How to be a successful tackler by keeping cleats in the ground: Part One

By Terry Donovan | Posted 4/18/2019

“Cleats in the ground” has been something we have preached as offensive line coaches for quite some time. In order to have maximum power and control, we coached our linemen on the importance of having their cleats in the ground. The same is true when tackling. USA Football has done a deep dive on the mechanics of tackling and how to coach it, and one of the biggest things that comes out of the training is teaching tacklers to have their “cleats in the ground.”

It sounds easy enough to tell a player to do this, but what does it mean? For years, we as coaches have told our would-be tacklers to run their feet. That is a part of it, but as a coach you need to understand what having your cleats in the ground both means and does for a player.

I had the chance to talk a little tackling with one of our Master Trainers and assistant coach at Fordham University Vince DiGaetano. He explains that having your cleats in the ground is crucial in all phases of the tackle to “make and maintain contact.” Simply put, we want the tackler to run their feet after contact and not get dragged to the ground when trying to bring the ball carrier down. Making the initial contact is crucial but not enough to be a great tackler. The driving of the feet that we, as coaches, have all said to our players is definitely one part of keeping the cleats in the ground. But there is much more. You need the cleats in the ground through every stage of the 5 Fights of the tackle. Each of the 5 Fights work together and fluidly in the tackle and every phase needs cleats in the ground to be successful.(See the USA Football’s Advanced Tackling System for more information on the 5 Fights.)

A defender’s power comes from driving their cleats against the ground. The feet being grounded creates resistance against the ball carrier. When a tackler loses feet contact with the ground, the tackle relies on the upper body with no help from the legs. Coach DiGaetano talks about “reshaping” the tackle after the initial contact to gain the dominant position. The reshaping comes from the cleats in the ground after the initial clamp and connection to the ball carrier when fighting to gain control. This cannot be done without the force generated by having a great connection point and the cleats in the ground. The theory can relate to a sumo wrestling match. In that match, the force from one wrestler to another is generated by the feet. When any movement is created by the force, the wrestler needs to reshape themselves, or get their feet under them to a more dominant position to gain leverage and eventually win the match. The tackle is not much different.


Getting a great initial clamp and connection is key. The tackler is looking for “no bounce” off in this phase. If the initial clamp is good and the ball carrier is not put on the ground, which happens in most instances, the tackler must move their feet to create the dominant position in order to win the battle with the ball carrier. By stopping your feet or diving at the ball carrier, you are no longer in an effective position, and the ball carrier can run through the clamp or drag you for extra yards. Either way, the tackler did not win the battle. As coaches we want to see our tacklers simultaneously making connection with the ball carrier with two feet in the ground and keep replacing the feetas the tackler reshapes the dominant position to finish the tackle. This goes back to the basics of the shoulder tackle and having near foot and near shoulder in great position. Using that power from the force through the ground for the split second with both feet momentarily rooted in the ground and then fluidly moving our feet to keep control.

A great way to teach keeping cleats in the ground and generating force through the tackle is the Shoulder Battle Drill from our Fight to Connect Series. The drill pits two players driving against each other. In order to move the opponent, one player needs to have their cleats in the ground to move the other player. Usually the one with two feet in the ground will move the player with one foot in the ground. But when the player moves the opponent, they need to get their cleats moved underneath themselves and repeat the process. The drill talks about controlled leg drive, which is key when making a tackle, to teach strong posture and the importance of maintaining good angles.

Drill setup

· Two players begin on their hands with cleats in the ground and knees off the ground.

· They fit shoulder-to-shoulder with an arrowhead and neutral leverage position.

· On the coach’s command, both players drive forward attempting to gain leverage by getting under the other.

· The drill ends with the coach’s whistle after a few seconds.

Learning how to run your feet and keep the cleats in the ground is important in all phases of the tackle, but in the finish is another place where we as coaches can evaluate players doing this correctly. As the tackler gains the dominant position and takes the ball carrier to the ground, we do not want the tackler to simply fall on the ball carrier or extend their legs and be dragged down. In a level one tackle (between the hips and numbers) or a level two tackle (between the hips and thighs), we can grade our players on keeping their feet in the ground. In many cases it will be easy because the tackler will not maintain contact and the ball carrier will run away or assume the more effective position.

RELATED CONTENT: Teaching a Physically Dominant Down Block

Coach DiGaetano talks about the benefit of the cleats in ground and driving your feet to make your body as long as possible while you’re making the tackle. Diving exhausts your length. He grades the tackle for his players in every stage. The feet and keeping the cleats in the ground are the determining factor in being a successful tackler. Many missed tackles involve some breakdown of not keeping the cleats in the ground.

This is a great time of the year for coaches to learn all aspects of the tackle to help our player achieve greatness. In part two, we will go deeper in depth with Coach DiGaetano and look at this concept when making a roll tackle.

Your defense is only as good as each tackler. Equip your staff with a common language, a systematic teaching progression and evaluation tools to coach better tacklers.


Your defense is only as good as each tackler. Equip your staff with a common language, a systematic teaching progression and evaluation tools to coach better tacklers.