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Rugby Tackling Drills For Football: Complete Guide

Rugby-style tackling is making its way into the American football scene. Coaches worldwide are teaching rugby-style tackling as it’s easy to teach and is much safer than the traditional way of tackling.

The main difference between rugby tackling and traditional tackling is the player takes their head out of the tackle. The head is placed on the side of the body rather than across the body.

In this article, we spoke to HHH Tackling Academy’s Spencer Smith, who walked us through his tackling progression and how he teaches his athletes.

Rugby Tackling For Football

Rugby is a contact sport similar to football. The main difference between football and rugby is the spacing in which players close to make contact. However, the closing distance and contact are no different between a football player and a rugby player.

Both contact styles require a strong foundation of leg drive, shoulder contact, wrap from the arms, and the head to be completely out of the tackle.

Seattle Seahawks introduced their hawk tackling system, a similar rugby-style tackle that has since gone viral.

Coach Spencer Smith has adopted similar rugby-style tackling practices with his football spin.

Coach Smith is the co-founder of HHH Tackling Academy. This academy helps players improve their tackling technique and make the game safer for both the tackler and the runner.

In his 3 year career as the tackling coordinator, he has taken his team from 25 missed tackles a game down to 6. This drastic drop in missed tackles is largely due to his rugby-style teachings at HHH Tackling Academy.

Coach Smith has broken down his 3 components of tackling and how to teach them to any player. Coach has worked with 7-year-olds, as well as NFL players. The approach, contact, and finish does not change when tackling.

3 Components Of Tackling

3 components of rugby style tackling for football

Get Into Position

Getting into position for rugby style tackling for football

To effectively tackle a ball carrier, defensive players must be in the proper position. Coach Smith references the proper focus point, and the tracking point for the tackler is the near hip of the ball carrier.

The hip is the center of the ball carrier’s body. If the offensive player wants to move in any direction, they must adjust their hip angle and drive toward that direction.

Focusing on the defender’s hip will also help with leverage. Offensive players will often cut back on defensive players if they have poor leverage.

To maintain proper leverage on the ball carrier, keep your near shoulder even with the ball carrier’s near hip as you close the ground.

Missed tackles are often a result of poor leverage and balance. Come to balance means balancing yourself to move in either direction while maintaining enough leverage and power to deliver a proper tackle.

Establish Contact

establish contact during a rugby style tackling for football

The next phase after the player has got into position is to establish contact with the ball carrier.

Starting with the force from the ground, Coach smith teaches a power step: the same foot and same shoulder. Once the tackler has established his lower body positioning, attack 1/2, a man to make sufficient contact in the ball carrier’s leg.

Once the tackler is in position, Coach Smith wants an active shoulder. Active shoulders mean the near shoulder should contact the ball carrier while the arms are being shot around the runner.

The arms should squeeze tightly around the ball carrier’s legs as they subdue the runner to the ground.

Finally, and most importantly, the head placement. Different from traditional tackling methods. Contact with the ball carrier should include no head within the tackle. This is what makes the rugby style of tackling so unique.

The head is placed on the side of the ball carrier, which is different from the “head across” technique frequently taught. According to coach Smith, taking the head out of the tackle is more effective and prohibits cutbacks.

Coach Smith uses the “cheek to cheek” coaching cue, meaning the tackler should put his cheek on the side of the runner’s lower cheek. This coaching cue forces the tackler to get low enough to strike the legs and make an impactful tackle.

Finish Tackle

Finishing the rugby style tackling for football

Last is the finishing part of the tackle. Once contact has been established, the arms should wrap the ball carrier. Coach Smith teaches to shoot the arms from the chest. This will bring the force into the tackle, rather than rounding the arms to wrap. This motion is comparable to off-season lifts football players do, such as a bench press and pushups.

Squeezing the legs into your active shoulder will bring the ball carrier to the ground and immobile him.

