For years, the strength of the Minnesota Vikings defense was stopping the run, and that doesn't happen by missing too many tackles. While the Vikings still limited the Chargers to 77 yards rushing a 2.9-yard average, missed tackles in both the running game and passing game allowed too many big and important gains from San Diego's playmakers.
That was especially true in the second half and contributed to the Chargers' comeback from a 24-17 deficit.
"Unfortunately, we didn't make those [needed] tackles. We didn't make a lot of plays that we needed to," defensive end Brian Robison said. "They made a lot of checkdown passes that hurt us. We're going to make those corrections and try to hope to correct that this week."
Even one of the best tacklers in the game, cornerback Antoine Winfield, missed a couple of tackles, starting with San Diego's final drive of the first half, which ended inside the red zone when Robison hit the elbow of quarterback Philip Rivers to instigate a Winfield interception. Earlier in that drive, however, Winfield missed a tackle on tight end Randy McMichael that put the ball near midfield. While the Vikings survived that one without give up a score, they wouldn't be so lucky on the opening drive of the second half.
The Chargers drove 69 yards in seven plays, picking up two first downs and a touchdown largely because of missed tackles. On the third play of the drive, Winfield and safety Jamarca Sanford each missed tackles on running back Ryan Mathews and the result was the Chargers' longest play of a game – a 37-yard pass that started innocently enough. Three plays later, Chad Greenway couldn't bring down bull-rushing back Mike Tolbert, who also pushed back Chris Cook on his way to a third-down conversion, getting 9 yards on third-and-9. On the next play, Winfield and Erin Henderson missed Tolbert, allowing him to get a head of steam and bull over Sanford on his way to a 9-yard touchdown.
"You just have to put yourself in a position to make a play. I don't know if it's a technique flaw or anything like that. Or maybe it was. I don't know," defensive end Jared Allen said of tackling in general. "The effort was there. Guys were running around. When the opportunity is there, you got to make it happen. I don't think we need to line up and do angle tackling drills. I don't think we have to push the panic button or anything."
As the game moved to the fourth quarter, nose tackle Remi Ayodele fell victim to the bug as well. On consecutive drives, he wasn't able to get Tolbert or Mathews at the line of scrimmage, and their 13- and 11-yard runs, respectively, resulted in first downs on a drive that ended in the game-tying field goal and game-winning touchdown.
"We tackled well early, and the missed tackles started showing up a little bit late," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's something that we have to be good at. It's hard to play defense in the NFL if you don't tackle well, particularly the way we're structured on defense. So it's something that we have to improve in order to have the type of team we want to have, the type of defensive team we want to have."
Allen said it's debatable if fatigue played a factor.
"We were tired, calves were cramping and stuff like that, but after watching the film it didn't look like it," he said. "Guys weren't playing fatigued. They were hitting."
Whether or not the lockout that eliminated all offseason practices is a factor is up to debate, but teams are only allowed to put on full pads during a three-day minicamp in the offseason anyway. The new collective bargaining further restricts how often they can put on full pads in-season.
"We'll still have drills that we'll work on and we'll do some form tackling when we do have pads on," Frazier said. "You just have to keep pounding it from a verbal standpoint, but you'll also do drills as well. We improved on it in the preseason and we'll have to work to improve between now and the game against Tampa because it is a game where you have to tackle in pro football."
During the regular season and postseason, teams are limited to 14 total padded practices during the regular season, 11 of which must be held in the first 11 weeks. There is also a limit of two padded practices per week. During the playoffs, teams can have one padded practice per week.
Padded practices are limited to three hours, plus a walk-through with positions coaches not to exceed 30 minutes.
But all the new rules regarding padded practices in-season don't really change the Vikings' routine much. They typically don't have more than one padded practice per week during the season anyways, and they don't tackle to the ground during those practices. Even if they did, at the NFL level it might be a mindset as much as anything, according to Robison.
"Practicing can only take you so far. I think the main thing is late in the game you kind of get mentally tired and you think you have a tackle or some guys will give it just a shoulder instead of wrapping up," Robison said. "We've just got to concentrate on actually wrapping guys up and bringing them to the ground instead of just giving them a hit and then just kind of going through the motions after that. It's kind of a concentration thing. It's the first game. Things are always going to be sloppy your first game. We'll get better at. We'll make the corrections this week and hopefully in the Metrodome this week you'll see a revamped team."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Missed tackles a focus for Vikings
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