How to watch football like an expert from the comfort of your couch

By Ted Nguyen Oct 29, 2019 152

American football is one of the most complicated, potentially confusing sports in the world – if not the most complicated, potentially confusing sport in the world. But that’s part of what makes it so captivating. There are multiple games of chess being played on the field from snap to snap that even the most avid watchers could miss. There is always something to learn about the game and there are levels to watching it.

To achieve Level 1, or beginner level, one must know the general rules, know a little bit about every position, and some basic strategy. To achieve Level 2, or intermediate level, one must know the rules enough to make a legitimate argument during challenges, know some of the nuances of every position, and be able to identify some schemes. To achieve Level 3, or expert level, one must know almost every rule and its intent, understand every position and the many different archetypes of every position, and be able to identify many different schemes.

[Listen to Ted Nguyen’s podcast Run The Film]

To achieve Level 4, which is that of a film analyst, one must able to identify most schemes and thoroughly understand strategy. Being a Level 4 viewer doesn’t require any higher level of intelligence than the next person, but it does require one to sacrifice more important things in life to nerd out over studying football. And Level 5 is that of a competent coach. The goal of this article is to try to get readers to Level 3 and set readers up to get to Level 4 if they choose to sell their souls to further their football education.

Common misconceptions and questions

How can you tell whether it’s an RPO or play action?

With the spread game becoming a bigger part of the NFL every year, analysts who specialize in the pro game are still playing catch-up with college concepts. Right now, the hot buzzword is “RPO,” which stands for run/pass option.

An RPO is a run play that has a pass concept built into it. The quarterback makes a pre-snap or post-snap read on a defender that the offense doesn’t block. The theory behind the RPO is to read the extra defender in the box rather than blocking him. If the offense has five blockers and there are six defenders in the box, the quarterback would read the sixth defender.

A play action is a play in which the offense will fake a run to get defenders to step up, and then throw a pass.

However, commentators seem to mistakenly call every shotgun play with a fake run action an RPO, when the play could simply be a play-action pass. So how can you tell the difference between a regular play action and RPO? Watch the offensive line.

If the offensive line isn’t aggressively getting to the second level, it’s a play action. The linemen might even initially take a few steps like they are run blocking before stopping at the line of scrimmage.

If they get downfield on a pass play, you know it’s an RPO. It is illegal for a lineman, who is usually an ineligible receiver, to be more than 1 yard downfield of the line of scrimmage without making contact with an opponent. This seems to be a gray area with referees, who don’t make this call often. Offensive coaches don’t mind, while this has been a point of contention for defensive coaches. 

After the Chiefs beat the Broncos in Week 8 of 2018, former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph complained about the Chiefs going too far downfield on their RPOs.

“Linemen are 5 yards downfield, how do we fix that? I don’t know,” Joseph said. “What’s the rule say? I don’t know. But we have to figure this out and that’s on tape. That’s on tape, I’ve seen it.”

What’s the difference between a bubble screen and true screen?

A true screen is a play in which the quarterback will take a drop-back to invite the pass rush to go after him. Offensive linemen would block for a couple of seconds before letting the pass rushers “beat” them and then release downfield to block. The idea behind a true screen is to draw the rushers in and throw the ball over their heads and get a convoy of offensive linemen ahead of the ball carrier. 

A bubble screen is one in which the ball is immediately thrown to the perimeter. Only skill players block on a bubble screen play and offensive linemen are uninvolved in the actual bubble screen. Bubble screens are often used as the pass option as part of RPOs.

So don’t get mad at the play-caller for calling too many bubble screens. He may be calling plays in which the bubble screen is an option and it’s being thrown because the offense has a numbers advantage.

What is the purpose of motion and shifts?

A shift is when multiple players move and get set before the ball is snapped. Shifts are usually used to quickly change the formation so the defense doesn’t have a lot of time to adjust to it.

A motion is when a player is still moving before the snap. By rule, only one player is allowed to be in motion before the snap.

Why do teams put a player in motion?

