After an offseason full of talk about playing better defense, Ohio State delivered in 2014.
The Buckeyes showed improvement almost across the board after an abysmal finish to the 2013 campaign, and though co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash was widely praised for his influence in helping install a new attack based on quarters coverage, he pointed to something else being key to the unit's success.
That would be tackling. And how did the Buckeyes improve their tackling? Well it was much more than a matter of simply trying harder or even refining their methods. They had to start over from square one, as Ash explained Thursday.
"The No. 1 thing I'll tell you is we've become a rugby tackling team," Ash said, explaining he was inspired to learn more about such a method after seeing an instructional video from Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll last summer. The video has become very popular over the past couple of years within football circles.
Ash did not simply copy what he saw on the Carroll video, however. Instead he went back through his own archives to compare to what he had been doing, not only in his first spring at Ohio State but also in previous stops at Arkansas and Wisconsin, watching tackling from practices and games. He also watched NFL film, and eventually a trend emerged.
"What we were coaching wasn't actually happening on film, so right then I was like, 'We're doing something wrong.' Because as a coach what you teach, what you work on, you want to see it on film and it wasn't happening. So we changed our tackling philosophy partly because the video inspired us to go back and really evaluate ourselves. When we did evaluate ourselves we found out what we were coaching wasn't showing up on film. So we made a wholesale change to go to what was happening on film."
The result was a technique the coaches believe is not only more effective but also safer.
"Philosophically everything you've been taught in the game of football, how you tackle, we were going against that," he said. "It eliminated some injuries but it also was a lot more effective. I can tell you right now as a coach I could go show you our film and what we teach and coach and drill shows up on film. Not once, not twice, not by luck but by design it shows up over and over and over and our players have bought into it. That alone led to a lot of our success, especially late in the season. We got off the field on third down. Why? Because we made tackles. A lot of the things we did good statistically goes back to what? Getting off blocks and tackling more so than what we did schematically than anything."
The difference? A greater influence on tackling low and using the shoulder.
"We wanted to be able to keep the face out of it for injury sake so our contact is made first with the shoulder," Ash said. "We talk about leverage-high shoulder tackles and our goal is to stop the leg drive of a running back. You get a big running back like (Ezekiel Elliott) against a smaller defensive guy he's going to run through a lot of tackles, and you saw that throughout the course of the year, but by stopping the leg drive because you're wrapping the knees and wrapping the thighs you're able to stop ball-carriers a lot easier that way. So it was safer, it was more effective and when you watch film that's what a lot of defensive players do anyway, but very few coaches actually teach it.
"So last summer I started to study our tackling situations and was like, 'OK, this is what's happening on film, how do we coach it?' Well what inspired me to study rugby was the Pete Carroll tape because it talked about rugby tackling in that video. So I started googling rugby tackling drills and this offseason I probably got 20 different rugby tackling things we studied from rugby coaches teaching it, rugby drills, and trying to find ways we can teach tackling without any pads on and plus when pads are on how we do it."
He reiterated being able to coach players to use a technique that seemed more natural to them anyway has been key. So has being able to get practice reps without as much risk of injury.
"It's safer and it's more effective," Ash said. "We had a lot of success with it. The great thing is though you talk about wrapping the thighs, well how are you going to practice that? Coach Meyer lets us do tackling every week. We've done it every day out here in spring. We're gonna do it once every day throughout the whole season. Like I said, we were live tackling before the national championship game. Why? Because it's safe. Nobody's going to get hurt, but that's the only way you can get better. The old high and hard thud stuff that people talk about and do to me creates bad habits."
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