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Analyzing the 49ers’ tackling woes the past two weeks

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Abysmal. That’s the only way to describe the 49ers’ tackling this season. It was quite apparent from the film that the 49ers were missing a lot of tackles and the numbers bear that out: through the first three weeks of the season, the 49ers led the league in missed tackles with 43, per Jeff Deeney. 43 missed tackles in three weeks. An average of 14 missed tackles per match. Abysmal.

Naturally, the team are aware of the problem. DC Robert Saleh addressed it before the 49ers’ week three clash with the Chiefs. I had little problem with much of what he said. He stressed the “number one key in our tackling technique is angles” which the 49ers teach as tracking the near hip of the ball carrier and eliminating the cutback lane. This is absolutely spot on and emphasizing it is clearly crucial.

Furthermore, he discussed the need to “wrap, squeeze and drive your legs” - something I’ve been taught in rugby terms as “hit, stick, squeeze, and chase the feet”. The points he addressed are all fundamentals of good tackling, and he has previously spoken about the team’s focus on ensuring the head is to the side of the ball carrier - a natural product of good technique if you track the ball carrier’s near hip and strike him with your shoulder that is nearest to him (ie left side of you, left shoulder). Saleh also identified that even without pads, you can coach and practice tracking angles, given it requires no contact.

However, I did have a problem with what he left out, and my fears were only increased when hearing Kyle Shanahan’s words yesterday.

Shanahan scoffed at the suggestion players should be breaking down in most tackling situations, simply suggesting that when they were alone in space players should break down, and he proceeded to create a yawning chasm between breaking down (likening it to sitting in chair) and normal, apparently full-blooded, pursuit. The reality is that there is a significant middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum and players cannot simply fly into the contact area and do as Shanahan wishes: “You have to wrap up and roll them, you have to drive them to the ground.” Minor movements from offensive players will lead to missed tackles, and I can’t really believe that in a game of fine margins, the 49ers’ coaching staff seem quite content to accept ball carriers making at least a couple of extra yards on most plays because tacklers are recklessly throwing themselves into the contact area.

The unfortunate reality is this: There is a repeated failure to acknowledge the key issue with most of the 49ers’ missed tackles - the phase of the tackle that links the tracking phase and the point of contact itself: positioning oneself most effectively to initiate contact.

This area is by far the 49ers’ biggest issue; unsurprisingly bad angles are far less of a problem given the team’s emphasis on them. On film, players repeatedly find themselves in reasonable position courtesy of their tracking but fail at the point of contact due to their inability to transition from tracking into the tackle itself. Even when there is very little pursuit required, players final approach to the contact area is often flawed and makes them likely to miss tackles.

Rather than decreasing their stride length and increasing their cadence, allowing them to keep moving towards a ball carrier and adjust to changes of direction more easily, 49ers defenders have a tendency to either set their feet too far away and lunge, or continue running at much the same speed. These approaches cause slightly different issues when trying to initiate contact. This is undoubtedly something the 49ers can work on without allowing the sort of full on contact they are prohibited from practicing most of the time.

Looking through the All-22 of the 49ers’ matches with the Lions and the Chiefs, the repeated failure of 49ers’ players to execute well in the tackle area does not bode well for the team moving forward. More concerning, is the fact the same issues keep rearing their heads and that the coaches seem unaware of how to fix them. This latter concern isn’t simply because Saleh failed to mention it (though it would be unusually cagey to not discuss a well known aspect of tackling with the media), but because of the preponderance of examples of bad technique on film across the season as a whole, and indeed looking back to last season. This may not be a quick fix, but it is eminently fixable.

What the film shows

On this play, safety Jaquiski Tartt is playing a role that he is extremely familiar with, the seam-flats. His angle here isn’t a major issue, he comes down hill well and is square to the ball carrier. He initially does well to slow his approach slightly, decreasing his stride length and increasing his cadence. Unfortunately, he then sets his feet two or three yards away from the back and lunges with his head down at the back’s ankles, causing him to whiff on the tackle. Fortunately he has players in support to prevent a large gain, but if Tartt kept moving he could get into the slow moving back’s space and perform a dominant hit into his stomach or sternum and drive him backwards, for a gain of only a couple of yards.

