KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs defense's tackling woes reached an apex during their Week 4 trip to Denver, and no play epitomized the breakdown in fundamentals more than when Broncos running back Royce Freeman took a pitch to the right side that seemed bottled up for a loss, yet six different defenders whiffed on making a tackle during a 14-yard scamper to the end zone.
“It’s like I have told the players, it is a challenge to everybody,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said after his defense yielded 7.2 yards per rushing attempt against Denver. “It's like I was trying to explain to them, we started about three weeks ago, we have to try to fix this thing and improve it.”
The Chiefs defense redoubled its tackling efforts after their struggles against the Broncos. The first practice following the Denver game started with a tackling drill for linebackers, attacking a tackle wheel on to a landing mat. Even though players can't tackle in practice during the week, Sutton wanted his defenders focusing on putting themselves in proper position to “prove to yourself you could have made that play.”
Inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said he saw improvement starting with the next week's game against Jacksonville.
“I think the last three weeks our tackling has been a lot better,” DeLeon said. “We've had a couple here, I think here, I can think of two in my head. But our tackling has improved the last three weeks. I think it's going to continue to improve. I think that's something that as the season goes on, it will get better.”
DeLeone traces the linebackers tackling struggles back to training camp when Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens both missed practice time and preseason action with injuries.
“Those first few weeks with Hitch and Reggie, they were kind of coming off where they didn’t play a lot in training camp,” DeLeone said. “They were kind of just getting in the groove a little bit, then I think they've both really improved the last few weeks.”
NFL teams have fewer and fewer padded practices during the season, which makes games themselves the only times to take tackles to the ground. It also makes padded training camp practices and preseason games more critical for shaking off the rust.
“For me, I think the hardest thing with tackling early in the season is because you don’t tackle as much in practice in the NFL as you do at lower levels,” DeLeone said. “It really happens in the games. Sometimes early in the year you're kind of still getting used to it and then you get better as the year goes on. I think that’s what happens with these guys.”
Because of those limits on practices during the season, Sutton says that players can't make quantum leaps with skills such as tackling.
“It's every day, it's every week, and what you really hope over the course of this season that you can improve and keep going,” Sutton said. “Tackling gets harder and harder because you have less and less even padded practices.”
There are also limits to how much players can develop and learn about tackling once they reach the NFL. DeLeone believes good tacklers learned the proper fundamentals early and didn't develop bad habits in high school or college.
“To me, it's all about the first habits you create when you start playing football,” DeLeone said. “If you start playing football when you're 13 years old and you have somebody who teaches you tackling who doesn’t really know how to tackle well, you probably aren’t going to have good habits. You're going to have bad habits.”
The other key ingredient to tackling is numbers, Sutton explains. He argues numbers always favor the defense when executing a play properly.
“If you do miss, if somebody else is right there, the miss isn't as obvious and doesn't cause as many problems,” Sutton said. “It's when you're by yourself and there's a lot of separation between you and the next defender that when you miss the problem becomes greater. All those things kind of work together to make you a good tackling team I think.”
Heading into last week's game against Cincinnati, Sutton said tackling remained the defense's top priority in their game plan.
“We put an emphasis on tackling, takeaways, red zone,” Sutton said. “Those were like the three biggest things we were trying to work on.”
The defense walked away with its best all-around performances of the season, holding the Bengals to a mere 65 yards rushing and 174 yards through the air and, most importantly to Sutton, just 10 points.
“I thought we played hard and we did a lot of those things we have been emphasizing,” Sutton said. “We made a step in the right direction in those areas. I thought the overall effort and performance was better.”