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What do NFL coaches look for during the preseason?

Quotes from football coaching symposiums shed some light on what the exhibition games mean to NFL coaches.

Doug Pensinger

It's well known many fans dislike the preseason but those who do pay attention to it go in with some goals for their team. We know what we are looking for or we have a player, or players, we are excited to see in game. But coaches view the preseason slightly differently, while they obviously like to see their whole team play well, before each game they actually have a plan for each unit and player, a goal they'd like them to accomplish. Let's talk about some of these goals coaches have along with some quotes from coaches about the preseason. These quotes come from a few coaching symposiums I have had the great opportunity to attend over the past two years.

Team Goals:

"The preseason is vital. When I hear discussion between the NFLPA and the ownership about removing a preseason game I'm conflicted. It would be nice since it removes the potential for injury but at the same time those games are quite important for gauging younger players as well. Helping players who are at new positions acclimate is also a key component of this period. This is even more true when it comes to unit continuity. For each preseason game we know what we want each part of the depth chart to accomplish. It's clear that first drive on offense is key for judgment since you expect to see them at their peak and removed of error. With, say you 2nd stringers or developmental units it changes to more specific goals like schematic changes or play calling focus."

Lovie Smith, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This area has an obvious goal, play well, but coaches usually have additional goals in conjunction with that overarching goal. The coaches may want to look at how the team does on 2nd and 3rd down in short yardage situations or in 3rd and long. They also may want to see how to they do in other specific scenarios like "if the 1st team falls behind, let's put the 2nd team through a run heavy drive in two tight end formation." This allows offensive coordinators like Adam Gase to see how they respond in a situation that may not be natural to what they are used to. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio could say "I'm expecting to be ahead most of the game so if we have the lead in the 4th I want to dial up more man blitz and see how our secondary handles that."

Position Unit Goals:

"Depending on what the offensive coordinator has planned that week for the preseason we really sit down and discuss with our line what we think should be their point of concern that game. A few years ago I was working with a 2nd team offensive line that was all rookies expect for one veteran at center and we felt they weren't in synch so for the first preseason game we had them focus on two things. The first is when the center called out the blocking assignments they would all quickly yell out and repeat what he was saying. Secondly we wanted them all to block in unity so every run and pass blocking scheme we used we had them all blocking the same direction. No pulls or traps, no zone, just pure directional blocking. We did this so they'd learn to trust and lean on each other and it also helped teach them the basics of our blocking assignment terminology."

Hal Hunter, offensive line coach for the Indianapolis Colts

For most teams the Saturday before each game the position coaches sit down with their units and give out their goals for that unit. For example the linebacker coach may say "we are concerned about your zone coverage so we are going to run the entire 1st team in a variety of zone coverages so we can see how you look in these different schemes." Or for the running back, their coach could say "you backup running backs, we like to pass the ball a lot and so your ability to block and catch will be tested, we may not run it often but we'll have you block and run routes a lot to see how you fare." By using this method the coaches are easily able to assess the progress, or lack thereof, of the unit.

Player Specific Goals:

"For each practice and especially during the preseason I have each back focus on a specific goal. I don't get a lot of one on one time before each game but when I do I sit them down with one or two plays and say 'this is what I'm looking for from you this week.' These goals are important to us as coaches because we can see how each part of our unit is doing but it also shows the effort the player is putting into improving and how good they are at listening to our directions."

Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals

This is similar to the position group goals. Each week the coach will sit down with each player and give them a goal for that game. If that player is an entrenched starter like TJ Ward the goal maybe to just focus on a zero mistake series. Or for a player at a new position it could be more specific. Orlando Franklin for example, the coaches could say "You are new to guard and one of the big parts of that is pull blocking in the run game so we are going to dial up a lot of runs where you have to pull to either side and we'll see how you handle it." For those players on the fence of making the team, especially at linebacker, defensive back, receiver and tight end, the coaches will ask for specific things but are usually related to special team work. Omar Bolden will likely be tested as both a returner and a gunner on special teams to see if his work there is worth a roster spot. These are obviously examples but the coaches do have a goal for each and every player and will be looking to see how they do at the specific item.

Wrapping Up:

We as fans usually go into each preseason game with our own goals and players to watch, it's the only real thing that makes the preseason exciting for many, but we've got to remember just because a lot of fans are interested in one player or one aspect of the game, that may not be what the coaches are focused on.  But don't let that deter you from going into each preseason game with a few questions you'd like answered because any information we as fans can gain by watching games the better. While we may not know what the goals set by the coaches may be, the preseason is still vital for player development and talent evaluation by the coaches.