The Ohio State Buckeyes went into the 2014 college football season ranked 46th in total defense, and tackling had been a major issue to end their 2013 campaign -- particularly in their Big-10 Championship Game loss to Michigan State and their Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. After a huge improvement in 2014 and a National Championship to show for it, new Co-Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash gave a lot of credit for the jump to 19th in total defense on watching Pete Carroll's now famous Rugby-Tackling Instructional Video from last summer. Ash convinced his staff, and Urban Meyer, to change up Ohio State's coaching and install new tackling techniques for what we now know to be called the "Hawk Tackle."
"We changed our tackling philosophy, partly because Pete Carroll's video inspired us to go back and really evaluate ourselves," Ash told reporters this past week. "When we did evaluate ourselves, we found out that what we were coaching wasn't showing up on film."
"We went through the self-evaluation last summer after spring practice and it was a fairly big change," he said. "Philosophically, everything that you've been taught in the game of football and how you tackle, we were going against that."
"The Pete Carroll video really got a lot of people to go back and evaluate what they're doing," he said. "But not a lot of people necessarily bought into it because it's different, and if you get out of your comfort zone -- a lot of people aren't willing to do that -- and we did, and it paid off. I'm glad we did."
"If you're a coach and you've been doing it for 30 years and you've had success doing it, your thought is, 'why am I going to change what I'm doing?' I look at it differently — 'there's always a way to do stuff better.' And, you've got to at least evaluate that — at the end of the day, and through your exhaustive research you realize it's not better, we don't change. But I'm not going to be one that, 'we're doing it this way, because we've done it [this way].' If I see or hear something that spurs some thought, and I start to research, and find out — 'yeah, this is actually better' — we'll do it. And, that's really what that video did — it made us think, are we doing the right thing, really? So, we go back and evaluate."
"I'm so glad that I did watch that video when I did, and we went through as a staff and did that self-evaluation when we did, because I feel today that after 18 years of coaching, I taught something that actually shows up on tape and is safer for the players."
"We did our own evaluation," continued Ash. "I probably watched that video that Pete Carroll put out like, 20 times, to be honest with you. Because I wanted to just keep going back, listening to what he was talking about — ‘safety was the number-one thing, safety, safety, safety,' and I thought, you know what? I don't know that the way we're teaching tackling is necessarily unsafe, but should we change? So, I thought, I'm not going to put this to bed. I'm going to go watch our film."
"I start watching our film," he said, "and I'll be damned. Everything he's talking about [with regards to unsafe techniques] is showing up on film, and we're not even coaching it. We got together as a defensive staff. ‘We've got to watch this. We've got to talk about this. Something's not right here.' We're all smart coaches and have been coaching for a long time, but what you're coaching, what I'm coaching, it's not happening on film. We've got to talk about this.' We had some serious conversations for a few weeks."
"I'm blessed that I was able to watch that video when I did," said Ash. "I didn't even know it was coming out; I can't even honestly tell you how I stumbled across it on the internet. But, I'm glad I did, and I'm glad we were all able to come together as a defensive staff, and sit and throw our ideas out there, talk about it, evaluate ourselves. And, when we did that, we were able to go to coach [Urban] Meyer, and talk to Coach Meyer about it, and, it took some convincing, but he bought in. Because, he started to see it over and over too — I mean, if the head coach doesn't like it, we're not going to do it — but once he saw what we were teaching, and how it was showing up on film, and how much improved our tackling was, he bought in."
"Nobody was on board right away, it took some time. We're not a bunch of 25-year old coaches. Everyone's been around, everyone's had quite a bit of success, everyone's coached really good players, really good teams, so you're not going to just jump in. You gotta be convinced."
"I was probably the ringleader," Ash admitted. "I saw the video first, I started the evaluation, and it didn't take long for everybody to have their interest sparked by the video once we watched it as a full staff. Shoot, I was probably in the office at 5 a.m. that day going through film, trying to figure out what we're doing and how we're tackling. I just saw it, and it hit me — 'we gotta get together,' and we did. Everyone was like ‘I don't know, I don't know, I don't know.' But, eventually, we all got on the same page, and said, ‘we gotta try it,' and I'm glad we did."
"It eliminated some injuries," said Ash. "But it also was a lot more effective. And I can tell you honestly right now, as a coach, I could go show you our film and what we teach, what we coach, what we drill and guess what? It shows up on film," Ash said. "Not once, not twice, not by luck but by design. Our players have bought into it and that alone, in my opinion, led to us having a lot of success, especially late in the season."
Pete Carroll is changing the game.
For reference into what Ash is referring to, here's what I wrote on the subject last July.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll recently put together a short clinical video (UPDATE: the Seahawks posted a 21-minute extended version here) for coaches that teaches and emphasizes a "rugby-style" shoulder tackling method. This is opposed to a more traditional method which has involved putting your facemask onto the football ("bite the ball") or into an opposing player's body (it's long been emphasized to keep your eyes up and never to use the crown of your head to tackle, but this is attempting to take the head completely out of the equation).
The overarching emphasis is to cut down on injuries, particularly head injuries, while still playing extremely tough, hard hitting football. This hits close to home, obviously, with Sidney Rice's decision to retire at 27 due to concussions, but on a larger scale, the brain injury issue in football is only going to be more closely examined.
As Chris Brown of Smart Football notes,
"Recently, the USA Football, with the support of the NFL, has begun putting out a series of videos and other materials about "Heads Up" or "safe tackling" - though the reality is there can never truly be such a thing - but the method they propose is not much different than what has traditionally been taught and the head is still front and center in the tackle. And it's not necessarily the easiest way to get a moving target to the ground, so defenders end up resorting to more haphazard methods just to get the tackle made."
