Seattle was already an epicenter for rugby-inspired tackling methods. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll champions the cause with his “Hawk Tackle” video, and Washington coaches, after experimenting with some rugby drills in the past, adopted them wholly last year, too.
For Rex Norris, the art of tackling goes beyond the act of burying a ball carrier to the ground. As the new director of football for the Seattle-based rugby consulting firm Atavus, Norris is using data-driven results to turn the tackle into what he believes is a more efficient — and safer — method of playing defense.
With the proliferation of hurry-up spread offenses at all levels of football, defenses are stretched to cover more of the field and strained to do so more often. Norris is hoping the “tackle plans” Atavus is helping to create — notably with Washington and Ohio State, the company’s first college-football partners — will spread.
“The defense has very little time to think about what just happened because the offense is lining up right way,” Norris said. “You need to have that ability to bounce back and have a tackle plan. We’re seeing that. We’re seeing these athletes get better and better.
Atavus is a Seattle-based company that consults with football programs, including Washington’s, on rugby-style tackling by helping teams implement drills, analyze game video and assess players’ tackling techniques.
“The data,” he added, “is telling us it’s working.”
Whereas football’s old-school mentality celebrated knockout-style hits, the rugby-inspired methods introduce methodical and mindful techniques that attempt to take the head out of the tackle.
Seattle was already an epicenter for rugby-inspired tackling methods. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll championed the cause with his “Hawk Tackle” video released last year, and Washington coaches, after experimenting with some rugby drills in the past, adopted them wholly last year, too.
Now, Atavus is taking it “to another level,” UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said.
Over the summer, Norris and UW club rugby coach Kevin Swiryn made a 2½-hour presentation to Chris Petersen’s staff, showing the six steps in their rugby-style tackle and ways to drill those techniques. The Huskies’ coaches wound up using some of those drills during fall camp.
“It really opened our eyes,” UW defensive-line coach Jeff Choate said. “If nothing else, I think it makes us better coaches, to examine how we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it.”
The goal for Atavus, established as Serevi Rugby in 2010 and rebranded earlier this year, is to offer its clients analytical support on the teaching and critiquing of tackling methods. For example, Norris and his team of five were breaking down game tape from UW and Ohio State almost immediately after they played — much like those coaching staffs do — looking for any breakdowns or patterns.
“They’re still in their infancy,” Choate said, “but there are some things we’re experimenting with them on right now. They can do a lot of things with numbers, and they have the time and energy to do it, so we’re not bogging down our support staff with these things.”
Much of Atavus’ work is still in the product-development stage. At some point, it would like to be able to offer a client like UW data suggesting what type of tackle would work best on that week’s opposing running back, which is not unlike baseball analytics that show what type of pitch works best against opposing hitters.
“We’re evaluating the efficiency in each type of tackle, and we’re evaluating the player and distance they’ve traveled and how that relates to the effectiveness of the tackle,” said Norris, who spent the past 23 years as the head coach and defensive coordinator at Kentwood High School while also coaching the Kent Crusaders rugby program.
Ideally, Norris said, those game evaluations are then catered to the tackle plan for a player in practice drills. “There’s no sense in practicing this style of tackling if we’re not using that (in games),” he added.
In last week’s loss to California, the Huskies missed 30 tackles, a high number even while defending a season-high 92 plays.
On Wednesday, Choate said he dedicated almost the entirety of one meeting with players to review the rugby-tackling form. During regular game weeks, UW dedicates portions of practice on Sundays and Tuesdays to drill those techniques.
Atavus has also done consulting work for Bellevue’s junior football program, and Choate said the broader motivation is to get the rugby-tackling methods growing from a youth level on up.
“It’s not just from a standpoint of the preservation of the game,” Choate said. “I think the game is so valuable to so many young people and there are so many positive lessons — but it is our obligation to use best practices and make sure we’re doing everything we can to know what’s the best and the safest thing we can do for our kids.”