SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Thursday, I asked a few 49er offensive players a turnabout question: Which of your defensive teammates would you least like to be tackled by?
“Dashon Goldson,” answered tight end Vernon Davis, almost instantly naming the free safety. “Because he’s such a hard hitter. When you look at that guy on film, you say, ‘I don’t want to catch the ball in front of him.’ “
Running back Frank Gore’s choice had more to do with physics.
“I’ll go with Justin Smith,” Gore said of the mammoth defensive lineman. “He finishes tackles. When he puts you to the ground, he puts that 315 pounds on you.”
A third 49er, who didn’t want to be named out of concern (half-serious, half-joking) that other defenders might seek revenge in practice if he didn’t pick them, had still another opinion.
“It has to be Patrick,” he said. “Has to be.”
That would be Patrick Willis, who was once called “a rolling ball of butcher knives” by an opposing coach.
But in point of fact, the answer to my question could be just about anybody on the defensive side of the ball. Which brings me to my point.
The 49ers are one of the NFL’s best tackling teams. This will be a most excellent and helpful asset in Sunday’s NFC title game at Atlanta. Willis’ fellow linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, was the NFL’s second-leading tackler during the regular season by averaging 9.3 per game, just behind Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. Willis was tied for 21st on that list.
But how many people even know those statistics? How many people talk about the 49ers’ ability to use proper fundamentals and contain opposing runners? How many postgame highlights are devoted to a techinically perfect bringdown of a wide receiver after a 2-yard gain?
Let me answer: Few to none. We get so caught up in the sexy and sizzling parts of football — usually on the offensive side, usually involving touchdown celebrations or spectacular receptions — that an appreciation is lost for the most basic and fundamental parts of the game.
Like, say, tackling. Guess you saw that coming.
My friends hate watching football on television with me. They know what’s coming. Four or five times a game, after a runner or receiver is hit but continues to motor downfield, I yell at the screen: “Horrible tackling! Horrible! Nobody wraps up anybody any more! You can’t just hit someone and expect them to fall down! Horrible!”
At those moments, I feel like an old man standing on the front porch and screaming at kids who aren’t mowing the yard properly. So let me defer to Jim Harbaugh, the 49er head coach. He uses a wonderful football phrase to describe the quality most required for tacklers to bring down extremely large ball carriers at full gallop.
“Number one,” Harbaugh said, “is contact courage. It’s seeing how fast they can get from Point A to Point B and go hit somebody.”
Contact courage. Almost sounds romantic, yes? And I suppose it is, if you find vicious collisions romantic. Contact courage is partially instinctive and draftable. Certain players emerge from college football with an eagerness to whack somebody. But because NFL speed and size are so different, it can take a little coaching to instill the knack of taking the right angle on a runner or completing a tackle with the correct shoulder placement.
Vic Fangio, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, gets the credit for that instruction along with the other position coaches. But as Fangio explained Thursday, the tackle itself is usually the end result of post-snap success in the trenches, by taking on offensive blockers the right way.
“We can’t create big seams,” Fangio said. “You’ve got to establish a line of scrimmage and not give them big alleys and holes to run through.”
And of course, that will be an important element against the Falcons and their two running backs, Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner.
“They’re two guys that are on the short side and have got a low center of gravity,” Fangio said. “They run hard. They use their height to their advantage. They create leverage. And they’ve been running through tackles and running people over. ” You can’t get either one of these guys down with an arm tackle.”
That hasn’t been a problem for the 49ers this season while establishing themselves as one of the NFL’s best and most aggressive defenses. Their success at tackling is especially impressive given the league’s new safety rules, under which helmet-to-helmet hits and big-time contact with “defenseless” receivers is penalized. Goldson and Bowman have been punished for doing so. Willis has avoided any such flags but said this week that he hasn’t adjusted his game. He’s just hoping all of his tackles fall within the rules.
“A lot of times,” he said, “I’m having to chase, having to break down, having to outmaneuver a fast guy who’s trying to juke you out. So I never get that chance to hit straight on. I always say, ‘Just play football and whatever happens, happens.’ “
To this date, for the 49ers, tackles happen. Many fine tackles. It needs to be acknowledged. It also needs to continue Sunday if Willis and his teammates want to continue playing for one more game. The big one in February.
Meanwhile, if anyone ever asks me which player I’d prefer to tackle me, on any team, my reply is always the same: The punter.