ATLANTA (AP) — Jessie Tuggle knows a thing or two about tackling. They didn't call him the "Hammer" for nothing.
When the retired linebacker gets together with other former players, one subject inevitably comes up.
These guys today just don't tackle like we used to.
"A kid has played in high school and played in college, so you assume when he gets to the NFL ... that he knows how to tackle," said Tuggle, who was credited with more than 2,000 stops during his 14-year career with the Atlanta Falcons. "That assumption is not right."
It's not really surprising, either.
In football, one of the essential elements of the game — tackling — just doesn't get a whole lot of practice time anymore. It's like a baseball infielder who doesn't take grounders before a game, or a hockey goalie who never faces 100 mph shots until it counts.
"We don't tackle live, not in practice," said Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. "I don't think anybody in the league does."
The reasons for that are understandable. Tougher restrictions on full-contact drills have taken hold at all levels of football, mostly spurred by a heightened awareness of the devastating long-term damage that concussions can cause.
From high schools to colleges to the pros, the impact of that change is noticeable to everyone — especially those who are trying to avoid getting tackled.
"It's a lost art," said Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who had rushed for more than 11,000 yards in the NFL.
For pro teams, where the top players are making millions of dollars and rosters are limited to 53 players plus a small practice squad, one of the primary goals during the week is just making sure everybody is healthy for the game. Hitting in practice is simply not feasible, especially at this time of year when most teams are all beat up.
"Probably the most challenging thing is having your guys prepared and ready to tackle," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said, "because you don't have the opportunity to practice in pads."
There seems to be more hitting in practice at the college level, where the rosters are larger, but even then it's rare for a team to do full-scale tackling once the season begins.
At Georgia, like many schools, they do most of their work using "thud" drills, where the defensive players — wearing helmets and shoulder pads — are expected to do everything they would do during a normal tackle except take the offensive player to the ground.
"There are a lot of fundamental drills that are actually harder to do than tackling," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "Sometimes, you can just lay out, grab a guy, trip his heels, and that's considered tackling him. But when you're teaching to thud, you've got to have good body position, sink your hips, strike with your eyes up, then let the guy go. That takes more effort, more energy."
But most of the rule changes over the last decade or so were largely designed to increase scoring and penalize those who dole out especially brutal tackles. To some, that's made defensive players more hesitant to tackle the way they were always taught.
"They don't want you hitting with your head," Buffalo Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "They want you to arm tackle."
Good luck with that. Since there's so much emphasis on offense these days, it's inevitable that many of the biggest, fastest, strongest players end up on that side of the line.
At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Falcons safety Dwight Lowery is usually trying to bring down players who are bigger than he is.
"The athletes are different," Lowery said, with a knowing grin. "It would be interesting if you could take players from the past and bring them to the present."
For that matter, the old-timers never faced the sort of complex passing schemes that are the norm in today's NFL game. Teams used to line up most of the time with two running backs and a tight end, which essentially left all but two receivers jammed close to the ball. These days, teams line up with four or five receivers, intent of spreading the field as much as possible.
"There's so much more space in the game today than there was years ago," said Kevin Coyle, defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. "Years ago, teams were lining up with two backs and they were pounding the ball and everybody was crowding around the ball. Occasionally, you would get the ball thrown outside quickly. Nowadays, half to three-quarters of the game are the perimeter plays."
It's much the same in college, where spread formations and no-huddle offenses are all the rage.
"Space is the enemy in tackling," Richt said. "The more space they have, the harder they are to tackle."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has assembled some of the college game's greatest defenses, said the whole culture of practicing has changed, spurred on by the number of teams that run fast-paced offenses.
"I think it's more difficult to coach defensive players in practice," he said. "Do you practice fundamentals or do you practice the pace of play? Until recently, we always emphasized fundamentals, but we didn't play very well when the pace of play was faster. So this year, we put more emphasis on the pace of play."
Saban doesn't regret that decision.
But he recognizes the trade-off.
"I do think it has affected tackling."
AP Sports Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo; Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, New Jersey; John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama; Steven Wine in Miami; Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri; Anne Peterson in Portland, Oregon; Dennis Waszak in New York; Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis; and AP freelance writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Florida contributed to this report.
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