Panthers coaches admonish players to 'wrap' not tackle in practice

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Tackling is becoming a thing of the past at Panthers training camp.

Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams (left) runs past cornerback Captain Munnerlyn during practice in Spartanburg, S.C.   CHUCK BURTON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHUCK BURTON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams (left) runs past cornerback Captain Munnerlyn during practice in Spartanburg, S.C.

In an effort to avoid unnecessary injuries as a result of contact, Carolina – like many teams around the NFL – emphasizes form tackling during team drills with defenders “wrapping up” ball carriers, but not taking them down to the ground.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that’s a big change from when he played linebacker 25 years ago for the Chicago Bears when two-a-day practices and all-out tackling were normal.

Rivera said how teams have approached teaching tackling “has changed a lot” in recent years out of necessity.

Rivera now oversees practices where players get yelled at by coaches if they take an offensive player to the ground except during “live drills,” which are few and far between at training camp.

Defensive tackle Frank Kearse, linebacker Ryan Rau and cornerback Josh Thomas were among the players at Monday’s practice at Wofford College who heard it from coaches when their wrap ups turned too aggressive.

“Stay up,” Rivera screamed at one point during practice.

“No tackling,” screamed an assistant coach.

Some players said that’s easier said than done and it’s a skill that takes time to learn. There’s that natural tendency to want to finish the play with a sense of authority.

But Panthers veteran linebacker Chase Blackburn, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, said that’s the reason the league has four preseason games.

“You tackle in those games and you get enough reps to where you get it going,” Blackburn said.

As for practice, Blackburn said the Panthers work hard during individual drills to practice their form tackles.

“We work on tackling, ball stripping, wrapping up and bringing your hips,” Blackburn said. “There is just too much threat of injury to bring a guy down during practice. As much as you want to rep it, it’s just not worth it as a team.”

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, now in his 15th season as an NFL assistant coach, said it’s a “tricky situation” making sure players are ready for the regular season without running the risk of losing key players.

“It’s funny, back then the first three days we’re always full pads and two-a-days and live tackling to the ground,” McDermott said. “But I understand how things have evolved and why they have evolved. But (training camp) is also where you build your toughness, so you have to make sure you are doing that day-by-day, too.”

McDermott said sometimes it’s a matter of getting creative in practice, allowing players to use props such as tackling dummies.

Still, he said he feels an anxiety every year before the first preseason game and early in the regular season over how well players are going to tackle.

“It’s concerning because that can be the difference between winning and losing games,” McDermott said.

Safety Charles Godfrey feels like the Panthers work plenty on tackling, although it may not be the traditional full-bore style from 20 years ago.

“We run to the ball, we fit up, we wrap up,” Godfrey said. “Sure it’s not a big collision, but the form is being worked on. So are we working on tackling? Sure. But we’re just not taking guys to the ground. We are gathering ourselves and making sure we have that proper leverage and wrapping up.”

Once the season starts, of course, that all changes.

The new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players union signed in 2011 also limits the amount of full padded practices during OTAs, training camp and the regular season to prevent injuries.

Rivera said it is all part of a changing game and coaches must adapt.

“It’s just different,” Rivera said. “(When I played it) It was two-a-days, it was full pads and we were able to hit if we wanted.”

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