- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2017

RICHMOND — When Redskins coach Jay Gruden was in college, his coach would make him run live tackling drills, even as a quarterback. Gruden still has the mangled fingers to prove it.

Times have changed, and two-a-day full contact sessions are a thing of training camps past. The Redskins are practicing in pads now, but they’re not tackling live, like they would in a game. Practices are safer as a result, but coaches are faced with a question: how do you teach tackling when you can’t tackle?

“That’s a dilemma that we have,” Gruden said “How much live contact you want to do, and then when you are in pads, what do you tell them to do with the running back when he comes through the hole?”

For the most part, the answer is to let him go (one reason to take big runs during camp with a grain of salt). Players mostly just tag up, running full speed for as long as they can while still knowing they can pull up at the last second.

“I think the big thing is getting themselves in position, fighting off blocks,” Gruden said. “We’re talking about fundamental footwork and pad level. That’s the most important thing for the offensive and defensive lines especially. Linebackers really getting off blocks, running to the football and then tagging off the best way we can. And then of course the same thing with safeties, they have to get in good body position.”

It’s not quite the real thing. It’s a coach’s nightmare to get to the regular season and realize that a player can’t wrap up or gets shy of real contact. But the thought of losing players in July or August is even worse.

“I don’t like to do a whole lot of live tackling because I would never forgive myself if I lost a good player or any player for that matter over a tackling drill,” Gruden said.

Gruden said bad tacklers usually don’t make it to the NFL, anyway, which diminishes the issue. Everyone can stand to get better, though, and many Redskins could, especially.

Washington’s defense was the third-worst in the league in yards after the catch (YAC) allowed in 2016. In an average game, opponents gained 130.9 yards that way. That doesn’t happen without a bevy of missed tackles.

The Redskins will do drills with dummies and mats, and have a few practice periods with live tackling. Other than that, they’ll mostly rely on the four preseason games to get a sense of how well players are tackling when it counts.

That doesn’t mean that practice time is a lost cause when it comes to bettering players’ skills in this area. Safety D.J. Swearinger said that, for him, it’s all about focusing on his angle to the ball. He’ll even run at players who aren’t his responsibility during practice, just to get extra reps.

“Sprint to the ball,” Swearinger said. “You see the ball caught, you see people passing by and doing their tackles, you’ve still got to get your sprint to the ball even if you see the guy is tackled. You’ve still got to work, run to the ball and get your angle that way.”

Linebacker Will Compton said practice allows him to hone in on his technique because the physicality of tackling is taken out of the equation. Most football players don’t need to practice being strong, after all.

“It’s all about, when you have pads on but you don’t even have the bottoms on and you’re not going live, it’s actually better to work on those fundamentals as well as wrapping and thudding and stuff because you’re not leaving your feet,” Compton said. “You’re trying to run your feet, use your feet more than reach or lunge or anything like that.”

Along with the No. 1 problem of making sure players are prepared, coaches also have to manage a sort of football prisoner’s dilemma. Players fighting to make the roster can be tempted to play a little rough in order to stand out. If everyone does so, though, practices will be too rough and dangerous.

“We had a couple issues the other day where guys were getting a little bit too physical with our backs, sticking their face in there,” Gruden said.

Linebacker Chris Carter, who is going through his seventh NFL training camp with his fifth team, said that, across the NFL, veterans remind rookies that they don’t get extra points for showing off in training camp when it might injure a teammate.

“We teach the rookies that, look, we don’t want to hurt each other,” Carter said. “We’re on the same team, we want to win a Super Bowl together so we need everybody.

“You know, at the end of the day, man, I’m sure your family cares about you the same way my family cares about me and we don’t want to see you out here in a wheelchair.”

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