Tackling in the NFL: What can be learned from the Gronkowski Injury?


Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) is tackled by Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward (43) and inside linebacker D

Another week, another major knee injury in the National Football League. This time it is Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski who has been ruled out for at least the rest of this season with a torn ACL. The defence of the (legally clean) hit on his knee is that defensive players have to tackle low, since they can’t hit high. But what about the middle?

Rob Gronkowski is listed as being 6’6″ tall. That’s one big guy. The safety who tackled him on Sunday, TJ Ward, is 5’10”. That’s quite a size difference, but isn’t anything new in either the NFL or other professional sports that involve tackling. It’s quite unlikely Ward could have tackled Gronkowski in the head anyway, given how tall he is, but was the only other option to dive head first at the knees? No.

Of those 78 inches of Gronk, (there’s a bad concept album title, if anyone needed one), lets say that are 30 (two and half feet) taken up by his head and everything from the knees down – the areas that players ought to be taught not to hit. That still leaves 48 inches, or four feet, of body to hit. Everything above the knees and below the neck is fair game, and offers a pretty sizeable target for players to throw themselves at as violently as they like.

In rugby, players are taught to tackle by hitting the waist with their shoulders and wrapping arms round the waist. This has the added advantage of getting your head out of the way of the opponent’s knees, meaning fewer concussions for the players doing the tackling. Rugby isn’t short on big players, and big hits. These hits can quite frequently separate the player from the ball (a common a few years ago when players justified plowing into their opponents shoulders and above) and in the case of Matt Rogers against England just over a decade ago, permanently rearrange their ribs.

There are differences between the two sports, but taking one part that is key to both is to stop the person running with the ball being able to move it any closer to your goal line. The NFL’s rules on what constitutes a tackle are much looser than either rugby code – though league has its fair share of hits and shoulder charges – and yet players insist that they can either hit high (shoulders and up) or low (knees).

The choice between hitting someone in the head and hitting them in the knees, both of which could cause career ending injury, is one that NFL players shouldn’t have to make. Proper tackling training aimed at putting the shoulder into the other players torso and trunk (lower chest and waist) will put defensive players in a position to deliver the kind of hits fans want to see, reduce the amount they’re paying in fines and ensure that fewer players are carted off with serious knee injuries.

There’s a middle ground between the head and the knees, so why not use that as the strike zone, rather than the side of someone’s knee, one of the most vulnerable parts of the body?