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Greg Cosell's NFL Classroom: What to watch before the snap

On Sundays, I usually watch games without taking notes or looking at schemes or searching for details about why plays did or didn't work. I just watch casually. And I know most people watch games that way, and that's great.

But I also love when I come to the NFL Films offices on Monday and start to look at the coaches' film to unlock why certain plays worked or didn't, and what makes players successful or not. Those nuances, to me, are what football is all about.

Since NFL.com introduced the all-22 film (that's the term for the high-angle coaches film you'll see on my posts at Shutdown Corner) on Game Rewind, many serious fans have taken advantage of it. But I've told people, breaking down NFL film isn't something you can do after dinner in 20 minutes. It took a lot of time before I knew what to watch for. Thankfully there are people who taught me various aspects of the game, like former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski teaching me how to watch from a quarterback's viewpoint, or former New England Patriots coach and longtime NFL defensive coordinator Rod Rust explaining defensive concepts. There have been many others I've learned from, and I'm always learning new things.

What I'd like to do in a series of posts here this summer is pass along some of the things I've learned to look for when watching a game. Some things can be picked up by watching the television broadcast — though it can be a challenge because of the tight shots of game play — at the stadium or watching film afterward. My hope is that some of these things help your appreciation of your favorite team, or football in general. I love the intellectual side of the NFL. To me, that's what makes the game great.

Here's an obvious starting point for this post: There are things you can note before the snap on each play. I've watched film for so long, checking for these keys before the ball is snapped has become second nature.

Let's use two plays from the Green Bay Packers' win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5 last season as examples. This was a second-and-7 at Green Bay's 34, in the first quarter. Here's the first picture of the play I see:



This looks like a typical football formation, but there's so much we can learn just from this one frame.

John Kuhn (it's tight end Andrew Quarless). Then my eye goes to the fact that they have two split receivers. The Packers often run play-action from this look, though I know that from years of studying coach Mike McCarthy's offense. Then I noticed that the ball is on the right hash and the receiver at the right of the formation, Jordy Nelson, had tighter splits (meaning he was a little closer to the formation) than usual. I'm thinking, if this is a pass, Nelson will run some route that is taking him across the field. He has to get across the field, so he'll take a tighter split. It will take too long to get across the field if he's lined up wider. There was a reason Nelson is there. These are things you pick up the longer you study film.
After I've seen the offensive personnel and formation, I move to the defense. I've worked with Jaworski for years at the NFL Films offices, and he says about his pre-snap process watching film as a former quarterback: "I usually go from safeties to cornerbacks to the linebackers to the line."

I start with the safeties too. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told me years ago, if you reduce it to simple terms you're trying to see if it's a two-deep safety shell or a single-high safety, and then you look for blitz indicators. The Vikings safeties on this play showed a two-deep shell, which indicated a zone coverage. They could be disguising the coverage because neither safety is that deep. One could drop down right before the snap, in theory. Anything can happen with those safeties, but it was a two-deep shell zone look.
Then look at the corners, especially the corner on the bottom of the screen. They were lined up slightly to the outside of the receivers, which indicated they are anticipating inside help from the safeties. That means it's a zone coverage. Also, at the snap, if cornerbacks turn and face the sideline to push the receiver outside it tells you there's man coverage, and if the cornerbacks turn to face the field it's usually zone. And you can look at the linebackers' first steps; if their first steps are backward it's a zone coverage.

There was no blitz indicator from the Vikings on this play. If corners are playing tight man coverage, that could be a blitz indicator, but they weren't here. The linebackers were stacked behind the line, and that was an indication they would not blitz. It would be different if a linebacker was up on the line of scrimmage or creeping up to it. The safeties showed two-deep shell, and that's not a blitz indicator. Anything can change at the snap because teams will try to confuse the offense, but the Vikings' alignment indicated this was a zone coverage with no blitz. It's hard to blitz out of a two-deep shell, because you have two safeties deep and if you take another defender out of the front seven to blitz there are a lot of voids in the defense.

Keep in mind that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers saw all of this and processed the information in about a second or so. And as we'll see, what he noticed mattered. As it turned out the Packers had a play called to beat the exact defense Rodgers saw.

The Packers went hard run-action to the left, the defense reacted (it was playing quarters zone coverage, with each defensive back being responsible for a deep fourth of the field). The safety to the run side was an "alley" defender, because he had run responsibility and he would run in the alley in run support if it's a handoff. Rodgers faked it, and rolled to the right. Nelson released inside and he ran straight at the safety. The other safety stepped up in run support because of the fake, and also the receiver on the left side ran a route to occupy that safety. Nelson was screaming at safety Harrison Smith, who is a very good player, but couldn't cover Nelson in that situation. Nelson caught a 66-yard touchdown.





That play was designed to beat a zone defense, to get Nelson running at the safety. That's why the first look at the Vikings' alignment, with all the clues of what defense they were running, mattered. There was a play earlier in the first quarter, and Rodgers called an audible to a run to beat a much different defensive look.



That was a lot different alignment by the defense. This appeared to be man-to-man coverage with a free safety, called "man free." You know it's man because the three cornerbacks were pressed up on the three receivers. Strong safety Smith was up on the line to the right side of the Packers' formation. The two inside linebackers were lined up hard inside, slightly inside of the guards. It looked like a blitz mostly because of Smith. The way the Vikings aligned should send alerts to your brain: man coverage and potential blitz.

I don't know if the Packers had a run or a pass called — the same touchdown to Nelson we described above probably wouldn't have worked against this man defense, by the way — but Rodgers called an outside zone run to the left. Why? Because the linebackers were hard inside, they couldn't stop Eddie Lacy outside. And it was to the left because Smith was lined up to the Packers' right side. Randall Cobb, from the slot, ran like he might catch a bubble screen and that took the slot cornerback out of run support. The extra defender was the free safety, lined up about 15 yards deep. The Vikings were in trouble before the ball was snapped. Lacy gained 29 yards.





That type of play is why coaches like Arizona's Bruce Arians say they don't want quarterbacks who didn't do anything at the line of scrimmage in college. Rodgers made this run by what he did at the line. If you just casually watched the game you might have thought it was a great play by Lacy, but in reality Rodgers deserved most of the credit for this. Rodgers was able to set up the run by diagnosing the Vikings' defense from the snapshot he got before the snap.

And now you can look for some of the same things before the ball is snapped.​
 

disaacks3

Moderator
Staff member
That analysis makes it seem as if the Defense was in an incorrect formation, or that they couldn't overcome the play called / audibled against them.

Nothing wrong with either alignment that good execution couldn't overcome.

One the 2nd play - I'm not sure GB wouldn't have been better with a quick pass to the slot receiver on a quick out with the wide receiver at the bottom of the screen running a cross. Heck, a quick fake to the right (especially sold with the strong right formation) might even shade the safety enough for a nearly free shot.
 


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