Back in 2014, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, with the help of former assistant Rocky Seto, did something that professional coaches would rarely ever do: Release an instructional video that would help teach other teams, coaches, and players replicate what the Seahawks do so well. That thing that they do so well is tackling, but Carroll felt an obligation to try and help others have the same level of success and technique as Seattle has in that regard because it seemed so beneficial to the safety of the game and long-term health of the players.
In the video, Carroll lays out six types of tackling techniques, including “Hawk Tackle,” “Tracking,” and “Compression Tackle,” all of which are meant to improve how a defender approaches and makes contact with the ball-carrier by taking the head out of the action. The shoulder-level, “rugby style” tackling techniques, which the Seahawks have been using every year under Carroll as he started coaching this as far back as his USC days, helped Seattle’s defense reach historical levels from 2012-2015; in their Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks had just two missed tackles in the 43-8 win, their second-best game of that season in that category. The success that their defensive backs have with tackling continues to this day:
That video had an immediate impact at Ohio State, however.
Chris Ash, former co-defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes, said he watched the video at least 20 times when it came out in 2014.
“The Pete Carroll video really got a lot of people to go back and evaluate what they’re doing, but not a lot of people necessarily bought into it because it’s different,” Ash said. “ If you get out of your comfort zone, people are willing to do that. We did, and it paid off. … If you’re a coach that’s been doing the same thing for 30 years and felt like you’ve had success doing it, why am I going to change what I’m doing? I look at it differently. There’s always a way to do stuff better. You’ve got to at least evaluate it.”
Ash said it wasn’t exactly easy, but eventually convinced head coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State’s defensive assistants, to go along with Carroll’s technique. That takes some guts for a guy who was in his first season as the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. It’s a risk to just start changing how you teach players to do the one thing that happens on almost every play, which is tackling.
Ohio State won the national championship that following season.
The Buckeyes defensive players included first round picks Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Gareon Conley, and Eli Apple. They also had other drafted players Raekwon McMillan, Vonn Bell, Doran Grant, Adolphus Washington, Michael Bennett, and Josh Perry. Undrafted, but relevant to the Seahawks, Ohio State also had Tyvis Powell that season, and he had 76 tackles from the safety position.
Of course, Ohio State players will always have a higher percentage shot at being drafted or being a first round pick because they are a premier college football program, but you’ll notice how many defensive backs are on that list. (Ash was also a defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach at Wisconsin 2010-2012, meaning that he indeed overlapped with Russell Wilson’s one season with the Badgers.)
It’s a technique that Ash continues to coach today, now preparing for his second season as the head coach at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in 2016, but had two proficient sophomore tacklers in Trevor Morris (102) and Deonte Roberts (92).
"I think it's hard for coaches to stand up and say, 'We were wrong. We were teaching it wrong.' And in 2014 we decided we were wrong and there are better ways to do it," Ash said. "Tackling is not the only fundamental in football that people continue to learn and do better, whether it's blow delivery, stances, steps -- whatever. There is always ways to improve and do it better. I think what a lot of coaches need to do is have the guts to admit they are wrong and find ways to do things. Not everybody is willing to do that."
His players also ended up getting on board with the new coaching techniques.
"We do a lot of tackling," cornerback Isaiah Wharton said. "Coach is real big on tackling. He makes sure we have all the proper technique and we have a good amount of reps so we can carry it over to team periods. It just allows you to play real fast and you feel a lot safer when you're doing it, so you can play faster obviously if you feel safe."
Here, Ash can be seen teaching Rutgers players how to tackle properly with the use of a giant donut pad:
Which is the used on humans:
It’s something that Ash became very passionate about, not just because it was effective in winning games, but because it makes football seem more palatable to those who have grave concerns about head injuries and the long term effects of concussions:
“This game is under attack,” Ash says later, sitting in the shade of the stadium on the last day of summer, fall and football looming. “We want it to be a safer game, we want it to be a game that’s around for a long time, we want it to be a game that parents feel safe about their sons playing.