  • Early in the game, play callers might use a lot of motion to see how a defense will respond. They might be able to take advantage of the knowledge later in the game.
  • Motion could give a quarterback information. For example, if a defender follows the motion man across the formation, they would know the defense is likely in man coverage.
  • Offenses could outflank defenders with fly motion or threaten to outflank them, which forces them to react.
  • Because motion happens right before the snap, defenders have to quickly communicate changes in a small time window, which can cause lapses.
  • Motion doesn’t allow the defense to stay set and settle in mentally.

First-year Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore used a motion or shift on nearly every snap in his debut against the Giants. In the clip, he used motion to set the back in shotgun late. Defenses will typically be alert for a RPO on the side that the running back is offset to in the gun so by motioning him in the backfield late, Moore didn’t give the Giants a chance to set up a RPO defense.

What is the difference between zone coverage and pattern match?

Classic zone coverage or what Nick Saban calls “country” zone is when defenders are responsible for areas of the field. They’ll drop into those areas while keeping their eyes on the quarterback and reacting to the ball.

Pattern match is an umbrella term that could refer to zone match and man match. In zone match coverages, defenders drop to an area but are eyeing receivers and reacting accordingly. Their drops and movement change based on the route distribution. An example of this is Nick Saban’s rip/liz coverage.

In man match coverage, defenders are reading receivers and will eventually lock on man-to-man with receivers according to their reads after the route distribution. A good example of a man match system is Mike Zimmer’s scheme with the Vikings.

What is a true double team?

You’ll often hear announcers say quarterbacks are throwing into double or even triple coverage, and it may look like they are correct because by the time the camera catches up with a throw there might be multiple defenders around the ball. But if you watch closely, most of the time that’s just the secondary converging after the ball is thrown.

A true double team is a defensive call. The team that probably uses the most true double teams is the New England Patriots. You can often tell a true double team by the alignment of the defensive backs.

This is an obvious example as you can see two defensive backs in the grill of the receiver. A more common example is if a safety is heavily tilted toward a receiver before the snap and gets his eyes on the receiver post snap. The Patriots call for a true double team is one “1 double (players number)”

Example: If they want to double Reggie Wayne (No. 87), the call would be “1 double #87”.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS & BELICHICK PLAYED THE COLTS IN THE 2014 AFCCG, TY HILTON SAW 1 DOUBLE & COVER 7 BRACKETS THE ENTIRE GAME. HAVE TO TAKE AWAY #13. PIC.TWITTER.COM/GTXQUHU89G

— JAMES LIGHT (@JAMESALIGHT) JANUARY 5, 2019

Quarterbacks aren’t always “looking off” defenders

Quarterbacks will stare down deep safeties or purposefully look in a different direction in order to get them to move because zone defenders will react to the quarterback’s eyes. This is known as “looking off.” But the term is thrown around too loosely.

Just because a quarterback looks elsewhere before eventually getting to his target doesn’t mean he’s “looking off” the defender. He could just be going through his progressions. If it’s a well-designed play concept, his progressions should have a similar effect of a “look off.” Route combinations are designed so that if one route is covered, another should open up.

Tips on watching the game: ‘Find the grass.’

How we watch on TV is largely affected by the camera angles. Broadcasts tend to favor tight camera angles that are zoomed into wherever the ball is going. The problem is that there are 22 players on the field and oftentimes we can’t see the secondary and how the routes are developing downfield. Essentially, half of the story of the game is being hidden, especially with the ever-increasing usage of the passing game.

The NFL is starting to experiment with the usage of the sky cam, but based on backlash from fans I don’t anticipate a major change in how the game is shown. We can still watch the game smarter, but until fans are allowed to choose their own camera angles, we’ll have to take our clues where we can get them.

Chris Brown, the editor of Smart Football and one of the central figures in the evolution of how football is being covered more analytically, offers his advice:

“Before the snap, find the grass. A lot of people say to understand what’s really going on ‘watch the defense,’ or ‘watch the linebackers’ (partially on the theory that you will naturally find the ball) which is perfectly fine advice, but the reality is it’s a kind of odd way to watch an entire game or for more than just a few plays. 

