As the transition to the NFL continues for rookies through OTAs, coaching sessions and the mandatory minicamps that will start next month, the playbook install is a vital piece of the developmental process.
Today, let’s talk about the learning curve for these rookies and discuss some key aspects of the playbook that will allow them to line up, adjust and execute complex schemes at the pro level.
Line up and Play Fast
If you want to play fast (at any level of the game), you can’t worry about your alignment or the basic checks before the snap of the ball. This forces players to hesitate (and get beaten) when they are thinking about their responsibilities, stance, etc., instead of reading their keys and playing with speed.
And that’s why it’s crucial for rookies to grasp the core schemes in the playbook so they can go out and compete with the veterans during OTAs and minicamp this spring.
Coaches will start with the basics when the playbook is handed out so rookies can get lined up and execute the techniques of the call in the huddle.
These are the schemes (or concepts) that every team in the NFL will put toward the top of the game plan during the season. And the rookies have to show the ability to take the playbook and those chalk-talk sessions onto the field this spring.
Think of this as a “Football 101” class for rookies so they can play at the speed necessary to compete and keep up with the veterans who have experience within the scheme.
My advice to rookies: Take out your notebook and fill it up with every detail, every coaching point and every possible check so you can show the staff a level of execution that meets the demands of the pro game.
The Ability to Adjust
When I first got on the field as a rookie with the Rams back in the 2000 offseason, adjusting to formations, alignments and pre-snap movement was an absolute nightmare.
Mike Martz’s offense was complex and featured multiple formations/pre-snap shifts that made even the most basic defensive schemes adjust at the line of scrimmage to match trips, double-stack, four wide, etc.
Remember, playbooks are static and the offense isn’t going to roll Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) onto the field in a standard Pro Set every snap so a rookie defensive back can get lined up.
On both sides of the ball, teams will mix their personnel and alignments to disguise their core schemes. And that means rookies have to adjust based on what they see coming out of the huddle.
Here’s an example of the adjustments in a zone blitz (rush five, drop six) from one of my old Redskins’ playbooks out of base dime personnel (4DL-1LB-6DB).
As you can see, this pressure scheme is designed for the dime and free safety to add to the blitz front. However, based on formation and alignment, the “blitzers” will change along with the coverage responsibilities in the back end.
And if the offense comes out in an empty look (no backs in the backfield), this zone blitz checks to a man pressure with the defensive tackle dropping to the inside hook (called a “spade” check).
For a veteran player who understands offensive personnel, wide receiver splits, etc., this isn’t a tough adjustment to make. But for a rookie who is still trying to line up, get in the proper stance and put his eyes in the right spot before the ball is snapped, this can be very challenging.
Remember, learning the core schemes is a starting point for these rookies. But the next step is applying those same schemes to the field, where the game isn’t played on the chalkboard.
When looking at the value of OTAs last week, I talked about how teams use the offseason schedule to install the playbook so they can arrive at training camp ready to compete. That means the creative (or exotic) concepts, fronts, alignments, etc., will be installed by the summer to pair with the core schemes in every playbook.
For rookies, this can be viewed as graduate-level work when the playbook starts to move past the introductory phase into the complex, team-specific schemes and adjustments.
Here is an example of Ruby (3DL-2LB-6DB) “Gut Fire Zone” from Gregg Williams’ defensive playbook.
This isn’t your basic Cover 3 where the strong safety aligns 3x5 off the tight end and is the primary run defender versus the two-back Power O.
Instead, we are looking at a zone pressure that requires disguise, pre-snap movement, timing and the proper coverage technique in the secondary when the ball comes out hot because the quarterback doesn’t want to get hit under the chin.
The point here is simple: The playbook is going to evolve, expand and get more complex throughout the offseason for rookies. And once you think you have a handle on something, a new (more challenging) scheme is going to be installed.
Three or four new packages are introduced every time you sit down in the meeting room, followed by some film work and a quick walk-through on the field before it’s time to practice and execute versus guys who have been playing pro ball for seven, eight, nine years.
As I’ve said before, this isn’t an easy transition for any rookie as he starts his NFL career. Everything moves faster in the classroom and on the field when compared to the college game.
And that playbook is a very important piece of the developmental process. Because if you can’t line up, adjust and execute the complex schemes, then you won’t play as a rookie.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.