“It’s our job to make that happen. If there are safer ways to coach and teach and improve the game, then that’s our obligation.”
That’s also where Atavus comes into play. The Seattle-based company teaches rugby-style tackling techniques, and works with schools like Washington, Ohio State, Nebraska, and now Rutgers. The company’s website advertises online training, camps, consultations, game analysis, and practice film assessment.
“We would like to think we are a rugby style tackling team,” says Washington head coach Chris Petersen. The Huskies just had three defensive backs go in the second round of the NFL draft: Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, and Kevin King. Baker had the second-highest tackling efficiency against the run of any safety in the Pac-12 last season.
Nebraska has also been using the technique under head coach Mike Riley for the last two seasons. He spoke about it last August:
"Not every situation is perfect," he said. "Sometimes tackles are ugly because you just have to get them down. The only way you can change old habits is tons of repetition. Yes, there'll probably be guys who revert. In the end, one of the main goals is to keep the head out.”
Safety Nate Gerry, a fifth round pick this year out of Nebraska, totaled 241 tackles over the last three seasons, including 17 for a loss.
"It takes a while for us to get the basics down to where it comes to muscle memory," Gerry said. "The science behind it, the explosion of power and using your hips more ... I like it. It's supposed to be just as violent but safer than what we've been learning."
The latest to speak out in praise of Carroll’s 2014 video is Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who said it changed how he coaches the game. Diaz was effusive in how impactful that moment was for him when speaking about it this week on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody:
“Three years ago at Louisiana Tech in our office, we watched the video Pete Carroll put out. Hopefully, he’ll go down as a guy that (helped the game). This video may do more for this game’s future than anything else,” Diaz said. “With no incentive competitively, other than for the game he loves, they put out the video on how to teach tackling, the rugby, leverage shoulder-style of tackling.
“We sat there as a defensive staff. Man, some of this stuff goes against the way you were taught how to tackle from peewee football. But it takes the head out of the tackle. Furthermore, it’s more sound because of keeping leverage of the football, keeping the ball on your inside pad at all times.”
Diaz has jumped around from Louisiana Tech in 2014 to Mississippi State in 2015, and beginning at Miami last season. That’s at least three more schools who have a mark left on them from Carroll’s video. The Hurricanes defense improved from 77th in the nation in points allowed in 2015 to 12th in Diaz’ first season; he was nominated for the Broyles award, going to the top assistant in college football.
Cornerback Corn Elder had 76 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, going from an unknown to a fifth round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers.
“This past year, Corn Elder, who was an average at best tackler, he put 13 games of some of the best tackling I’ve ever seen from a cornerback ever,” Diaz said. “It helped him with the NFL and everything beyond. Our secondary tackling was amazing. I don’t mean getting guys on the ground. We were picking people up like WWE out there. It was remarkable. Once one guy did it, the next guy wanted to do it.
“I’m a big believer in that. It’s something I preach any chance I get at clinics, because we can play this sport for a long time. Like Pete Carroll says, it can still have the violence we enjoy, but smart.”
The Seahawks released an updated video in 2015, and throughout every level of football you can see the trickle down effect that could save players from countless head injuries:
Carroll didn’t have to release a video in 2014 on how the Seattle defenders do what they do. They didn’t have to encourage other football teams to copy them. It certainly would not do much to help them win football games, and in fact I can’t think of any scenario in which it would. But it has made the game of football safer without taking away from the reasons why we like to watch the game of football. Players who have incorporated this style of tackling in this game have not only remained just as effective, in some cases it seems to have made them even better at taking down their opponents.
Making the game safer may not be tangible but it is something Carroll, as well as Seto, Atavus founder/rugby legend Waisale Serevi, and others, can be just as proud of as a Lombardi, if not moreso. The NFL champion changes just about every year, but this is something that could have an impact for a lifetime.