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Defense Tackles Longtime Weakness

Through a focus on fundamentals, the Green Bay Packers are among the best tackling teams in the NFL.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Tackling hasn’t always been a strong suit for the Green Bay Packers.

“That’s always a question around here, right?” coach Matt LaFleur said this week. “I remember Year 1, you guys were grilling me on that all the time.”

Missed tackles might not be gone but they’ve been largely forgotten in LaFleur’s third season.

Under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the Packers enter Week 11 of the NFL season ranked fourth in the NFL with a missed-tackle rate of 8.3 percent, according to SportRadar.

That success stands in contrast to LaFleur’s first two seasons.

In 2019, Green Bay finished 16th with a missed-tackle rate of 10.4 percent. In 2020, it dropped to 20th with a missed-tackle rate of 10.7 percent.

The consistently strong tackling this season has been an understated reason for Green Bay ranking third in the league in points allowed and yards allowed.

What have they done so well?

“There’s a lot of layers to that question,” LaFleur said. “No. 1 is it helps to have really good players but also the emphasis that’s placed on that. You’ve got to drill it. I don’t know many teams in this league that are doing live tackling in practice. I don’t think it’s realistic. You never want to put your guys at more risk than they already are, because we know in order for us to be our best, we need our guys available. It’s something we’ll continue to emphasize. You’ve got to keep working. You can’t think that you’ve arrived, ever.”

For whatever reason, Mike Pettine’s defenses never tackled well. In 2018, the final year of Mike McCarthy’s tenure and the first season for Pettine, Green Bay was a woeful 29th with a missed-tackle rate of 12.4 percent.

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Getting back the team’s All-Pro cornerback, All-Pro left tackle and Pro Bowl outside linebacker, to state the obvious, would be a huge lift to the 9-3 Packers.

In Pettine’s three years, Green Bay missed 131 tackles in 2018, 104 in 2019 and 109 in 2020. This year, Barry’s crew is on a 17-game pace to miss 83 tackles.

“Hopefully, it’s a mentality,” Barry said. “But I think it’s something you’ve got to preach and you’ve got to talk about and you’ve got to do. I think with the way football has gone, for the better, we’re not allowed many opportunities to tackle, ever, except on gameday when it counts. It’s really forced me over the last 10 years to become and get creative in ways that you can, because the most important thing is simulating a real tackle. When you’re tackling guys like Dalvin Cook live, that’s a task.”

Some of the tackling drills involve big, padded “doughnuts” that are rolled on the ground and tackled. Other times, a teammate gets the ball in the open field and the defender has to get himself in the right position.

“I think the biggest thing when you practice tackling, you’ve got to practice tackling on a moving target,” Barry said. “I think the biggest mistake guys make when they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we tackled this week.’ Well, if you tackle a bag that’s just stationary or you tackle a sled that’s not moving, a ball-carrier moves. You can create a realistic live tackle in the practice setting, where they’re actually physically tackling something that’s moving, they’re wrapping it, they’re taking it to the ground, they’re finishing it like a real game tackle. I’m a firm believer you get what you emphasize and, if you emphasize tackling every single day and every single week, hopefully it pays off on Sunday.”

The payoff has been huge. A lot has been written and said about Green Bay’s success against Arizona’s Kyler Murray in Week 8, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in Week 9 and Seattle’s Russell Wilson in Week 10. Those star quarterbacks combined for one touchdown pass and a pitiful passer rating of 59.7.

Unnoticed was the team’s superior tackling in those games. According to SportRadar, Green Bay missed two tackles vs. Arizona, three vs. Kansas City and five vs. Seattle. That’s 10 missed tackles. That’s right about the league average of 9.8 misses per game, and it’s as many tackles as the Packers missed against the Cook-led Vikings in Minnesota’s upset win at Lambeau Field last season.

Individually, according to Pro Football Focus, De’Vondre Campbell has been the NFL’s best tackler among off-the-ball linebackers and Adrian Amos ranks seventh among safeties. At cornerback, Kevin King has missed only one this season and Eric Stokes hasn’t missed one since Week 5.

Tackling takes more than fundamentals. It takes a mentality. If the defense is swarming to the ball, a missed tackle might be irrelevant because there’s another defender on the scene. Not many of Green Bay’s 49 misses have been costly.

The ability to replicate that success will be vital against the Vikings on Sunday. Cook is sixth in the NFL by forcing 32 missed tackles, according to PFF.

“Tackling is getting 11 guys to the ball so it’s hustle, it’s effort,” Barry said. “I think it’s educating guys with where their help is so they know where their leverage and what shoulder they can tackle with. So, if you do miss a tackle, you’re missing a tackle to a buddy. So, I think those are all things in the process that you have to teach, you have to emphasize. But the biggest thing is you have to find creative ways to practice it. Our guys have done that.”


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