"Holy Toledo!"

August 16, 2007

Top 10 Things To Look For While Watching An NFL Preseason Game

Filed under: NFL — Bill @ 3:34 pm

I’ve heard it said that preseason games are meaningless and they are boring to watch. As a hard core football fan I say “Bunk” to this. One can learn many things from a preseason game, it’s all about knowing where to look. With this in mind here is my Top 10 things to look for while watching a preseason game.

#1- You NEVER EVER want to see any of your team’s players get hurt.

#2- Every head coach has a different philosophy, but most use this formula for preseason games:
Game #1: Starters play 15-20 snaps or less.
Game #2: Starters play for most if not all of the 1st half.
Game #3: Starters usually play into the 3rd quarter (this game is often your best indicator of how well your team might fare during the regular season).
Game #4: Starters play very little if at all, this game is only important to those last few backup players needed to fill out a team’s roster. I have found that little can be learned from game #4.

#3- The opening Drive: Always watch carefully while the first team offense & defense is on the field. You always want the first offensive drive by your team to end in points on the board. Field Goals are nice, but a touchdown on an opening drive is fantastic news (From the games I saw last weekend I saw the Broncos, Ravens, & 49ers score on the opening drive).

On your team’s initial defensive series you naturally want to see a “3 & Out.”

#4- If ever there was one sure fire way to evaluate your teams preseason performance simply look at the score at the end of the 1st quarter. This is the best way to find out if your team is any good. Final scores, or wins & losses mean nothing in the preseason (last preseason the Raiders were 5-0 and we all know what kind of season they had).

#5- The 2nd Half: This part of the game is all about rookies, free agents, & young developing players. You like to see them contribute & separate themselves from the crowd. Consistent play is far more important than one splashy play followed up by a poor play. Steady improvement is equally as important. You want to see them play better in game #3 than they did in game #1. Fumbles, dropped passes, being out of position, or stupid penalties are death to young players.

#6- The Quarterbacks: From your starter you want to see just a two things: a) Don’t get hurt, & b) Lead the team on a scoring drive. For the starting QB nothing else really matters, throw stats out the window.

Backup QB’s: More important than scoring drives (or winning preseason games) is that they complete more than 50% of their passes, & avoid interceptions (especially while in the Red Zone (see ex-Raiders QB Marques Tuiasosopo for an example of how NOT to do this. A good sign is when a backup QB is throwing to many different receivers at an efficient rate of about 55%-60%. Keep in mind they are playing against simple defenses being played by 3rd, 4th, & 5th string players.

#7- Running Backs & The Running Game: Before I get to specific RB’s let me say that a HUGE indicator of a team’s future success can be found in the total number of rushing yards (this is true in preseason just as it is during the regular season). You want to see at least 100 yds. rushing as a team, and anything over 150 yds. is an excellent sign of good fortune ahead.

Starting or veteran RB’s will normally only get 3-5 carries a game, and all you are looking for is to escape injury free (and no fumbles).

Backup RB’s have more to prove so you want to see extra effort from them. They usually get the bulk of the carries, and yds. per carry is more important than total yards. One big factor that coaches look at is how a young RB is able to pick up the blitzing linebacker. Keep your eye on this, if a RB can’t block a LB his chances of becoming an every down back in the NFL are slim to none (just ask Napoleon Kaufman).

#8- Defense: Some say that little can be learned from watching a defensive unit during preseason, and that individual performances are more important. For the most part I would agree. Due to the “vanilla” (or simple) schemes being used, and the abnormally high number of players being used, it is difficult for a defense to gel as a unit during preseason. So what do you look for?

– You DON’T want to see your defense: a) Give up 10 or more points in the 1st quarter, or b) Allow more than 120 rushing yards in the game (while holding a team under 100 yds. is very good, allowing more than 150 yds. spells trouble).

– You DO want to see: a) Consistent pressure on the QB from your front four down lineman, b) 3 or more sacks during a game (this is a good sign), & c) Your defensive backs being able to cover WR’s & TE’s consistently (being burned in single coverage is worse than misreading a zone, the later can be corrected with coaching).

* Young DB’s: Often you will see coaches put in a highly rated DB into the game early so they can match up against top flight WR’s. Keep your eye on this situation, you (& the coaches) can learn a great deal from these one-on-one battles.

#9- Special Teams: This is where you will see 95% of your team’s newest players make the team. If you are a young or fringe player you had better be able to contribute on special teams or you can expect to get the dreaded call that says, “the coach wants to see you & bring your playbook.”
Watch who makes the tackle on kickoff or punt coverage’s, notice who makes a key block or crushing tackle. Young RB’s or WR’s are often used to return kicks or cover punts. If they make a huge play on a kickoff they are not only noticed by you, but the coaches as well.

