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Missing In Action

11/3/2008

Boom! Brandon Jacobs blows up a defensive end. Wham! Marshawn Lunch runs over a linebacker. See ya! Brandon Marshall leaves a DB choking on his dust. No matter what game you're tuning in to on Sundays, you're seeing blown tackle after blown tackle. Here are seven reasons why NFL defenders can't stop anybody.

REASON NO. 1: IMPLEMENTATION OF THE MARSHALL LAW

Time to break down, square the shoulders and wrap up the most brutal truth of the 2008 season: nfl tackling stinks. like, worse than ever. like, awful beyond belief. there may be no definItiveway to quantify it—missed tackles isn't an official stat, although every team keeps track—but just watch any NFL game this Sunday and you'll surely see highly paid defenders bouncing off ballcarriers, the ground and one another while offensive players run free. Tackling, says one NFL GM, "isn't good." Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney agrees that "it's gone way down." Both are being polite. One former league exec says, "It's sh—ier than I've ever seen."

But before you lay all the blame solely on defenses, consider another possibility: Tackling is worse than ever because it's harder than ever. Because the guys defenders are trying to tackle won't go down as easily as their athletic ancestors. Take Brandon Marshall. The Broncos wideout is one of the NFL's most untacklable players because he's bass ackward: He loves the routes receivers are supposed to loathe, admits sins most won't confess and attempts moves others won't.

One play tells the whole story: Midway through the second quarter of the Broncos' Sept. 21 win over the Saints, Marshall lined up wide right on third and three. At the snap, he took two strides and cut inside. Keep in mind that most receivers run away from the middle, the epicenter for hard hits. But Marshall loves inside routes, requests inside routes, excels at inside routes. "I love anything shallow," the third-year vet from Central Florida says. "I can get the ball into my hands quickly."

As Marshall cut against the Saints, he read the position of his triangle: the linebacker, corner and safety nearest him. New Orleans was in man: Linebacker Jon Vilma stepped forward, not back in the zone, taking himself out of position to make a play on Marshall; corner Mike McKenzie, who tried to jam Marshall at the line, tailed him across the middle; and safety Kevin Kaesviharn was parked in shallow centerfield. Quarterback Jay Cutler fired.

Marshall, meanwhile, was committing a cardinal sin: He was thinking about his next move before catching the ball. Most receivers do this, but few admit it. Marshall is proud of it. "You gotta be able to do multiple things at once," he says.

That helped Marshall haul in the pass as McKenzie slid off his back. Staring down Marshall next was Kaesviharn. But Marshall was a step ahead. He knew from his read that the safety would be in centerfield, so he already figured out how to avoid him. He juked right, burst left and left Kaesviharn flat-footed.

Next, Marshall pulled two moves that most receivers wouldn't even consider. He saw safety Roman Harper out of the corner of his eye and reflexively halted. Harper flew past. Now it was corner Jason David's turn. Marshall planted right and spun away left—the same trick that last season left four Chiefs bumping into one another. It worked again. "If you hesitate, he'll go around you," says Chiefs rookie corner Brandon Flowers. "You have to just hit him."

If only it were that easy. At 6'4", 230 pounds, Marshall often simply bowls over defenders or drags them across the field. During his rookie year in 2006, he caught a five-yard hook against Seattle, flattened two defenders like an iron would a shirt and scooted 71 yards for a TD. Last season against Detroit, he caught a 14-yard pass down the right sideline. Though they had him cornered, it took four Lions to bring him down.

Marshall isn't just breaking tackles. The 24-year-old is living a fantasy. As a freshman at Florida's Lake Howell High, he wanted to play tailback like his idol, Barry Sanders. Well, Marshall ran one sweep in practice and fumbled. "Never saw running back again," he says. He slipped in the 2006 draft because teams weren't sure he had the speed or quickness to play receiver. But after Marshall's first practice as a Broncos rookie, corner Champ Bailey turned to Mike Shanahan and said, "How did we get this guy in the fourth round?" Two seasons later, the coach says, "I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the league." That's why he's stood by Marshall despite the receiver's three arrests since 2007 and his three-game suspension this season (later reduced to one on appeal) for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

Despite missing that first game, Marshall leads the Broncos with 34 catches, most of which contain as many defensive follies as his slant against the Saints. That route ended after 29 yards, when Marshall lowered his shoulder into Kaesviharn as the two drifted out of bounds. "Here's my advice to DBs," Marshall says. "Don't anticipate what I'm going to do, because I'm gonna do the opposite."

