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MHR University - Researching the Opponent


Welcome to another addition of MHR University. As we are going into the training camp part of the year, and gearing up for the pre-season games, this will be one of the final installments for 2008. “Why”, you ask? Because my friends, it’s time for the Broncos to go to war and school’s out.

We’ll still have an article from time to time, but I’m switching gears to start the game preps against our opponents, and to assist our terrific writers and staff with some projects of their own. My weekly game preps will take the place of the University series until the season ends (hopefully sometime in 2009!).

In the meantime, as the reloading season comes to a close, let’s take a look at how a coordinator evaluates his opponent.

Down and distance tendencies are the biggest and most well known variables studied by a coordinator. It’s time consuming stuff at the HS level, because you have to rely on scouts (most teams use film for player tendencies and system breakdowns) who themselves are rarely paid professionals. At the pro level, the work is done for you. The information is scouted, computerized, and either put on a chart or available from an assistant at the push of a button.

But there are some fascinating issues beyond down and distance.


When an offense substitutes a player, it’s not always because someone is tired. Perhaps the team has certain play tendencies when the sub is brought in. Our offense used to use a particular FB to hit short yardage sometimes, but we had another “special” play. Sometimes we would sub a HB for the FB (someone faster) and either run strong side in a sweep with the HB, or run a “dive” play on the weak side with the sub. The formation we would run did not involve a #2 receiver, instead we had an extra TE on the LT’s hip. Cute, right?

It was more complex than that. If the opposing defense showed it was adjusting for the sweep, we motioned the strongside TE left to help with the dive. If the opposing defense showed it was adjusting for the dive, the weakside TE motioned out to the #2 WR position, pulling away a defender. Again, cute. Except our opponents did research.

The play lost its charm because our opponents figured it out. We thought we had a nifty play, and we did for awhile. But once we brought in a sub at FB, teams knew how to disguise coverage and how to read our approach. Did we scrap the play?

Here’s the brilliance of our offensive coordinator. The play was a set-up. It was run for four games one season, worked well, and tanked in the fifth game. We ran the play at least once every game thereafter in the season. When we hit our postseason, we ran the play, but with a twist. The sub came in, and our opponents knew what to do. We motioned the weakside TE out to WR (indicating the weakside dive) and instead hit the strongside TE for a short pass (that went for a long distance). The lesson? The word is “tendencies”, not “sure fire predictions”.

But there are other considerations besides down and distance and substitutions. Certain formations, combined with certain motions give clue to intent. The score differential also clues us in to how an opponent makes decisions. Even a coach’s attitude.

I remember one of the teams we played that was rarely a challenge. It wasn’t just the coach, but a combination of factors (including funds). At any rate, the head coach of this team was there most of the time I was a defensive coordinator for my program. He had a terrible tendency. Whenever a play went against him (for example, a turnover, a “bad” call by an official, or a big gain by our offense) this guy couldn’t help himself. He would almost always call a blitz that brought the house. Maybe it was anger, or maybe he wanted to fire up his team. Either way, we seemed to read his blitzes pretty well based on how red he got. Simple, but effective.

When prepping a game (as the defensive coordinator), I divided my work by the following. Most of the work went into player tendencies and game film. Down and distance tendencies came next. Then I looked at the following:

  1. Does the offense have to play a back-up due to a starter injury? Can we exploit that?
  2. What are other teams doing against the team that works, doesn’t work?
  3. What kind of QB do I face? Is he a scrambler? Does he get his passes out quick? How strong is his arm? Does he have any “tells” to indicate the play? How does he handle pressure?
  4. Where is the weak spot on the OL? What (if anything) do they do to adjust for it?
  5. How does the RB do his job? Is he fast, or a bulldozer. What are his tells? Is he a receiving threat?
  6. What kind of WRs do I face? Do they run out the play if the play is a run play? (This is the biggest tell in HS football, and it shouldn’t be on a good team). Do they block for the runner, or show a route?
  7. Is the TE an effective blocker? Is he an effective receiver?
  8. Does the FB ever run or receive?
  9. How does the opposing team come out of the huddle (again, “tells”).
  10. Does a player in motion indicate a play to either side, shoring up a side, a technique to read the defenses zone versus man coverage, or a specific play?

By now, you’ve noticed that “tells” are a big deal. The biggest indicators are foot placement (where they are pointed) and where a player is looking just before where he is finally looking at the snap (his second to last look). At the pro level most tells are caught and trained out, so it is rarely a factor. At the HS level, surprisingly few teams focus on tells.

Offenses look at factors too. Again, down and distance comes first. Then…

  1. Who on the defense is a poor tackler?
  2. Who on the defense is slow?
  3. Who plays zone and who plays man on certain plays, and where are the holes?
  4. What kind of assignments do the DTs run?
  5. Is the defensive coordinator patient? Is he aggressive? Does he cover the big play?
  6. Does the defense shut down inside runs? Outside runs? How is the pass defense?
  7. Is he a “shifter”? (At the HS level a defensive line shift is a gamble, depending on how well the other team adjusts. The shift loses favor in the higher levels of play. I was a shifter.)
  8. What do the LBs do to “tell” a blitz?
  9. What is the weak spot on the DL?
  10. Is our depth at WR better than their depth at DB?
  11. What kind of SAF do they have? Does he get pulled easily? (In other words, can certain events cause him to be out of position for a play elsewhere on the field?)

Who was my best friend in doing research? You guessed it. My opposite number on my team. I depended on the OFF Coordinator to read my defenses, to look for the holes on my team, our tells, my tendancies. I did the same for him. It's a painful process to be told "Here are your weaknesses", but a good coordinator should embrace such advice. We can develop blind spots as coaches, and miss things. We have to set aside our egos, and be willing to take blunt advice about what we need to change. If we don't, the opponent will show us during a game, and that is even more painful.

The preceding is not all encompassing, but I hope it gives you an idea of some of the considerations. It is also based on the HS level, and nowhere near the complexity of the pros. At the pro level, “tells” are almost (but not completely) eliminated. The profiles on opposing teams and coaches are much, much more in-depth. The data gathered at the pro level is available in seconds to the coach, and can be provided to him by assistants instead of rummaging through paperwork on the sideline. The pro level is computerized.

And still, somehow, the game is still determined by the mind of the coach but more heavily by the athleticism, courage, and intelligence of the players who are actually playing the game.

Any questions about this subject, or any other football related topics? Drop us a comment below! Remember, no question is too simple. We’re all here to help. Also, let me know if there is a subject you want to read about. MHR University will be slowing down to prepare for the ’08 season, but won’t be going away entirely.

Are you an MHR reader who has never commented? We'd love to hear from you! Welcome to the MHR family.

(By the way, I answered "Both" in the poll. It is very tedious work to breakdown film. On the other hand, if I was being paid to do it at the pro level...)


Breaking down game film on an opponent...

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Man, I wish I could get paid to do that!
    (43 votes)
  • 5%
    Must be the worst and dullest part of coaching!
    (4 votes)
  • 36%
    Both of the above.
    (27 votes)
74 votes total Vote Now