K.J. Wright laid down the boom against the Minnesota Vikings and poor Stefon Diggs. Yet the reaction to the hit from the FOX 9 announcers was revealing about the current state of football: Paul Allen and Pete Bercich were audibly surprised that no flag was thrown.
The NFL’s tweak to their rules has had clearly visible, league-wide implications:
“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent’s head or neck area – lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent’s torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul. Violations of the rule will be easier to see and officiate when they occur in open space – as opposed to close line play – but this rule applies anywhere on the field at any time.”
Even Wright expected to be penalized:
Talked to KJ Wright about his big hit. Said he looked around expecting flag given new NFL rules. Was obviously glad not to get one.— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) August 25, 2018
Wright’s pleasant surprise demonstrates how much incorrect public perception of the new tackling rules is going as far to influence the players. There’s been outrage. There’s been non-contact proclamations. There’s been doomsday think pieces—some of which go as far to predict total disaster for the NFL.
This is nonsense.
At the risk of being branded a “wussy” and a “SJW”, I’m here to show you how the Seahawks’ technique makes BIG contact remain in the NFL. Football isn’t dead, and it’s not even close to dying.
The USA Football Heads Up program has become the recommended coaching practice for teams across the nation. It is based in shoulder contact tackling that emphasizes keeping the head up and out of the way in the tackle.
Combined with the two excellent Seahawks videos on their tackling technique, you can see how it is very possible to still deliver a nasty hit in a rugby style. It is an adjustment for players, given how often stuff like “get your helmet on the ball” is stressed by coaches, but once comfortable with the technique you can still rock guys—in a much safer style too.
I urge you to check them out:
Our own Kenneth Arthur put together an excellent piece on the videos too.
Using these tools has proved invaluable to me as a coach. Last year I coached defensive backs at an English university. (The University of East Anglia Pirates) As a coaching staff, we made a conscious effort to teach a heads-up, near-shoulder/near-pec strike zone tackle.
The results were staggering. Having a clear tackling plan in place didn’t just reduce the risk of head injuries, it also dramatically lessened the arm and shoulder injuries players suffered. Coaches across our conference praised us: “Your guys tackle the best I’ve ever seen.”
Leading with the head is bad technique.
There’s an unavoidable truth in this discussion. Ryan Shazier’s sad injury could have been prevented by better tackling technique. Shazier led and made contact with his head. He is now a clear demonstration of the dangers of such an approach.
If you look at concussion and paralysis examples in football from making contact, it is from leading with the head. Here is a must-watch video which was well ahead of its time:
Some will argue the rule is unfair as in the moment players have no choice to revert to their old ways and instincts. In desperation to bring down the ballcarrier, they revert. Muscle memory can be an issue, which is why it is so important for this technique to be taught at pee-wee level and up. However, the Seahawks have had few issues with this reversion, showing that argument to largely be a fallacy.
Richard Sherman’s tweet briefly gave me something to think about:
There is no “make adjustment” to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic And should be dismissed immediately. When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead by their head. Will be flag football soon.— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) August 19, 2018
But—likely influenced by public feeling—Sherman fails to account for the actual definition of the ruling. Few incorrect applications have been made. Seattle leads with the shoulder, makes contact with the shoulder and keeps the head up while tucking it to the side. They are a shoulder tackling team based on leverage. If you do this, you aren’t going to get a flag thrown.
It is tougher to make a rugby-style tackle with a large helmet and pads on, which is why the leverage in the tackle—the approach, positioning and pad level—is crucial too.
The Seahawks’ tackling this pre-season has been near-exemplary from a safety standpoint. That sounds very boring I know; when is football, an inherently violent game, supposed to be safe?
Don’t worry. The Seahawks still hit with ferocious strength. They just do it legally, without the incredibly dangerous risks of concussion and paralysis. I hope this article can serve as a worthy retort to those saying the game is now impossible to play and finished as a contact sport.