As tacklers have learned. The hard way.

REASON NO. 2: THE RISE OF THE WEST COAST ELITES

If you want to create a tombstone for NFL tackling, the year should read 1979. That's when Bill Walsh took over the 49ers and installed his now-ubiquitous West Coast offense. The quick-strike scheme had been around for a decade but with so-so results. But it took off in San Francisco thanks to two rules changes made before Walsh's first season: 1) The NFL made it illegal for defenders to bump a receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage; and 2) the league made it legal for offensive linemen to extend their arms and open their hands without being called for holding, giving QBs more time in the pocket.

Walsh's Niners won three Super Bowls over the next decade by getting the ball to playmakers in open spaces who were moving at top speed—every tackler's worst nightmare. Three yards and a cloud of dust became four wideouts and a vapor trail. Nearly 30 years later, tacklers have yet to catch up to all the dizzying features of the West Coast. "Look at the offenses we now face," says Texans Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "There are no more wishbones or dive plays or predictable stuff, where old-time linebackers could run downhill straight into the trenches. Now we have smart people slinging the ball all over the place and forcing us to do the hardest thing there is: open-field tackling."

The results prove what Walsh knew back in 1979. Tacklers can overcome a lot: great coaches, brilliant schemes, even a couple of rules changes. But not all three.

REASON NO. 3: NO PRACTICE MAKES IMPERFECT

What would happen to NFL offenses if QBs no longer passed the ball in practice—ever? You'd have a lot fewer Peyton Mannings and a lot more Tyler Thigpens, right? Now, imagine if defenders weren't allowed to tackle in practice.

Actually, you don't need to imagine. As crazy as it sounds, that's exactly what's happening. "Tackling isn't taught at all," says Colts Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney. "So guys can't tackle well in games, because they don't work on technique."

On the college level, where walk-ons pump up rosters to more than 100 guys, defenses go live against scout-team (read: expendable) players nearly every day. But in the NFL, with bodies and funds limited by the salary cap, teams can't risk injury from full-contact practice. So one of the NFL's dirty little secrets is that usually the only time defenders actually bring ball-carriers all the way to the ground is for 60 minutes each Sunday.

"During the week, coaches ask you to take care of your teammates and not hurt anybody," says Titans linebacker David Thornton. "Then on Sunday, they ask you to flip the switch and turn your tackling up a notch. It's not easy."

And it shows.

REASON NO. 4: YESTERDAY'S FUNDAMENTALS ARE TODAY'S RECIPE FOR FAILURE

As much as the NFL has changed over the years, tackling fundamentals have remained static. Granted, some tenets (keep your head up, drive through the ballcarrier) are timeless. But others were designed for a far less dynamic league. Says Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the NFL's leader in solo stops since 2006, "In today's game, you're almost never in the position to make the clean-form tackle you're taught in drills." Here, then, is his modern guide to textbook tackling.

ANTICIPATE
Today's Problem :Offenses employ so much presnap motion and trickery, defenders often pursue plays a step behind, leading to bad angles and form.
Ryans' Solution: "By studying film and knowing an opponent's plays, formations and tendencies, I can anticipate plays
and make myself one step faster to the ball. That makes my job
a whole lot easier."

ROLL WITH IT
Today's Problem: Running backs are on average 20 pounds heavier today than 30 years ago (225 vs. 205), while tight ends are nearly 25 pounds heavier (255 vs. 230). So it's a lot harder to stop a guy dead in his tracks with a hit to the torso or hips.
Ryans' Solution: "It's all about the roll technique: rolling up on guys into their legs and getting them by the ankles. Just know that by hitting him in the legs, you've got the best chance to get that guy on the ground no matter what."

