FOXBORO -- There is a lesser of two evils, according to Jason McCourty.
In the open field, if given the choice of tackling a burly tight end or a water bug out of the backfield, he'll take getting steamrolled -- as long as he gets that big tree to fall hard.
"He's just gonna run you over," McCourty said. "And if he does run you over and you make the tackle, you get up and say, 'I got him down.' "
Quicker players, though?
"They can make you look real bad," McCourty said. "And take it back and keep going 40 more yards."
Those moments have been few and far between for the Patriots this season. According to Pro Football Focus, they're the most efficient bunch of tacklers in the league, finishing off 91 percent of their tackles. They missed just three against the Vikings in Week 13.
"We preach it," Patrick Chung said. "You can’t tackle, you can’t play. We have pads on for a reason. We preach it, we practice, and we want to see that carry over to the game. If you can do that, then you have a good chance of playing."
NFL rules that limit contact in training camp and in-season practices may make it more difficult on coaches who are looking to sharpen tackling technique, though. And for someone like Chung, who has made a living off of being able to tackle all manner of players in all manner of situations, tackling as a skill has taken a bit of dip across the league since he was drafted almost a decade ago.
"Tackling is a lost art," he said. "People forget about that part, so we’re getting better at that. One missed tackle is one too many, so as long as we can keep going in the right direction, then we’ll be alright."
"It's hard to focus on it as much as coaches would like just in general based on the time restraints now," McCourty said. "For me, I'm not complaining about that. Less time on the practice field. Less physicality. Body lasts a little longer.
"But you're teaching the fundamentals and the techniques of it so that when it comes full speed and you get to the games, you can try to translate that. It's obviously totally different when you're in practice and you're tackling a guy and you know where the guy's going as opposed to when you get in the game and Shady McCoy is coming at you. It's a totally different beast. Definitely a form of a lost art."
Teaching those fundamentals without two bodies smashing into each other at high speeds requires a little creativity.
In camp, for instance, the Patriots spend a portion of every practice working on tackling, and in recent years they've put to use a wheel-shaped pad to simulate a moving ball-carrier.
That focus continues into the season for Bill Belichick and his team.
"When guys told me about the NFL and I got here, I was like, 'Dang we tackle here,' " Devin McCourty said. "We do a lot of tackling drills. That's one thing Bill really truly believes in . . .
"We work on tackling a lot. In space, 25 yards of space, close quarters. We do a ton of tackling. We've had games when we haven't tackled well and everyone's hearing about it. We're watching it. Watching missed tackles. I think everyone takes pride in the work we put into tackling. We want to go out there and tackle well."
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"The most important thing, I think, is coming to balance," Jason McCourty said. "A lot of times you want to have that big hit and knocking a guy backwards. But as DBs a lot of our tackles are in open space and you don't get that opportunity to make a big tackle.
"It's more about, 'Hey I just gotta get him on the ground somehow.' That's what it really comes down to is playing from your leverage, breaking down, and then making sure whichever way he goes, you can at the very least slow him up."
It's something every team in the league works on, though. Jason McCourty was part of teams in Tennessee and Cleveland where tackling was harped on consistently.
"Every team in the league works on it," he said. "I remember one year in Tennessee in the offseason we watched a whole teaching tape on rugby tackles, just trying to improve. It just matters if when you're playing out there Sunday, can you translate everything you're doing?"
So how have the Patriots pulled ahead of the pack this season?
They have one of the most veteran secondaries in the league so the learning curve when it comes to tackling technique is, for them, relatively non-existent.
Plus, Belichick has gone out of his way to hire good tacklers. Think it's a coincidence he drafted as many Rutgers defensive backs as he did? They were indoctrinated early on about the importance of disposing of ball-carriers quickly under Greg Schiano.
"I remember being in college and every single day we'd do a tackling circuit," Jason McCourty said. "It consists of different forms of tackling. One was last-man-tackle and you're diving to sweep the ankle and we had a bag on all fours and you're diving to sweep the ankle. There's a wrap and roll where you're wrapping from behind the ball-carrier. There was a head-on bite-the-ball [drill].
"I think that really helped -- every single day, instilling it. It's just how much you can pay attention to it, especially as you go on. You think about all those days we don't wear pads in training camp, there's certain days we can't wear pads, but a lot of it isn't just the physical contact, it's what you do with your feet leading up to the tackle. I think when you can pay a lot of attention to that, it makes a big difference."
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The top-five players in the Patriots defensive backfield have allowed an average of 4.11 yards after the catch over the course of the season. The top defense in the league this year in terms of points and yards allowed, Baltimore, has a secondary that allows an average of 4.97 yards after the catch.
Chung and Devin McCourty have been described by Belichick as two of the best tacklers he's ever coached. Jason McCourty has allowed more catches than any Patriots corner this season (40), but has consistently limited his assignments to minimal yardage after the catch.
Late in the game against Vikings, Patriots defensive backs put on a tackling display. On a second-and-20 with 7:35 left, Adam Thielen caught a pass on Jason McCourty but was immediately brought down for a gain of four. On the next play, Thielen caught another in space on McCourty but picked up just five. On fourth-and-11, Gilmore was targeted on a slant and quickly took down Laquon Treadwell to force a turnover on downs.
Some of that may be due to honing technique in Patriots practices. Some of it, though, is innate.
"I truly believe some of it is," Jason McCourty said. "I think obviously practicing it, you can definitely make some improvements. But when you think about it, you look across football, the league, college, high school, you'll look at a guy and say for whatever reason -- I don't know, hips, hand-eye coordination -- 'He's a really good tackler. In space, he does a really good job coming to balance, running his feet on contact, whatever it is.' Certain guys just seem to have more of a knack for it than others."
And the Patriots defense, especially its secondary, seems to be loaded with those guys this season.
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