Strike Zone Tackling

For years I have used the name Target Tackling to describe what we teach our players, but after watching Pete Carroll’s Tackling Video, I am changing the name to Strike Zone Tackling out of sheer respect for his system and the great video he created.  I wish I could say we have been using all the same drills and teaching our kids exactly the same terminology and techniques, but I would be wrong.  However, I can tell you that what we are doing on the practice field and what we are looking for on game day is very, very close.  And we will certainly be stealing many of the drills in his video for our future players.

Most football coaches would agree that tackling is the most important skill we teach every defensive player. Alignment, Assignment and Aggression can hide many deficiencies in a player but if they can’t tackle, they can’t play defense!

I believe it is also a given that blocking and tackling are the two most important fundamental skills for a football player at any level of the game.  At higher levels, when the players begin to specialize on offense or defense they can actually excel at one or the other but from the youth level all the way through many High School programs, players usually contribute on both sides of the line of scrimmage and therefore they need to work on both skills.

Many coaches allow this to become a problem by focusing too much on one or the other causing their team to struggle with the other.  I approach this a little differently.  From early on in my coaching career, I have always looked for easier, better and faster ways of doing things.  Coaching youth football for so many years has taught me to become as efficient as possible with the little amount of time I get to spend with my team.  Early on, I realized that blocking and tackling are so similar that we should be teaching them as the same technique.  So I began coaching my kids blocking and tackling at the same time.  We teach our kids that the only difference is blocking requires your hands to be ‘inside’ and tackling required your hands to be ‘outside’ so you can wrap up and squeeze the ball carrier.  This never made us great tacklers or great blockers based strictly on our technique.  But it did allow us to get pretty good at both due to the sheer number of repetitions we were able to get each year.

A couple years passed and my friend Jack Gregory introduced me to a coaching concept called ‘muscle memory drills’.  And soon after that I attended the 2nd annual Double Wing Symposium and listened to a great HS coach named Tim Murphy tell us about his offensive line progressions and the ‘muscle memory drills’ that he uses.

So I spent the entire off-season that year working on and developing my own set of ‘muscle memory drills’ that could be used to teach blocking AND tackling.  These drills would evolve over the years into what is today known as LOAD, EXPLODE, GO or LEG for short.

Using the same muscle memory drills for both blocking and tackling is a huge time-saver for us every year.  And due to the importance of both skills, we incorporate our LEG progression into our EDDs (Every Day Drills) for the entire team.  Over the last decade this is the #1 thing we are doing each day to make our players better.

So obviously, we are saving time by combining the muscle memory training.  And we are saving time when we get to our tackling drills, because we spend less time working on stuff like ‘being in a good hit position’ or ‘rolling the hips’.  All of this allows us to spend more time getting repetitions on TACKLING.

We try to use a ‘target or aiming point’ in the Strike Zone (armpits to knees of the ball carrier) for any technique that involves contact because it helps our players focus on what they want to hit.  Besides helping them focus, the target points are placed in the best spot to make contact if you want to tackle a runner or to control an opponent you are blocking.

Another reason we like to use ‘target points’ when we teach our players how to tackle is basic size disparity.  I can’t quote the actual physics of the situation but I know that no matter the age group, there are always some players who are bigger, faster or stronger than everyone else.  There are also some who are smaller, slower or weaker.  And of course there is that average group that makes up the middle of the pack.  Keeping all of these groups from going head to head in practice is next to impossible and really doesn’t prepare them for game day anyway.  And while it would be nice and easy if everyone showed up the same size and shape with the same athletic ability, unfortunately that will never happen.  So for us the key is to teach each player how to tackle in the manner that is best suited for that player.  For the most part this is simply a matter of raising or lowering his ‘target point’ on the ball carrier.  We still start the smaller or less experienced kids out slowly by controlling who they pair up against during drills but over the course of a few weeks, we feel like we can get even the smallest and least experienced players to ‘combo tackle’ our better players using our methods.

The ‘target points’ you choose are up to you as a coach, but here are some examples of what we do:

1. Bigger kids like linemen are almost always targeting the chest plate or numbers of the ball carrier.  Most of the time they are unable to maintain speed, power and agility if they target any lower.  They also tend to drop their head for lower targets and that is dangerous.

2. Medium kids like FBs and LBs are almost always targeting the waist area of the ball carrier because they can get a little lower while maintaining ‘eyes to the sky’ and be more effective at exploding through the runner and driving him backward.

