To increase the likelihood of coaching a successful defensive team, it is important to coach the fundamentals that are likely to have a bearing on the outcome of the football game. One of these fundamentals is what some call “running to the ball,” but better described as Pursuit Angles. It is never too early to begin instilling this instinct-based skill into your players.
Pursuit angles refer to the angles that each player must take to successful overcome, or intersect, an opponent’s ball carrier. Much like for a quarterback to be successful, he must learn to “lead” his receivers with a pass so that they may catch the ball in stride and a predicted location, a pursuing tackler must have this same sense. An incorrect angle will result in a missed opportunity to bring the ball carrier down and avoid further yardage gain.
Not only can this drill be used to learn this skill, it can be incorporated into a physical fitness conditioning exercise. The goal of the drill is to teach the players the ability to consider their positioning on the field, the ball carriers speed, and perceived obstacles (i.e. blockers) when committing to the shortest, direct route, which will take them to where the ball will be when they get there.
The most basic formation of this drill is a good place to start. Here is how to set it up.
At a young age, it is best to use the line of scrimmage as a starting point for all players. Have your team form 5-7 lines of equal numbers, with your lineman type players closer to the center of the field, and your defensive back type players on the perimeter. You will need to hold out 2 or 3 running backs to use as ball carriers.
Once your lines are established, the first player in the line (who’s turn it is) will face the second player in line, as if on the line of scrimmage. When the coach, who will act as the quarterback, signals for the snap, all players at the front of the line will immediately check the second player in line with a pop to the shoulder pads. After making contact with the “offensive” player, the defensive player will drop to his stomach and return to his feet as quickly as possible.
While this is occurring, the coach and the running back will have completed an exchange in the back field using a sweep play, using either direction, without the defensive players knowing which way the ball is going until they have come back to their feet. They must come up, identify the play direction, and pursue the ball carrier down the field, using a pursuit angle that will allow them to intersect the ball carrier as quickly as possible.
When all the players have completed their angles to the sideline and tagged the ball carrier with at least one hand, they return down the sideline and get back into line and prepare for their next turn.
This drill can also be run out of a defensive play formation if desired. See attached picture for an example.