FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Following the recent rule change that now makes initiating contact with the helmet a 15-yard penalty with the potential for ejection, the subject of tackling has become a hot topic around the NFL.
For the Falcons, it's something they've been focused on since head coach Dan Quinn arrived prior to the 2015 season.
"Well, No. 1, I've been a big proponent of a leverage-based shoulder tackling technique for a long time," Quinn said after Wednesday's organized team activities (OTAs). "So, it's something in our program that we've really tried to teach hard. For you guys to understand it better, I think the main thing is when is the helmet used to initiate contact? And you say, 'Dan, that unusual, it could be a center and a nose tackle.' That's not really where the rule is. It's more when there's time and space and an offensive player or a defensive player has the decision that they can put their head to the side and use their shoulder. You teach that anyway, but in the heat of it, you've seen some examples where we haven't done that as well as we want. It's going to take a hell of a lot of teaching and continued work on that, but, for us, I feel like it's our responsibility to teach it the best."
Often referred to as a "rugby-style tackle," the Falcons' approach involves keeping the head on the backside of a ball carrier and striking with the shoulder rather than the traditional way of a player leading with his head across the front of a ball carrier.
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel helped explain that approach in a seminar with local media earlier this offseason, and it will continue to be a point of emphasis for the team heading into the season.
The education process doesn't just involve the act of tackling, itself, but also how and when the rule will be applied. If a player is deemed to have the opportunity to lead with something other than his helmet, the tackle will most likely be ruled a foul.
"Sometimes you'll see a defender – I'm not talking about the one where a guy can't make a decision and there's contact right at the very end – where there's space and time to where you can make a decision to use your shoulder," Quinn said. "And it's the same thing for it could be a blocker, think of it like a fullback onto a safety or a linebacker. OK, he's got a full head of steam; where is he going to put that helmet?"
There are times when a player is most vulnerable, and that's where this rule hopes to protect both the tackler and the player getting hit. One such moment is when a player has already been slowed by a defender but has yet to go to the ground, leaving him available for a big hit.
"I think that's where one of the biggest hits last year took place," Quinn said. "Where, when a guy was held up, if that contact had happened with the shoulder onto a body part or going after the football, I think that would have been seen a lot differently than using the helmet as a weapon. And that's really the thing that we want to make sure as coaches that we're going to try our best to get that out of the game, because that's in no way why it was designed or how we coach it. So, we're going to work like hell to keep teaching the guys and showing good examples and ones where, 'Hey, this part has to leave.' I think most of the time when we show bad examples, players, coaches, everybody agrees, 'Yeah, that hit needs to go away.'"
Quinn has sought to teach the proper tackling technique and one that promotes safety for his players since joining the Falcons in 2015. Now, other teams around the NFL will do the same in an effort to make the game safer for all players.
Said Quinn, "I do think that you're going to see real improvement in tackling and the technique of it."