Learn how to watch an NFL game like an expert

By Geoff Schwartz
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I often get asked what I watch for on Sundays when I'm sitting in front of the TV. That answer is complex and based on the matchups. However, I've compiled a list of little nuggets you can watch for to enhance your NFL watching experience. Unfortunately, some of these depend on the camera angles, but when you watch the All-22 film, which I know most do, these will help you understand what's going on.

So without further ado, here are five things to watch during NFL games:

1. Is it man-to-man or zone coverage?

This is important for the offense because a) it defines the mismatches, and b) it eliminates a wide range of pressure options. If you're in man-to-man coverage, it's hard to bring pressure unless you play zero coverage, with no safety in the middle of the field. So there are actually simple giveaways to the coverages if you look closely enough. These giveaways are all in the formations and motions.

Formations

Ever notice when a TE or RB lines up OUTSIDE of the WR or is split out wide by himself? If someone from the box, a linebacker or safety, walks out to cover that TE or RB, it's man-to-man coverage. Often teams will align with the hope that it is man-to-man coverage to exploit that matchup.

Here's a great example from the Chiefs. Travis Kelce is spilt out into the boundary, and the Falcons walk down a safety to cover him. Major mismatch:

Here the Patriots are in an empty formation with the running back into the boundary. Atlanta walks their safety out to cover him. The Patriots then motion the running back in to get a better release and to confuse the Falcons defenders on who to guard. It works.

The next example from the AFC Championship shows a zone coverage look with a RB out wide in the formation at the bottom of the screen. Notice the Steelers have a corner covering the Patriots' back. There are other tells that it's zone as well, but this is something simple you can see:

Motions

How do motions play a part in determining man-to-man or zone? First, a motion is when a skill player (so not a lineman), starts in one spot, and moves laterally and/or back to a different location. Unlike the CFL, you're not allowed to go forward in your motion before the snap. Some teams motion a whole bunch; others not often. A WR can motion all the way across the line of scrimmage. A back and/or tight end can motion from outside to the backfield and vice versa.

The motions are a great indictor for man or zone coverage. When a motion occurs, if the defender on that player follows him for the entire motion, it's man coverage. If the defense just shifts players a bit, it's zone coverage. And nothing works better for this than an RB or TE motion from inside out.

Here are two plays from the Super Bowl to help illustrate that point.

The Falcons motion their back out of the backfield, and watch New England follow that back with its safety. Clear man coverage read for Ryan:

The Falcons start in a stack-type formation, motion out the TE, and the linebacker follows him. It's man-to-man coverage:

Here's an example in the NFC Championship of a motion by a fullback out wide, which the Packers adjust to by just shifting their corner outside to corner him. This is clearly zone coverage:

Motions can also be used for a variety of different reasons. When you motion a TE across, the defense might shift its strength and you're able to get the right front of run a play against. Short motions, where a WR just motions to a stack position, are used to get better releases, and in man-to-man coverage for picking defenders.

2. Pay attention to where the ball is placed.

The ball placed on either hash mark eliminates lots of options for both sides of the ball. More often than not, the ball will be run toward the field (away from the sidelines), because there is more space out there. If the ball is run into the boundary (toward the sidelines), it's typically an inside zone, or in the rare instance there's a TE down there, maybe a power play. Being on a hash narrows down the amount of pressures that can be run.

Usually, if a team will run a zone blitz where the DE drops into coverage, it wants that DE to be into the boundary because he has to cover less ground. When the ball is in the middle of the field, a zone pressure can come from anywhere. Also, when a team is in a 3x1 formation on the hash — three players are out wide in the formation, with one into the boundary — this really defines the pressure situation for the offense. The defense has to cheat big time to cover all that ground to the field if it wants to bring pressure. It's easier to see for the offense.

3. What does all the pointing on offense mean?

When the center points to someone, that's who the offensive line is working to. Often, the QB will also point to the same player, or someone else if needed, so everyone is on the same page. This lets the defense know which way the center is sliding in pass protection. The defensive line will call stunts/twists AWAY from where the center is sliding because those two offensive linemen are man-to-man. It's hard to run a stunt with the center sliding your direction.

What about the quarterback pointing to defenders outside the box while looking at the WR? Well that's to let the WR know who his "hot" player is. I'm sure y'all have heard the term "hot route." A hot route, or sight if it's weak, is designed to get the ball out quickly during a pressure. The protectors on a certain play can only account for X amount of people. If one extra than X blitzes, that's when a WR runs his hot route. This is what the quarterback is reminding the WR, who might not see who the center is pointing out.

Lastly, pointing is a sign that the quarterback knows what he's doing. Lots of young quarterbacks are busy reading the defense or focusing on other things to be on the same page as the line. That's how you get unfortunate quarterback hits, like the one Christian Hackenberg of the Jets recently took.

4. Keep an eye on the safeties.

I know it's hard to see them on TV, but they control everything for a defense. They can point out where a possible pressure is coming from. If a defense is blitzing, the safeties often have to cheat toward that pressure to fill in the empty spot left by the rushing defender.

If you ever notice a safety lined up directly over a nickel player, that nickel player is bringing the heat. These are often tells an offense can use to tell where a pressure is coming from.

5. Who will cover that gap?

Ever look at the alignment of a defense and think, "no one is there to cover that gap"? Well, something is happening to get that area covered. The defense will stunt, twist, blitz, and rotate over to cover an open area on the field. No gap goes unaccounted for and if one does, the offense will likely find a way to exploit it.

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I hope these little tidbits of inside information help enhance your gameday watching experience. I know at times the TV angles make some of these tough to spot, but when you go back to watch a replay, or the All-22, these five things to watch will make your understanding of the game greatly improve. Enjoy the 2017 NFL season and as usual, follow me on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz as I tweet my way through this season.