for both teams. If the Panthers can keep breaking tackles on offense and making them on defense, they can beat teams like the Giants and vault into the playoff picture. If the Giants can go back to stopping opponents in their tracks, they can beat just about anyone.
It is easy to tune out coaches when they start preaching about the basics. You can bet the Giants and Panthers didn’t do that this week.