Steve Spagnuolo has Giants improving their tackling
Uani 'Unga was a prolific tackler in college, leading his team in the category and ranking among the nation's leaders his senior year. He's carrying that over into his first NFL season, too. He already leads the Giants with 26 of them, which is tied for 15th in the league and fifth among middle linebackers.
But when asked if tackling in college is different from the pros, he paused and grinned.
"Yeah," he said, "it's a lot harder to tackle in this league. I've been fortunate to get a few. Sometimes I surprise myself. But there are times when I feel like on this level, it's a lot harder."
Tackling has become a lost art. As teams decrease the number of full-contact practices, not just in training camps but throughout the season, the skill is eroding. The Giants, though, seem to have found a way to boost those numbers and improve their performance.
They get a little help from their friends. And the most important stat isn't always tackles, but assisted tackles.
It's an unofficial stat that can get murky and is measured from the press box, not from game video, but last year the Giants averaged 16.1 assists per game. This season, that number is up more than two per game to 18.3. That's two fewer times an opponent can break a tackle or squirm free for extra yards. It's been especially significant up front, where the Giants have the second-best run defense in the league and have allowed only one run of 20 or more yards this season.
"We don't want anyone to have to make a tackle by himself, so you're actually seeing a lot more assisted tackles because guys are flying to the ball," linebacker Mark Herzlich said. "That's one thing that we harp on all the time in practice and through training camp, and it's showing up on game day where we're not letting them get a lot of yards after contact."
Said 'Unga, "You have that chemistry with everybody just buying into the program, and when that happens, you start making things work."
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo sums up that idea in one word: relentless.
"We've got to get to the ball, you've got to be relentless to the ball," he said. "It's unwavering, it's persistent, it's constant. It's got to be part of your thread and what you do and every player has to buy into it and I think right now that has happened."
He's been drilling that word into his players since the start of the offseason workouts, when he looked at last season's video and found 1,507 yards that the Giants gave to opponents through broken tackles, dropped interceptions and third downs that should have resulted in a punt.
Take away those 1,507 yards, he told them, and instead of allowing 375.8 yards per game and finishing 28th in total defense, they would have been closer to 280 yards per game. Only Seattle allowed less than 300 yards per game last year.
Spagnuolo is encouraged.
"I think that's a reflection of the guys buying into it, relying on relentless, getting a lot of guys around the ball," he said. "I hope that continues. There was a preseason game when [yards after contact] was really bad because I remember putting it on the screen and having guys look at it. I think it's been relatively good. I know at least for the last two weeks. That is an emphasis."
Spagnuolo said he hadn't broken down these first three games to come up with a comparable number to the 1,507 -- that's an offseason project for when he's a little less busy -- but he's been able to eyeball the progress.
"My sense is we're tackling the ballcarrier, the runner, and getting him on the ground mostly when we make it to initial contact," he said. "The yards after catch has not always been good, so we're not always tackling at the completion point like we want to, and I think we need to improve on that."
Cornerback Prince Amukamara agreed. "I think we can still be better," he said. "We're allowing a lot of leaky yardage, especially toward the end of the game. We just have to be better at finishing, and tackling helps out with that."
Against the Bills on Sunday, that will be a key throughout the entire game.
"This weekend will probably be our biggest test yet as far as tackling guys and getting guys on the ground, so we'll see how good we are," linebacker J.T. Thomas said of Buffalo's slippery skill players.
"In this day and age, the game is so wide open and athletic people, like Buffalo has, get out to the perimeter and out in space," Spagnuolo said. "One guy tackling that athletic guy out in space is hard to do. You need everybody there."
Which is why any accomplishments this week -- and this season -- will be more a reflection of the Giants' mental adjustments, not physical ones.
"Physically, by the time you get to the NFL, you know how to tackle," Herzlich said. "Sometimes guys put you in bad positions because you feel like you're on an island, but that's what the pursuit will do. It makes you feel like you're not on an island and you're able to take your shot and make the tackle that you need to make.
"You get one shot to make the tackle, and then your buddies are going to be there to help you out."