3. Smaller players like CBs are often the toughest kids to work with because they really want to ‘ankle bite’ and we don’t want them that low if we can keep them up around the knees/thighs.  These guys are usually the best at keeping their eyes and head up but their target point being so low means that coaches need to really keep after these smaller guys about ‘eyes to the sky’ during all tackles.



This phase is often overlooked but equally important to a successful tackle.  There are 3 parts to the Approach phase of tackling:

1. CLOSE – We feel it is imperative for our players to approach the runner at full speed so they can close the distance as quickly as possible.  We want our defenders ‘tracking’ the outside hip and thigh of the ball carrier.  The outside thigh and hip area is a ‘target point’ for our players to focus on while approaching the ball carrier.

* A good tackler must keep his head up and his eyes on the prize as he closes the distance or he could lose sight of the ball carrier.

2. SHIMMY – About 2-3 yards prior to contact; we want our tacklers to shimmy down in order to control their momentum.  If you continue running at full speed, it is very easy for a good runner to give a little shake and leave you clutching air.  So we teach our players to shimmy, which is a term I learned from an instructional DVD about Open Field Tackling in the NFL by Kyle Williams.  Shimmy steps are 3” steps where your feet are still moving at full speed and your body is still moving toward the runner.  Your rate of approach is slowing down but your feet are still moving at full speed.  This allows you to cut with the runner at full speed.  If you are taking huge steps then it will take you much longer to react than if you are buzzing your feet in really fast 3” steps as you move toward the runner.  It is always better to shimmy too late rather than too early so don’t allow your players to start before the 3-yard mark.  It is important to be in a good ‘hit’ position with his head up and shoulders back and a solid ‘Z in the knees’.  The tackler should also have both hands low near his waist, ready to ‘load’ on the next step.

* A good tackler keeps his eyes on the outside hip of the ball carrier.

3. LOAD – At some point during the shimmy, the runner will either break to his right or left or he will lower his shoulder to run you over.  The whole point of the shimmy approach is to be ‘prepared and able’ to break as quickly as possible to mirror the runner’s steps.  The load step of our tackler is basically the same as the load step of our blockers.  If the tackler must break to the right then he steps 3” diagonally with his right foot and loads his arms so that his hands are cocked back at his hips and ready to explode.  The tackler’s chest should be close to his right thigh.  Now his body is in a loaded or coiled position and ready to make contact.

* No Break – Head should be up and on the ball side.

* Break Right or Left – Eyes should be ‘up & to the side’.



This phase is what most people think of when they hear or talk about tackling.  There are 2 parts to the Contact phase of tackling:

1. EXPLODE – This is the step where most young players want to drop their head so you must stress to them that they have to keep their head up.  We call this ‘eyes to the sky’ and that is a great way to look at it.  The tackler has had his eyes on the outside hip or thigh of the ball carrier and as he explodes his head should bow with his body and he should try to look at the sky during this phase.  Exploding is basically a violent ‘uncoiling’ of the body through the runner.  It starts in the feet, bent knees and loaded arms.  It is also important to remember that exploding is always from LOW to HIGH.  As we explode we should be getting a lift on the ball carrier.

* Violently explode from low to high.

* Drive your belly button forward quickly. (Easy way to teach hip roll).

2. GO – It’s all about the finish.  If you want to stop the ball carrier short of the end zone or short of the first down, then you must finish your tackle.  In blocking, we want to finish our blocks and GO, GO, GO once we have made proper contact with the defender.  For tackling it is very much the same thing.  Once we have exploded into the ball carrier it is time to wrap him up and ‘drive for five’.  First let’s talk about the ‘wrap up’.  The key point we like to really focus on is squeezing the elbows.  It might seem a little strange but try it for yourself.  Wrap your arms around someone with your elbows out wide and see how much wiggle room they have.  A good athlete will spin and shake and might pull himself loose.  Now do it again but focus on squeezing your elbows together as tight as you can.  All the wiggle room is gone.  It will probably allow you to get your hands closer together for a better grab as well.  Once you have them ‘wrapped up’, it is time to ‘drive for five’.  This is exactly how it sounds.  We want to drive the ball carrier backward for five yards.  Some drills when we use a splatter mat we will place it five yards away to get used to driving the ball carrier that distance on every tackle.

*  Squeeze the elbows before grabbing cloth for a much tighter grip.

 I am attaching our basic Tackling Circuit PDF … we usually have 2-4 stations depending on how many coaches and how many players we have.  We really want to have 6-8 kids per station to keep a good pace going and get each player plenty of reps. 

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