Now it’s Fred Warner who finds himself defending a route into the flats, this time by Tyreek Hill. This is undoubtedly a good matchup for the Chiefs - engineered by a smart combination of pre-snap motion (which forces the 49ers into a cover 3 buzz) and routes (which keep the original flats player, Reuben Foster, inside). Warner, originally playing a hook zone, shows great recognition and a good pursuit angle to put himself in position to make the play, and initially does well to decrease his stride length and increase his cadence as he nears Hill. Unfortunately he stops his feet a couple of yards away and that’s all Hill needs to put on a little outside swerve and elude Warner’s lunging effort at the tackle. If he keeps moving, he would have been in better position to make a really outstanding play.

Reuben Foster does a bad job on this tackle in the flats. Firstly, his pursuit angle is slightly too far upfield. This is easily fixable if his stride length comes down and cadence comes up, as a juke inside from Kelce would be into Foster’s waiting right shoulder - a relatively easy adjustment to make if the feet are moving quickly and with short strides. These situations can often result in a reasonably dominant hit with the ball carrier carrying very little momentum into the contact area.

This is another missed tackle by Warner, this time one that he should absolutely be making. His pursuit angle is fine and he makes a clean contact with the ball carrier - fullback Anthony Sherman. However, he falls off Sherman and even fails to alter Sherman’s path because he stopped his feet before initiating contact. He does well to drop his stride length slightly (though the sideways pursuit of this make it less important given Sherman is less likely to be able to change direction quickly) but then completely stops his feet and makes the hit all upper body. The sustained power through the tackle comes from the legs and their continued churning through the collision. The reality is that if there is insufficient power behind the collision, the tackler is likely to fall off the hit.

You can see Foster is trying to adjust to the new tackling technique the team has him doing, as he just doesn’t look comfortable at all here. Pursuit is fine and decisive but he’s then indecisive when it comes to setting up for contact. Stride length is short and cadence is up, and you can see on the rear view how he is making little adjustments to Hunt’s position. Unfortunately however he sets his feet and lunges rather than staying on the move, perhaps lured in by Hunt’s footwork. This is an easy mistake to make but one that can be corrected with reps. Hunt’s relatively low speed should allow Foster to close the gap further and get into him. A more comfortable and decisive player would have kept moving here.

This is perhaps the most frustrating whiff of the day, as it was a prime opportunity for a dominant tackle. Hunt does’t see Foster coming until the last split second as he appears outside the guard, by which time Foster has already lowered his head and left his feet. Keep the head up, drop the stride length, increase the cadence and accelerate through the hit. Shoulder in the sternum here and Hunt would have been flying backwards if Foster had held his form. Those types of hit amp up an entire roster.

Another painful whiff, given it led to a touchdown. You can’t really criticize Warner here - he had little time to react to the ball carrier. DJ Reed however, shows how angles really do come hand in hand with controlling your stride length and cadence. His stride length doesn't change and he flies by the ball carrier as he struggles to adjust to the ball carriers movement. All gas, no brakes being taken to literally.

Even on some completed tackles, one can take issue with the 49ers’ tackle technique, for example on the following hit from Elijah Lee.

Here, Lee provides a fairly perfect demonstration of the lunge tackles we’ve seen all too often. His angle seems a little too far upfield, which coupled with little change to his stride length and cadence forces him to have to lunge at the hot-stepping Theo Riddick. He does complete the tackle but that kind of tackling is not sustainable - as we have seen.

This final tackle, from safety Jaquiski Tartt against the Lions, is a reasonable demonstration of the approach the 49ers should be looking for from their players.

Tartt works downhill extremely well on this screen pass. His pursuit angle is good, he decreases his stride length, increases his cadence and keeps his feet moving through the point of contact, allowing a dominant hit. As previously mentioned, this gets the rest of his teammates going. My only criticism is that he went with the wrong shoulder, but that could have been a business decision given his left shoulder was injured going into the game and eventually gave out late in the fourth quarter.

Conclusion

It should be clear that until the 49ers’ players start consistently following the right approach to the point of contact — by dropping their stride length, increasing their cadence and keeping their feet moving through the contact — missed tackles will continue to plague this team. Whether the coaches are even coaching this point remains to be seen (it doesn’t sound promising), but combining it with their non-contact angle practice and finishing with the player aggressively two-handed grabbing or hitting the front of the “ball carrier’s” jersey should simulate the kind of proximity to the ball carrier a player needs to be in on game day. Only by addressing this area will the team’s tackling start to improve the considerable amount it needs to.