Let’s get back to that legal Wright decleater. The Vikings run a typical ‘cover 3 beater’: a mesh concept.
Wright is there to move out with the backfield threat and punish any crossers. Widening his leverage with the running back, Wright sees Diggs come into his vicinity.
He moves into the crosser, hitting the receiver with his shoulder in the legal ‘strike-zone’— below the neck and above the knees. Wright does duck his head slightly—which the league is trying to avoid. Ducking the head when making contact with it is a massive paralysis risk, and this ducking is inevitable in such a bang-bang play.
However, because Wright is focused on using his shoulder to make the contact, his body is turned sideways and his head is well out of the play. This is a fantastic, savage way to punish teams trying to run a staple coverage dissector. Moreover, it is completely legal.
Seattle’s profile tackle is applicable when meeting the runner in the hole or meeting a returner downfield. It involves exploding upwards, making contact with the near pec and shoulder while tucking the head to the side. The tackler then wraps, and—if needed—drives for five.
Quinton Jefferson on this play does duck his head slightly as he tries to get lower than the running back, as he is trying to lower himself while shrugging off two blockers. But, because he is using the near shoulder and near pec as his strike zone, he does not make contact with his helmet when meeting the back in the hole. This is despite the running back lowering his head.
(The dispute that the rule is favoring the offense to the defense is a fair one, with running backs lowering their head into contact going unpunished or punished on the defense. But sticking to the Seahawks and USA football principles won’t see it called on the defense.)
Shaquem Griffin motoring downfield in punt coverage punishes the returner for turning his back to the play. He explodes upwards, making contact with the pec and keeping the head out of the tackling. His opponent is smashed to the floor.
Barkevious Mingo on kick-off coverage clothes lines a guy by approaching from an excellent angle, keeping the leverage on the football and then smashing the ball carrier with his nearside shoulder. His head is nowhere near contact.
Hawk Tackle/Hawk Roll Tackle
Seattle teaches a hawk tackle, which involves sinking low and exploding upwards to strike through the thighs of the ball-carrier. They also teach this tackle with a roll at the end, to ensure the ball carrier is brought down in the open field.
Bobby Wagner registers a big thud on the scrambling quarterback by tracking the nearside thighs, sinking to get low and then contacting with his shoulder and hawk rolling. He keeps his eyes through the thighs and wraps well.
Griffin bulllets through at the quarterback moving up in the pocket and explodes upwards from his sunken position with his eyes and head up seeing the target, contacting with his shoulder and stopping the runner’s escape.
They are sinking to get low with their chest out and head up, not ducking.
Quarterback Strike zone
Various clips have been posted to twitter of fans moaning that the sport is now non-contact at the professional level. One such play was this Kansas City Chiefs sack.
This was called a penalty, roughing the passer.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) August 25, 2018
Football is becoming a non-contact sport. pic.twitter.com/WA8OVZl4Cm
Clearly, the defender makes clear contact with the crown of his helmet. This is outright dangerous. It is asking the spine to absorb all of the energy in the hit. It is a good application of the rule and keeps players far safer to see this penalised.
Rasheem Green in his sack uses the quarterback’s strike zone well—again below the neck and above the knees. He finishes with a wide hug and hawk roll tackle, nearly forcing the fumble and then completely bringing the passer down. This is how to sack a quarterback. His shoulder makes the contact. His head is not involved.
Quarterback Strike zone/Profile Tackle sack
Various tweets have also misinterpreted the rule. Take this one. Which states “welcome to 2018” while showing a wrap-up and drive of the quarterback into the ground.
Roughing the passer!! Welcome to 2018. pic.twitter.com/oIIrVplQAO— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) August 18, 2018
This is a perfect profile tackle. The head is well out of the way, the contact is good and the Seahawks have shown it countless times, including in this pre-season:
Yet this isn’t “welcome to 2018”. It has nothing to do with the helmet rule. The NFL trying to protect the most valuable assets by banning wrapping up and driving the quarterback into the ground is nothing new. Their inconsistency in calling this—with a Tom Brady getting better treatment than a Cam Newton—is mightily frustrating.
