FOXBORO -- For about two minutes, Malcolm Butler tried his best to explain the nuances of tackling. Angles, leverage, balance, physicality. Finally, Butler came to the point where he’d run out of words. He ran his right hand over his head, shrugged and said, “When it comes to tackling, man sometimes you just gotta go tackle.”
Bill Belichick’s a stat wonk, but when making a point, he gets reductive. He’ll point out that the only defensive statistic that truly matters is points allowed. All the others -- passing yards, completion percentage, yards per carry -- are indicators but not necessarily truth-tellers.
Let’s be even more reductive than Belichick. The best way to stop points? Make sure the guy with the ball is put on the ground. Fast. Preferably by the first person who arrives on the scene.
If the Patriots are going to play in Houston this February, tackling will be the key in the AFC Championship on Sunday. Pittsburgh’s 1-2 punch at running back (LeVeon Bell) and wide receiver (Antonio Brown) would compare favorably with any other combo of the past 20 years. And the biggest strengths they share are sudden speed and elusiveness.
The first time the Steelers and Patriots met this season, Brown and Bell combined for 268 yards from scrimmage. Earlier in these playoffs, Brown blew open the Wild Card matchup with the Miami Dolphins in the first eight minutes. First, he took a benign flip to the left side from Ben Roethlisberger and went untouched for a 50-yard touchdown when seven Dolphins were in hailing distance of him. Five minutes later, he caught a simple slant and outraced defenders for a 62-yard score.
The ever-probing Bell, meanwhile, brings a quarterback’s mentality to the running back position, taking handoffs then standing practically stock-still, reading the defense then wriggling or bursting through crevices.
In this game, though, Bell and Brown will be up against one of the best tackling defenses in football, especially on the back end. The Patriots led the league this season in fewest yards after catch allowed.
Every team at every level values tackling. But the Patriots prioritize it even among players whose reputations are more tied to their ability to cover. Malcolm Butler’s a Pro Bowl-level player but he’s one of the most physical corners in the league. Logan Ryan’s strengths are ball skills and tackling. Devin McCourty is one of the best in the league because he understands angles, has exceptional range and hits. And Patrick Chung’s a linebacker in a safety’s body.
“If you don’t tackle, you’re not gonna play here and that’s 100 percent,” said Ryan. “Corners that don’t tackle here don’t play here. That’s what I was told when I was drafted, the first day I showed up here, that will be told to me today. We’re gonna put a group out there that’s physical and can tackle. Tackling is accountability to your teammates.”
There have been, of course, occasional breakdowns. In the season opener against Arizona, David Johnson had a sensational catch-and-run for 45 yards where he spun and stiff-armed his way to the big gain. And Baltimore’s Kyle Juszczyk had a big 39-yarder on a Monday night. But generally, guys get dropped pretty quickly.
“I think that’s been a big deal,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said of the back-end tackling. “Without trying to tap into that too much, I think we’ve done a good job all around playing with the front seven and then having [Patrick] Chung and Logan Ryan and [Malcolm] Butler and E.Rowe [Eric Rowe] -- all of those guys being able to come in maybe when certain teams are trying to make those guys make tackles. Those guys did a real good job with doing that especially against bigger backs like the Cardinals. In particular, I remember the Cardinals doing that -- making our corners and secondary guys make more tackles. Those guys stood up to it. We take pride in tackling as a defense. We do that every day and we’re going to continue to build on that. That’s one of our big things on defense is tackling -- being a good tackling defense.”
Why do the Patriots tackle well? They import guys that are good at it.
“If you want good tackling then you need to have good tacklers,” said Belichick. “And that’s certainly coaching and fundamentals and all that goes into it, but like anything else some guys are better at it than others.
“I think there’s definitely a premium on that,” he added. “In the end there is something to be said for breaking up passes certainly, but after that and more frequently than that you’ve got to get the other guy on the ground. You’ve got to tackle him. That’s what defensive football and special teams is and coverage is. You’ve got to get the guy with the ball on the ground. If you put 11 good tacklers on the field then that ups your odds. If you only have seven or eight out there then you’ve got to be able to make up for that in some other way but it’s hard. … I think overall there’s been a few times but not very many times where I’ve willingly put players on the field defensively that I knew weren’t good tacklers. But if a player is an exceptional coverage player sometimes there’s a tradeoff there. He’s got to be really good at that to offset if tackling is a weakness is the way I see it.”