“The easier and to me just as interesting thing is to, before the snap, instead of watching the QB look at the sideline or whatever, is try to look at the defense and figure out where the “grass” is — are they packed in tight and way off the receivers? Are they spread out with big gaps/bubbles inside? Is anyone covering the slot receiver? Chances are that whatever you see is the same thing that the QB and offensive coordinator sees too, and you’ll be amazed at how often the ball goes to that grass… as well as how often good defenses show open grass and then close it up fast. Then once the ball is snapped you can watch as a normal, though now more informed, fan.”

Here, you can see the defensive backs are backed off and the inside linebacker and outside linebacker are lined up tight in the box. There is plenty of grass underneath on the inside of the two-receiver side. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hit his receiver, who ran a slam route, right into the void for a nice gain.

Just following Brown’s advice, you’ll be able to predict where the ball will go more often than not, and if that space closes up quick you might have recognized a defensive disguise, which is worth noting.

How to watch the game like an NFL quarterback with Carson Palmer

If you want to take things a step further, you can play armchair quarterback and try to process the defense pre-snap like quarterbacks do. To help us understand how a quarterback reads defenses, I talked to former NFL quarterback Carson Palmer, who was as cerebral as any quarterback to have played the game. Here is what he looks for at the line of scrimmage broken down in steps:

1. What personnel group is on the field?

Pay attention to the offensive personnel that is in the game and how the defense is reacting. If  the offense has 11 personnel (3 receivers, 1 running back, 1 tight end) in the game, does the defense have its nickel (5 defensive backs) or dime (6 defensive backs) in? This affects matchups and noticing these things will help you find mismatches and look really smart in front of your friends when you yell, “look out, there’s a linebacker on Travis Kelce!”

2. Is it a single high defense with one safety in the middle of the field or is the middle of the field open because there are two deep safeties?

With most TV broadcasts, you’ll at least be able to see the safeties before the snap. Count how many deep safeties there are. If there is one safety, the coverage is likely going to be cover 3 zone or cover 1 man. If there are two safeties, it is likely cover 2 zone, cover 4, or 2-man.

3. Then you get into your cadence and you try to figure out which way the safeties are rotating or rolling

NFL quarterbacks are too good for teams to just keep their defense stagnant and make it easy for quarterbacks to read what the coverage is. Safeties will often show one look and then rotate or roll when the quarterback starts his cadence. Where they move or how they move gives the quarterback clues to what the coverage is and where pressure could be coming from.

“If they start as a middle of the field open defense with two high safeties and as the snap count gets underway, do they roll down to a single high safety? And which way are they rolling? Are they rolling towards the tight end or the slot receiver? If they are rolling down and rotating one way, are they rotating because they are bringing pressure from that side? So is the safety coming down to the nickel side because the nickel is blitzing? Or is the safety coming down to insert inside the nickel and play run defense in the middle of the formation?”

Amazingly Palmer and other NFL quarterbacks had to answer these questions and process all this information in the matter of seconds while they are barking out the cadence. As a viewer, the more you practice looking for these keys from the TV screen, the better you’ll be at predicting what’s coming before the snap and maybe even predict what quarterbacks should be seeing, but remember you do have an advantage as a viewer  when you can see the screen from a wide view and don’t have pass rushers pinning their ears back looking at you like you’re Thanksgiving dinner.

I was surprised to hear that Palmer said that he didn’t really look at where the cornerbacks are lined up before the snap. He said he would look at that on the sidelines from images from the eye in the sky after the play and obviously he would have an idea where through film study while preparing for the game.

“It’s hard to see and hard to tell what’s going on outside as far as corners leverages. Now, there are so many guys playing press bail. They’ll come up and press the receiver and at the snap, they’ll turn and bail. It’s sort of irrelevant. It’s great to know but it’s a lot more to see than what you really need to see pre-snap.”

This makes sense because there is only so much a quarterback could see and process from his vantage point and quarterbacks could likely know how they will set their progressions by knowing what sort of coverage shell (one high or two high) that the defense is in. But as viewers, we get to see the corners pretty easily and they can give give us clues to what sort of coverage the defense is in.

Are the corners backed off? Where are their eyes? If there is one deep safety and the cornerbacks are also backed off with their eyes on the quarterback, it’s likely a cover 3 zone. You won’t know the coverage for sure until after the snap but you can figure out most coverages just based on the pre-snap alignment of the safeties and cornerbacks.

