Fat Camp: How to watch film, Part 1

It’s my belief that every fan can benefit from some level of watching film with intent. What I mean by that is that it’s not really all that meaningful to run the game a couple of times, mostly watching the ball and expecting to get anything of value from it beyond the superficial comments of the announcers.

There’s nothing wrong with the superficial, either, if that’s all you feel like experiencing.

Simply put, there’s no one right way to enjoy the sport; I try to keep it entertaining as well as educational. After all, whether you are used to just watching the game casually, or are someone with a background in film, breaking down tape can be quite enriching.

At this point, I’d like to suggest that you do yourself a favor and look through Ted’s excellent piece on how to categorize defensive teams. You can do that while watching the film, or at the end of a game. If you want to know just the very simple stuff at first, the so-called odd-front defenses usually refer to their two middle linebackers as ILBs and the Sam and Will linebackers as OLBs. Most of the 4-3 fronts use MLB or Mike, with Sam/SLB and Will/WLB. Ted’s system is more advanced, but well within any reader's ability to learn. It’s all about how much time you can or want to put into it, and how much you want to know about what you’re seeing.

Keep Track of the Defensive Fronts

Even if you’re not used to seeing the differences in defensive fronts, once you know what to look for you’ll have no problems identifying each. These articles of mine might help as well: Fat Camp: Defensive fronts, Part I and Part II. The rest we’ll cover over time. Feel free to drop me a line and ask questions - some folks were very kind to me as I was beginning the process of learning the basics (you never finish them - there’s always something that was done before, perhaps as far back as the mid-1800s, yet to learn). I hope to pay some of that forward.

Even so, a lot of people decide to begin learning to break down film each year. I’m going to try to cover some of the basics of what feeds into breaking down game film for those who are interested. How do you start? How do you get good at it?

First, to get good, it’s the same as any other activity - you do it a lot, so you watch a lot of film. Everyone can learn the basics pretty quickly, so if you like to watch football, record a few games from teams you don’t usually follow (so that you’re detached in viewing the players). You’ll be surprised at how fast you develop some skill at it, because it’s just a series of straightforward techniques for watching video, with the added aspect of looking for specific things away from what you’d usually notice.

Keep it simple and enjoyable for yourself - there’s an endless series of options for garnering more info and detail, but if you’re not having fun, you won’t keep it up. Then, as you pick up more info on the position(s) you are interested in, you begin to see how they fit together. It’s that simple. The rest is just repetition.

By the way - for that reason, most folks keep notes as they watch. It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the things that you’ll catch onto any other way. One approach that I use is setting up a new Google Doc for each game, noting the teams involved, the year, the specific date, and taking notes on anything that’s of interest to me. I also keep an archival document with general thoughts that seem important enough to hang onto. There are no laws involved and no fines for doing too much or too little, so just enjoy yourself.

The video police won’t come to your door for this if you choose to go deeper into the sport or choose not to. Just have fun with it. If you want to learn to get more from your viewing, skill will come with time. It doesn’t take all that much of it, either.

I also use a chart for recording play and/or player information by snaps. Different people use different charts - I adapted mine from Steve Belichick’s Football Scouting Methods, and you can get them there or go with a more high-tech approach. I’m told that there are apps for it, and you can go this route if you want to. There’s another one here, too and dozens of others.

I recommend that if the game has aleady been played, go to NFL.com and download the Gamebook. Keep that document and the team sites’ roster pages open for numbers and players - you’ll know more about what’s going on. You can, if you like, also grab the play-by-play, and follow along. It can help keep you clear on where you are and what’s happened.

I also recommend the Game Rewind option very highly - you can do a lot with it, and if you have a tablet as well as a computer, you can even diagram plays right on the screen, so you can enjoy putting articles together for your own library of various techniques. Either way - you want to have some solid background on the offensive and defensive aspects of breaking down film. Today, Iet’s cover some basics of both offense and defense.

If you just sit down and run the game past a couple of times, you’ll probably make the same mistakes that any casual fan does, because the first rule of watching film is this:

1. Watch the Players, Not the Ball

If it’s an offensive player/position that you want to start with, you still need to look at the formation first.

Pause the film.

Look at where each player is. How many running backs, tight ends, wide receivers?

Go over the simple things in formations, such as a 12 personnel formation (1 RB, 2 TEs - which implies 2 WRs).

You might want to have a roster printed up for each team, as I do. Who are they, and what are their names and numbers? Where do they all line up?

