Below The Belt: What’s going on with Tackling in the Secondary?

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Suffice to say, the story so far for the 2011 Packers isn’t their 4-0 start (ironically, the Detroit Lions have stolen that thunder), it’s their drastically different defense.  In 2010, especially during the Packers’ postseason run, it was the defense that bailed out the offense basically at the end of every game.  Going on what we’ve seen so far I don’t think that the Packers defense could bail the team out of a tie game.

One of the big reasons I think is in the secondary.  At this point, for whatever reason, the secondary seems to have trouble with space.  The Packers are currently 31st in terms of stopping the pass with a whopping 335 yards given up in the air per game. And one of the big reasons why teams seem to be throwing all over the Packers defense is that the secondary has been giving up big plays for big yardage.  Big yardage usually means something went wrong, and what’s gone wrong is the tackling

In week 3 against the Chicago Bears, Kellen Davis, who as a tight end in a Mike Martz offense equates to a small offensive lineman, was able to scamper 32 yards for a touchdown, while half of the Packers secondary got a chance to take him down.  In week 4 against the Denver Broncos, after a flea-flicker play that fooled Morgan Burnett for a 44 yard gain, Sam Shields made a pathetic attempt to tackle Eric Decker for a 5 yard touchdown catch.

Now in Shield’s defense, Decker probably wasn’t his man.  According to CheeseheadTV, Charles Woodson was in fact responsible for the Decker but instead gambled on covering Matt Willis in the flat and in essence forced Shields to peel off late from Brandon Lloyd, who was near the back of the endzone, to the goal line where Decker caught the ball.

However, the interesting part of this play to me wasn’t the fact that Woodson got caught out of place.  Given his experience and play style, Woodson has a lot of freedom in the Caper’s defense and I’m guessing more times that not Woodson guesses right when gambling, so I’m not overly concerned about that issue.  What really caught my attention was how Shields tackled.

What Shield attempted to do was go low on Decker and cut out his legs.  Now in a normal situation this is a viable form tackle and you see defensive players all over the league pulling it off.  However on the goal line the low tackle makes absolutely no sense.  For one, in the red zone, defensive backs aren’t really going to be playing in a true trail position, which is advantageous for a low tackle since offensive players aren’t going to be able to see it coming from behind; in this case Shields is coming directly at Decker, who sees the low tackle coming and simply jumps over it.  Second, even if Shields had successfully performed the low tackle, the main part of Decker’s mass (and therefore the main source of momentum), is his torso so even if Shields had taken Decker’s legs out from under him, chances are still good that the momentum that Decker has coming from his torso would have carried him to the endzone anyways.

Not to gripe on Shields too much, but essentially the same thing occurred on the Kellen Davis touchdown play; safety Charlie Peprah simply misses his tackle but safety Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields attempt (and fail) to take out Davis’ legs before Tramon Williams (who is a great form tackler) finally manages to tackle Davis in the endzone.

So can we attribute this to youthful inexperience?  I do admit Shields probably wasn’t really mentally prepared to have to stop Decker and he’s not exactly an experienced vet, but even with that I still think he should have put a little bit more effort into it.   I somehow think that Shields might fancy himself as the next Asante Samuel (a pure cover corner who shies away from tackling) and has already gotten crap from the media and coaches about it, but Morgan Burnett has shown that he’s quite willing to come down and lay the wood, so why Burnett would also try this move is a little mystifying.

Could it be a change in scheme from Dom Capers?  My assumption is no, for one when offensive players get tackled low, the play usually ends as soon as they hit the ground (and even if the ball did come out, chances are that it would be called back since the ground can’t cause a fumble).  That in itself goes directly against Capers strategy that is predicated on making the big play and getting the ball back for the offense.

Could it be Capers’ play calling? Defenses definitely seem to have fallen behind their offensive counterparts but I have a hard time imagining that Dom Capers has suddenly gone senile in the booth.  For one, there was almost no change over in terms of the starters and they just won the Super Bowl so the rationale over the offseason was probably to change very little.

