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Years ago, I was at a 49er game with a friend who played four years of college football. We were watching the team warm up, and what he said tickled the sports neurons in my brain.
“Fans are overly critical about a game they don’t understand. There are 15 people here who could possibly help Scott Tolzien warm up.”
Most of his statement was accurate; knowing terminology, reading playbooks, and even my twenty-year-old college recruiting letters does not make me an expert.
However, there are elements of football that never change: An out route by any other name is still an out route, and form tackling is still the best way to bring down a runner.
The DNA of a perfect tackle hasn’t changed since youth football.
1. Head up!
2. His hips don’t lie! Keep your eyes on his hips to avoid a juke.
3. Maintain an athletic position; head up!
4. The inside shoulder should make contact, with the head up and sliding in front.
5. The head does not lead; it goes along for the ride.
6. Explode through the ball carrier with your hips.
7. If all that fails, grab onto the opponent’s jersey for dear life and wait for the cavalry to help!
Indeed, there are tackling nuances for a variety of on-the-field situations. Never waver at the point of attack, do not rely on arms and hands to stop a 225-pound running back, and always keep the feet in motion.
But, it still boils down to a simple mantra: The body is the vehicle; hip explosion is what drives the ball carrier to the ground.
There is nothing to sugar coat the following fact: This year’s San Francisco 49ers are the worst tackling team in the NFL.
Last season, the 49ers missed 125 tackles or roughly 7.8 per game. This year, the team is missing 14.25 tackles per game and is on pace to end up missing 225 for the year. For their lack of effort, Pro Football Focus awarded the 2018 49ers with a 34.2 tackling grade, placing them at the bottom of the league.
Here are three possible reasons why the 49ers find themselves in such a lowly state.
A few weeks ago, a reader commented that the 49ers might have issues tackling due to new contact rules. His theory caused me to pause; it’s a solid argument and something I’ve heard a few times since.
Football is a dangerous sport, and no amount of rulemaking is going to make the sport safer. If anything, it’s had the opposite effect. Players who have excellent form tackling skills are now afraid to display them.
If Raheem Mostert’s tackle is going to draw a flag, then it makes sense to see players put on the brakes and attempt to arm tackle or grab at an opponent’s jersey.
There is one hole in this theory: The 49ers are not finding themselves in the right position to make any tackle.
First, 49er defensemen stop moving their feet well before they reach the ball carrier, providing no other option than an arm tackle, shove or jersey grab. Second, the 49ers are targeting the ball carrier too high which causes them to slip off an opponent as he runs by.
Poor form isn’t an excuse to avoid penalties.
Saleh is in Over His Head
I do not have the slightest inkling of the defensive play designs in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s playbook. For discussion’s sake, let’s agree on the basics.
The 49ers run a one-gap defensive front.
There are usually three linebackers on the field.
The secondary uses a lot of Cover-3, or slight variations of it.
There’s nothing complicated about this particular scheme, as it’s taught at the lowest levels of high school football.
The defensive scheme Saleh calls at any given time is a different story. Against the Chargers, Saleh called a defense that asked defensive lineman Solomon Thomas to run downfield and try to cover tight end Antonio Gates.
Friends, this is a horrible defensive play call. There is no good reason for Thomas to try and cover a tight end 20 yards downfield.
Saleh’s calls are putting the defense in the wrong place, at the wrong time and therefore causing them to be out of position to make any attempt to stop a ball carrier.
The elaborate zone blitzes and dropping the nose tackle into coverage has to stop, and Saleh must rebuild a sound defense before adding the cranberries and gravy.
The Secondary Needs Help
The 49ers' secondary has had a rough four games. Of the top ten leaders in missed tackles, five play in the defensive backfield. Those five men - Adrian Colbert, Antone Exum, D.J. Reed, Akhello Witherspoon, and Jaquiski Tartt – have missed 18 tackles combined. (Per Pro Football Focus)
What’s more concerning is the remaining five men in the top ten, the linebackers and defensive linemen, have missed 23 total tackles. Linebacker Reuben Foster leads the 49ers with seven, while Fred Warner is second with five missed tackles.
It’s clear there is still an issue up front, with defensive linemen not getting enough pressure on the opposing quarterback and linebackers not stopping the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Chargers’ running back Melvin Gordon ran through the 49ers’ defenders with great ease. In fact, here’s how L.A. Chargers managing editor Ricky Henne described Gordon’s play:
Time after time, it looked like Gordon was going down.
Time after time he broke free, churning his legs and refusing to be denied.
Matt Bowen, an ESPN NFL analyst, noted that Gordon rushes for 55 yards after the first contact.
The 49ers’ secondary has its share of problems, and tackling is undoubtedly one of them. However, they need increased support from the front seven if the defense wants to start making immediate improvements.
Ultimately, the lack of tackling lies with the coaching staff. At some point during the offseason, the coaching staff altered the mentality of the defense. Today, it's overly-aggressive and quickly becoming an abject failure.
Brakes are in cars and on bikes for a reason; going too fast is fun for a moment, but places the driver in dangerous situations. Saleh needs to find a way to stop the hemorrhaging and bring his defense back to fundamental football.
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