Paul Worrilow is far from ready to challenge Anderson Silva or Jon "Bones" Jones, but the Atlanta Falcons linebacker and its three-time leading tackler certainly has a better appreciation for mixed martial arts after experiencing it firsthand.
Worrilow has stepped on the mat a few times this offseason – 10 times, to be exact. It has nothing to do with a desire to switch professions or pick up a new hobby. This was about an NFL player realizing his tackling flaws and seeking ways to correct them.
So while driving around the Atlanta suburbs one afternoon, Worrilow dropped by Straight Blast Gym, tucked away in a small shopping center in the town of Buford, Ga.
"I just asked them if there was anyone who was willing to work with me," Worrilow said.
Lead instructor Phillipe Gentry raised his hand. The MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach catered a program to Worrilow’s desire to improve his tackling, meaning hourlong sessions twice a week in which Worrilow would absorb instruction from Gentry and spar with Jared Gooden, a local MMA fighter with a 5-0 professional record.
"I’d go in there and we’re working grappling and wrestling leverage," Worrilow said. "As close to tackling as you can get is wrestling and trying to take somebody down who doesn’t want to be taken down … just like football."
The sessions typically started with stretching and shadow-boxing as a warm-up. Then on went the gloves, as Worrilow and Gentry bounced around and threw light punches, the emphasis on footwork and hand speed. The real fun started when the gloves came off and the competitors hunched into a wrestling stance, flinging each other to the mat using various takedown techniques.
The wrestling aspect is the part Gentry incorporated into the workout specifically to address Worrilow’s desire to improve his tackling. However, Gentry opted not to be the 232-pound Worrilow’s sparring partner.
"I’m small at about 160-something pounds, so Paul would rag-doll me," Gentry said with a laugh. "My other guy [Gooden] is around 195.
"Paul’s an athlete, man. I’ve never seen somebody pick up the technique and integrate it immediately like Paul did. We’d introduce a technique and then we would isolate it – do drills around that technique – and then integrate it. In the integration stage when you start adding all these different moves, people usually can’t hit that in a live setting. And Paul would hit it. He was doing some beautiful techniques."
For example, Gentry taught Worrilow an arm-drag and single-leg takedown, which Worrilow mastered without issue. Such a move probably would draw a yellow flag on Sundays, but the concept is what translates to the football field.
"Finishing with the tackle, man, is about having a real strong wrap with the contact and the finish," Worrilow said. "That’s why I’ve wrestled all offseason. That was the whole purpose behind the sessions. When you’re falling to the ground and trying to pull to get a guy down, you’re not using your hips correctly and getting that leverage. That’s something I’ve been able to work on."
Worrilow has accumulated 365 tackles over the last three seasons, but he knows a tackle means less if it occurs 10 yards down the field or after missing the initial wrap. Too many times last season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn talked about the defense reaching double-digits in missed tackles.
Worrilow knows he had his share. He fully understands the criticism that comes with it, acknowledging that critics often wanted to "kick me in the face" due to missed tackles and coverage missteps.
Give Worrilow credit for trying to kick his bad habits.
"Nobody’s going to be more critical than yourself," he said. "A lot of times, criticism is justified. But nobody’s going to put more emphasis or focus on getting my game right than me.
"This offseason, tackling has been the biggest thing for me. I don’t think I've ever put so much emphasis on tackling in an offseason. I’m excited about it because that will help all aspects – coverage too. When you can really trust that you can come down on a checkdown in the open field and make the tackle, that helps your coverage. You can really trust that you can sit in your zone or really follow your keys. … Tackling is going to go a long way for me. And I can already feel the changes in my game."