A running back breaks free, galloping like a wild horse into open space.
Just as they seem destined for the end zone, a defensive player makes a last-ditch effort to stop them, diving to clip their trailing cleat. The back stumbles into a heap, the tackler is praised for a heroic effort, and highlights of the touchdown-saving tackle are blasted across social media.
It’s the type of play that can turn a game—yet most football teams never practice it.
Why? For one, many coaches fall into the trap of only practicing for what they want to happen, and an opposing ballcarrier with nothing but daylight ahead of them doesn’t fit that wishful thinking.
Second, many believe it’s simply an “all-hustle” play with little technique behind it.
According to Andy Ryland, Senior Manager of Education & Training at USA Football, both of those justifications are seriously flawed.
“One of our running frameworks is that if an athlete is going to need it on game day, we have to train it. I’m not a big believer in training what you want to happen as opposed to training what does happen. We know this is a chaotic game. The other team is getting coached too,” says Ryland.
“We’re going to train every technique we think we could need on game day so our tool bag is really robust…I think every team should review this with their players.”
As Ryland saw highlights of these tackles floating around on social media sites earlier this summer, the commentary accompanying them often insinuated that little technique was involved.
“I got the feeling people were like, ‘this is an all-out effort play,’ and they weren’t teaching any technical aspects of it,” says Ryland.
“I had been introduced to some technical aspects probably 2005, 2006, when I was a member of the U.S. National Rugby Team, and people were already talking about it. This isn’t just effort, there’s actually a way to do it.”
Indeed, the ‘Ankle Tap’ Tackle has long been a fixture in rugby:
In American football, it’s a way for a defender to make a play when their pursuit angle and distance from a ballcarrier makes more traditional tackling techniques all but impossible:
Hustle is indeed an essential ingredient, but there are also some techniques that can significantly increase your odds of success when attempting this sort of tackle. Although you don’t need to spend a ton of practice time drilling it, players should be familiar and capable of executing these key points.
First, target the leg that’s in the air, not the one planted in the ground. By the nature of sprinting, this is generally going to be the leg that’s behind the runner.
“The idea is you don’t actually want to swipe at a planted leg while they’re driving all that force through the ground—it’s difficult to move that,” says Ryland. This type of tackle is usually a last-ditch attempt to trip someone up, so you’re generally going to be reaching for their foot, ankle, lower calf, etc.
But you don’t want to just bat at it and hope for the best—you ideally want to grab it.
“Hitting the swing leg isn’t guaranteed to knock someone down. If they have good balance, they can re-stride. So the follow-up points are as much as you’re swatting, you’re actually trying to grab,” says Ryland. “If I can grab the shoe or grab the ankle, I’ll be in a much better position than if I just blindly swat. Because if I miss the grab, I’ll normally still land a pretty good swat. Let’s aim small, miss small.”
Once you get a piece, the name of the game is making the ballcarrier cross their heels. This means moving the ballcarrier’s leg across their midline. Ideally, the ballcarrier will naturally clip themselves as they move to take their next stride, which makes it nearly impossible not to fall over.
“We’re actually trying to target the swing leg and cross the heels, so the following knee punch as they try to bring their leg forwards is going to be blocked by their own body. They’ll stumble because they won’t be able to get the next foot into the ground, and they drop quite quickly,” Ryland says.
Obviously, having players practice this type of tackle on their teammates at high speed is unwise. Using big, heavy bags probably isn’t best, either, as they’re quite a bit larger than your average football player’s ankle-and-calf complex. Ryland’s recommended method involves taping together the ends of two pool noodles to simulate a runner’s legs, which demands greater levels of accuracy from the tackler.
“Pool noodles taped at top. If you drag it, they have a little vibration and life, there’s some slight movements inside the larger movement of them being dragged away from you. It’s definitely going to cue down on your accuracy needs,” says Ryland.
For more info on USA Football’s Tackling Systems, head here.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images