FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In reviewing last year's defensive woes, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith knew tackling had to be a primary focus going into the 2014 season.
Since there is no live contact allowed during offseason workouts and only 14 padded practices allowed during the regular season, the Falcons needed to improvise. So Smith and the coaching staff introduced the players to a variety of new tackling drills.
"Well, we weren't a very good tackling team last year,'' Smith said bluntly. "That was apparent. So one of our focuses in the offseason was 'How can we improve our tackling without taking guys to the ground?' And we've come up with a myriad of drills ... gosh, probably 10.
"It's very hard to simulate tackling. And we want to simulate the finish of the tackle. And when you simulate the finish, that's when you're taking guys to the ground, and you can't do that. So we're using dummies to do it.''
Smith avoided explaining each and every new drill, but the one called "The Finish'' was introduced to the public during rookie minicamp. Players dived at a tackling dummy attached to a mat to protect their fall. Smith bellowed "violent'' in the background as the players approached the dummy. Their tackling technique was immediately critiqued, sometimes resulting in a do-over. And the coaches encouraged the players to squeeze the dummy tightly to simulate finishing the play.
"We wanted to simulate the finish of rolling your hips through the tackle,'' Smith said. "Running through the tackle.''
The rookies seem eager to prove they could handle the drill. But how have the veterans reacted to an emphasis on such basics?
"I think they're taking to it very well, simply because they know the biggest element on the defensive side of the ball, the skill that you have to master, is getting the offensive players on the ground,'' Smith said. "And we weren't as efficient as we needed to be.
"There's a couple of ways that you can approach it: You can go out there and tackle live bodies, and we know that's not feasible in the NFL. So you've got to create drills that are as realistic as possible so it will carry over when they're out there playing in games.''
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan would be the first to say his defensive players needed to refine their tackling skills. Part of the reason the Falcons were dead last in the league on third down and ranked second to last in stopping the run was their inability to bring players to the ground consistently. Part of the issue was resolved with the release of safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Asante Samuel. But they were far from the only culprits.
"The three areas that I thought were really critical were our leverage on the ball carrier, and that's an easy thing to work on every play you have in practice,'' Nolan started. "The second thing was, we needed to come to balance. Sometimes guys would just run and just take a shot as opposed to coming to a good position and then trying to tackle the guy. You just fly at him, it's a hit or miss: a big hit or a big miss.
"The third thing was just hanging on. ... This is not 100 percent, but I would say your long-armed guys, big-hand guys, they typically don't miss too many tackles when they've got somebody in the grasp because they just have the ability, like a wrestler. ... Whereas your short-armed guys, a lot of times, it's more often that they'll break a tackle on those guys. So if you are a short-armed guy, you've got to know when you wrap up, you've really got to hang on the best you can. Outside of that, it's just player versus player.''
Nolan singled out linebacker Paul Worrilow, the team's leading tackler last season, for his instinctive play and intelligence. But Nolan said even Worrilow missed his share of tackles.
"I've still got to learn with that,'' Worrilow said. "I had a good amount [of missed tackles]. My pursuit angles, not breaking down. The tackles that stand out are the ones you miss.''
Safety William Moore, known for going in for the big shot, had his share of miscues as well.
"To miss all those tackles -- I'm speaking about me, individually, because I missed a lot of tackles last season,'' Moore said. "I'm not making excuses, but there were some tackles that I wasn't used to. You've got a running back running wide open and running up on you.
"But we have running backs here [in practice] that can run up there and give you a look with their body movement. But you're not contacting them, which is 80 percent of the whole tackle.''
As Moore implied, the limitations in terms of contact indeed hold the Falcons and every other team back in terms of actually polishing up their tackling skills. But they'll have to make do with the drills and hope it carries over into the regular season.
"Again, you're not truly playing the game of football when you're not tackling,'' Smith said. "That's the element that's been taken out. Some people are of the opinion that the art of tackling has diminished over the years. I don't know if it can be directly related to the number of padded practices. I have my theories on it, and one of those theories is these guys are bigger and stronger and you can't physically do that, even in a practice setting, very often.''
As long as the Falcons can do it with consistency on game day, they'll be much better off defensively in 2014.