HAVE A PLAN FOR YOUR HANDS
Today's Problem: Tacklers are too eager to make the highlight reel and create turnovers by decleating a ballcarrier. As a result, they fly to the ball out of control, leave their feet and end up with an armful of grass.
Ryans' Solution: "Grab whatever you can—not the face mask, but anything else that can get him to the ground. Anything. I like to grab a foot and spin with it. He's either gonna get down or roll his ankle. And most of the time, he'll choose to go down."

REASON NO. 5: THE UNPREDICTABLE, IMMOVABLE FORCE KNOWN AS MOTHER NATURE

It's one thing to face down a ballcarrier on a cool, clear autumn afternoon. but as Packers linebacker nick barnett explains, it's another to do it when the weather takes a turn for the worse come winter.

The worst weather to play in is when it's ice-cold and windy, like we had against the Giants last year in the NFC championship. In those conditions, it's harder to be agile and put yourself in good tackling position because your body is frozen. Plus, when the ground gets hard it's almost like playing on ice. So you have to play with good fundamentals—shoulders square, knees bent, feet calm—because it's hard to recover from a false step, and it's easy to slip. You can't overpursue, either, because it's so much harder to cut back. And when you're getting ready to tackle, you have to make sure your cleats are in the ground because the turf is beat-up. If your feet aren't square, you'll lose your footing and get run over.

In games like that, you get in trouble by being surprised. That's why, whenever I know it's going to be really cold, I watch extra film so I know the tendencies of the backs that much better.

I actually enjoy playing in the snow—like we did in the playoffs last year against Seattle—because teams become much more one-dimensional. You know they're going to run, which takes all the guessing out of it. Downside is, I had to take the visor off my helmet because it would've been impossible to see through that thing. But that's a small
price to pay for some good old-fashioned, smashmouth football.

REASON NO. 6: A TOTAL SYSTEM FAILURE

As popular as the Cover 2 defense has become, several of its main tenets don't exactly promote good tackling. For example:

The C2 relies on cornerbacks for outside run containment. Bad news when the average-size defensive back gives away 25 pounds to the average-size back.

The C2 has popularized leveraged tackling … in which defenders attack ball-carriers with the secondary goal of steering them toward a safety net (be it the sideline or teammates). This creates a twisted mind-set: tacklers think about missing before they even make contact. "Defense is all about flying to the ball, then saying, May the best man win," says Titans corner Cortland Finnegan. "We don't really care if we miss tackles. We trust there will be somebody there to clean it up."

The C2 relies on smaller, faster linebackers. That's a good thing when, say, Reggie Bush is running routes out of the backfield or trying to turn the corner. Not so good when Deuce McAllister is pounding it up the gut. "The linebackers who can cover Bush aren't very big and aren't very big hitters," says 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, "so tackling suffers." And so do the guys doing the tackling.

REASON NO.7: THE RULES [AND MORE RULES] OF ENGAGEMENT

The first roughing-the-passer penalty was put on the books 70 years ago. Every season since, it seems, the NFL has taken one more step toward legislating tackling out of the game. "I'm supposed to take on a guy as big as TO but I can't do anything to him?" says Buffalo's 5'9" corner Terrence McGee. "My 4-year-old son could run a route with these rules and be wide open." McGee is joking. We think. Consider this: In today's NFL, a defender may make contact with an offensive player any way he sees fit, just as long as he doesn't commit any of the following acts that have been criminalized over the years:

1920: Piling on
1920: Roughing the kicker
1962: Grasping the face mask
1976: Striking, kicking or kneeing a player
1977: Contacting an opponent above the shoulders with palm of hand
1978: "Bumping" or "chucking" a player beyond five yards downfield
1978: Taunting
1979: Using helmet tobutt, spear or ram opponent
1980: Striking, swinging or clubbing the opponent's head, neck or face
1982: Hitting a receiver deemed defenseless
2005: Horse-collaring an opponent
2006: Hitting a QB below the knees …
1996: … in the head, or …
1979: … in the grasp

And if a defender does somehow manage to make a legal tackle despite the endless restrictions …

2004: No celebrating too flamboyantly