Tackling a Main Focus of Bills as They Head to Season Opener

With less real football being played every preseason, the challenge is for the team to make the most of limited repetitions.
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For those who believe tackling is becoming a lost art in the NFL, it's not such an insane thought. Ever-increasing safety regulations to protect ballcarriers and the limitations the NFL have placed on padded practices throughout training camp and regular season have forced teams to get creative when it comes to honing these skills.

Still, there's no adequate substitute for the real thing.

Which brings us to the Buffalo Bills and probably all the other 31 teams across the league.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said on Wednesday that a "heavy emphasis" in their offseason program was placed on improving their tackling.

That can be a tough proposition in a year when the NFL played the fewest preseason games in its history with the exception of the year before, when it played none. And in the Bills' case, their most valued regulars played only one half of one of their three contests.

And yet ...

"There were some other things that we emphasized," Frazier said. "But [tackling] was probably the the one thing we really harped on.

"... I think in the preseason we were better at tackling. When we took a look at the numbers, we had fewer missed tackles in ballgames, and hopefully that will carry over into the season."

So how did they get to this happier place?

By being more attentive to details in practice drills, according to linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

"Even days when we're not tackling to the ground ... the stuff we can do, the finishing, driving your feet, the smaller things that we continue to preach and continue to do drills on it," he said. "We do a lot of drills, whether it's tackling the one-man sled, whether we're doing some ankle tackling against each other and little small stuff like that. Even in the team periods when we're just thudding up — little small stuff like that helps you.

"And even though you're not tackling to the ground, you're putting it in your mind that you "run your feet, wrap all the way up ... so things like that will stay in your mind when you go into the game."

But the best thing the Bills can do is simply play smarter. As any coach at any level will tell you, missed tackles have more to do with poor position than poor technique. So defenders who fail or are too late to diagnose what's going on in front of them will invariably have plays that go on behind them.

To that end, the Bills may be in a better situation than all of their opponents because of how long the core of their veteran defense has played together. Linebackers Edmunds and Matt Milano have played together since 2018. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and cornerback Tre'Davious White arrived in 2017 and have been staples in coach Sean McDermott's program from Day 1.

Improving tackling is "definitely mental," according to Hyde. "It's high effort, getting to the football," he said, "and mentally, you've got to go into the game preparing yourself with what they might be doing. Some guys are stiff-arm guys, some guys just run through tackles, arm tackles, that type of stuff. ... It's all a mental game out there for sure, trying to tackle somebody."

Sunday's season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers should be one of their toughest and most revealing tests. The Steelers have all kinds of offensive weapons and are one of just six opponents on this year's schedule who made the playoffs last season.

But the Bills feel as equipped and prepared as ever to be able to stifle teams like that after having the benefit of a full offseason, which they didn't have in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Said Frazier: "It's hard to compare what we went through a year ago to where we are now. We're just so much farther ahead than we were this time a year ago in a lot of areas — communication, being able to work some drills that we couldn't work not being able to go against opponents, having a live scrimmage where our [first team] got some work in the final preseason game, just a lot of things that we hope will help us be better prepared to start this season."

Nick Fierro is the publisher of Bills Central. Check out the latest Bills news at www.si.com/nfl/bills and follow Fierro on Twitter at @NickFierro. Email to Nicky300@aol.com.