In reviewing last year's defensive woes, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith knew tackling had to be a primary focus going into the 2014 season.

Since there is no live contact allowed during offseason workouts and only 14 padded practices allowed during the regular season, the Falcons needed to improvise. So Smith and the coaching staff introduced the players to a variety of new tackling drills.

"Well, we weren't a very good tackling team last year,'' Smith said bluntly. "That was apparent. So one of our focuses in the offseason was 'How can we improve our tackling without taking guys to the ground?' And we've come up with a myriad of drills ... gosh, probably 10.

"It's very hard to simulate tackling. And we want to simulate the finish of the tackle. And when you simulate the finish, that's when you're taking guys to the ground, and you can't do that. So we're using dummies to do it.''

Smith avoided explaining each and every new drill, but the one called "The Finish'' was introduced to the public during rookie minicamp. Players dived at a tackling dummy attached to a mat to protect their fall. Smith bellowed "violent'' in the background as the players approached the dummy. Their tackling technique was immediately critiqued, sometimes resulting in a do-over. And the coaches encouraged the players to squeeze the dummy tightly to simulate finishing the play.

"We wanted to simulate the finish of rolling your hips through the tackle,'' Smith said. "Running through the tackle.''

The rookies seem eager to prove they could handle the drill. But how have the veterans reacted to an emphasis on such basics?

"I think they're taking to it very well, simply because they know the biggest element on the defensive side of the ball, the skill that you have to master, is getting the offensive players on the ground,'' Smith said. "And we weren't as efficient as we needed to be.

"There's a couple of ways that you can approach it: You can go out there and tackle live bodies, and we know that's not feasible in the NFL. So you've got to create drills that are as realistic as possible so it will carry over when they're out there playing in games.''

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan would be the first to say his defensive players needed to refine their tackling skills. Part of the reason the Falcons were dead last in the league on third down and ranked second to last in stopping the run was their inability to bring players to the ground consistently. Part of the issue was resolved with the release of safety Thomas DeCoud and cornerback Asante Samuel. But they were far from the only culprits.

"The three areas that I thought were really critical were our leverage on the ball carrier, and that's an easy thing to work on every play you have in practice,'' Nolan started. "The second thing was, we needed to come to balance. Sometimes guys would just run and just take a shot as opposed to coming to a good position and then trying to tackle the guy. You just fly at him, it's a hit or miss: a big hit or a big miss.