Could it be the lockout?  I’ve argued before that perhaps offensive players can get away with more mental reps while defensive players need more actual reps, but other teams in the league seem to be doing just fine.  The Pittsburgh Steelers, who run essentially the exact same defensive scheme (i.e. the zone blitz 3-4) currently have the best pass defense in the league.  Also Aaron Rodgers says that offseason workouts are pointless so I’m going to agree with whatever he says.

Could it be the fact that Nick Collins is out?  Collins was in charge of organizing the secondary and its possible that the secondary was out of position during these plays, but as I’ve said before for the Decker touchdown Woodson was intentionally out of his position so at least for that play I’m assuming that there wasn’t anyone lining up incorrectly and in fact the touchdown was due to Woodson gambling wrong.  Another reason is that Charlie Peprah simply isn’t the player that Nick Collins is, and while that might explain why he failed to tackle Kellen Davis when he caught the ball it doesn’t explain why Burnett and Shields both whiffed afterwards.

What it could be however is a response to the league’s crusade against concussions.  Defensive players around the league have been fined load of cash, sometimes around the range that American middle class citizens make in a year.  They definitely aren’t happy with what they feel is something that often times is out of their control; there really isn’t anything a defender can do if a receiver chooses to lower his head or during “bang-bang” play where the defender has no time to adjust before hitting an offensive player.  However, one sure-fire way to avoid hitting the head of a player (and avoid the subsequent 15-yard penalty and monetary fine) is to take an offensive player’s legs from under them.  At this point, with so much confusion as to what is a legal hit and so much avarice from defensive players on the lack of consistency when it comes to penalties and fines, players might just take the safe route and go low for the legs instead of risking drawing a penalty.

Players sooner or later are going to have to adjust to the game, it happened when offensive linemen were allowed to use their hands and it happened when defensive players were not allowed to come in contact with offensive players past 5 yards.  There have already been several games where unnecessary roughness plays have altered the course of a game and you can bet that players and coaches are looking at ways to live with the new rules.  Hopefully the Packers learn to tackle the right way instead of taking the “low” route and losing games.

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Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • Chad Lundberg

    The team’s just out of sync. Give it some time. It’ll be on track again soon (barring no further injuries).

  • Geoff

    So your qualifier of “tied game” conveniently covers your point that is otherwise contradicted by the New Orleans game result. The bottom line is that you do not know what that result would be as the Packers success in stopping teams in the red zone ranks 6th because of turnovers and some timely stops. Bend but limit your breaks appears to be the mantra until Capers gets a consistent high level of play.

  • PackersRS

    It’s Shields’ tackling. Is the lack of Collins and the safeties’ play. It’s Tramon Williams having shoulder problems…

    It will get fixed, I’m sure of that.

  • JimisPackers

    Or players can consider the possibilities of putting your head/shoulders into someones legs/lower body (mainly neck/concussion or knee/leg injury). Use proper technique, shoulder pad on the numbers, wrap-up, drive and churn those legs until he hits the ground.
    Simple… But when the offense has the option of utilizing the stiff arm (to the head and face of a defender- which makes no sense to me anymore) and the advantage of forward momentum, so why not chop the legs?

    This is the problem with rules tilting the balance of a confrontation towards one side or the other. The world is ever changing and yet there is something that remains constant- “there will always be more than one way to complete the same task” and if rules begin to tilt the favor in one direction or the other, you will see strategies to compensate for the discrepancies.

    Love Jimi.

  • http://none GalaxyM81

    What I see with the “D” is this. It appears to me that to many D players are waiting for someone else to make the play. To much watching and standing around and arm tackles up high. Your not going to get anyone on the ground with high arm tackles. Like Lombardi said, to much grabing no tackling. Why, who knows? The coachs must watch the film and see what I have seen.

  • Savage57

    One could speculate that the provision in the new CBA that limited teams to one padded practice per week hasn’t had a pretty adverse effect on tackling, not just for the Packers or their secondary, but the league in total (Baltimore Ravens excepted – man do they bring it!).

  • Ron LC

    If the D continues to give up big plays, eventually they will break. In order to continue their winning ways it is time for the D to contribute their fair share to the team’s effort. AR and the O can’t be expected to perform at the level they are for every game this year. No more excuses for the D just get it fixed.