How to Watch NFL Coaches Tape

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 05:  Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans runs the ball in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals during their AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Reliant Stadium on January 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Using NFL coaches tape need not be an overly complex process or a proper practice reserved for so-called aficionados.

So there will be no semi-patronizing references to football as a "game of chess" or the use of the All-22 allowing people to "see the whole board." Before delving into this how-to on the uses of coaches tape, it is important to remember these are only the tips and habits of this author, who claims no higher level of expertise.

The benefit of coaches tape is to make it easier to examine the essential details of an individual play. That is it. No matter how many people try to claim it is a tool designed for the experts, the All-22 film is meant to simplify the game.

That is why coaches and players use it. That is not meant as a slight on the intelligence of any NFL coaches or players. But there is simply no other way to successfully analyze a game full of plays created and destroyed by multiple factors, other than simplifying them.

Anatomy of a Running Play

A basic zone-running play provides a fine example of how coaches tape can provide clarity for the finer details. This play comes from the Houston Texans' AFC Wild Card Round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

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Let's say you want to take a closer look at Houston's vaunted zone-running game. The first thing to do is pick a successful run from the play-by-play list.

Once you've accessed the coaches film, you are presented with the overview. This is dubbed the All-22, simply because it allows the viewer to see all 22 players on the field at once.

The first thing to outline is the path the run will take. So it is always good to watch the play a couple of times before beginning to use the telestrator to doodle on the screen.

In this example, Arian Foster will run around the left end on Houston's customary zone-stretch play. The basic path of his run is highlighted to make it clear what the zone-stretch normally looks like.

For any running play, the next best thing to do is ask what makes this run work? That means focusing on the defensive players who will be targeted by the blocking scheme.

Because this play is run to the left, a good starting point is the force players on that side of the defense. Because it is a stretch play, that means the edge defenders.

But the main advantage of looking at an overview is seeing how the offense manipulates both sides of the formation. In this case, the Texans have put two receivers on the right side, and that draws the attention of a safety.

This is an important point in the analysis of this run's success. The Texans are running away from safety support because of the alignment of their receivers. The television replays would likely only focus on what happened on the left side.

The next step is to put all the important pre-snap points together in one shot.

Here the direction of Foster's run is shown, as well as the two defenders who need to be cleared out of his path. On the other side, the shift of one safety towards the two receivers is shown to indicate the Texans are running to the outnumbered side of the defense.

So by the time you would come to commit this to an article, you would really only need this one screen shot to set the stage pre-snap.

Some may choose to break down everything piece by piece, but that is really only a matter of a particular author's preference.

The next stage of using coaches film for any running play should be highlighting how the blocking will unfold once the ball is snapped. The best way to do it is to look at the behind-the-ball angle that is always shown after the All-22 look.

This angle simply provides a clearer picture of the line of scrimmage. This first look shows the Texans will use their two tight ends and left tackle to collapse one corner of Cincinnati's defensive front.

That is the playside blocking, as that is the direction the runner will be going. Next, it is important to look at the backside blocking that will destroy pursuit.

This example shows the two guards blocking down on the defensive tackles. Meanwhile, the center and the right tackle will move out to the second, or linebacker, level of the defense in classic zone-blocking fashion.

Just like before, now is the time to put both sides of the blocking breakdown together.

Now the viewer knows everything that is supposed to happen once the ball is snapped. For those writing an article, only screen shots four and seven would be needed for the final draft.

Once you have used the film to examine the pre-snap looks and assignments, the next step is to see what happened once the ball was snapped.

Think of the pre-snap look as highlighting how a play is supposed to work in theory. Breaking down the post-snap shots is simply a matter of highlighting how the same play fared in practice.

With a running play it is always best to pause things to see if and how the blocking worked.

In this screen shot, it is easy to see how the tight end and left tackle successfully collapsed the edge by winning their blocks. On the other side, the center and right tackle double team a linebacker.

This creates an obvious cutback lane for Foster to exploit. This is a great example of the classic, one-cut zone run in action.

