The season is just around the corner! But first comes the mysterious and controversial preseason games. Controversial, because coaches have to weigh the value of getting players ready or evaluated versus injured. Controversial, because the League, networks, and even fans can't agree on issues surrounding ticket prices and revenue for games that "don't count". But mysterious, because we as fans have to balance cheering for our team to win knowing that the team isn't going all out for a win. So what do we watch for?
Here's a guide to watching the preseason games in a manner that allows you to learn about the team, evaluate players, and gauge the team's success moving forward, regardless of what the scoreboard says.
Different coaches approach the preseason differently, but all coaches are a little more vanilla than they would be if the game counted. They aren't going to show every wrinkle of a system. They are also going to call plays to test a team in a situation, even if the situation doesn't exist (such as a two minute drill at he end of a half even though the team leads, or going for it on fourth down, even though the game condition calls for a punt).
Some coaches, like Shanahan, believe in the school of thought that you "train like you would fight". Mike might take it easy on the players in camp (compared to most teams), but in the PS he generaly calls the game the way he might in a regular game. For this reason, he also gets a lot more PS wins. Does this count against his ability to evaluate? Not at all. Mike is also a coach that has his mind pretty much made up near the start of camp who is going to be on the roster, so he is ahead of the curve. Still, he'll make some calls to try out scenarios that he wouldn't do if the game counted.
But what do we watch for in a Denver PS game? The coaches are still holding back, and the competitions are more settled than most fans might think, right? Well, there's a lot to watch for. Here's what I'll be watching for if I'm lucky enough to catch a game.
Some position things to watch for:
- Our receivers coach, in concert with our OFF coord., is going to emphasize more of a power/possession approach over speed. On run plays, watch the receivers (if the camera angles allow it) to see which receivers block well, particularly the receiver away from the play.
- Of the receivers new to the team, which ones have chemistry with Cutler?
- The safety's first movement is towards an assignment or a zone. His second move indicates how well he's read the play. That's the move to watch.
- How well do the halfbacks protect Cutler if held back to pass block?
- Boss's background is zone. See if he goes man coverage on TEs, or if the SS gets the assignment. Whoever gets the assignment, how well do they do? Does the SS play back, or closer to scrimmage?
- Does the MLB track the halfback, or does he take a center zone? If the team runs a "show blitz" like Coyer did, the MLB will play man. But most "shows" run a zone. The MLB is key to see which variation we run.
- Do the DTs get penetration on the run plays? Yes, I wrote "run plays". We will shoot gaps on pass plays, but with a predominantly one gap style at DT, do we disrupt run plays in the backfield?
- It's almost too obvious to write, but who are the first eleven players on the field for the first plays on offense and defense? But here's something else to consider: who plays STs on the kick-off?
- How does the OL do in pass protection? Most vanilla calls by the defensive coords. will be simple slants designed to get to the QB.
- Who looks tired at the end of each quarter? When a play is blown, how well does a player shake it off?
- Does Young get spelled, rotated, changed for pace, or play every down?
- When a pass play for the offense goes for long yardage, was the error made by the CB or the SAF?
Denver is going to stick with a zone blocking, one cut run scheme paired with a west coast passing scheme on offense. While I'm thinking that the team is being built to run a "show blitz" system on defense (based on statements and personnel moves), there is nothing certain. Here's what to look for in terms of the systems.
- If (on several plays) Denver crowds the line with defensive players, than either brings a massive blitz or backs everyone off, we are running the old "show blitz". Another possibility is to watch if our DEs drop back into coverage here and there. This would indicate a "zone blitz" system. If Denver does neither, the keys to watch for to classify the system being run include:
- Is the MLB playing man or zone?
- Is the DL evenly spaced, and if not, how is it spaced?
- CBs in man or zone? (We'll be in man at CB, no doubt about it).
- Where is the SS positioned?
- 1 or 2 gap play by the DTs? (We'll be in 1 gap).
- How often do we blitz?
- Do the #2 and nickleback CBs play tight, on, or off in their coverage? (Bailey is allowed to always play off, which fits his personal style).
- Is the defense playing "bend, don't break", "hold the line", or aggressively? How much blitzing is there?
- Is the 4-3 the base formation? Is it a standard 4-3, or a variation (staggered, heavy, weak, over, under, etc)? [We'll run a 4-3, probably a base unless we have a major weakness at a LB position].
- Is the defense trying to force the pass or the run, or playing it even?
- Are there certain plays that have more prominence?
- Who is covering the TE, the SS or the SAM?
- On plays where the SAM plays a zone, is it towards the sideline most of the time, or toward the center?
- Does the WILL play more "zone and blitz" or "zone and man"?
- On offense, how much misdirection will we use this year? Is the boot still in use, does Cutler run a few options, or does he stay in the pocket more?
- How smooth does Cutler sell the play action pass, and how often is it used?
- Do we see Cutler making audibles on the line? How much leeway is he getting from the coach on the sideline this year?
- When Cutler throws an INT, was it a bad decision on his part, on the part of the receiver, or good defense?
- How much does the TE figure into the pass game this year? Does it seem to be planned, a safety valve, or the absense of Marshall (if that becomes the case).
- Does Cutler have favorite targets, or does he spread the ball?
- How do the cheerleaders look? Are they as hot as last year?
A lot of fans will watch to see who makes the big plays. My opinion is that this isn't the way to go. The coaches are probably more interested in who plays consistently well, and less on who makes a game changing play. But that's just my opinion. I think the decision (in Denver's case) is made before the pre-season on who will make the team. The decisions left are for a few players on the bubble, or if a player really blows it time after time.
Another thing that I consider is that I don't get excited by how many wins or losses we have. Good play can be indicative of how the other team runs their preseason, and losses might have been wins if the team were going all out. However, if the team loses and played very poorly, that is something to watch for (ala last year).
Denver's goal is to get the players up to speed, and to give the players some confidence heading into the season. Let's hope for the best, but let's take the preseason into its proper context and watch it with a studious eye.
What will you be watching for?