Don’t try to learn everything at once, just get a good general sense of things - everything will come to you with repetition. It’s easiest to take on one position at a time when you’re getting started.

2. Pick a position

This one is important enough to repeat - don’t try and cover everything at once. It’s far too overwhelming. What I find is that beginners should pick out a particular position and start to look for some specifics.

I liked starting with the trenches, but you should look at whatever one position - the linebackers, wide receivers, or perhaps the secondary - that attracts you. Just decide what position or group of positions is interesting - it really doesn’t matter which, just as long as it’s of interest to you, personally. That helps develop your habits, because you’re likely to stick with what’s enjoyable to you.

You may find that you want to look up some articles on the basics of whatever position you’ve chosen. Use any search engine - there’s lots of stuff online, and even more in the IAOFM archives.

In either case, just start with the first from-scrimmage play of the game in which that position shows up (unless your freak is special teams, in which case, we’ll talk soon).

There’s still a lot of info out there, but you might need to choose All-22 film or it will be hard to follow much of the article. Choose your favorite position and focus on that. You’ll learn a lot from the film. You might want to spend some time ambling around the web and finding info on the position you’ve chosen. That will help you greatly.

3. Clarify what formation they’re in

Ted, TJ, and I have regularly referred to different offensive and defensive formations specifically in many of our writings; Ted’s series on the Manning Offense is filled with good info for Broncos watchers.

Matt Bowen has also been a fountain of information on film and on the basics of the game. This article covers many of the basic formations with great thoroughness - it might be a good resource for you.

Now, choose to watch a play that you liked slowly a couple of times. Don’t worry about too much. Say that you’ve focused on the offensive line. Look at who’s got their hand down, how far apart they are (it’s called the ‘split’), and what formation they’re in (tight ends, for example: in close, out on the wing, only one or more, in motion, or spread wider?). I generally hit pause and spend a few minutes looking for smaller stuff - slight shifts by a player can signal what’s coming.

Is a DT lined up straight over the guard, to his outside shoulder, or to the tackle's inside foot? If the DT is right over the OL player’s helmet, he is almost certainly playing a two-gap system.

If there’s a lineback directly behind the DT, that’s called a ‘stack’.

Are the players milling around, (which is picking up in frequency in an attempt to slow the reads of quarterbacks like Peyton Manning) until the last second? In theory, it doesn’t let the QB have as much time to discern the exact formation and probable play and to make the right adjustments if defensive players aren’t settling in one spot, which is how it got started.

Pause the play and get clear on who’s doing what. Who is in motion before the snap - and what motion?

Does one guy have a foot back at an angle? How about their hand position?

Once they get into position for the snap, I like to make sure that what I’m seeing is what’s going on.

How you handle it is up to you, but I found that trying to know what everyone did at once was much too much information at first. I choose a position, and watched only that position during the game until I was catching on, then I added another position. I found that I picked up people and techniques much faster that way.

4. Home in on your position

After the ball is snapped, keep your eyes on the position you chose. Just get a general idea of where the play goes, and if you can see the positions that you want to watch during it. The new All-22 HD game film, showing all of the players on the field, will be the best $69.99 that you could spend if film interests you, so consider spending it on NFL Game Rewind.

One reason that I often suggest watching the trenches first is that in addition to the importance of the positions, you can usually see them for most of the play. It gives you a lot of visual work in a short space if you’re working off of broadcast film. Being able to see all the trenches in the All-22 film really helps, if you’re getting into linemen on both sides of the trenches.

If you’re watching the offensive line, are the guards pulling? If any term I use isn’t one you’re familiar with, drop it into Google - nearly everything is covered in one article or another.

If you’re interested in the trenches, I’ve got several pieces already archived; the one on drive blocking is basic to every OL position. If you’re watching defensive linemen, look to see if they’re spread out more on one side or another - TJ’s article on under and over formations can explain why for you.

As you get comfortable watching film, you’ll want to start looking at the All-22 film and learning whether a team is using zone or man coverage. Both Ted and Matt Bowen have excellent pieces on that.

Over time, I’ll have a couple of new pieces on cornerbacks, safeties and wide receivers, but there’s a lot in our archives already.

Get used to wearing out your clicker or warm up your mouse (that came out sounding....never mind). Slo-mo everything until you’ve got it clear in your mind. Know what each player you’ve focused on does before you move on to the next play - and work to know the upcoming formation if possible. If not - don't worry. It comes with practice, and you’ll pick it up quickly.  

That's probably enough for right now, but we'll be working towards having info available on every position on the field during this year.

I'm hoping they will be of some help to you.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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