During the course of preparing for the story I wrote on Harrison Smith for Sunday’s Star Tribune, the safety mentioned something about his preparation that I thought was worth discussing in more detail here.
In the meticulous process of studying an upcoming opponent, Smith said, one of the keys for him was learning what not to focus on.
“I know more how to prepare myself — how to actually take knowledge from practice and film study and things like that into a game,” he said. “In your younger days, sometimes it feels like you’re drinking out of a firehose, because you can try to do too much. It’s hard to retain that and actually use it. … You can’t always take everything that you might want to take with you. It’s not always realistic, as far as in the game, in the moment, the play calls, down-and-distance situations. You have to learn how much you can take with you.”
Smith said the process is ongoing for him — “It’s not like I have it figured out yet,” he said — but in his seventh year, he’s got a better sense of how his preparatory time can be most useful. Players can inundate themselves with information, from an opponent’s tendencies in certain personnel groups to something that might serve as a tell (the way a player aligns himself before the snap when he’s going to run a certain route, for example), and the risk of information overload becomes ever greater as data and analytics become more prevalent. There’s only so much, Smith said, that can be applicable during the four- or five-second lifespan of a play.
That was one of the big lessons Terence Newman said he tried to impart on young players while he was playing. Many players have to learn what to look for when studying film in the NFL, especially if they’re from a college program that doesn’t instill effective study skills in players, Newman said.
“There’s guys that will come in, and you’ll see they’re moreso watching plays and players than actually watching for formations and splits and things of that nature,” Newman said. “I think, honestly, it just depends on the player, and a lot of times, it depends on the program that they come from, and the people they’ve been around. When I was in college [at Kansas State], we watched film differently than a lot of guys that I saw when I first came into the league. They were watching, ‘Oh, look at this guy get blown up!’ If you’re watching that, that’s the wrong thing for a secondary guy. If you’re looking at linemen and stuff, that’s not what you’re supposed to be looking at.”
So how do players learn? For Smith, the process involved talking to older players, and some trial and error. Newman said he took some of his cues from what coaches emphasized in team meetings.
“You get a sense of, ‘OK, maybe I’m looking at the wrong stuff, because they’re talking about this [receiver] split, and this guy doing this and this guy doing that,'” Newman said. “You kind of get a sense of it. ‘Zim’ will watch film, and [defensive backs] coach [Jerry} Gray will watch film. You get a sense of what you’re supposed to look at, once you hear them talk, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, [look for this] when this guy gets here, and this guy gets there.'”
When Newman got to Minnesota in 2015, he said he had a number of young players ask him to stay after practice to watch extra film, which spurred his role as a mentor for younger players.
“I would bring guys in on Tuesdays, and we’d watch a little film, so they could get a sense of, ‘This is what you’re supposed to look at; this is the easiest way to do it.'” Newman said. “‘This will give you the most delayed gratification, because what we watch on Tuesday, we’re watching for Wednesdays. Once tomorrow comes, you’re going to have a recognition, because you’re watching pretty much the same stuff. You’re just going to watch it in more detail and have a better understanding come Wednesday. It’s just going to be a refresher once Wednesday comes.’
“I always look the day before at what we’re going to do the next day. And then we’re going to do the same thing the next day — probably not as detailed and in-depth, but now I’m going to have a refresher, because I’m going to see the exact same things. I might watch eight of the same plays, just in different games and at different times of the game. The next day, we might watch two of those. For me, it’s just kind of like a refresher.”
Here are some other notes and observations as the Vikings prepare for their NFC Championship Game rematch against the Eagles:
2. Adam Thielen’s 40 catches through four games have him on pace to break the league’s single-season record for receptions, and they’re the second-most in NFL history through the first quarter of the season. They’re not, however, the most in the league this year; Saints receiver Michael Thomas has that distinction, with 42 catches so far this season. Thielen’s yards per catch (11.8) are trending below the 14-yard average he had in his first two years as a starter, but that’s likely coming as the receiver becomes something of a safety net for Kirk Cousins, especially late in games when the Vikings have needed to rally and gain yards quickly. According to Pro Football Focus, 12.7 percent of Thielen’s targets have come on routes of 20 yards or more, which isn’t far behind his 15 percent rate from last year. He’s just been targeted much more often; he has 55 targets through four games, after totaling 152 all of last season.
