The methods and importance of teaching tracking: Part four

By Andy Ryland | Posted 10/12/2022

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.  

If you are just catching up, make sure to check out episodes one, two and three here. There is some vital foundational material about my core beliefs on agility, drill design, progression and tracking in those posts. The three articles set the underpinnings for future work but mostly focus on individual tracking and developing critical individual skills. 

As we dive deeper, we must address the team aspect and expand past one-on-ones. That means we finally get to talk about my baby. The things I most enjoy, am most passionate about and the things I work with coaches on the most: Vicing, multi-player drills and what I call “playing through the situation” for the game of football. 

If you look at USA Footballs Advanced Tackle System, you see the official definition of tracking listed as, “the ability to get to the ball-carrier with speed – taking into consideration scheme, leverage and blockers – in order to make the tackle.” After addressing the individual skill of learning to read a carrier, adjust movement pattern and winning the space, we naturally have to move to the tactical tie-ins, scheme, leverage, blockers and help. 

In football we hope to win the play in an assigned manner and scheme, leverage, play calls, positions all contribute. In the end, we just want to make the play, but most coaches drive the right way through their structures. Considering how you are supposed to win is a giant constraint that moves us beyond “just get to the ball”. The constraint is based on scheme, play calling, original alignment and responsibility. Keeping it simple, there are only two true options as assigned and as they occur: Outside-in and inside-out.  

SIDE NOTE: Most teams don’t train outside-in nearly enough! Almost all base drills are done inside-out.  

Let’s look at the technical-tactical details mentioned above. We say play call and alignment because if we look at a defensive end, he could by responsibility be a spill defender in how he takes on blocks. This in theory could put him inside-out (counter or power at him), but on an inside run he is clearly tracking outside-in because of alignment. On stretch or wide zone to the end’s direction, they could be either inside-out or outside-in based on how quickly they defeat the block and exactly where the carrier attacks. The moral of the story is that every player needs to train and be able to do both. 

Vicing the ball carrier is the intersection of the two paths. It’s a situation we are always looking for on the field; two-player tackles. Yes, you must be able to make your fist up, one-on-one tackles, but we love to generate vices in tackle situations. The vice is any two players in pairs that begin to attack the carrier from opposite sides – giving us an inside-out and an outside-in pressure that allows us to squeeze or “vice” the carrier. In theory, there are only two contain defenders but situationally anyone can be the outside-in vice. Consider our defensive end working with a defensive tackle or inside linebacker on interior runs. Consider any back seven defenders on a completed pass. Simply based on where the ball is attacking or caught, each player will have natural leverage. They use this leverage to track the carrier and, if a teammate is available, to vice the ball. 

Acknowledging the tactics and scheme, we also have to be realists. In this series, we have been pushing to get deeper than surface level, understand the real challenges and how they happen on a field. When programming good tracking situations in multi-player situations, I tend to say, “play through situations” because the game is chaotic.  

What are “situations” compared to typical drills? Many partner tracking drills (and I hate to really call them tracking based on the key items we addressed in the series) are glorified scheme fits. The reality is, sometimes the defensive play call and assignments get thrown out the window. On most plays somebody ends up on the ground. We just don’t know who. On every play, someone on your defense will get blocked. We just don’t know who. If a run reaches the second level, initial gaps are meaningless, we are leveraging and vicing in the open field. Completed passes are the same, see it, read leverage, attack and try to find a vice. This is why I say play through situations. Most times it’s best to just put players out there, put them in random spacing and have them play through it – track and fit the carrier. Become a football player. Better football players, with better tacking and vice skills will be better at traditional fits with some base knowledge of your defensive system. 

Now, what will that look like in drills? Remember when we talked about coaches loving boxes and even spaces? Most vice drills are a box, and the players start evenly spaced on the corners. This means the players are already in a perfect relationship. Again, this can be useful for introducing the concept but needs to be progressed quickly. The simplest thing to do is change the angles and depths. If defender-1 is at a 45-degree angle, defender-2 is off on a 30-degree angle. If defender-1 is 8-yards away, defender-2 is 12. Changing angles, depths, lines and timing makes the vice much more realistic.  

Tip: Make a shape to guide the carrier but keep your defenders off the cones. Just put them at random intervals. 

A lot of coaches do open field, vice type drills where players run around cones to create variability. The players run around a cone but again, they normally both go around evenly spaced cones, so unless there is a drastic athletic difference in the players, it’s still very stable and predictable. A better way is to have more randomly assigned, randomly spaced cones of distance and angles. I love and use drills where only one player moves around a cone while the other can attack right away, this changes the timing and picture for each defender and drastically changes the levels and timing of the vice. Advanced Tackle drills such as 2-man Fracture and 3-man Fracture are great examples. 

We use the term “fracture” and “fracture fits” to describe this style of drill because it’s a simple term that tells us our structure had been broken. The links have been fractured and we are not connected or perfectly spaced and on-line with each other. We have players coming from different spaces, depths and angles that must work to try to find vice, or, if not there, make the one-up play. Fracture fits are the game of football! Every run that splits the front and every completed pass leads to fracture fits. Every time a player is well blocked and out of the play there is an extra gap that needs to be filled and you are no longer vicing with the player aligned next to you or predicted – it’s a fracture fit. I believe in recreating this scenario as often as possible. 

