In a normal football game, most fans watch the ball, following it from snap to play completion, whether on TV or in person. It's simple to do and provides the most action in one sitting. It's probably the best way to watch a game as a fan, but it lends itself to missing some key things.
I look at football games a different way than what may be considered normal. It's my way of trying to figure out exactly what's going on during the run of play to better understand what happens. Most of the action in a football game takes place away from the ball. It's why you see play-fakes and misdirection. It's also why making reads -- both offensively and defensively -- is so vital for success.
With that, we take a look at a different way to follow a football game. It's not for everyone, but if you're looking to analyze a little more of what's going on, some of these tips may help.
Whether the Cougs are on offense or defense doesn't change anything here. Look at the personnel on each side. Is the defense in base coverage? How many down linemen, linebackers and defensive backs? On the offensive end, what package is in? How many wide receivers, tight ends and running backs? What formation? Two, three, four wide receivers? Single tight-end, double tight-end, or jumbo set? Where are the wide receivers and tight ends lined up? Is one side of the field overloaded? The personnel in the game are the first hint as to what's happening on each side of the ball.
I stole some of this from a friend of mine that played quarterback. The pre-snap reads a QB makes incredibly important and sets the good from the bad. Check the corners. Are they shaded inside or outside? Are they in press-coverage or did they back off? The corners are the first, and most important, clue about the defense.
Find the middle linebacker. He's the pivot-man for the defense. Is he lined up in the middle of the field or is he shifted to one side? Which side is the strong side? This gives a hint at which way the defense may shade. Where are the safeties? Are they lined up at the same depth, spread-out like they're splitting the field in half? This is a basic cover two alignment. Is one in the box and one deeper? Could be cover one.
Just before the snap
Who's moving on the offensive side of the ball? Almost no play goes by without a shift or some motion. The motion serves two purposes: to help diagnose the defense, and to create favorable matchups.
Who's moving on defense? Is anyone showing blitz? If the offense goes with a hard-count, does anyone give away that they're coming? Typically just before the snap, the defense moves into its actual alignment. Any movement before that is simply an effort to disguise. The moment the quarterback starts his cadence is when you actually see the most from the defense.
I typically go back to front. Where'd the safeties drop two? If they split the field, they're in cover two. If they roll coverage (one goes to the middle, the other takes deep sideline), we're looking at cover three. A cornerback becomes the "three" in cover three, dropping deep to cover the other deep sideline, splitting the field into thirds.
Did the linebackers drop coverage, stay-put, or blitz?
What is the defensive line doing? Staight rush, stunts or zone-blitz. It may seem as simple as pinning their ears back and getting after the quarterback, but that's rarely the case.
Do the receivers actually get into the route? The quickest way to tell whether a play is run or pass is to look at the receivers. Do they come off the line with a purpose and try to get into routes? What routes do they run and do they fit the coverage? If they don't take off into a route, are they blocking?
The other run/pass cue comes from the offensive line. Do the run- or pass-block? Are linemen getting to the second-level to block or staying-put in pass protection? If it's a pass, see if a pocket develops or if Tuel is running for his life. If it's a run, look for the primary hole and the cut-back lane. There's almost always a secondary hole on the backside of the play.
Which way is the play flowing? This is especially important on counters and mis-direction plays. Play flows right, but the offense come back to the other side. If done well, it can mess with the defense. Oklahoma State did to near-perfection.
With Jeff Tuel, watch his eyes. Is he going through progression and looking-off the safeties. Watching his helmet is the easiest way to tell. You can almost count the progressions as he goes if he's doing it right. For example, one (look to one side), two (back to the middle), three (other side), four (check down). Sometimes the first read is open. If it's not, pay attention to whether or not he's using his eyes as a weapon.
In the first quarter of the Oklahoma State-Washington State game, OSU lined up in a 3rd and medium situation. WSU had seven men on the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Four down linemen were in their usual spots and the three linebackers were also stacked on the line, with the OLBs outside the ends and the MLB in the middle of the defensive line. The cornerbacks dropped, giving the receivers a nice cushion and baiting the quarterback into making a quick throw. This alignment almost gives away that the outside backers will drop into flat/curl coverage responsibilities while making the offensive line respect the blitz.
The ball is snapped and Alex Hoffman-Ellis drops into flat coverage. His speed allows him to get out in front of the wide receiver before the ball is thrown. What results is a pass that hits Hoffman-Ellis in the numbers -- his head was a split-second slow getting around -- in what was a near pick-six.
So, there you have it. A different way to watch the game. While it may seem like a lot, many of these things can be done all at once. The volume of things going on during the run of play may seem overwhelming -- and it usually takes watching the game two or three times to pick up everything -- but picking out a few things to focus on gives a different perspective.
If you're wondering about the receivers -- the most talented unit we have -- focus on them. Want to know about Tuel and whether he's doing the right things? Look at the defense, then see if Tuel picks-up what they're doing. There's plenty of question marks on the team, so picking up on what they're doing may give you a better idea what's going on and if they're actually improving.