How to be a Couch Quarterback
Helping you understand what you're watching this NFL season
By Tyler Arthur
Big disclaimer here. Watching the NFL on a live television broadcast is absolutely nothing like watching the all-22 ‘Coaches Film’ that you see in my articles and any other film breakdown (if someone is analysing NFL regular season games with the broadcast film, don’t bother).
Just because you can’t see everything that’s going on [NFL please sort it out], however, doesn’t mean that you can’t still get an idea of what is going on in the game. Although you can’t see the safeties pre-snap half of the time, and you can’t see most intermediate or deep-developing routes, there is plenty to see, including plenty of tips pre-snap.
This article is going to help you identify the things that you can see while you’re watching on a broadcast view, so that you can: first of all, understand what’s going on, and secondly, pull out the occasional very specific prediction that comes true. My favourite party trick.
Nothing is more fun than telling a group of twenty people who are watching a football game that you think they’re about to run a wide receiver screen, and then watching it go down the sideline for a fifty-yard score.
If you’ve ever played football at a reasonable level, it helps, but you can learn the basics either way, and even if you have played, hopefully I can teach you something new.
When you’re watching an NFL game on TV, you can read the field like a quarterback, and take a look at what the two teams are doing to better understand what’s happening – and most importantly, what is likely to happen next.
Formation and Personnel
The first thing you should look at is the formation and personnel of the offense. This will tell you what they may be preparing to do, and will also strongly influence the defense.
Never forget that the defense is stopping the offense, not the other way around.
Let’s take a look at the first play of the Super Bowl. We aren’t going to cherry pick plays for this article, we’re going to just hop around in different games and try and break down what is going on.
Here is how the New England Patriots lined up to start the Super Bowl. They are in heavy personnel, and the Rams react as you would expect. The Patriots have 10 of their 11 players stacked up down the middle of the field, with just one outside receiver. This is an extreme, but helpfully exaggerated example of a formation – but when you see this, you can be almost certain that they are going to run the ball. The defense meets this look accordingly, by stacking the box [area within the width of the offensive line and approximately 5-to-7 yards deep] with nine people as Tom Brady gets under centre.
A trained eye or good Pats fan would at this point realise that Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ slot receiver and playoff-superhero, is actually in the backfield, aligned as a fullback in what would be an I-Form alignment, with their real FB to his right.
Here is a subtle segue to one thing that teams do to work out what the defense is doing – pre-snap motion.
Edelman motions over into the slot, now putting them in a more recognisable, but still very run-heavy formation.
This is a very simple first example to demonstrate what you can see pre-snap, but it really is that easy sometimes. They load up the formation up front, and they run the ball.
Some pre-snap motion is more telling. There are two different types of motion, some which will have the player in motion when the ball is snapped, for example jet sweeps, or shift-motions where the player resets before the snap.
The Los Angeles Rams are one of the teams who use pre-snap motion more than most, and often they favour the type where they snap the ball as the receiver crosses behind the quarterback. The reason for this is because they can hand off the jet sweep, or they can use it as a decoy and then run or pass the ball in a different direction, while the defense has to respect the threat of the receiver.
Below is a play that would be simply described as a ‘fake jet halfback dive’. The Rams aren’t doing anything special up front, no crazy blocking schemes (although the wham block [number 81 cutting back across the formation] is a nice touch), just a pretty standard run up the middle – but with the smoke and mirrors of a receiver running jet motion. This causes the defense to, while respecting the possible horizontal threat, spread more and give space for a run up the middle.
The other benefit of using motion, beyond making the defense react a certain way, is to see how the defense react when you motion someone. When one of the chess pieces moves, what does your opponent do to counter it?
The shift-motion that is used for this purpose allows the quarterback to work out what coverage he thinks the defense is in – and so we can too. If you know what a QB is looking at, you can understand when you watch at home.
Let’s take a look at a play by the New Orleans Saints from last season and then we’ll think about what happened.
The Saints came out in a singleback bunch [three receivers tightly aligned to the left of the offensive line] formation, but then immediately after getting set, the Saints backup QB and gadget man Taysom Hill goes in motion across the formation out of the bunch and lines up as a Tight End to the opposite side. This is the important bit as a viewer at home with motion – watch what the defense does.
When Hill went in motion, a defender ran with him and followed to his new position, then stopped when he did. This defender is in man coverage. Saints signal-caller Drew Brees now knows that it is man coverage, and can react accordingly. Knowing what the defense might be doing can cause for you to audible at the line, be it change the way that receivers run their routes, or simply verify to the QB in advance what he thinks he will have to do. This play call looks quite complicated when you first watch it, but it’s really simple in how it works out.
The defense shows their hand – man coverage. The Saints send Ted Ginn Jr. underneath the offensive line on a slide route, that finds him wide open against the Cover 1 setup. The defender who is tasked with defending Ginn has absolutely no hope of stopping him – not only is he running a horizontal route (that always makes it difficult), he is crossing the field past traffic. Ginn has a clear path behind the action, whereas Robert Alford, the defensive back chasing him, has to navigate linebackers, wide receivers and tight ends to get there. In the end, his rush to try and make a play causes him to over commit and miss his tackle.
Drew Brees knew it was man coverage, and next time so will you.
Reading the Defense
There are other ways to predict what coverage the defense may show after the snap, without motion – however, big disclaimer here, NFL defenses love nothing more than to disguise what they’re doing, so you won’t always be right.
It’s very frustrating trying to take interest in what the defense does when you’re watching on TV broadcasts, because you literally can’t see what the hell they’re up to 70% of the time, particularly the safeties.
So, let’s take a look here at what you can see when a defense lines up.
Here is an example of a pretty good view of a defense pre-snap, from a game in Jacksonville. Here we can see 10 Jaguars defenders, as there is one high safety stood about 12-yards off the line of scrimmage over the top. This automatically suggests that it is Cover 1.
Now let’s look at what is actually on the screen on the TV broadcast.
To quickly look at the offense to give context, the Jets have come out in a five-wide shotgun formation. This is to spread the defensive players apart and exploit the space with five separate routes to defend.
The Jags D-line is in an incredibly wide alignment, with two 3-techniques and two 7-techniques. This is because there is no threat of a run play, and so they are going to focus on rushing the passer. The five receiving threats are spread with three to the defensive right, and two to the top side of the screen, the defensive left. There are two defenders to the two-receiver side, and three defenders to the three-receiver side.
Don’t over complicate things.
They are in man coverage. It’s a Cover 1, with either a robber or a Quarterback spy role from the spare man, the Mike linebacker.
It actually is that simple.
This is the exact opposite look. The Seattle defense here match up against the San Francisco 49ers offense, who have come out in a tight slot formation on 2nd and 15. They are not interested in being aggressive and playing man on this down and distance, so they’re playing with more of a cushion. If you take a look at the two deepest players visible on the screen (there’s one safety deeper than that, in the middle) you can see that they’re sitting back nine-yards off the ball, both with their eyes on the Quarterback.
This shows that they are most likely in a Cover 3, but more certainly than that, they are in zone coverage. When you identify zone coverage, you can start to think about what parts of the field the offense will be able to attack, but that starts to get beyond the required understanding for being able to enjoy the game.
Down, distance and situation
Finally, and you will probably already know this, the first thing that will help you to predict what is going to happen, best combined with observing the personnel, is the down and distance.
Each team is different, but you should always be aware of the situation – that’s why it’s featured so prominently on the broadcast. We aren’t going to try and break down what’s likely on every single possible option, but there are a few key things to be aware of:
- On 1st and 10 it’s all about the team and what their game plan is.
- On 2nd and short, a lot of the time, the team will take a chance and dial up a play with potential for a big gain, because they back themselves to convert on third down if they need to.
- On third and short, (or any time that there is a stacked box) be aware that they could run play-action.
You don’t have to be like me, watching every play as if you’re in a classroom, you don’t need to have a pen and paper by your side when you’re watching the game. But hopefully, this article will help you understand what’s happening that little bit more. Next time that you see someone motion across the formation, you’ll keep an eye on the defense and see what they do.
When you start calling what’s going to happen next, and your new party trick is making watching games even more fun, don’t forget you learned it on The Touchdown.
A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL.