Teaching your players how to track will alleviate common tackling issues and keep players healthy in season.

With the emphasis being placed on the contact component of tackling, it is my belief that many coaches are missing out on instructing one of the most important facets—tracking.

This fundamental concept will instruct potential tacklers on the proper pursuit angles when tracking a ball carrier. Tracking is known as the pre-contact phase used to maximize potential contact. While pursuit angles can vary—from outside in to inside out—those core fundamentals are the same.

This is how a defender properly tracks a ball carrier and makes a tackle in the open field.

The Rise of Rugby-Style Tackling

Tracking became more prevalent in 2014, when Seattle Seahawks head football coach Pete Carroll released his entire tackling drill catalog, which came in the form of shoulder level (not head level) contact points. Designed with the intention of making tackling safer, this method ignited an exploration into the world of “rugby style” tackling. Now it’s hard to find a program around the world that’s not using at least some form of this style of tackle.

Coaches are designing a series of drills this season that help teach defenders the art of tracking ball carriers before making contact. In the tracking zone, the goal is to close space on the ball carrier and limit his options. According to Rex Norris, the director of football at Atavus (a Seattle-based company that teaches rugby-style tackling to football programs), tracking includes a controlled identification of the target and the correct pursuit angles. 

Norris lists three phases to the pre-contact zone:

1. Closing Space: Limit the options of the runner. Here the tackler needs to identify the target.

2. Leverage: This is targeting the runner. The tackler needs to decide on the proper angle and point of contact.

3. Footwork: Now it’s about maximizing speed, agility and power before contact on the ball carrier. This is also about timing and having controlled, powerful movement.

Once these tracking fundamentals are mastered, there are four main scenarios that defenders need to rep in preparation for the various kinds of tackles they’ll see on game day: one-on-one tracking, partner tracking, outside-in tracking and inside-out tracking.

One-on-One Tracking

In order to teach shoulder contact points, rugby style tackling is built around keeping the head behind—not in front of—the tackle. It’s a stark contrast to the “put your helmet on the ball” coaching point that has plagued tackling over the last half century. To incorporate the tracking component with this method, coaches are using the back hip of the ball carrier as a focal point. 

This drill from Mount Union University (Ohio) that teaches the one-on-one tracking method.

Key Takeaways

  • Both players start five yards apart
  • Ball carrier tempo runs by changing his speed periodically
  • Defender continues to close on near hip of ball carrier.

Partner Tracking

The next progression in tracking is to teach a two-on-one scenario, where two defenders close in on a ball carrier. The near hip is still used as a visual focal point, with each defender closing space to the hip nearest to them. Like many other tackling drills, this scenario can also be taught in defensive special teams’ situations like kickoff and punt return. 

This drill from University of St. Francis (Ind.) explains how partner tracking is done.

Key Takeaways

  • Teaches the basics of winning and keeping your leverage
  • Defenders have to escape a block to get proper leverage
  • Defenders can’t let the ball cross their face by keying on the near hip
  • Great drill for the perimeter screen game and special team’s coverage units

Outside-In Tracking

Here, the tackler is approaching the ball carrier from the perimeter. Again, visually aiming for the near hip, the defender will use a shimmy technique to come to balance before making contact on the ball carrier. The ball carrier can either run up inside or plant off his inside foot to make a cut on the ball carrier. 

This drill from University of Mount Union teaches outside-in tracking.

Key Takeaways

  • Tackler is approaching the ball carrier trying to track the near hip
  • Uses the near foot shimmy technique to hit with the near tackling breast plate
  •  If approaching the ball carrier from the outside, tackler tries to track the near hip
  • The near tackling plate or near chest puts the face on the tackle to make the contact thicker.

Pro Tip: Try keeping the head up and running through the tackle without grabbing and holding. It’s about seeing the tackle without putting the defenders face on it.

Inside-Out Tracking

Now the defender is approaching with an inside-out angle on a ball carrier who is running to the perimeter. While this can done in the open field, it can also be utilized on a sideline where the ball carrier can simulate changing his speed on his run. This mimics the act of a ball carrier cutting back on the sideline, where many missed tackles occur. 

This drill from Rutgers University (N.J.) uses inside-out tracking.

Key Takeaways

  • Defender and ball carrier start 10 yards apart
  • Ball carrier will change his tempo simulating a run
  • Defender will continue to close ground on ball carrier while leveraging a near hip position.
  • Drill can finish with a simulating tackle

Keeping your players healthy is a priority in season. And while this may limit teaching the contact phase of tackling, we found that spending 10 minutes a week on tracking can not only teach proper leverage on a tackle, but also keep players off the ground and in the game.

These drills, along with dozens of other tracking (and tackling drills) can be found in the X&O Labs Film Room, a searchable database with over 1600 concepts and drills in a viewable Hudl format.