- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2011

The NFL had no trouble getting back to football.

Getting back to good tackling, however, might take a little longer.

Lost in the eye-popping numbers put up by quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and running back Darren McFadden are the countless numbers of missed tackles that have turned seemingly innocuous plays into game changers.

They’re everywhere.

At the line of scrimmage (see: McFadden versus the Jets).

On kickoff returns (see: Green Bay’s Randall Cobb bulling through the Saints in the opener).

In the secondary (see: Wes Welker on a weekly basis).

What’s the deal?

Theories range from the NFL lockout to poor fundamentals to tougher rules on how and where players can be hit. Here’s another one: the collective bargaining agreement.

The practice guidelines outlined on page 143 of the CBA limit teams to 14 padded practices _ meaning, shoulder pads _ a week during the regular season, with 11 of those coming in the first 11 weeks and the final three spread out over the last six weeks.

The new rules were considered a victory for the players. Less hitting during the week means less chance at injury.

On that front, it appears to be working.

“It’s less wear and tear on your body,” Philadelphia defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. “I mean, you can play the game a lot longer as far as not wearing out your body.”

The flip side of the equation is if you’re a defensive player, being fresh isn’t going to help if you can’t do your job.

And the job isn’t getting done, even for traditionally good defenses.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are ranked second in the league in total yards, but the stat is misleading.

The defending AFC champions are 22nd against the run and last week Arian Foster ran for 155 yards, the most the Steelers have given up to a single back in eight years.

Coach Mike Tomlin has seen enough. He promised the team would get back to basics after the Texans pushed the Steelers up and down the field.

As a result, Pittsburgh is using what Tomlin called a “mulligan” this week.

The Steelers practiced twice in pads _ which the CBA allows clubs to do once a year _ while getting ready for surprising Tennessee and running back Chris Johnson.

“We’re not interested in saving bullets you know?” Tomlin said. “We’re into the here and now and we need a good week’s preparation.”

The Steelers have limited the amount of hitting done in practice for years. Long tenured players such as wide receiver Hines Ward and linebacker James Farrior rarely dress on Wednesdays, jokingly referred to as “Veterans Day.”

Yet even Farrior found himself in pads this week.

“It helps your timing,” Farrior said. “It gives you a better feel for what you need to be doing in the game.”

And the players stress good tackling is about feel, not practice. Players learned how to tackle in Pop Warner and it’s part of their skill set when they get to the league.

The issue isn’t lack of reps, they say, but lack of focus. If you don’t go hard on your hitting day, you’re in big trouble on Sunday.

“Oh, no doubt about it,” Denver linebacker Joe Mays said. “You could miss a lot of tackles and that can make the offenses gain more yardage. It will definitely have a negative impact if you don’t utilize that one day as best you can.”

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan doesn’t see much difference in practices with pads and practices in “shells” of helmets and shorts, pointing to the size of the equipment some players use means practices can get physical regardless of what a player is wearing.

“If somebody wants to have an aggressive practice and they want to hit, they basically can hit _ it all depends on the size shells,” Shanahan said.

Maybe, but that didn’t stop former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman from shaking his head when he heard teams were going at it once a week.

“At that rate, I could still play,” Doleman said. “Eleven times a season, it’s just hard to imagine that.”

The coaches aren’t in love with the concept, and Miami’s Tony Sparano joked he had to be “careful” with his answer though he allowed even padded practices can’t double for game conditions.

“You’re not obviously doing it at nearly the pace you would do it,” he said. “It’s not that you would do full-speed tackling, but you would do full-speed simulated stuff out there when you’re in pads. Well, you never get to that until the game right now so that end of it has something to do with it.”

The increase in popularity of four and five wide receiver sets hasn’t given defenders a break either.

Spreading out means instead of a receiver having to get through two or three players to turn a quick slant into six points, he may only have to beat one.

“A lot of tackles are made because of position,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “You have a guy to your right, a guy to your left, you have a wide receiver running and he knows he can’t go those two ways and if he does somebody will put him on the ground.”

And really, that’s part of the job description no matter where you play on defense, regardless of what’s in the CBA.

“I don’t think it’s an excuse for the reason things are the way they are,” Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel said. “Really, you could go three days of straight pads and go out there and look bad on Sunday.”

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AP Sports Writer Joseph White, Teresa M. Walker, Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton, Josh Dubow, Steve Wine and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report. Follow Will Graves on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP