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Rugby-style tackling could be the future of a safer NFL, and football at every other level

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Heads Up tackling hasn’t resulted in fewer concussions, so maybe it’s time for the league to consider a different approach.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The scrutiny the NFL is facing over concussions and the long-term effects players can suffer as a result isn’t going anywhere. The league has taken action to address concerns, but much of it has been nominal, like eventually firing its chief medical officer, a CTE denier, and making errant claims about concussions in an effort to convince people it’s working toward better solutions.

As concern about the potential for head trauma makes parents think twice about letting their children play football, the NFL has responded by trying to create the illusion of making the game safer, including pushing the Heads Up tackling approach.

With this method, players are taught to keep their heads and eyes up and lead into contact with the front of the shoulder. The theory is that keeping the head upright takes it out of the play, thus preventing injuries to the head and neck, including concussions.

The NFL claimed that Heads Up tackling, an initiative it funds and promotes, reduced injuries by 76 percent and concussions by about 30 percent based on the results of an independent study. However, an investigation by the New York Times revealed the study didn’t determine anything of the sort.

Instead, the study showed no quantifiable reduction in concussions when employing the Heads Up tackling technique. According to the Times, there was even less evidence that the technique reduced injuries other than concussions.

If Heads Up tackling doesn’t help lower the concussion rate, then the league should explore other tackling methods to make the game safer for players at every level of football. One that has gotten more attention in recent years is rugby-style tackling.

Rugby-style tackling in the NFL

A few years ago, the Seattle Seahawks transitioned to rugby-style tackling, in part because of concerns about injuries. Pete Carroll, assisted by Seattle’s passing game coordinator, Rocky Seto, produced a video in 2014 to help teach the technique at the college, high school and youth levels.

"There’s so much talk around the league and around the game of football right now, that I wanted to see if we could contribute to helping people understand how you could play this game and do it in a great fashion and continue to promote the game," Carroll said.

It’s a technique that former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn brought with him to Atlanta when he accepted the head coaching position prior to the 2015 season.

"The rugby tackling really involves shoulder tackling," Quinn said when he was hired by the Falcons. "It’s a leverage tackling principle, so for us, not only is it safer but it’s more effective for us to do that.

"Rugby has used shoulder tackling for years and about two years ago when we were trying to take the head out of the game some people said ‘Well, it may not be as physical,’ and we said that’s absolutely not going to be the case."

In rugby-style tackling, the player is always leading with the shoulder and never the head. The emphasis is on hitting the ball carrier hard in the strike zone, from above the knees to the shoulders, and wrapping up — which means this method should be just as effective as others in terms of stopping a ball carrier. In this technique, the defender’s head comes behind the ball carrier’s body, but because he’s leading with the shoulder, the head is never a point of contact.

It’s not just happening in the NFL, either

College football is taking note, too. Many teams have shifted to the rugby tackling technique, thanks in part to the video put out by Carroll and the Seahawks teaching the finer points of the "Hawk tackle," as they call it.

Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was not initially interested in changing the Buckeyes’ approach, but former defensive coordinator (and current Rutgers head coach) Chris Ash persisted. Meyer soon became a believer, too.

"I did as much research as I could and ultimately we jumped in," Meyer said last year, via Jon Solomon of CBS Sports. "Tremendous success right out of the get-go. You could see the difference."

During the 2013 season, before Ohio State adjusted its approach to tackling, it was clear that tackling was a concern. Ohio State allowed 377.4 offensive yards per game through the 2013 season. In the Orange Bowl against Clemson that season, Sammy Watkins totaled 227 receiving yards, almost all of which were yards after the catch.

Ash told The Lantern, Ohio State’s student paper, that the rugby approach is not only safer for players, but it also helped improve the team’s defensive performance in 2014. That year, the Buckeyes won the College Football Playoff National Championship.

"It eliminated some injuries, but it also was a lot more effective. And I can tell you honestly right now, as a coach, I could go show you our film and what we teach, what we coach, what we drill and guess what? It shows up on film," Ash said.

Ohio State’s defense jumped from No. 47 in the country in 2013 to No. 19 the next year. In 2015, the Buckeyes boasted a top-10 defense, surrendering just 311.3 yards per game.

As more college teams adopt rugby-style tackling, and if NFL coaches see positive results — in terms of injury prevention, and if defenders are still able to stop a ball carrier effectively — we may see more pro teams change their approach. The transition may be easier if the players teams are drafting are already familiar with and proficient in the technique.

Quinn not only thinks it will be easier to incorporate the rugby-style technique at the pro level if college programs are buying in, but he also believes pro teams have a responsibility to set that standard of safety and effectiveness.

