Packers' rusty defense aims to clean up missed tackles
GREEN BAY – If it were two-hand touch, the Green Bay Packers' starting defense would have no problem dissecting film from their preseason opener.
Over and over, tacklers were in position against the Philadelphia Eagles. They flashed to the football, but didn’t finish.
On the game’s initial third down, Morgan Burnett wrapped two arms around Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews short of the marker … but couldn’t bring him down.
Kentrell Brice shot through a gap on fourth down, hitting Eagles running back Corey Clement five yards behind the line of scrimmage … but missed the tackle.
Joe Thomas hit Eagles running back Donnel Humphrey at the line of scrimmage on third down … but didn’t wrap up.
They weren’t alone. In their first exhibition game, the Packers' defense looked exactly like what it was: a unit that hadn’t tackled since January.
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, live tackling is severely restricted during the offseason. There’s no simulating the real thing. Those padded doughnuts rolling around Ray Nitschke Field aren't prepackaged with a juke move.
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“It’s tough,” said defensive lineman Dean Lowry, who beat a block but slid off Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz' legs, missing a first-quarter sack. “That’s really our first time going live throughout training camp. I think that’s a big part of our focus going into this game, is just making sure that we’re tackling effectively, because it is a challenge to make sure you’re getting the right fundamentals down in practice. Because we can’t really go live and take guys down, because injuries happen that way.
“I think going into these next three games, it’s a big focus of ours just making sure we’re tackling and finishing plays.”
The Packers' defense entered camp wanting to play faster than last season. On that note, it succeeded against the Eagles. Lowry said the team speed was noticeable. It helped the Packers force four turnovers, three coming in the first half.
Their swarming defense often cleaned up missed tackles promptly. When one player didn’t wrap up, another usually was close by. There were other plays the Packers should’ve made, but didn’t finish.
A conservative count ran the tally to seven missed tackles in the first half alone, rust after their tackling hibernated through the offseason.
Most egregious was the lone touchdown the Packers allowed, a play that wouldn’t have been possible without three missed tackles in seven seconds.
Clay Matthews, from the defensive line's interior, rushed Wentz with an outside stunt. He was unblocked, given a free shot at Wentz for a third-down sack, but flipped over his back. Wentz completed his pass to appropriately named rookie receiver Mack Hollins, who stiff-armed cornerback Kevin King at the 15, then ran through cornerback Quinten Rollins at the 10, on his way to a 38-yard touchdown.
In a corner of the Packers' locker room, defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois wasn’t brushing off his defense’s missed tackles. Even before seeing the film, he knew there were too many.
“Drives got extended at the beginning of the game,” Jean Francois said. “We’ve got to know how to kill drives. If we keep missing those tackles, those drives are just going to get longer and longer. All it’s going to do is put wear and tear on our guys.
“We’ve got to get off that field.”
Under the CBA, players aren’t permitted to wear pads during organized team activities and minicamp in the spring. It isn’t until the third day of camp when pads are strapped on. Even then, tackling isn’t live.
The Packers do their best to overcome the league’s restrictions. Those padded doughnuts they use as tackling dummies serve a purpose. Coach Mike McCarthy said it emphasizes proper footwork, precise angles – how to break down and approach a tackle.
But the doughnuts can’t throw a stiff arm. They don’t make a tackler miss.
The closest the Packers come to real tackling in camp is the rare times they use a live dummy. Even then, it isn’t the real thing. Players, moving in three-quarters speed, mimic their footwork. They wrap their arms around a stationary ball carrier, bringing him down on a large, blue pad covering the field.
In team reps, defenders are taught to “thud up” when approaching the ball carrier. Deliver a strike. Don't wrap and finish the tackle.
Jean Francois said offseason restrictions shouldn’t matter. For defensive players, he explained, tackling is something you’re naturally wired to do, like breathing.
“It’s just something you should know from the time you were little,” Jean Francois said. “You’ve got to know how to tackle. It’s cool when you go to practice, and we can’t hit each other in practice and we’ve got to thud up, but a lot of guys have to take that. When coach says thud up, thud up, head up, straight up – do whatever you’ve got to do.
“Because when it’s time to come in the game, and you’ve got to go after a guy who’s jerking and moving going full speed, and you can’t get that actual tackle, always remember when you miss that tackle all it’s going to do is extend that play drive.”
McCarthy said the approach – what the Packers can practice – was the most frequent error against the Eagles. Players used improper footwork, he said. They hit too high, becoming vulnerable to a stiff arm or sliding off the ball carrier’s pads.
In practice, McCarthy said, “our drill work has been very good,” even if it didn’t transfer to Thursday’s exhibition. He allowed that anxiety is “a little higher” in preseason snaps than camp reps.
“But at the end of the day,” McCarthy said, “it’s football. You break down the tackling with the approach, strike, wrap and finish. I thought our approach was the biggest error we were making in the area of tackling, and that’s the thing we work on the most.
“With that, we’ll be emphasizing the approach more in our drill work.”
The Packers have four weeks until their regular-season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. They know what awaits.
They couldn’t tackle Seahawks running back Eddie Lacy when he was practicing on Ray Nitschke Field, but they watched him spin out of plenty of tackles the past four seasons. A sound, fundamental approach will be vital to tackling Lacy.
That will be their mission over the next three preseason exhibitions.
“It’s the first live action,” Thomas said. “Once guys get in a rhythm, missed tackles will be cleaned up.”
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