NFL defenses trying to redo tackling technique

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In the seventh season of Dashon Goldson’s NFL career, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been trying to teach an old safety a new trick: how to tackle effectively without breaking a rule or, worse, damaging a body part.

Goldson recently served a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit. He was fined a total of $130,000 earlier this year for two other illegal head shots the league has been trying to shut down for the sake of better preserving the health of the players.

“We’re trying to re-program his strike zone so we don’t keep getting those penalties,” Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano said earlier this month. “And I know he is trying very hard to do it as well. He’s getting better at it, which is encouraging.”

Goldson has long been known as a hard hitter. Now, fair or not, the perception of his style has taken a darker turn: a player prone to making cheap shots.

“I remember being on the good side of it, hearing commentators, analysts talking about how perfect, how good, how I do it the right way, and all of a sudden with the new rule I’m a dirty player, a nasty player, targeted, and I’m not playing the game how it’s supposed to be played,” Goldson said. “I think that’s ridiculous.”

His case is a snap shot of the conundrum defensive players already trying to keep up with record-setting passing attacks have discovered in the current NFL. Concussions are a serious problem, but are torn knee ligaments really an acceptable alternative? Hitting high and going low can both prompt their own sets of penalties.

“What will happen, like everything else in life, is everyone will adapt or they won’t survive,” Schiano said. “So, that’s what we’re in the process of doing.”

Thus, there’s an entire generation of safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers accustomed to using whatever method necessary to take down a fleet-footed ball carrier, trying to retrain their brains to focus on the midsection.

“It’s all about teaching proper technique,” Jets defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. “When guys tackle properly, they don’t get fined. If you’re looking to just get the blowup hit … you’ll probably get that envelope from the commissioner.”

One week after Goldson’s suspension, Tennessee safety Michael Griffin got a one-game ban as a fellow repeat offender of the no-high-hits-to-defenseless-players rule. That was Griffin’s fourth violation in three seasons. Griffin started low on the play that got him suspended, but he wound up popping the opponent’s helmet off as the other player was in the process of falling.

“For a player, yeah, I think it’s hard because he came into the league when safeties played a different way and the game was different that way in the back end,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “Now, he’s had to learn, as all safeties have had to, to change his game and the way that he plays. He’s done that. But it’s a fine line.”

Defensive backs are asked to break up passes over the middle and make wide receivers think twice about exposing their bodies to catch them. Playing in the secondary isn’t simply about being in position to prevent the offense from moving the ball through the air. They have to use aggressive tactics.

Then there’s the sport’s culture of contact, with jarring hits celebrated by cheering crowds and captured on video in various highlight packages. Deprogramming that is probably impossible.

The dilemma boils down to this: Wide receivers and running backs are usually too fast to be consistently taken down with a head-up, arms-wrapped-around-the-chest form tackle players are taught when they first put on the pads.

“It’s bang-bang, within milliseconds, trying to make a decision,” San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “You’re just going to go off instincts.”

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