Can tackling in games be improved by emphasizing it on the practice field? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to find out.
Actually, the answer to that question seems fairly straightforward. There are certainly techniques to proper tackling form and pursuit that can be imparted on the practice field, and football players work on it all their sporting lives. The more specific question the Bucs will be addressing is, can a team-wide tackling deficiency be solved midseason?
The Buccaneers, who rank 31st in the NFL in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed after dropping a 37-9 decision to Houston on Sunday, are not shying from the fact that their tackling has been below their own standards in 2011, or at least during a current three-game losing streak.
In coaching terms, the Buccaneers have not matched their opponents in recent weeks in terms of being physical.
"Yesterday was particularly a non-physical day as far as competing for the football and all those type of things," said Head Coach Raheem Morris on Monday. "So, we've got to go out there and compete a little better. And the only way you can do that is by practicing it.
"Whenever you're talking about playing hard, playing fast, playing smart, and playing consistent, that falls directly on the head coach."
Specifically, Morris plans to schedule more hours of padded practice this week, which allows players to compete in a manner that more closely resembles what happens on game day. Through the first 10 weeks of the regular season, the Buccaneers had held, at most, one padded practice a week, usually on Thursday. This week, they likely will hold two, which is the maximum allowed in a week under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement.
The switch is taking the Buccaneers in the opposite direction of the usual season-long flow of practice. Generally, the team holds more physical workouts during the early part of the season, then scales it back later in order to account for a growing number of player fighting injuries, fatigue and general aches. At this point, however, the need to improve the tackling on defense – and to do so right away – is taking precedent.
"This week and for the rest of the season, we can't be concerned about preservation so much and get our physicality better," said Morris. "That's what we need to do. I got my mulligan this week, so I can put it on twice this week and get as many as I can based on the rules to get these guys going. We've got to make plays in pads both on offense and defense and in special teams. That's what we've got to do."
The Buccaneers were not outside the norm with their practice schedule during the first 10 weeks of the season. The new CBA allows teams to hold only 11 padded practices during the first 11 weeks of the season, though they do not have to spend them at exactly a one-per-week clip. Teams are then allowed to conduct a total of three padded practices during the final six weeks of the season. Morris does have an extra padded practice in his pocket – what he called a "mulligan" above – and he plans to use it this week before the Week 11 deadline is passed.
Thus, it appears likely that the team will go with padded practices on both Wednesday and Thursday this week, with the aim on making some immediate improvements in their tackling form and physical nature of play. A rash of injuries had contributed to the team's previous approach, and that remains a concern, but the need for more physical play is now acute.
"We were preserving them a little bit, fighting through all the injuries and things of that nature, but I've got to go less with preservation and go more with physicality and get them going," said Morris. "It is what it is."
Morris said his team has slipped in recent weeks on how well it has executed its core beliefs: playing fast, smart, hard and consistent, as he mentions above. He spoke with veteran leaders such as Ronde Barber and Jeff Faine about ways in which to get the team back on track, and he intended to emphasize to his players at Monday's team meeting that the Buccaneers' success is supposed to be based on a physical brand of play.
He believes his message will be received and acted upon, because even in the midst of Sunday's potentially demoralizing game none of his players checked out. Morris expects his team to embrace the extra padded work in practice and to find a way to get back to being sure tacklers.
"The positive thing is I didn't have anybody complaining yesterday," he said. "Nobody was on the sideline moaning, being soft, being a coward. That's the best thing we've got going on this football team. I've got to push these guys to where we want them to go with this – not new – but physical approach we're going to take this week."
The Bucs will need to get back to that style of play quickly because this coming weekend they travel to Lambeau Field, where the undefeated Green Bay Packers (at least as of Monday afternoon) and their top-ranked scoring offense are waiting.
"That's awesome," said Morris. "This is the best time for the Green Bay Packers…for us to go play those guys. We've got the best team in the National Football League lined up on deck, ready to deal. And I got a chance to go upstairs and get a rebound."