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The five key traits that make up a strong tackler on defense

Jamal Adams and Ezekiel Elliott
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

Everyone knows a good tackle when they see one – but what are the nuanced details that go into converting one?

Any time you turn on an NFL broadcast, you will hear at least a couple of linebackers and defensive backs labeled things such as “a sound tackler,” “a strong finisher,” “a hard hitter,” “a guy who always finds the football,” and so on.

What exactly are the nuanced traits that go into earning these labels?

In my view, there are five key facets of the tackling process that occur throughout a defender’s journey from his initial position to the football.

1. Recognition and break speed

The first step of the process is setting a course for the ball-carrier as quickly as possible. This requires both mental and physical proficiency. How quickly can the player diagnose the play and identify where the ball is going? From there, how quickly can he plant his feet, break, and hit top speed?

2. Closing speed

Once a course is set and the player’s flight to the football has begun, the value of pure speed kicks in. How fast can a player get to the ball after he breaks on it?

3. Route

Wide receivers typically come to mind when you hear “route-running,” but the value of running a crisp route is crucial on defense as well.

It’s important for defenders to correctly predict which point of the field they need to target in order to meet the ball-carrier in a good position to bring him down. A player can be the fastest on the field, but if he is routinely aiming for the wrong spot when in pursuit, his speed is only going to take him out of the play quicker. Missed tackles are often due to misjudged routes that take the defender into a poor position to finish the play.

Once a player hits full throttle, he needs to read the situation and the ball-carrier’s trajectory to predict the best location to aim for.

4. Finishing

The core goal of defense is very simple – get the ball-carrier down.

Priority number one at the tackle point is minimizing whiffs. The last thing that a defensive coordinator wants to see is the opposing offense gaining more yards than its playcall actually earned simply because of a missed tackle.

In this facet, we’re concerned with the consistency of a player’s tackling rather than quality. Bone-shattering hits can change a game, but the positive value of those plays is not nearly as profound as the negative value of a missed tackle. We’re looking at a player’s ability to botch as few tackle opportunities as possible, regardless of how mesmerizing or ugly the tackles themselves may be.

A huge part of this facet comes down to decision-making. When a player is closing in on the ball-carrier, he reads the situation and makes a split-second decision on how to attempt the tackle. Do I go low and try to cut him down at his ankles? Do I lower my shoulder? Wrap him up?

That decision can make or break the tackle. If the defender thinks the ball-carrier is going to zig, but he zags, he’s dead in the water.

However, even if the defender does make the correct decision on what type of tackle to attempt, he then needs to execute it. The best offensive players in the game are capable of breaking tackles with sheer physical ability – speed, shiftiness, power – even when the defender approaches him the right way.

5. Power

Simply getting the tackle finished up is most important, but there is no doubt that there is value to be gained from landing a hit with authority.

Crushing tackles can be more than just aesthetically pleasing and jaw-dropping when executed well. When they bring the ball-carrier’s momentum to a complete halt and take away yards that he should have been able to pick up easily, they provide real positive value to the defense.

If a player can top off his pursuit with a clean shot that erases any yards after contact – especially if it is done just shy of the first down marker or goal line – it’s a delectable cherry on top.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of these traits in action, courtesy of the 2019 Jets defense.

1. Recognition and break speed

On this 2nd & 6 play against Pittsburgh, Arthur Maulet holds a screen pass for Dionate Johnson to a gain of just three yards, tackling him immediately after he makes the catch. Maulet’s recognition is what makes it happen. He fully commits to breaking inside the moment he sees Johnson cut, clearly showing that he was ready for the possibility of this play occurring.

When Devlin Hodges released the ball, Maulet had already broken off of his right foot and taken another step with his left.

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This is a perfect example of good recognition/film study spurring a quick break that leads to a big play. Maulet also shows effective route-running as he anticipates the location of the catch and tops it off with a strong hit as he stops Johnson before he can gain another inch.

2. Closing speed

Jamal Adams may only have run a 4.56 in the forty-yard dash (51st percentile among safeties) at the Combine, but he plays a lot faster than that in pads.

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