The blocking and the cutback lane are the essentials of the zone-stretch run and why it worked here. That is the beauty and true purpose of coaches film, highlighting the essentials of any given play.

Of course, once a writer has done that, they can add extra touches to their breakdowns to give a reader more contextual information. A good example is in the screen shot below.

It is the same as before, except with a dividing line added. The purpose of that line is to try and emphasize the essence of zone-blocking.

The line shows there are five Bengals defenders behind the ball on the backside, away from the play. Four of those defenders are unblocked.

Why and how does this apply to zone-blocking? The unblocked defenders show this is not a power-scheme which would be hat-on-a-hat, one-on-one blocking.

The line also shows how Houston's linemen shift out into space to seal two specific areas and create an open zone in the middle. Shifting linemen create a zone by blocking specific defenders instead of just blocking the man in front.

The reader now has a simple, shorthand description of the essential differences between power and zone-blocking. It won't get you invited to any coaching clinics, but it will provide a quick frame of reference for many of the runs you see on Sundays.

By breaking down this play from two angles and splitting its essential elements into segments, we have provided a clear example of the zone-running game working to perfection.

The Timeline of an Interception

Whether using coaches tape to examine an offensive or defensive play, the basic principles stay the same. This interception by Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph from the same game helps prove the point.

Again, the first priority is to highlight the principle players, as this is a pass that means identifying the intended receiver and his covering defender.

For any pass play, it is helpful to use the All-22 overview to examine how the coverage unfolds. Here, the Texans have adopted man coverage with a safety over the top, known as Cover 1.

This can be shown by highlighting that all of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's receivers are locked up one-on-one underneath. Meanwhile, the safety is drifting over the top of the intended receiver, A.J. Green.

The coaches tape has helped detail what the quarterback is seeing and what he is throwing into. Next, it is important to use the line of scrimmage angle to see how much pressure might have contributed to this turnover.

From behind the defense, the Texans are plotting a cross blitz on one side, involving a linebacker and safety. That should be shown clearly by highlighting the path the blitz will take.

The post-snap shots should detail what kind of pocket the quarterback is in. In this case, Dalton initially has a clean pocket. The Bengals have every rusher successfully blocked.

The next shot shows them maintaining solid protection and giving Dalton a clean pocket to throw from.

It is best to stick with the line of scrimmage angle to follow the ball downfield. It gives a closer shot of the pass and its result.

Here, Joseph can be seen pouncing on a pass that is slightly overthrown.

The essential elements of the play have now been detailed. Now the author or viewer can expand their analysis with further examination.

In the screen shot below, notice how Green has not turned his head to the pass. Had he done that, he probably would have been able to beat Joseph to the ball and at the very least prevent the interception.

At face value, this play is simply an interception thrown against the blitz. But by using the coaches tape, two important, hidden details are brought to the surface.

First, the protection was good despite the blitz. That implies Dalton anticipates pressure even when it is not there, and that could be a weak point of his game.

Second, Green is not always on the same page as his quarterback. Maybe that implies that this exciting young tandem still needs to strengthen its rapport to make the Bengals a better offense.

By making plays clearer, important details like these become obvious. They increase the scope for analysis and understanding of different players, teams and schemes.

When using NFL coaches film, try an remember the following:

  • What is the play, and where is it going?
  • Identify the principle players.
  • If it is a run, that means first focusing on the back. If it is a pass play, then highlight the intended receiver and immediate covering defender.
  • For defensive plays, use the All-22 look to see how coverage develops. Use the line of scrimmage angle to break down penetration and pressure.
  • Separate the theory from the practice by watching the play a couple of times without any alterations. Then designate the post-snap responsibilities of the key players.
  • Use pause and freeze frame to reveal and demonstrate how these elements worked in action and how much they contributed to the success or failure on the play.

One of the great tragedies of the NFL is that it often lends itself to technocrats and those afflicted with smugness. Coaches film can and should be used to make the concepts and schemes of the NFL clearer to those who enjoy the game as more than an excuse for mental gymnastics.

All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports and Gamepass