Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio examines T.J. Ward’s pursuit and tackle of Tarik Cohen in The NFL Lens.
Watching a defensive back tackle a runner in the open space of the perimeter is a lot like watching an outfielder sprint and making a leaping catch of a screaming line drive. The difference is that the defensive back has to weave around men of 250-320 pounds who are trying it hit him.
Veteran safety T.J. Ward has spent less time with the Buccaneers than rookie running back Tarik Cohen has spent with the Bears, but Ward brings eight years of experience to his new squad. He also displays a skill that got my buddy Jene Bramel interested in football as a boy: Flying from the nether regions of the television screen into sudden view to pounce on a ball carrier like a predatory catch ambushing its prey.
Here’s the takedown of Cohen and my notes on the concepts and technique involved with making this play that create an NFL Lens for watching other defensive backs tackle on designed runs to the perimeter.
The play begins with Ward as one of two safeties 11 yards off the line of scrimmage against a Chicago Bears offense aligned in a tight, trips right look. This formation is a well-known setup for a toss play to that trips side. The two receivers and tight end are there to seal the edge while part of the offensive line seals the inside to prevent backside pursuit.
The Bears try to disguise this pitch by motioning the tight end across the middle, but Ward diagnoses the play the way an outfielder gets an initial read on a ball flying off a hitter’s bat. Ward climbs to linebacker depth as his safety teammate Chris Conte rotates to the deep middle to account for a potential pass.
When Chicago snaps the ball, the tight end reverses field back towards the play side as a lead blocker and the two receivers seal the edge defender and linebacker to the inside. Ward identifies the pitch and knows he’ll be working to the edge with the tight end and the pulling guard as a two-man convoy clearing a path for Cohen.
Ward slides around the first receiver sealing the linebacker and works inside-out towards the line of scrimmage on a trajectory for the guard and tight end. The next phase of this play is a lot like an outfielder tracking the ball. Ward is the ball, and Ward has to reach a point on the field where he can lay out for it.
Where the baseball analogy takes a hard left turn is his negotiation of space between the tight end and guard. This requires an advanced level of timing and nerve. It also requires great body position.
Freeze the frame to the point where Ward is a yard away from the blue line. At this point, he’s positioned in between the tight end and guard but three yards away from them. Ward turns his shoulders to square that narrow crease between the two defenders.
Ward then cuts his stride length with two shorter steps and brings his pads over his knees while keeping his head up.
The tight end tries to get his hands on Ward, which is why the safety has to begin his dive three yards away from his target to get under the blocker. Ward maintaining a heads-up approach is critical because he’s aiming for a moving target about the size of a baseball.
FOX analyst Charles Davis described one of the valuable lessons he learned as a defensive back while broadcasting a game this weekend: “Aim small and miss small; aim big and miss big.” Ward is aiming for Cohen’s inside knee. You could draw a line from Ward’s facemask to that spot.
Ward aims for the inside knee because if he misses, he still has a shot at Cohen’s calf, ankle, foot, and possibly the outside leg. This aiming point comes into play because Cohen leaves his feet to leap past the torpedoing Ward.
Ward misses the knee but gets the calf and ankle locked around the bicep and forearm of his outside arm. He also reaches for the inside leg his inside arm to prevent Cohen from landing on one of his feet. If this happened, Cohen had a much greater chance of pulling through the wrap.
It’s a daring display of skills that involves reaching the target point, squaring and dropping the pods, keeping the head up, aiming small, and exploding through the target. It’s a great play to use as a standard for evaluating tackling on perimeter runs by second and third-level defenders.
For more NFL Lens analysis, check out the RSP’s home page for the series.
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