However, as Carroll notes in the intro to the video (watch here):
"It's a system that we've been teaching and utilizing for the past four years with the Seahawks and since our days at USC. To break it down, our tackling system features shoulder tackling and a renewed emphasis to take the head out of tackling. We've found our style to be successful in the NFL and college, and we believe it can be employed on all levels."
Carroll's coaching breaks down into sections, complete with supporting video.
The Legendary John Madden threw his support behind the Carroll innovations, telling Seahawks.com that "The video is excellent. We've been looking for something like that for a long time. One of the things the Commissioner is trying to do is take the head out of football when it comes to tackling, not using the head for contact.
"So we're working on that and the question was: OK, if we take the head out, what do we put in? And Pete came up with this video. It's not only good, it's great. When I first looked at it, it was beyond what I thought it could have been and it was as close to perfect as it could be.
"It gave the answer," Madden said. "OK, we take the head out and you put the shoulder and the arms and the techniques and the drills in. Everything Pete has there provides the answers that are perfect.
"It was great for him to do that, to give back. And I think it gives the answers that we need. If we're going to do some of these things the Commissioners has asked us to do, we need these answers."
Said Pete Carroll: "There's so much talk around the league and around the game of football right now, that I wanted to see if we could contribute to helping people understand how you could play this game and do it in a great fashion and continue to promote the game," said Carroll, who was assisted in the video project by defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto.
"This is a concept we've been working with for a long time and something that's built into our makeup. But we just thought it would be worth sharing, and really hoping that it works its way through high school football and youth football to teach kids at an early age how to tackle and how to take care of themselves and play this game really fast and hard in absolutely the safest way possible."
The Hawk Tackle:
"A shoulder leverage tackle, contacting the ball carrier on the thighs"
Eyes through the thighs
Wrap and squeeze
Drive for 5 (when necessary)
The Hawk Roll Tackle:
"Shoulder leverage tackles at the thighs, that finish with the ball carrier being wrapped up at the thighs and rolled to the ground."
Eyes through the thighs
Wrap and squeeze
The Profile Tackle:
"Shoulder leverage tackles that make contact with the near breastplate of the ballcarrier (near pec)"
Tackles made above the waists.
Attack near pec
Drive for 5
Now, of course, this isn't revolutionary, having been borrowed from rugby and older school football without helmets, but I do find it fascinating how Carroll still dedicates time to individual drilling, particularly in the current CBA structure, which severely limits practice time (relatively).
It comes down to Seattle's belief in developing their players to play their system and become a product of their program. They're literally indoctrinating their players with Carroll's established system.
Seahawks DBs coach Kris Richard is highly respected by his players and works in tandem with Passing Game Coordinator Rocky Seto to get Seattle's corners programmed to how they want them to play.
Said Carroll recently, when asked how the Hawks have turned mid- to late-round defensive backs into contributors:
Kris Richard and Rocky Seto have done a fantastic job of training them. They're really, really, strict, and if you guys could appreciate it, they (the corners) all look the same, somewhat.
The way they step, the way they challenge at the line of scrimmage, the way they finish in the things that we teach.
This is a long, long process, to get these guys to where they are. But, now they're in the system, and it doesn't matter who steps in and plays. It's impressive.
So, it's a process, but it's kind of a systems thing for us.
As I've written here before, the Hawks spend the first 30 or 40 minutes of their practices doing seemingly basic drills. Now that training camp is upon us, you'll get to see first-hand all these drills (if you are lucky enough to go).
They spend 10-15 minutes stretching, then they do the 'bag drill', with coaches firing up their players as they run, stepping over speed bump bags. This seems like something you'd see 12-year olds doing before practice but with Pete Carroll's program, it's ostensibly meant as a rite of passage into the practice you're about to undertake. Maybe he does it to stir some nostalgia in his players - take them back to their days of playing Pop Warner, where they played for the love of the game and not glory or a game-check. Maybe Carroll's just a dork. Either way, it gets the players fired up and the crowd fired up as well.
Once the team runs through the bag drill, the positional groups split and work on fundamentals. These drills, in my mind, are meant as 'muscle memory' exercises, and I can appreciate the fact that Carroll's teams spend time with this. The famous Carroll fumble-recovery drills - these engrain the technique of falling on a ball and wrapping your body around it, in the hopes that it becomes instinctual when the 'bullets are flying'. There are many other less obvious drills though, and I've tried to pay close attention to those.
During last year's camp, I noticed one that took place between former rookie John Lotulelei and one of the linebackers' coaches (not Ken Norton). In this drill, Lotu placed his hand on the coach's hip, following him closely whilst mirroring his steps precisely. The coach chopped his feet, then cut left, away from Lotu, fake-running a pass route as a tight end or slot receiver. This was done in slow motion and Lotu chopped his feet in as close to a unison with his coach as possible, and closed on the route behind him.
They then repeated the exercise in full speed, and you could see the technique that was being ingrained in the linebacker - it was a trailing coverage drill, meant to prepare the defender to trail a receiver or tight end, mirroring footsteps (running step for step) - to the point that the receiver or tight end chops their feet to stem their route. The technique was then, for the linebacker, to do the exact same thing, closing over the top and attempting to disrupt the passing lane with an arm or hand. It was pretty interesting to watch.
It's the same with their tackling fundamentals, their tracking fundamentals, and on and on.