#10- Kickers: If your team has an established kicker there is really only one thing you need to watch: missed field goals. It is far more important for a kicker to be consistent then having the ability to hit a 52 yd. field goal. Confidence means everything to a kicker, so the only stat that matter is the percentage of field goals made.

If the kicking job is up for grabs on your team then there is one more factor to watch (one often over-looked by fans): The ability to kick the ball deep on kickoffs. Often a deciding factor in choosing a kicker comes down to how well they do on kickoffs. You want to see a kicker consistently booting it high & to the goal line, and if he can only get it down to the 10 yd. line then you are likely looking at an ex-kicker.

A Bonus Thought: If you only get to watch one preseason game all year make sure it is game #3. This is the closest thing to a regular season game you will see (for the first 3 quarters anyway). Watch carefully to see if there are new names in the starting line-up, look to see which non-starters play in the first half, and if a rookie plays well in game #3 chances are he will do the same during the season.

Back in ’95 while watching a preseason game #3 I noticed a young RB running all over the Raiders. Most of his yards came in the 2nd & 3rd quarter against 1st & 2nd string players. I took notice, and when my turn came up late in my fantasy league draft I chose the young RB. That kid ended up giving me (and his NFL team) almost 1500 yds. & 14 TD’s. Now that kid is soon to be a Hall Of Fame player, and his name is Curtis Martin.

And you thought preseason games were boring?



  1. Wish I’d had this info when I went to the game Monday night! Thanks, Bill — as always, your football knowledge is very helpful to me! Now I feel the need to go and look up my team’s statistics… !

    Comment by Kathy — August 16, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  2. Thanks Kathy.
    Perhaps we should break down the Ravens performance, after all you were there in all your purple glory (I’m glad that the Ravens aren’t on the Raiders schedule this year).

    – Ravens first defensive series: They gave up 21 yds on 5 plays, ending in a punt. A nice way to get things started (keep in mind that QB Donovan McNabb didn’t play).

    – Ravens first offensive series: After taking over at the 7 yd. line deep in their own territory the Ravens marched 93 yds. in 12 plays ending in a 6 yd. TD pass from McNair to Quinn Sypniewski. A tremendous first drive of ’07, and far from the start McNair had last year. McNair hit on 6 of 8 for 73 yards in the one possession he played. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    Unfortunately this was the only part of the game I witnessed, so all the rest is purely based on what I could read from the stats.

    – Score at the end of the 1st quarter: Ravens 7, Eagles 0. You always like to see your team leading at the end of the 1st in a preseason game.

    – Rushing: The Ravens offense had an impressive 157 yds. rushing, but more importantly they only gave up an amazing 23 yards vs. the Eagles. The Eagles top rusher in the game was QB A.J. Feeley with a paltry 8 yards.

    – Quarterbacks: McNair was sharp early but it would appear that the battle for the #3 QB job is up for grabs. Incumbent #2 Kyle Boller was decent at 7/12 for 40 yds (no TD’s or INT’s), and rookie Troy Smith was weak at 3/11 for only 34 yards (no TD’s or INT’s), perhaps he was a bit nervous in his NFL debut. Drew Olson made a huge step forward by going 7/9 for 84 yards and a TD pass (no INT’s). I also noticed rookie Eagles QB Kevin Kolb had nice numbers, 11/20 for 77 yards. The Ravens will be looking for T. Smith to improve next week. Drew Olson’s numbers are eye catching. If he keeps this up might he replace Boller?

    – Free Agent RB Willis McGahee made his Ravens debut averaging 5 yds. per carry (4 attempts for 20 yds.), exactly what you would want.

    – Kicker Matt Stover was 5 for 5 on FG attempts, including a long of 50 yards. If ever a job was rock solid it would be his. He will make a solid fantasy league kicker this year.

    Overall: The only downside to the Ravens performance, if one had to find one, was their 3rd down efficiency. With McNair in the lineup they were 3 for 3 on 3rd down including a TD. Without McNair they were a pathetic 1 for 11. That aside it was an impressive debut for a team that wants to rebound from last year’s home playoff loss to Indy and compete for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

    (Let’s keep in mind that there is a future article in the “wings” due to my secret affair with the Eagles. An affection I acquired while editing a beautiful 1960-2004 Philadelphia Eagles DVD, and listening to the glorious tones of one of the best radio announcers in football, Mr. Merrill Reese.)

    Comment by billkuhn — August 16, 2007 @ 10:23 pm

  3. Thanks for breaking down the Ravens performance, Bill. I copied and printed this off to share with my group. It will be great fun to read your remarks about all the teams this season.

    Comment by Kathy — August 18, 2007 @ 7:11 am

  4. Terrific writing, Billy Boy. Shouldn’t NFL.com be scouting you?

    Comment by Ralph Zig Tyko — August 19, 2007 @ 3:56 pm

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