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The Reality of Opening-Week Preparation
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After training camp and four exhibition games that lacked the feel of a regular-season atmosphere, NFL coaches and players will take a much different approach this week in their prep for the opening of the 2014 season.

Today, let’s discuss the Week 1 game-planning process, the roles on the 53-man roster and the expectations for rookies as they transition into the regular season.

 

Fresh Game Plans and the Regular-Season Routine

Players got a preview of the Week 1 game plan on Monday (scouting reports, tendencies) while utilizing their day off on Tuesday to get a head start in the film room.

But the real game plan—the one coaches have been gradually installing throughout the preseason practice schedule—is handed out on Wednesday morning across the league.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

NFL clubs will start off the day with special-teams meetings early in the morning followed by a team meeting (head coach addresses the players), offensive and defensive install sessions and then position breakout meetings to begin the advanced scouting for the Week 1 opponent.

These game plans are filled with multiple personnel groupings, concepts and schemes based on down and distance, field position, game situation, etc. to prep the players before they even get out on the field for walk-through sessions and practice.

This is vital information that allows players to focus on specific pre-snap keys (formation, alignment, personnel) while utilizing the opponent scouting reports to begin their prep for individual matchups on game day.

To give you an example, the game plans and film work should allow defensive players to head into Week 1 with at least four keys that put them in position to make a play.

Whether that is a specific personnel grouping (based on alignment) or an opposing team’s “got to have it" play (concept teams lean on in crucial game situations), these game plans are at the core of every productive player and team.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

In terms of structure, the install meetings/practice schedules are broken down by game situations with first- and second-down install on Wednesday, third downs on Thursday, red zone and two-minute on Friday, followed by a walk-through on Saturday morning before heading to the airport or reporting to the team hotel.

In the NFL, players are at their best when they can get into a routine that doesn’t change much throughout the season (with the exception of adapting to Monday/Thursday games).

This allows players to focus on the game plans, install and film work that is necessary to get ready for a regular-season ballgame in the NFL.

 

Prep Time for the Starters 

Unlike the preseason—with coaches trying to get a good look at the entire roster in practice before making cuts and setting the depth chart—the regular-season structure is all about the first-team offense, defense and special teams.

For example, in a 20-play team period, the No. 1 offense and defense will see around 15 reps versus the scout team. This leaves the backups with limited work to run through the game plan or practice the new install on the field.

And with only 10 players on the practice squad, who are replaced often throughout the season (run exclusively with the scout team), the backups will get most of their reps running the “cards” during practice (opposing team's plays drawn up by quality-control coaches).

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In my opinion, the scout-team work at the NFL level can instill poor habits in players, as they are not critiqued based on their technique, alignment and execution (while being asked to take the bait on double-moves, etc.).

This is another reason why film study is so important to players. Even without the reps on the practice field, if a backup is put in the game that week, the coaches expect him to produce while showing the ability to handle the game plan.  

Remember, the locker room in Week 1 feels empty after final cuts in comparison with the 90-man roster teams carried into camp.

And every player has a role to start the season.

These practices won’t reflect the intensity of training-camp sessions with competitive periods. But there is a much different atmosphere when teams are preparing for a regular-season game.

A business-like feel with the added anticipation (and nervousness) that comes with the start of a new season in the NFL.

As I’ve said before, the NFL is the “business of winning.” And that’s reflected by the focus of both the players and coaches this week.

It’s time to go to work.

 

Rookie Expectations

Back in the preseason, coaches were patient with rookies as they started the transition process to the NFL while adjusting to pro speed under the lights in August.

Line up and play, make corrections and show signs that the arrow is pointing up from a developmental perspective.

Mistakes in the preseason created opportunities for rookies to correct their technique, leverage, eye placement, etc. without the stress and pressure of the regular season.

But that’s over now—and it’s time to produce.

USA TODAY Sports

Coaches don’t have the patience they showed in the summer (or during spring sessions) with rookies. 

And they will be quick to sit the rookies down in the regular season, take them off the active game-day roster or cut them loose altogether if the production doesn’t meet pro standards.

Rookies who are drafted in the top three or four rounds are usually protected during their first year in the NFL.

However, those late-round guys (or undrafted free agents who made the team) can easily be replaced throughout the season by the hundreds of players on the street looking for work.

Unlike vested veterans (four credited seasons), these rookies head into the season with contracts that can be terminated at any time.

Yes, making the opening-day roster is an accomplishment in the NFL. And that’s something I will never question considering how hard it is to win a job in this league.

But the competition doesn’t stop there. Instead, it has to continue every week. And that means making plays on special teams or taking advantage of the opportunity to run with the first unit.

The speed of the game is going to dramatically increase, the hitting is extremely violent at the point of attack and the opposing game plans are much more advanced than anything these rookies saw in the preseason or back in college.

It’s a big step, a major step forward, in my opinion, for any rookie (regardless of where he was drafted) at the start of the regular season.

Will they make some mistakes? Of course. And they will be nervous as heck when they take the field this week.

But that’s also one of the great things about this game.

We get to find out which rookies can handle the pressure (or demands) of the NFL while also developing at a rate that allows coaches (and veterans) to trust them on the field in a critical game situation.

And I can’t wait to watch these rookies play.

 

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

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