A Former Player's Perspective on Film Study and Preparing for an NFL Game

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A Former Player's Perspective on Film Study and Preparing for an NFL Game
Film study is essential to win in the NFL. (Photo: Toni Sandys)

When I was scouting for the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, I always felt like I had an advantage over other scouts who had not played football.

This does not mean I was a better scout or had a better eye for talent than them. But as a former player, having spent so much time watching hours of game film, I saw the game differently.

I was an average player at best, so I needed to prepare different than a star player may have to. There are players in the NFL, when I played and even today, who could be in the Hall of Fame off talent alone. 

There are players who watch just enough film to grasp the basic concepts, and they still perform at a high level.

A guy like Michael Vick has stated publicly that he did not take film study and preparation seriously early in his career. Then there are players like Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis and Larry Fitzgerald who devour film work and take their God-given talent to a different stratosphere.

Everyone in the NFL watches film in preparation for the game the coming week. Every player starts the week after a game by breaking down the previous game as a unit or in positional meetings. 

The coaches will correct mistakes individually and as a unit. Great coaches take the time to teach the correct techniques and to show players where they can improve. 

Players are the hardest on themselves when they make a mental error or play a technique wrong. Getting yelled at in front of your peers by a coach rarely helps.

One of my favorite parts of watching game film as a team was good plays by individual players. The groups in that room all know and appreciate how special playing in the NFL is and the work that is put in to achieve success. While ESPN may focus on the highlights, NFL players focus on the job they are asked to do in any one play. 

Let me give you an example: A defensive tackle will get off the football low and hard, gain leverage on the offensive guard and force the blocker into the backfield. That defensive tackle may not make the tackle, but the running back may have to stutter his feet, lose momentum and get tackled for a loss by the linebacker.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In NFL rooms, the defensive tackle will get shout-outs and “Atta boys.” I know that sounds silly, but when one of the best like Ed Reed or Adrian Peterson give another teammate a compliment, those words go a long way for the individual and the team. Getting props for a solid play that helped the team...that’s about as good as a feeling as you can have.

Once the previous week’s game is dissected and graded, players have to move on to the upcoming opponent. Players, especially quarterbacks, will get a jump on the opponent that same night. If the team played on Sunday, most starting quarterbacks will be watching the next opponent most of Monday night. 

Since Tuesday is the off day for most players, not as much film study is done. But with the new technologies of today, teams like the Buccaneers, Broncos, Rams and Dolphins have game film downloaded to individual players' iPads. This allows the players to watch film anywhere. So even if a player is not at the facility that day, that does not mean they are not breaking down their opponent.

The position an NFL player plays also determines how much film that player needs to watch.

An offensive lineman may watch tendencies of the defensive end or tackle he will be facing the next week. What pass rushes does the player use? What are his strengths and weaknesses? But typically, most offensive linemen watch tape together to game-plan for stunts, blitzes and defensive fronts.

As a linebacker, I would look at the alignment and the formation first. Coaches and players are creatures of habit. Some coaches would call the same play out of the same formation week in and week out. 

With solid film study, you could pick up on these tendencies and use them as an advantage. There's nothing better than being 90 percent sure what play was about to be run.

Now, some coaches tried to run what are called “tendency-busters” and run a wacky play off the same formation just to keep their opponent slightly off-guard. While those plays may work once in a while, most players were so used to running the play the original way, they would give the new play away.

Next would come looking for team concepts and plays more likely to be runs or passes. Once those factors are determined, understanding where my coverage or run fit with what the defense called was what I concentrated on.

Jason Pierre-Paul beats two blockers for the sack.

Though I needed to watch a lot of film to be prepared, there is a fine line between overthinking and just reacting to the play. Sure, there is an advantage to understanding your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, but there is also the old phrase “paralysis by analysis.” Sometimes the best plays are just lining up and beating the guy across from you.

There was a former NFL fullback who was known as a thumper. All he wanted to do was knock defensive players out. But by watching tape from the “coach's copy,” which is from the end-zone view, the fullback showed a “tell.” This player, in his three-point stance, would ever so slightly crane his neck to get a view of the player he was about to block. 

At that point, all the film study about formations, alignment, route trees and blocking angles went out the window. As a linebacker, I am running right at the spot he is looking at. Nine out of 10 times, the football was going to be there too.

I have heard of coaches who assign homework, such as formation recognition and alignment responsibilities. But most coaches expect players to watch film on their own and to prepare at their own speed. 

Wednesdays and Thursdays are dedicated to studying the practice film of the plays your team will use that week. I remember running scout team one week when the offensive coordinator told the defense, “I love this play, make it look good.” So as a unit, we went about half-speed, and the play scored a touchdown. 

I remember that coach going crazy with anticipation of calling that play Sunday. Of course, versus an opponent going full-speed and trying to win, the football was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. We never went half-speed again, and that play was junked from the playbook.

This play will never be used again!

By Friday, most of the film work left is looking at certain nuisances and adjustments that can be made to make the play called better and more effective. Friday film sessions as a team are fairly quick and to the point. Some players may stay and look for individual tendencies of the player they may face most of the game, but a common phrase is that the “hay is in the barn.” 

Jack Del Rio before his coaching days.

I will end with this: Some guys watch a lot of film but do not know what they are looking at. Others may watch just the mandatory amount and still can gain tons of knowledge. 

I thought I was a film expert and a hard worker early in my career because I would spend countless hours alone watching film. It was not until I signed with the New Orleans Saints and broke down film with Jack Del Rio that my eyes were opened to the truth.  

Viewing film or watching and understanding what you are seeing are two completely different things in the world of the NFL. Players that grasp those concepts and can differentiate them early in their careers are bound to have success.

Proper film study is vital for any NFL team to win. Players that can take what they see on the screen and transfer that knowledge to the field will always have their “eyes on the prize.”

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