For NFL players and coaches, pre-season football is as much about personnel evaluation as it is making sure that players are executing systems to a regular season proficiency. For NFL fans, the split should be similar. Most fans spend a great deal of time focusing on individual players when pre-season football starts, but if you're interested in monitoring your team as a whole, you'll pay attention to what each unit does, as well.
Tonight, the Buffalo Bills open up their pre-season schedule against the Washington Redskins, an event that also marks the Bills head coaching debut for Chan Gailey. He's installed a new offense (which he'll run, for all intents and purposes) and a new defense (which George Edwards will run). Here are just a few pre-game notes about what we know we'll see, and what we're going to be paying close attention to.
Offensive motion. Gailey has been up-front in his desire to run a simple offense, but to make it complex for opponents by disguising his looks with pre-snap motion. The team has used a considerable amount of motion in a camp setting, but clearly, they're not going to show everything they've got in open practice settings and during pre-season games for scouting purposes. Still, we're curious to begin charting who is motioning where, and we'll be focusing specifically on running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in that regard.
Use of the fullback. All indications at this point are that the Bills will try to be a power running offense this year, but with underwhelming options at fullback, we're curious to see how prevalent that position is during the pre-season. Again, Gailey's not going to give away too much, but we'll be charting where the fullbacks line up, how frequently and in what situations they're used, and then, obviously, we'll evaluate how Corey McIntyre and Rodney Ferguson perform at the position. If you watched Thursday night's pre-season game between Carolina and Baltimore, Tony Fiammetta's play should underline the importance of a quality fullback to a power running offense.
Blocking responsibilities. The Redskins will run a fairly aggressive 3-4 look under new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, and we're certain that Bills fans will be scrutinizing the play of the offensive line tonight. We're more interested in how the Bills scheme for blitz pickup, and how the team schemes for pass sets and, perhaps most importantly, the running game. Most lines these days incorporate some zone blocking into their repertoire, even if they're not specifically a zone blocking offense, so we'll be keeping a close eye on responsibilities to better gauge how Buffalo's reserve linemen perform.
Flipping linebackers. Edwards' 3-4 defense details very specific responsibilities for its strong-side (SLB) and weak-side, or 'jack' (JLB) positions. Therefore, in most circumstances, Buffalo's SLB will line up on the tight end side of the formation. If Washington puts a tight end in motion tonight, keep an eye on Buffalo's linebackers; you'll notice them flip positions, with both the outside linebackers and the inside linebackers switching respective spots on the field. Then again, the 'jack' term is not typically associated with the version of the 3-4 (Parcells) that Edwards hails from, so those instances when the linebackers don't flip could lend some insight into any hybrid looks Edwards has installed to this point.
Four down linemen. We already know that the Bills, in a transition year, will be mixing 4-3 looks into their defensive repertoire. With so many linebackers currently hurt, we're likely to see a lot of those looks tonight. We're curious as to what the roles of the four down linemen will be (i.e. the techniques they'll be playing), the personnel involved, and in what situations the Bills use that alignment.
Man vs. Zone coverage. Buffalo would be foolish to reveal more than just a few of its lavish blitz packages, but when they do, we're curious to see if the Bills play man or zone behind those coverages. Heck, we're interested in that regardless, because the Bills were pretty efficient as a zone-based coverage unit last year, but more man is expected. If Buffalo is mixing its defensive alignments, you can bet they'll mix their coverages, too - and we want to know which players look most comfortable in each of those situations.
Anything else that you guys would add to the list?