But it has nothing do with the new rule!
Coverage Strike zone
Coming downhill in coverage can result in players spearing with their helmet as they look to hit hard and form vanishes as a result.
Seattle have maintained their form in such situations.
First up Bradley McDougald comes down to punish the running back catching the ball in the flat. He explodes into the receiver with a shoulder hit, his head up with no helmet involved.
Next, Tedric Thompson keys on the play from his deep safety assignment with rapid instincts. He rockets downhill on the slant and smacks the receiver. Again, it is a shoulder hit with no helmet involved!
(I’m repeating myself here, but there’s only so many ways of saying the obvious. You see how simple it is?)
Open-field pursuit is an area where players can get their form all wrong too. Trying to bring the ball carrier down or shove him out of bounds sees them make contact with their head. The Seahawks’ technique encourages better pursuit angles, as you have to keep leverage on the football in relation to your near shoulder.
We saw what happens when this does not happen in the week 2 Miami @ Carolina pre-season game. The defender is left lifeless after aiming with his wrong shoulder and leading with his head. He makes direct helmet to helmet contact and is left worryingly lifeless. Thankfully with a full range of movement, Da’Norris Searcy was rightly flagged on the play and the Dolphins received 15-yards plus an automatic first down.
Contrast that with the angles Seattle take on this big Colts run. The two Seahawks defenders, Austin Calitro and Thompson, position their near shoulders to knock the ball carrier out of bounds. Neither of them is close to getting their head involved in the play.
Get the head out the way
The one occasion Seattle has been penalised by the ruling this pre-season was correct. And it’s clear to see why.
Akeem King does a marvellous job hustling downfield on the punt coverage and is ready to boom the returner. He launches from the hawk-tackle position, but his angle of approach is wrong and therefore he makes direct contact with his helmet—rather than tucking it to the side and striking with his shoulder.
Attention must be paid to the near-shoulder and near-pec principles. If you lead with the wrong side, the head is more likely to get involved.
The Seahawks have had a few missed tackles stemming from footwork issues—natural for preseason football in any technique—but the way they hit is still the golden standard for the NFL. The Seahawks prove that slaying offensive players is still possible.
Now, Seattle’s style of tackling is not coached league-wide. Other teams will of course differ slightly in how they teach heads up tackling. It’s telling that Bill Belichick, greatest coach of all time, envisioned the rule being of zero issue to him and his coaching staff, given their methods:
Bill Belichick isn't sweating the NFL's new tackling rule. pic.twitter.com/LV4H3b6xM3— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 21, 2018
Admittedly, there’s been the odd bad call and application of the rule, but that’s like any rule in the NFL. See below:
I wish the best for Marquis Lee, but this rule is getting ridiculous! How is this a penalty?!? pic.twitter.com/u5kRSOhJat— Jack Healy (@JackHealy2525) August 25, 2018
Human error is natural. But the pre-season has given the refs the chance to get it right. Furthermore, no Seahawks game has had an incorrect call.
The public backlash largely stemming from ignorance has put immense pressure on the NFL, and now they must not backtrack into a rather wishy-washy “if it’s unintended contact don’t call it” style. This is not the way to get consistent officiating of the rule. If actual problems arise it will stem from a concession, as “intention” is very subjective. The rule is fine, it is certain players’ technique which isn’t.
It is reasonable to question the true motives of the NFL—whether this is designed to improve the safety of players through genuine concern, or just a way to avoid lawsuits by ‘showing they care’.
But that cynicism is not the source of anger for what is a significant portion of fans. The original ruling encourages better, more effective tackling technique. And the Seattle Seahawks are powerfully showing the rest of the league how it’s done.