Why Athletes Need to Track before They Tackle

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

Why Athletes Need to Track before They Tackle

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.