Alabama Tackling Style: How does it measure up to the rest?

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: Jonathan Allen
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: Jonathan Allen /

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban teaches a tackling technique that produces success, but how does it fair against other methods in football?

One of the most intimidating forces in all of college football is a defence coached by Saban. Every season, the players are highly talented and have high football IQs for sniffing out opposing offensive schemes. The preparation, skill, and determination make them annually ranked as one of the best defences; however, does that make them the best tacklers?

In a time when concussions and other injuries have forced football fans, players, coaches, and parents to reexamine how the game is played, the Crimson Tide players are considered not only the most fearsome defenders but also some of the safest tacklers. Is that enough, though?

Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated recently published an interesting article about different tackling methods throughout the football community, in both the college and pro ranks. While, according to Staples, “All the coaches interviewed by SI agreed on one thing: Never lead with the head,” he also points out how determined defensive coaches are to resisting change:

"“Defensive coaches are as passionate about their tackling methods as gumbo cooks are about their roux. And just as those chefs have definite ideas about the use of butter and flour, defensive coaches are adamant about the tackle’s key ingredients: where to make contact and how to bring down the ballcarrier.”"

Saban, while preaching a tackling style that is more safe than some other methods, is also a bit resistant. His days of playing football in the early 1970s, as Staples points out, has a great deal to do with that. A ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ type of resistance, if you will.

Staples states, “Saban has always taught defenders to track the near hip, plow a shoulder into the ballcarrier’s near shoulder, wrap him up and drive him to the ground. This allows for a chest-high hit while keeping the head out of the tackle. The approach has proved remarkably effective.” The numbers that Staples cites as evidence to Saban’s efficiency in tackling are impressive, but it’s Saban’s response to tackling in possibly a safer manner that is important to remember: “When Saban sees coaches teaching defenders to send their shoulders into the thigh, he wonders how a tackler can generate power while bending that low. ‘There’s no game that anybody plays bent at the waist on their toes,’ Saban says.”

Saban’s technique keeps the tackler’s head away from potential unnecessary blows while also limiting the chances of obtaining a targeting violation to the head of the opposing player. Is that the most effective and safe way to tackle, when researchers have found another method?

Keep an open mind, all North American readers: the following is actually the current trend in football, especially in the pros. More and more, National Football League teams are hiring rugby players for their defence rosters and are attempting to teach a rugby style of tackling. Researchers are “citing what [Seattle] Seahawks coaches call the hawk tackle—in which the defender hits the ballcarrier’s thigh with a shoulder, grabs him and either spins him or powers him to the ground.” What coaches and researchers found while reviewing video or watching rugby matches live was that players were “hitting ballcarriers hard enough to knock the breath from them, but the tacklers weren’t launching themselves or leading with their heads. They had efficient leverage and their heads to the side of the contact zone.”

The key fact to understand is the difference between what North American football players have been taught for decades and what rugby players are forced to do in accordance to the rules of their game. In rugby, the ball is constantly moving, never stopping, so tackling must provide that outcome or the offending team is penalized. If any player is caught violating that rule, such as hitting a defenceless player or impacting an opposing player’s head, the offender is shown to the sidelines for either a set amount of time or ejected for the rest of the match entirely. That violation also includes anything deemed dangerous to the lifespan of the ballcarrier’s career on the field.

Imagine if they told NFL stars of the ’80s and ’90s that they could not use their helmets or big shoulder pads to lay out opposing players in any part of their bodies, not just the knees or head? Many of those players may not have become as famous if they could not use their equipment as weapons on the field. Yet, rugby has always had these rules and have been teaching their style of tackling since the game was created. It comes down to the purpose of tackling: get the opponent down to the ground as fast as possible, not to injure him so he cannot get back up again.

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Which method makes more sense? Can they be combined? Should they be? Saban is very happy with the method that he already teaches, and the results are for all to see. Targeting has not seemed to be a huge or chronic problem for an Alabama defence or any defensive player coached by Saban. Many of Saban’s players have gone on to excellent NFL careers, but some have also been excellent students in the classroom and have obtained well-paying careers in the real world. Saban’s style has not produced much evidence of concussed brains leading to issues later in players’ lives, at least not yet.

However, even Saban moved with the times and tried making his offence more than just about the straight runs up the middle with a pocket quarterback. Maybe Saban’s style could use a fresh look. Or it could also be left alone. After all, is it broken?