Willingness to teach and reteach the fundamentals of a rudimentary concept is the kind of thing the Patriots have been celebrated for. Ad nauseam? Perhaps. I mean, they’re not the only team that understands the importance of making people fall. But their success in doing so -- especially this season -- does warrant asking their methods.
And defensive coordinator Matt Patricia isn’t so sure guys come to the league with the greatest base of knowledge either.
“I don’t think tackling is taught enough,” he said on a recent conference call. “I think in general we don’t spend enough time on it with the younger guys and younger kids coming up and just teaching good tackling form. I really do think there is kind of a resurgence of that because I think it’s kind of recognized now that we really have to start teaching these guys to tackle properly so that they can keep their heads out of certain situations and learn how to wrap up and be able to drive with their legs.
“Those fundamentals of pad level to be able to tackle what we call ‘in-line’ and then ‘out in space’ where there are different scenarios that come up where you have to protect your leverage when you’re trying to go after a ball carrier or wide receiver or whatever the case may be. We try to work on it every day. We have different drills that we’ll go through. We have drills that we can do obviously wearing pads which are great. That’s where you want to do it the most. Then drills that we can do to kind of redefine the fundamentals without pads on because unfortunately that’s kind of where we’re stuck for the majority of the year, especially when you get to this time of the year where those padded practices are eliminated or you don’t have that many opportunities.”
On non-contact days, it’s footwork and pad level that can be worked on, said Patricia.
There’s different drills that you can try to get some fits on the bags or the pads or some different movement-type of equipment that we have where you can still get the fit, you can get the hip drive, you can work on your angles and your approach to the player out in space so you can keep your leverage and maintain your leverage. I think that’s where you start to see a breakdown in a lot of those fundamentals -- pad level just being number one, tackling being number two -- where guys just tend to get high because you’re not used to being in pads and practicing it throughout the week. So it has got to be a big point of emphasis throughout the week that we finish on those types of plays.”
One of the toughest spots to tackle is on special teams. Punt coverage in particular. Matt Slater has been one of the NFL’s best for the past five years. He’s an All-Pro this year.
“I learned a lot of what I know about tackling from Coach Belichick,” said Slater. “Coming to balance and some of the things you look for as a tackler. Obviously the objective is to get the guy on the ground but I think there’s a lot of technique involved. Coach has emphasized that over the years and you can see that on the field. I did quite a bit in college as a special teamer but the details of how you approach open-field tackles in the NFL particularly, I think I learned a lot of that from Coach Belichick.”
So what goes into it?
“You want to protect your leverage,” said Slater. “So where you’re coming from, you want to take away that direction. Where you’re coming from, he can’t go and then I think balancing the guy up, seeing what you hit, wrapping on contact. You don’t want to get too far outside the framework of your body, be totally balanced on contact, keep your feet moving on contact -- all the things you learned in Pop Warner -- but I think as you get older they’re not emphasized as much although here they are and it’s paid off.”
And then there’s the times -- and they are the rule more than the exception -- where the tackle is made by any means necessary.
“I don’t think about it that much I just know the job is to go get him down,” said Ryan. “I don’t have one exact way of doing it, I don’t make it pretty, I just try to get the guys down. That’s the way it’s always been, college or whenever. Just get him down.”
Ryan has two tackles this year that stand out. The first came against Denver when he was in coverage on former Pats tight end A.J. Derby and Ryan was beaten on the catch but held fast to Derby’s jersey to stop him short of the first down. The other was a one-handed sack of Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
“I couldn’t let Derby get a first down on me,” laughed Ryan. “Rip strength (with the hands) is big. Whatever you can grab to get him down. A lot of tackling isn’t about being pretty or technically perfect because sometimes it happens so fast it changes.”
Against the Steelers, it won’t be about 1-on-1 tackling. As Belichick said in 2001 when the Patriots were starting to reel off wins with a hard-hitting, vagabond defense, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack.” No matter how good Ryan, Butler, McCourty or Chung is, Bell or Brown going full-speed in space will elude them if there’s no help. It’s a numbers game in which options for escape are eliminated. That’s why you can expect to see plenty of three-man rushes Sunday against the Steelers. It takes a village to corral Bell and Brown.
It’s strength-against-strength -- the speed and elusiveness of the Steelers skill position players against the sound physicality of the Patriots defense, especially their secondary.
“Success comes from the will to want to get him down and be OK with sticking your nose in there and getting a little dirty,” Ryan concluded. “A lot of places, cornerbacks may not think that’s what they get paid to do, but here we do.”