How Plainview-Elgin-Millville has set the standard for tackling
Year in and year out, P-E-M has one of the best tackling defenses in southeastern Minnesota and the state. This season is no different, as the Bulldogs' system has produced more defenders putting up eye-popping numbers thanks to the drilling of safe tackling fundamentals at the youth levels.
PLAINVIEW — Great tackling.
It’s a theme that has been synonymous with Plainview-Elgin-Millville football for years. The Bulldogs consistently are among the best in the state at bringing ball-carriers to the ground.
“What P-E-M has done well for many years is being excellent at tackling,” Cannon Falls coach Dave Meyers said before the team’s Week 2 matchup. “They just play good defense.”
How do the Bulldogs do it?
That story starts less than a decade ago when dwindling numbers at the youth level made it apparent to coach Kevin Lamb and company that something needed to change.
P-E-M coaches found that not only did they need to evolve in their teaching of tackling, but they needed to limit the physicality in those drills at times — specifically at the youth levels.
“We used to play games at (fifth and sixth-grade) level and we had a ton of kids,” Lamb said. “They started and then they didn’t like it so much. Then we were getting fewer and fewer kids in seventh and eighth grade and fewer coming back out for sixth grade after they did in fifth grade. I just think they weren’t ready for the physicality. There’s a big difference between a fifth and a sixth grader. So we pulled back on that … We want to control the collision.
“You have to give them time to develop. You can’t push them too fast, or force them into stuff that maybe isn't going to fit their body shape and their personality later on.”
No longer did fifth and sixth-graders play games, but instead at that level, P-E-M calls it more of a camp, where players work strictly on fundamentals, with tackling and blocking dummies twice a week in the fall. Along with the coaches, varsity players are instructors as well, keeping everybody on the same page.
It has paid dividends.
“We’ve increased the enthusiasm for football in our youth football and our numbers are starting to come back,” Lamb said. “From junior high to our fifth and sixth graders. ... We have almost 60, 65 fifth and sixth graders. We ran out of helmets.”
The coaches found that not only was it crucial to control the number of collisions players were having, but also to ensure those collisions were taking place as safely as possible.
Approximately 10 years ago, USA Football introduced its "Heads Up" tackling campaign to help limit the amount of injuries players were suffering. The Bulldogs took that policy a step further, bringing forth former player Keegan Brighton, who played rugby collegiately.
Lamb had him teach the fundamentals of tackling in rugby, thinking that if rugby can keep head and neck injuries under control without the use of a helmet, then the same style of tackling would translate to football.
Much like USA Football tackling, rugby emphasized defenders keeping their chins up and using their back shoulder to hit the front shoulder of the ball carrier. That calls for the defender’s helmet to be almost behind the ball carrier, instead of in front. That tackling form is less likely to cause injury and it’s proven to be a more sure fire way of limiting missed tackles. It’s a win-win.
“Ten years ago, the defensive coordinator would have come unglued with me if he knew we were going to tackle with our heads behind the ball carriers,” Lamb said. “But we missed more tackles that way by not getting our head across the front and not tackling with our back shoulder. We’ve gained so much in leverage and getting body to the tackle rather than getting our head in there. It keeps our players healthy. It’s way safer than sticking their head like we used to do back in the day.”
The more effective technique, combined with the great scheme of defensive coordinator Darin Wingert, has produced talented groups and individuals. Lamb also credits the grittiness and toughness installed by the agricultural community in rural southeastern Minnesota at an early age.
Perhaps, no player on this year's P-E-M team epitomizes that more than linebacker Logan Dittrich.
Last year, the freshman did not play a defensive snap until the Section 1AAA championship game, when injuries forced the then-5-foot-8, 140-pounder to play nose tackle, a spot he stayed at throughout the Bulldogs state tournament run.
It was anything but easy — the running back the Bulldogs faced in the state title game was 6-feet, 200 pounds — yet Dittrich held his own, giving him confidence heading into this season, when he won a starting job at linebacker. He has played well at that spot and is coming off a game against Triton in which he forced and recovered a fumble to go along with 10 combined tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack.
But Dittrich is the first to say it’s the guy next to him — Kadin Pries — who makes the difference.
The team's captain, Pries is a rare junior that gets to sport the ‘C’ on his helmet, but it’s easy to see why.
At practice on Tuesday, Sept. 20, he was explaining the bunch formations to Dittrich, telling him what to watch for and what to do. When Pries talks, the Bulldogs listen. He can also be heard on the field, when he lays down the hammer on an opponent.
“He’s a boom stick,” Dittrich said. “He hits people."
Pries was just as good against Triton, tallying 13 tackles with two tackles for loss. Those two are a big reason why the No. 8-ranked Bulldogs are 2-1 and have allowed just 32 total points in three games heading into tonight's clash with Pine Island.
It has the Bulldogs envisioning another deep postseason run.
"Last year was a fun ride but it really motivates us to get to the next level," Pries said. "We want to try and win it this year."