Watching game tape and a good practice schedule are invaluable in preparing to play each week in the NFL.
With game tape, defensive players get to see the type of offense they will face that week. Every team's offense runs a lot of the same plays, but they also tend to put their own twists on them.
They also have tendencies when it comes to when and where on the field they run certain plays, and if you watch enough film you can start to pinpoint them. Individual players also have their own tendencies that can tip you off to what they are going to run at times.
I remember one week when I was in the NFL I noticed that an offensive tackle always dug his foot into the ground before running plays. It was probably something he did without even thinking about it, but it proved to be a good key for me in that game.
Some receivers might fiddle with their gloves when a passing play is called, or a running back may scan the field only when he is about to run the ball. Those kinds of individual quirks can be useful nuggets of information when you are trying to gain every advantage over your opponent.
Watching film is especially helpful on that side of the ball when watching the opponent's offense against a defense similar to your own. You get to see which offensive linemen are physical and which ones are more finesse. You can see what kinds of pass-rushing moves and blitzes work against that offense as well. Defensive backs can watch the route combinations against different coverages to help them anticipate what the wide receivers will do in the game.
Offensive players can gain similar advantages from watching film on the opponent's defense. They can break down when the upcoming team likes to blitz by certain downs-and-distances and areas of the field so they can anticipate when it's coming. Those players also have the opportunity to discern whether the defense will try to disguise its coverages or not.
What players are good pass-rushers?
Which secondary guys are weak in coverage?
When they do blitz, who are the guys they like to send, and what are their best moves?
These are all questions that offensive players can answer if they take enough time to watch film. When those players are identified, then it's a lot easier to minimize their effect on the game.
The special teams guys watch a lot of film as well, and I don't want to leave them out. People don't tend to pay as much attention to the third phase of the team, but special teams can make the difference between winning and losing many games.
Watching film helps special teams guys take measure of the standouts on the other team. It also can expose the weak links that can be exploited to block a punt or return a kickoff.
The teams' practice schedules are vitally important also.
When I first signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad, we would have a walk-through and a practice Wednesday through Friday to prepare for the games each week. Our defensive coaches decided to add another walk-through just for us called a "fit drill" so we could go through the types of runs we would face and make sure we knew where everyone fit in each gap.
This somewhat minor addition to our schedule ended up helping us tremendously. As an aggressive, up-the-field, one-gap defense it was of utmost importance that every defensive player knew where he was supposed to go to defend the run. If even one guy was out of place, there was the potential that we would give up a big run.
By taking the time to walk through the running plays once by ourselves, a second time at the team walk-through and then practicing full speed against them later in the day, we'd be almost absolutely sure what gap we were supposed to be in on any given play.
The unsung heroes of practice preparation are the guys on the scout team. They go out every day at practice and try simulate exactly what the opponent does. Your team won't be completely prepared for the game unless those guys work their butts off to give the same look as the team will see on game day.
There are practice squad guys on the scout teams, but many other scout team players are also backups who may get some playing time during the game. That was a role I played for much of my seven-year career; you learn to embrace the challenge.
You have to go from giving a look to the offense to getting looks from the offensive practice squad so you can work on your own preparation. It's definitely hard work, but the payoff is seeing your team perform well on Sunday.
Having said all that, I have to also say that as a team, you generally are who you are. You can't totally change your offensive or defensive playbook every week just because you see something on film that you like.
You try to marry the things your offense, defense and special teams do well to what other people have done successfully against your upcoming opponent as best you can. At the end of the day, you still have to have your own identity in all three phases.
For the record, there is no substitute for talent in the NFL, and you're not going to win a lot of games with mediocre players. If you have good practice schedules and your players take watching film seriously, you will maximize whatever talent that you do have on your team, however.
Superior preparation can definitely be the difference between a win and a loss when two similarly talented teams are playing.