USA Football Senior Manager of Education and Engagement Andy Ryland is a former Penn State linebacker and member of the U.S. Men’s Rugby National Team. Ryland is an expert on tackling and preparation for contact with athletes, consistent with USA Football's Football Development Model. He also assists coaches of all sports in areas of drill design and skill development.
In part one, we defined the true problem of tracking from the player’s point of view in order to help our coaching. We looked at what tracking really is and what makes it hard on gameday. We also wanted to think honestly about the game. Offensive and defensive systems and schemes add structure, but the game is unscripted and chaotic, so we adapt and reference previous situations.
In part two, we looked at some key principles that underpin our understanding such as defining agility and thinking about progressions. We also talked about the most common mistakes made by coaches in practice and how it fails to allow drills to transfer to the game. We highlighted some old ways of thinking that limit us such as how going through the motions slowly and perfectly doesn’t mean we are ready for gameday.
In part three, I hope to outline some key principles and inclusions for creating and programing drills and activities to create the best possible tracking players. This will help us to think about what to add, how to add and what is game-like for drill creation. Before we begin, below is a quick review from previous editions. We should all understand and agree on these core pillars. If any of them are unclear, make sure you take your time and re-read parts one and two. These are important concepts to build on.
Tracking takes experience. Build the database of situation and movements so they can solve the problem
Drills need to provide variability, speed, space, different runners and different movement styles
“What makes it hard on gameday?”
Evasion and speed are the key problems to solve
Slow speed tracking is not tracking
The closer a drill “acts” like gameday the more it transfers
This means going beyond “looks” and including speed, power, options, decisions, threats, opponents’ reactions and opponent counters to our actions
Understand change of direction, speed and physical qualities vs. agility and the need to react to a game-specific stimulus
That isn’t to say don’t train the pure physical but respect the interaction
Use the offseason to steal reps at reading and opponent and closing space
Don’t overcontrol as a coach, let the runner read and see and attack space based on what the defender does. This will highlight issues and challenges
If doing a tracking drill, let it be a tracking drill even if this means other parts will not look as good. Winning space is hard, and it will stress the technique that occurs once you get there
Progress-progress-progress. Learning happens with stretch goals and appropriate challenges. Don’t get stuck because something is a ‘classic football drill’
So, we are now at a nice base camp and can move to the summit: The ability to evaluate and program drills for our team and our programs. Below are a few items I believe must be considered and included if we want to create great tracking football players. If you have followed me on social media, podcasts or at clinics, you will also know I believe strongly in principles. Copy and paste drills are the lowest form of coaching. The idea being, if we know the principles, we can work around them to meet our athletes where they are, with what they need, in our specific situations. Seeing other dills can help us understand principles but should not be the ending place. It is simply part of the coach’s learning process. Coaches learn so they can create and teach, not copy.
With that said, if we want to create better drills, what are some key lines of thinking and principles that should be worked into your drills and progressions?
Coaches love boxes. Like, really love boxes, and I don’t know why? The world is not square, the field itself is not even square. I understand boxes make things even, balanced and easy to set up. Because it’s even and balanced it may be a good place to start but all things must progress. Get comfortable with shapes. They work just as well. Shapes change situations and problem solving, which goes back to our database idea. Example: A wide, short rectangle has a different impact on the defender. With a short distance to the goal line, the defender must close quickly and not allow penetration or they lose the drills. With the width, attacking purely vertical allows the carrier to stretch them laterally and win the corner. This changes the problem and is excellent practice.
Don’t be afraid to build other shapes like rectangles, triangles, semi-circles, figure-eights, etc. Changing shapes changes the space. This is the simplest constraint you can use. Changing spaces changes the tracking needs and changes the threats. If you are doing one-vs-one drills, spaces serve as a good progression. In a game, space will be taken away by other players. A blocker or a pile or a fellow defender cuts off part of the field. This drives the carrier certain places, and the defender must react and defend open space, not what is already closed. If we don’t feel players are ready for more information (reading multiple players on both offense and defense), shapes can fill in. This helps players learn to navigate different spaces in dynamic environments, seeing open space/closed space and changing moment patterns to match. How you move where it’s wide might be different from where it’s narrow. We can introduce this concept in one-vs-one drills prior to adding multiple players via the creation of unique spaces.
Example of how a space drives intent or movement: If I use a right triangle shaped drill space with the carrier on the short end and the defender on the wide end, the defender will be pushed to close space to make their job easier. The more they close, the narrower the channel. If they wait, the attacker gains more space to win. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather someone try to beat me in a three-yard channel instead of a six-yard channel, so press it and make your life easy.
Big Space-Small Space
Train both. It’s amazing how many coaches default to “open field tackling” and just do big space drills. It’s true, many athletes struggle with big spaces so it’s stuck in the front of our brain, but don’t forget to win the game you must also win the small space battles. Once inside the contact zone, you can’t get beat in a phone booth. When it comes to tackling, winning the small spaces is key to being able to put your shoulder where you want to in time and space – on the carrier! I find this vital to developing great tacklers because we also try our best to win the space in quality body positions. Taking contact in bad postures and with poor foot placement often leads to getting run over, yards after contact or missed tackles.
What does this mean? When doing big space drills, don’t allow lazy, poor tagoffs. Work to win the front side. Cut off the carrier, tag on front of the hip or chest. You can also do true small space drills where it will be much more about subtle movement skills instead of closing big space.