4.  Advanced blitz indicators

“Well, the advance indicator is trying to see what side the nose tackle is shaded on because a lot of teams will bring pressure to the bubble (B-gap) but that’s next level PhD kinda stuff,” explained Palmer. “That’s something you look for in year five, six, seven, eight, and on. But for a young quarterback that’s something that could get overlooked and really you don’t have time to figure that out.”

The idea here is that a lot of blitzes will be run toward the B-gap or the side that the one-technique defensive tackle is lined up. Obviously, this isn’t a hard, fast rule but it’s something to look for along with other clues that might help a quarterback figure out where a blitz is coming from. Palmer also mentioned that some defenses will move the shaded nose tackle before the snap so quarterbacks don’t get a bead on where their blitzes are coming from.

“As I got more experienced, I started looking for more bluffs. For example, a young nickel cornerback early in the snap count at the line of scrimmage might try to step at you to show you that he’s coming but normally, they are bringing the blitz from the other side once he starts to do that,” said Palmer. “So look for the bluff and I assume he’s not coming till he proves that he will come. Normally, they are just trying to get your eyes over there and bring the pressure from the other side before you recognize it.”

Even as a former quarterback, Palmer admits it’s hard for him to recognize things like where the pressure is coming from when watching on TV. We see what the camera is focused on and often they are too zoomed in on the quarterback, which leaves out half of the story of the game. But that doesn’t mean we as viewers shouldn’t try. It really does make the game more rewarding when you can see some of the things that Palmer talks about.

What’s everyone yapping about before the snap?

Oftentimes the broadcast will pick up on a quarterback’s pre-snap communication and while we won’t be able to understand all of it, there are some common calls that we can figure out.

Turn up your sound. Audio in the clip.

“Rip” usually means the offense is sliding the protection to the right, while “Liz” means the offense is sliding the protection to the left. It may vary from team to team but usually if you hear a word that starts with the letter “R,” it indicates right and “L” left. These words might not always refer to protection, it could mean that a quarterback is changing the direction of a run play.

If you hear the quarterback or center bark out something like: “52 is the Mike,” he’s identifying who the middle linebacker is because it affects how the protection is set.

Quarterbacks could also completely change the play but they’ll use code words that are often impossible to figure out because they could change from week to week.

One of the last things that a quarterback will bark out is the signal to start the cadence. Peyton Manning’s famous cadence starter was “Omaha,” which told the rest of the offense that the ball will be snapped on the next sound. Other cadence starters could be “Sunday” or “Monday.” Some cadence starters could tell the offense to go on first “hut” or second “hut.”

There are games that the offense will play with cadence starters or cadences if defenses start to get a bead on them. Manning had a way to turn his Omaha call into a hard count. It’s impossible to know what every call at the line of scrimmage means but there are some universal calls that you’ll hear over and over again.

What to look for post-snap

After the snap, viewers are completely at the mercy of the camera. Again, broadcasts will typically zoom in on the quarterback so you won’t have any idea what is happening with the route concepts and how defenses are reacting to them.

If you’re lucky, you can see a safety rotation and confirm the coverage or catch a defense disguising – defenses could present one look before the snap but switch to a different coverage after the snap in an attempt to confuse the offense. You could usually catch a quick glimpse at what the corners are doing before they are out of the picture. If their eyes are locked on the receivers in front of them, they are probably in man coverage. 

The way to get the most information after the snap is to try to have a soft focus on the offensive line, while mainly focusing on the ball. The offensive line doesn’t lie. If they are firing aggressively down field, the offense is going to run the ball. If they back away from the line of scrimmage, it’s a pass. Linemen can deceive to a degree but usually have a tough time lying.

Got all of that?

If you’ve carefully read or already know the information in this article, you are either already an “expert” viewer or at least on your way to becoming one. However, context is key. After all, in order to recognize cover 4, you have to know what it is. A helpful place to start is to click on the hyperlinks in the article, but don’t be satisfied there. There are so many great resources for you to further your football education in the internet age. The more schemes you know, the closer you will get to Level 3 and beyond.

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