In the beginning of my defensive career, I had little to no clue about running to the football and just how important it is to the overall success of your defense. I was lucky, in that the defensive coordinator where I went to college was enamoured with running pursuit drills. So, what did this dumb rookie coach do in his first gig as a defensive coordinator...you guessed it, we ran pursuit drills...daily. I had no idea what I was doing, but it worked! As I look back on those early years, I can tell you this, what I did helped those players learn the proper angles to take on a football field, as well as developing the "will" to get to the ball carrier. Over my time, on the defensive side of the football, I've used several pursuit drills that I will share with you here.
Angle Pursuit Drill
The first pursuit drill I utilized (and still do to this day) is the Angle Pursuit Drill (APD). This drill is done by simply placing five round cylinders on the ground with an approximate spacing of two to three feet between them. Use injured players, cones, or other dummies to assimilate the offensive alignment you wish to create. On a side note, this is a good way to go over alignment and assignment drills during the course of the season. In the early stages we simply align to a pro set. The drill and the landmarks are shown below utilizing the Bear defense.
Cones are placed along the sidelines and numbered one through 11. As you can see, from the diagram, each player has a cone that he must run to. Once the player gets to the cone, they are to turn back and face the middle of the field in a hit position and foot-fire until the coach blows the whistle. If the rep was not done at full-tilt, then those players return to their original alignment and do the drill over again. The corners should flip-flop every play so as not to kill the corner that has to run the farthest. If the rep was good, blow the whistle and on command the players that just executed the drill jog down the sideline and back in behind the drill awaiting their next turn. Also, on the whistle, the backups will jog into their position and be ready for the drill to begin.
The defensive linemen must all come across the ball, and breakdown before running to their cone. You can also set up two sets of cones, one on each sideline and have the defense react to your movement. As with most football drills, the possibilities are endless!
Another tweak I have done is to have the defensive linemen all hit on their bellies to simulate getting cut and then have them jump up and run to their respective cone. I have also had them read a coach holding the football for either run or pass. If it's run, the linemen will break down and when the coach slaps the football they will run to their cone. If the coach puts the football up by his ear, then this is a pass read and all the linemen must break down, but this time they must have their hands in the air. Again, on command they turn and run to their respective cone on the sideline.
Do not use a snap count, use an actual snap or movement. Simply sliding your foot, or moving your hand in a snapping motion will do. Have an actual cadence to force the players to have to focus on just the football, thereby tuning out any background "noise" such as the quarterback's voice.
I used to do this drill an even amount of times to the strong side and to the weak side as well. DO NOT do this drill only to one side, or only to the strong side. You must mix things up to teach players to run at different angle to get to the football.
DO NOT settle for poor effort. Poor effort results in more pursuit drills being added on to the total for the day. Vary the total daily, if necessary, and even omit them if your team has had a good defensive game, or a very good practice. You do not need to do these daily, but I do recommend doing them daily during the weeks leading up to your first regular season game. After that we tone them down to about twice a week until mid-October and then we only run the once a week after that. If I have been fortunate enough to make the playoffs I do not run them unless I see poor angles in game film or loafs (this will be discussed later). Poor effort cannot be allowed, or the whole integrity of what you are trying to teach will be sacrificed. I cannot stress this coaching point enough!
Screen Pursuit Drill
A few years back I was coordinating a defense going into a district game against a very good screen team. That season my defense had struggled some with the screen, especially when thrown quickly to a good athlete. I came across this screen pursuit drill that worked wonders for my defense. You can find this drill in Vannderlinden's book on the Eagle and Stack Defenses.
Set up three dummies to represent lead blockers that have gotten down field. Have a runner behind them. Set this drill up to both sides of the field so you can work both the attack side and the chase side of the drill. The DL will rush as they normally do. Have the QB (coach) drop back five steps and then float back two more steps and deliver the ball to one side or other of the offense. The DL, upon seeing the odd drop, should then settle and react to the throw. Once they see the direction of the throw, the DL should then chase the ball carrier, playing him inside-out. The DL nearest the QB should continue to rush. Once the defense as seen the ball thrown, then they should react to the throw with the outside-most defender tackling the outside leg of the receiver (he doesn't actually make the tackle, but the idea here is to keep outside leverage on the ball carrier). All other defenders should attack the inside leg of the defender and fit as shown in the illustration below.
The angles shown here, properly leverage all the "new gaps" that have been created by the OL pulling and moving down field. The left corner, in this case, would be the force player. This player wants to attack all blockers with the inside arm and tackle the outside leg of the ball carrier. The reason for the tackling of the outside leg, is that if the corner loses the receiver he should lose him back to the inside where pursuit is coming from. All other defenders will tackle the inside leg and spill all blocks as they pursue to the ball carrier (obviously we are not tackling in this drill, however this SHOULD be your coaching point when running the drill). The defenders on the far side of the defense should get in pursuit mode once they see the ball has been thrown. The one item not shown is that the DL closest to the QB should rush the QB and stay with the QB in case the offense has a razzle-dazzle trick play on where they throw it back to the QB.
Loafs are easily caught on film. If you are fortunate enough to have both a wide and tight copy of the film, use the tight copy and once the play is run and the clip is through, if all 11 players are not in the screen, then the defense has one pursuit drill the following week. The first time we instituted this, our team had 42 pursuit drills to run the following week. We ran every one of them. That number dwindled to 28 the next week, followed by 20, 14, 11, then eight. By this time we had entered the playoffs and in our four game run we averaged only three pursuit drills per week. It took some time, but we got our loafs out by utilizing film and the fact that most players can't stand to run any extra than they have to. The other good thing with running pursuit drills in this manner is it is not simply a punishment run, such as sprints. This punishment has a purpose, to keep your defense aware of running to the football, and teaching proper angles of pursuit.
Another item I used in the past to create turnovers and help my defense run to the ball is a daily turnover quota. The idea here is that you give your defense an amount of turnovers to create. If the defense reaches their turnover quota, I would deduct one pursuit drill from the amount we had to run that day. For every turnover we created it was one less pursuit drill the defense had to run. However, if the defense did not reach their quota, then I added one pursuit drill. The idea here is creating a cognitive awareness of running to the ball and creating a turnover when you get there.
Early on things were great with this concept of a turnover quota, however I started noticing players going for the ball instead of making the tackle. So, I added in for every missed tackle, the defense got one more pursuit drill. By doing this, the first defender to the football had to ensure that he made and secured the tackle while the other defenders could go for the football upon their arrival at the ball carrier.
In closing, defense is very simple, you align properly, know your assignment, run to the football and tackle once you get there you will win games. At the very least you will make things difficult for your opponent's offense. Teaching the part about running to the football must be ingrained in your defense from day one, and must also be reinforced daily. I hope this post helps you to understand the importance of a defense that swarms the football!