Last sunday, 8PM ET, was a moment I'd been looking forward to for a long time: the first time I'd see organised, professional football being played since the Saints won the Lombardi trophy. Finally the 6-month hiatus would be over, speculation on training camp performances would start to end and I'd be able to watch giant men in pads hit eachother really hard while trying to get to an egg-shaped ball. Football was back!
But after a few minutes reality hit me: this wasn't football, this was a terrible perversion of the game I love. Preseason games are always like this of course, especially after the starters are pulled. The coaches don't mind if they win, but their objective is to evaluate players, which makes the game itself uninteresting to watch as a contest. Instead, if I want to keep my interest level up for these games I need to find something else to examine. I do that by ignoring the ball.
Most people watching a football game will follow the ball. This makes sense, as TV coverage is geared toward following the ball, and what happens to the ball is what's important for the outcome of the game. However, in preseason this doesn't matter as the outcome of the game is irrelevant. What's relevant is the performance of individual players, which is why that's what I try to concentrate on. For those who have never done that before, it's somewhat easier said than done: it takes a bit more concentration than usual to really pay attention to individuals, and I find I need to remind myself not to watch the ball. But when I do ignore the ball, preseason games are a lot more rewarding to watch. Doing this also gave me a lot more insight into the game: I got to see how well a cornerback jams a receiver, how he can flip his hips and run with the receiver. I saw how a linebacker manages to get around a blocker to the running back, or how he holds his gap responsibilities. I saw how a wide receiver blocks downfield, and how a guard moves downfield to block at the second level. These are all things I used to miss at least in part before I started watching the game without paying attention to the ball.
So, how will I be watching the Bucs against the Dolphins? I'll single out first, second and third string players for offense and defense who I think will be the most interesting to watch. Consciously looking for players at every end of the roster keeps the game interesting from start to finish for me.
Offense: Mike Williams. This rookie has gotten a lot of hype and I want to see how he'll do in a game setting. I won't be paying much attention to how many balls he catches or how many yards he gains; instead I want to see how he deals with press coverage, how fast he is, if he can beat a corner, how he fights for the ball and how he plays when the ball's not going to him. Josh Freeman's development may be more important than Mike Williams' development, but I'll see a lot of Freeman's plays in replays anyway.
Defense: Defensive Line. Specifically, Gerald McCoy and Kyle Moore. Gerald McCoy as the high-profile rookie, but Kyle Moore has reportedly lost a lot of weight, has gotten faster and has worked hard at understanding the game better. I want to see how fast these guys are off the ball, how they are as pass rushers, but perhaps most importantly I want to see how they play against the run - are they getting washed out or leaving their gaps as they're pass-rushing? Honorable mention here goes to the linebacker corps, and specifically Quincy Black - I really want to see how this guy functions within the team and within the scheme. No one questions his athleticism, but can he get it together mentally and really make an impact now?
Offense: Demar Dotson. This player intrigues me - a basketball player in college who has extremely little experience playing football, but a lot of talent. He's going to be playing RT, so besides his blocking I'll also be watching if he can keep still until the snap - unlike the man he's backing up. I'll also try to watch Sammie Stroughter on the second team, because I want to see how he handles playing on the outside instead of playing in the slot.
Defense: Cody Grimm, the rookie safety who made some plays this offseason. His athleticism will probably limit him, but I want to see how he deals with the game mentally, if he makes any mistakes, and how he fits into the run defense. Watching a safety in pass coverage is tough as often they play a form of zone and it's hard to know what their responsibilities are, but besides that - they're often not even visible on screen. There's also Myron Lewis I could be watching, but it's not clear if he's going to be playing as he's dealing with a hamstring injury. I have no idea what to expect if he does play, but I'll of course be looking at everything a corner needs to do: how is he in coverage, can he press at the line of scrimmage, how does he handle his zone responsibilities, how well does he tackle and how good is he in the run game?
Offense: Clifton Smith and Kareem Huggins. These two RBs seem to be battling for a roster spot, and while Peanut's return abilities give him an inherent advantage, Huggins has a lot of potential and a lot of talent and could add some speed to a group that's really lacking that element. One thing that I'll be looking at specifically is how they do as pass blockers. This could turn out to be one of the most interesting position battles on the roster, even though it's on the back end of the roster. I'll also keep an eye on Arrelious Benn who's slated to run with the third team according to the roster, but I expect him to get on the field with the second string team as well.
Defense: Dre Moore. This guy has been on the roster for a while but his performance has been underwhelming. However, he is supposed to be slimmer and faster than ever before. If that is true, he could push Ryan Sims off the roster. Another player I'll be watching is E.J. Biggers, the cornerback we drafted in 2009 but who hasn't shown anything yet. Basically, I'll be looking for the same things I'll be looking for in Myron Lewis.
Who will you be watching most in the upcoming game against the Dolphins?
UPDATE: With neither Clifton Smith or Myron Lewis slated to be playing tomorrow, you can safely ignore those two.