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Inside the NFL's Hall of Fame Game

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Inside the NFL's Hall of Fame Game
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The Hall of Fame Game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, should be viewed as an extension of practice.

With limited reps for the veteran starters, basic schemes and no true game plans, coaches will grade on technique, alignment and execution, with the rookies seeing the majority of the snaps under the lights.

After playing in the Hall of Fame Game twice during my career ('01 Rams, '04 Redskins), let's discuss the focus of Sunday night's matchup from the perspective of both players and coaches as the NFL's preseason schedule kicks off.

 

Focus on the Core Schemes

With the rest of the league still on the practice field this weekend in training camp, the Bills and Giants will approach this game with a very basic call sheet on both sides of the ball.

In Canton, there is no game prep (game plans, advanced scouting, film work) done on your opponent outside of scanning the roster when you board the plane.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Look for Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3 on defense (out of both base and sub) with some pressures (five-man zone, man-pressure) while the offense leans on their core concepts out of 11 (3WR-1TE-1RB), 12 (2WR-2TE-1RB), 22 (1WR-2TE-2RB) and 21 (2WR-1TE-2RB) personnel.

Sure, both clubs could throw in an "exotic" (gadget play, formation, alignment) just to get it on tape (forcing their Week 1 opponents to prepare for it).

But the goal here is to run the same concepts, coverages, pressures and so forth that both teams have installed and drilled throughout camp so far.

 

Line Up and Play  

Can you line up correctly, execute the base offense/defense, tackle and show the techniques (hands, footwork, leverage, etc.) that have been taught during camp?

Plus, can you do it when your conditioning level is finally tested?

NFL training camps are a shell of what they used to be after the elimination of two-a-day practices and built-in days off for the players.

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

And because of that, these players from the Bills and Giants will be tested during live competition when the speed and hitting increases to a level they haven't seen on the practice field.

Remember, a 10-play drive can sneak up on you early in the preseason when your legs are not quite conditioned yet to match the physical demands of the game.

That's when coaches will look to see if players can make the basic adjustments to scheme, matchup and so on and still execute when their legs get heavy on the field.

Even with the old-school camps I went through as a player in both St. Louis and Washington, those first couple of series out on the field in Canton still tested my conditioning level in the heat and humidity of August.

 

The Veteran Starters

As a veteran playing on the No. 1 unit, your focus is to "win" the first series or two and then grab a visor, a bag of sunflower seeds and shut it down for the night.

That's it. 

On defense, that means getting a quick three-and-out, forcing a turnover or keeping the offense out of scoring position before the coaching staff decides to put in the second unit—signaling your exit for the night.

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Over on the offensive side of the ball, the goals are simple: avoid penalties and negative plays and put together a scoring drive.

Get points on the board and then turn it over to the backups (or rookies) while you grab some Gatorade and relax for the rest of the evening.

Playing in an extra preseason game is the last thing an established, veteran starter wants to do in early August (along with going through the extra week of camp that is added on).

However, it's still an opportunity for vets to work on their technique, game situations (red zone, 3rd-and-long, backed up, etc.) versus NFL competition.

 

Opportunity for Rookies and "Bubble" Players

When I was starting at safety for the Redskins in the 2004 Hall of Fame Game, I couldn't wait to get back on that plane after defensive coordinator Gregg Williams pulled us after three series in the first quarter versus the Denver Broncos.

However, in '01 as a young player just trying to make the team in St. Louis under new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, I needed those extra reps and couldn't wait to get on the field against the Miami Dolphins.

JAMES A. FINLEY/Associated Press

For rookies and "bubble" guys on the roster, this is an excellent opportunity to get on tape.

These reps are crucial when it comes to the evaluation process that will continue throughout the preseason. And if you want more reps on the practice field, then you have to show the coaching staff you can produce in the games.

Again, the coaches will focus on technique and execution, but they also want to see if you can make some plays, win one-on-one matchups and compete versus live competition when the tape is rolling.

One game in early August isn't going to decide who makes the final roster, but it is still a major part of the process.

And with limited reps in practice, this game in Canton is a great opportunity for young players to showcase their abilities.

 

Keep an Eye on Special Teams

Special teams are my favorite part of the Hall of Fame Game (and the entire preseason schedule in general) because I want to see who can showcase their speed, deliver a violent blow on contact and make some splash plays.

For the majority of those rookies and "bubble" guys, the kicking game is where they will earn their money this season in the NFL.

That's why I love watching kickoff and punt coverage late into the night during the Hall of Fame Game.

USA TODAY Sports

That's when we see young guys in the third and fourth quarters selling out to make a tackle inside of the 20-yard line, busting up a returner in the open field or getting the ball out to set up the offense in scoring position.

If you want to play in the NFL, then show the coaching staff you are willing to sacrifice your body on special teams.

Who is going to make a play? Let's find out on Sunday night.

 

The Goal is to Stay Healthy

With an extra preseason game on the schedule for the Bills and Giants, the No. 1 concern is keeping players healthy.

Back in that '04 game, we lost starting right tackle Jon Jansen to an Achilles injury in the first quarter.

RON SCHWANE/Associated Press

Just like that, one of our team leaders on the offensive line was lost for the season.

That was a brutal hit to our team and the offense under Joe Gibbs. And it happened before we even got to the second quarter of the game.

Sure, it's tough to keep everyone healthy when the pads are on in the preseason.

But regardless of what the tape looks like when this game wraps up on Sunday night, getting out of Canton without any serious injuries is a win for both teams.

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 

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