"Our responsibility in the NFL it to keep filtering down some trends," Quinn said. "And then it gets down into college, and the college to the high school, and the high school all the way down.

"It’s an awesome game and it provides so many things, so if we can make it better and safer, then it’s our responsibility to get that done."

What kind of results are we seeing in the NFL?

In the season before Quinn was hired to take over in Atlanta, the Falcons had 89 tackles broken by offensive players, according to Football Outsiders Almanac. Last season, the first year of implementing the rugby-style technique, the Falcons had 107 tackles broken by offensive players. That’s not a trend that necessarily supports the idea that rugby tackling is more effective.

When Ohio State implemented rugby-style tackling, the team saw immediate results. Yet college players are younger and more malleable when it comes to changing technique, as opposed to NFL veterans who may be trying to learn a new approach to tackling after decades of doing it differently. Asking NFL players to completely change their approach to tackling is a tall order, and the Falcons, in their first year using the technique, may not be the best example just because it was so new to them.

This season should be more telling. In the preseason, when backup players see an increase in playing time, the Falcons averaged fewer than seven missed tackles per game. Quinn has said that an acceptable target is six to nine missed tackles per game, and ideally he would like to see the Falcons keep it to fewer than five.

Quinn believes the team is missing fewer tackles because they’re more comfortable with the rugby-style tackling technique, and he expects the Falcons to continue to demonstrate improvement in this area in the regular season.

"Any time you get more reps — and now there’s a couple thousand reps in this scheme — so you’re not thinking, ‘what type of tackle I’m doing here?’" Quinn said. "So we’ve seen a real difference from when we started in the offseason, and it’s carried through training camp. It just feels different, and the way that we’re playing, the way that we’re practicing, and we’re trying to (be as) tough as we can be."

Here's a look at the Falcons' tackling before Quinn was hired, and after, where the emphasis on shoulder tackling can be seen:

The Seahawks have been utilizing this technique much longer than the Falcons, and Seattle had just 68 broken tackles in 2014, and 87 broken tackles in 2015. Seattle is probably a better indication of the effectiveness of the technique just based on the length of time the team has spent utilizing it. It’s also worth noting that the league average for missed tackles in 2015 was 104, and in 2014 it was 83.

Last season, the Seahawks and Falcons each finished the year with just four concussions each, according to the PBS Frontline: Concussion Watch website. Four concussions is below the league’s average of just over six per team.

The lower numbers for the Falcons and the Seahawks are remarkable considering that the number of concussions reported in the NFL last season was dramatically higher than it had been over the previous two seasons.

Of the 199 concussions reported last year, more than half were suffered by defensive players. Cornerbacks in the NFL sustained 41 of the 199 concussions reported last season, which accounted for 21.6 percent of the diagnoses. Only one defensive player from the Falcons and one from the Seahawks were diagnosed with concussions last season, and neither was a cornerback.

Not everyone is a fan, though

Not everyone is sold on the idea of rugby-style tackling as a safer approach. Count former All-Pro middle linebacker Chris Spielman as one of its critics.

Spielman, who retired in 1999 after suffering two major neck injuries on the field, is concerned that the rugby-style method isn’t actually safer.

"I would sit here and argue with anybody about this: when you talk about hitting ball carriers at the hip or below (as they do in rugby tackling methods), you tend to lower your body to strike and the natural progression is for the head and eyes to go down," Spielman said via Mike Kuchar of X&O Labs. "Your head may now be at a more vulnerable position."

Dan Quinn said he would tell detractors that he think it’s a better and safer method.

"I would say to look at the numbers and the amount of concussions from tackling that we have," Quinn said. "I also think you can be really physical doing it. It’s an emphasis for us not to use the crown of our helmet tackling. It’s safer for the players, it’s better for the game, and that’s how we’ll be teaching them moving forward.

"I also think it’s a better tackling technique where I have a leverage that I can own to make the tackle. "

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Recently, the NFL announced changes to the way it will handle execution of its concussion protocol. The league will now apply substantial fines and the loss of draft picks to teams that do not follow the protocol to preserve a competitive advantage. Former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask believes the potential to lose draft picks is a severe enough penalty that teams will be more likely to adhere to the protocol.

Everyone loves to see slobberknockers in football, but the big hits should be simply safer for players. The best-case scenario for the league, and more importantly, for players, is to find ways to make the game safer across the board without compromising the things that draw fans to it in the first place. Time will tell, but rugby-style tackling might be one solution that would make the game safer for players without fundamentally changing the game.