Some considerations for programing and training include how to balance small and big space training and who needs what. The first and most simple lens is, “what will their position require?” Consider, at base level, a defensive lineman’s number one job is to win in smaller spaces. If they can’t dominate in a five–to-six-yard channel (their gap, plus one gap either side), they are failing their number one job. So, they are most judged by small space wins. It is fair to say they will be exposed to less large space tracking, but we certainly hope they have the ability. So, the question is what is the balance of training the two? Here is where a good coach’s eye is vital. If a defender’s number one job is small space wins and their ability is below standard, we must work to improve that. If they are sufficiently good, it gets more complicated. We may simply review small space while focusing development on big space. We should also consider the totality of practice. If you are doing a healthy dose of inside run drills, small-sided run-oriented games such as pods, plus team, this defensive line player might be exposed to lots of good small space tracking. In this situation, you might consider using more large space as a supplement.
Note: The big space/small space idea is applicable to other sports. Games like lacrosse or soccer have plenty of “breakouts” and transitions based on large spaces. In set defensive situations, the action is usually smaller, tighter and closer to the opponent, so these needs trained too. Vary your drills to meet the situations and needs of the game.
In football, we often only think of gaps in terms of original alignment, the front and run fits. The reality is, anytime there is an opponent it creates two gaps giving the runner an option to go either side. This means defenders must be able to play this most basic version of a two-gap situation anywhere on the field. Obstruction is the word of choice because it may not be a blocker coming for the defender. Sometimes the two-gap situation is created by a teammate being blocked. Sometimes it’s a player on the ground. Regardless, it creates two ways around an obstruction. Misreading or jumping into the wrong ‘gap’ means a big play. Because this is such a common situation, it’s one that is vital to train. It’s also incredibly easy to add to your drill menu. Take any of your existing tracking drills and simply add an obstruction. A pop-up bag, a trashcan, a player standing stationary, etc. Because we always encourage the carrier to win, they can now use the gap, hide behind the obstruction, fake one side and attack the other or make defenders react to “broken” space via the gaps. I find obstructions vital because they also recreate (in the simplest form) when the best line to the carrier is blocked. In true open field situations, we assume a line to the carriers near hip. In the game, that line can be occupied by other people, blockers (an obstruction) and we have to work around it or over/under it. I like introducing these ideas as early and as often as possible.
Progression note: I start with one stationary obstruction. I will continue to use stationary all year round to keep things interesting and variable. We try to move to multiple obstructions as soon as possible – depending on player ability and learning. Two obstructions create three gaps to play. Doing a simple angle tackle drill but with two trashcans brings plenty of gaps, decisions, and timing into the equation. The obvious next progression is moving obstructions. Players simply shuffling around, not directly engaging but creating moving spaces, obstructions in different places and changing occupied lines to the carrier. The third progression is to turn the obstructions into ‘other players’, either lead blockers or blocking teammates.
Eyewash, Eye Shifts and Focus
One area I focus on and chat about with a lot of friends and colleagues is eye shifts, eye patterns and what I call eyewash. Eyewash is simply the fluff, the distractions, the parts of the game that flash across your vision and may pull focus away from the important things. When it comes to football, I always mention that offensive coordinators’ entire jobs are to confuse you. A good blitz tries to keep you from seeing it or hides the stunt. A linebacker by trade is trying to find the ball as eight to ten giant humans fight and create a forest in front of them. Players must learn to see through the eyewash while moving – and stay connected to the right information – remember the agility definition.
Obstructions are a good start not just for the gaps, but they also ‘hide’ the runner or at very least break the vision. Moving obstructions are much better as they enter and leave the visual frame. They flash and distract to force focus. Something as simple as doing Mirror Dodge type drills but with two distractors between the tracker and the rabbit can do wonders. The defender is tracking the rabbit laterally and trying to stay in phase while two distractors shuffle back and forth across the vision field in the drill space. As above, this is just a step and will ultimately progress to three-on-twos, three-on-threes and more small-sided games where everyone is moving, attacking, defending or blocking. Here the defender must identify the true carrier but also read blockers, space and where help is, but simplifying with non-engaging eyewash and screens is a nice start.
Eye shifts are also very important to make the problem more game-like. If you think about football, you don’t get to start staring down the carrier of the ball. You normally have to find them. In most tracking drills, the defender lines up with a clear line of sight and nothing else to look at but the threat. In a game, players must read their key, identify a blocker and focus on defeating that. Maybe they are reading a receiver route and the ball is thrown somewhere else. The moral of the story is they pick up the threat ‘in’ the play, on the move and late in the play. With this in mind, I often ask, “What is the read?” Read X, do Y, transition to the carrier. This gives us clues to what players will look at or do prior to the tracking of the tackle. I believe we should design drills like that. I have often recommended a down-up to start a drill. Not as punishment, it’s just simple, easy and it breaks the defender’s vision. Plus, as the defender scrambles and the carrier attacks, it changes the timing, and they pick up the threat ‘in’ the action. I have also used hand signals, colored cones or numbers just to have them look and identify something before transitioning to the carrier.
Note: Knowing what we know about agility and transfer, the best thing is a true read but you may not have enough players or space to mimic that.
So, it looks like this is going to need a part four. These are all great additions to standard tracking drills and one-vs-one situations. I hope you see their value and start including them in your programing of drills. Next edition, we will discuss vicing, multiple defender drills and small-sided games style training.