Part of good vice and fracture drills is that the defenders are reading the carrier who is not just reacting to them, the carrier is being impacted by the second defender. The other defender drives them certain places, takes away part of the field and changes the shape of the drills space dynamically. Is it all coming together now? Remember when we said different shaped drill spaces are a great precursor by limiting where can be attacked and where we have to defend? 

One of the biggest items we train with multiple player drills is the dynamic choices of “push” or “overlap.” This single mistake leads to more big plays than you can imagine. If I am in a vice situation and I fear my teammate is going to lose his leverage, I may overlap behind him to try to defend the space on the other side of him. If I do this too early, or when not needed, I abandon my side of the vice and the cutback to where I just left leads to a huge play. If he loses his leverage but I am not reading it and I continue to push my vice line, we both get out run to the corner. Remember all the way back to episode one when we talked about databasing? How do you think we learn when to take what line and how to make the tackle no matter what happens to our teammate? Reps, databasing and quality reads of real plays with evasive carriers that actually beat our teammate. This is the double read that makes players great. Can I read my teammate and the carrier? 

The above is challenging, and I am sure many coaches can imagine their player struggling with this concept. The hardest part is how messy this learning is, and that plays tricks on coaches’ minds. You can’t over coach control it (we talked about this too). If you tell defender-2 to get beat so defender-1 has to overlap, we have violated our rules because the player knows what to do and is not getting a true read. They are just pantomiming the action. 

After two-player fracture fits, there are two other additions to progress and make practice more challenging. The first is blockers. Blockers build on our obstruction idea. The blocker creates two gaps. The blocker also introduces two other new items. The first is the block defeat skill (notice skill not technique, they are different). Here we have to identify if they are trying to block us and use the best technique, in time with the play, executed well enough to win. Second, if they block the other defender, we have to read what happens. Are they out of the play or did they beat the block? How far did the block move them and what extra space is now there? Identifying, playing the situation and filling this is so important for defenders. It’s not just ‘do your job’ because if the partner gets widened, I am responsible for extra space. If they are completely taken out, I am no longer in a vice but a one-on-one obstruction situation. I may have to go over or under based on my line of attack or the ball carrier’s speed. 

The final addition is simply numbers. Using more defenders and blockers adds information. There are more options, obstructions, gaps, things to see and teammates that may or may not be helping you. These have the potential for more interactions to read. All this while still tracking the ultimate goal and main focus, the carrier. If we talk about stress inoculation, this is the gold. Why so many players do well in one and two player drills but struggle in the game is the amount of information. They are slow on reads, get overwhelmed, get pulled to wrong information or simply get lost in the eyewash. 

We have to build to this style of drills to prepare for gameday. These are the best tracking activities you can do because they have the most realism and most transfer. They are far, far better than traditional pursuit drills if you want to stop the ball and have a dominant defense. Below is a simple progression for multi-player activities, but please note this is still always done in conjunction with the one-on-one individual tracking drills as well. We are always developing and sharpening this aspect too. 

What does a progression look like? 

  • Two-on-one vice 

  • Two-on-one fracture 

    • Random cones and one player around cone 

  • Concurrent introduction 

    • Three-on-one fracture 

      • You don’t know who you are vicing with and what angle you have. You could be vice or you could be free, you also don’t know where your vice helps is coming from. 

      • You may also have a vice and an apex or a gunner and vice behind it 

    • Two-on-two fracture with blocker 
      • Now defenders are reading how is carrier using blocker (remember obstruction) 

      • Is the blocked defender keeping leverage or losing it 

  • Three-on-two fracture 

    • Combo of above, lots of reading by apex on who the blocker takes and the outcome 

  •  Group/Situational 

    • Perimeter Fracture = four-to-six defender, one runner, two blockers 

      • Think bubble, tunnel, now screen, toss, pitch, wide zone 

      • I almost NEVER start defenders in alignment. Defensive back on outside edge of drill space, safety deep edge and everyone else is in a ‘pod’ on inside edge close to what would be LOS. Pod “breaks” on drill start and they have to find a good line of attack and fit based on reading teammates. 

      • Blockers don’t have an assignment other than “most dangerous” or “random” to make the players react. Blockers usually have shields to limit collisions but act as moving, forceful obstructions. 

    • Edge fracture = four-to-five defenders, one runner, one-to-two blocker 

      • Think about a drill space the width of a TE-to-slot receiver. 

      • Defenders are usually: DE, DT, ILB, overhang (whatever that is in your system) and sometimes S. Players are on edge of drill space, not in an alignment. TE, DT, ILB inside, overhand outside, S deep but all random. 

      • One-to-two blockers positioned, not in alignment, they simply “play it”, most dangerous and random. Blockers usually have shields to limit collisions but act as moving, forceful obstructions. 

So, there it is. Four parts, 8000+ words at the worst time of year, in-season. That said, I hope this helps you think about tracking differently and how to progress to make dominant defenders in the game. I hope this can help you in the back half of your season. By understanding the fundamental principles of agility and tracking, you have the knowledge of the true challenge. We create simple activities that lean toward solving the true problem (shapes, eyewash, obstruction) and lean away from old ways of thinking that don’t hold up under scrutiny. These base and individual skills are brought to small-sided games where we learn to manage information, play with teammates and solve complex problems. All of this is done with speed, evasion and competition to build dominant defenders that read carriers, space, situations and put the ball on the deck.