The coach makes a note of not stopping the feet through contact. Players must continue to chase the tackle once contact is made. When the feet stop, oftentimes, players will widen their base and lose contact. Coach Smith wants players to run the feet through contact to put ball carriers on the ground.

Rugby Style Tackling Drills

Coach Spencer Smith shared with us the most impactful drills that he does daily. These drills are great for young players such as 7, 8, 9, and 10-year-olds and high school, college, and NFL players.

All of these drills can be done with or without pads. Coach recommends that players get a feel for these drills without pads; they can transfer their technique to padded practices.

All of the drills can be found in the video below.

The Triangle Tackling Drill

Triangle drill for rugby style tackling for football

The Triangle drill requires 3 players to start on their knees. Players will start with the player on either side. Once they make a tackle, they will reposition themselves back to the starting point.

From here, the tackler will make a tackle on the other ball carrier. Starting from the knees is a great way to teach a player to establish effective contact with the ball carrier.

The tackler will go back and forth for 4 reps then rotate between players.

The Mel Tackling Drill

Mel tackling drill rugby style tackling for football

The “Mel” tackling drill is an angle tackling drill that focuses on players getting into position and using the 3 step progression to finish the tackle.

Coach Smith uses this drill in practice as well as on the game day. This drill requires players to come downhill at an angle, emphasizing getting into position and finishing the tackle.

The Warrior Tackling Drill

Warrior tackling drill rugby style tackling for football

Coach Smith uses the warrior drill for footwork and finish. Players standing on the blue cone will move at a 45-degree angle to their right or left.

The tacklers will focus on getting their feet into position, wrapping the arms, and finishing through the tackle. The warrior drill is a great progression into fitting up a ball carrier and teaching tackling at full speed.

The Lion’s Den Tackling Drill

Lion's den tackling drill for rugby style tackling for football

This multi-progression drill allows both players to get significant reps over time. Coach Smith was able to reduce his missed tackles per game due in large part to these drills.

The emphasis of this drill is to get into position, tracking, and leverage. This drill will help prevent cutbacks and help defensive players take the proper angles to the ball carrier.

One major point of emphasis in the Lion’s Den is to make sure to finish with the palms on the thigh. This allows the tackler to be in the proper body position to strike the thighs and the legs as the tackler progresses through the tackle.

Bear Trap Tackling Drill

Bear Trap tackling drill for rugby style tackling for football

The bear trap drill is a two-part drill that allows 2 players to get equal, quality reps. First, the ball carrier and tackler will start back to back. Each player will go around the cone placed in front of them, which the tackler will make an open-field tackler.

From here, the ball carrier and runner will switch positions. The next set of cones will be an open-field tackling drill. This requires tacklers to bring the ball carrier to the ground in a game-like situation. Both the runner and tackler should be moving at full speed, emphasizing the drill is to be as close to simulating a game as possible.

The Quad Tackling Drill

Quad tackling drill for rugby style tackling for football

The quad is a gauntlet-style tackling drill that forces the tackler to come to balance for each ball carrier he encounters. As the name states, 4 players will be aligned on 4 different cones.

The tackler will run to each of the 4 ball carriers and emphasize getting into position. This non-contact drill requires players to get their feet in the right position, pad level at the right angle, and head near the cheek.

Coach Smith hops on one main coaching point because the players need to have their feet, hips, hands, and shoulders properly upon contact. Players who have arms extended will often lunge and miss the ball carrier. This drill will help clean up and expose players who are not in the correct position.

Keep Learning

Rugby tackling is the new, safe way coaches are teaching tackling in football. Coaches like Coach Spencer Smith are leading the charge with helping better the game through this safe and effective tackling practice.

All of these drills can be found on Coach Smith’s Twitter, and you can learn more about his teachings at

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding technique, scheme, and more!

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If you have any questions about tackling or any drill shown above, reach out to us on Twitter @vIQtorySports or contact us directly!