3. The Vikings’ last win in Philadelphia came in the famous Tuesday night game in 2010, when Joe Webb led the Vikings to a win after the threat of snow delayed a Sunday game for two days. That’s the Vikings’ only win in Philadelphia since 1985; they’d lost seven straight games (including a playoff game in Jan. 2005) in Philadelphia before that, and have lost twice in Philadelphia since then, taking their first loss of the 2016 season after a 5-0 start and falling in the NFC Championship Game last year.
4. Asked about the Vikings’ 32nd-ranked run game this week, and their 54 rushing yards in Los Angeles, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo explained his thinking with a detailed answer, saying “There is no one in this building that wants to run the ball more than I do, because it takes a lot of pressure off of me to not have to have the perfect protection, to not have to call the perfect route against the coverage that you deem you think you are going to get.” The Vikings’ thinking in Los Angeles, though, was that they’d have better luck throwing the ball with Aqib Talib out and Marcus Peters hampered by a lower leg injury. With Dalvin Cook reportedly expected to miss Sunday’s game in Philadelphia and the Eagles boasting the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, the Vikings might decide they’ll have better luck testing a secondary that’s been burned by big plays this season.
5. With the Vikings returning to Philadelphia this week, DeFilippo told stories of his memories growing up in the area while his father Gene was the athletic director at Villanova. “I saw Shawn Bradley’s first game as a Sixer and he was not the tallest person at the tip[-off,]” DeFilippo said, before a reporter chimed in with the name of 7-foot-7 center Gheorghe Muresan. “Those are the memories you have. You are 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 years old. You are around these guys. You are rubbing elbows with guys from the Sixers through my dad, and the Eagles. You are getting to go to training camp as a kid. Then to be working there was kind of surreal to be quite honest with you. The first time you walk in the building was, ‘Whoa.’ It’s your hometown team. But like I said, I haven’t thought about it that much just because you are so busy grinding for the game. I have very fond memories but not only Philly, but the Eagles.”
DeFilippo isn’t the only Vikings coach with plenty of Philadelphia stories this week; Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski grew up in the area, and his father Ed was the 76ers’ GM from 2007-11.
6. Asked what he learned from Eagles coach Doug Pederson during his two years in Philadelphia, DeFilippo highlighted two things about Pederson: his aggressiveness as a play-caller, and his willingness to empower his assistants. “If he gave you a job to do, he would let you do your job. He trusted you to do your job,” DeFilippo said. “If you were doing your job, he would let you run with it and take something and make it better. That was my goal every day. To try to get the quarterbacks of the Philadelphia Eagles, number one, two and three to get better each day. He trusted me to do that and gave me a lot of leeway and a lot of room to do that. I thanked him for that when I left. Those three things I learned from Coach. I think he does a fantastic job. Not only is he a great coach, he is even a better person. I really like Coach P.”
7. As the story of Vikings long snapper Kevin McDermott returning to the Vikings’ game against the Rams losing part of his pinkly finger circulated this week, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer heard from a number of his former players, marveling at McDermott’s toughness. “Lonnie Paxton — I coached him in Denver — and he said, ‘Man, that’s insane. What a stud Kevin is,’ and all that stuff. I was real proud of him and how he responded and how he snapped, quite frankly after that, because that takes a tough man to do that.”
8. Marcus Sherels’ chest injury and Trae Waynes’ concussion will keep both players out again on Sunday — and they could force Priefer to continue to look for punt and kick returner options, as he tries to balance Mike Hughes’ availability as a return man with his increased role on defense. “We constantly have to have guys ready, and getting Holton [Hill] some work in the preseason really helped,” Priefer said. “Aldrick Robinson is a guy that’s fast and [had] maybe two or three reps in his career before he got here. Working with different guys as punt returners, kickoff returners – Brandon Zylstra did it in Canada as a punt returner, so he could be a backup for us. There’s a lot of different guys, different athletes that you just have to make sure you get reps. That’s the biggest challenge, making sure they get enough reps in practice, pre-practice, during practice, post-practice, that when they are called upon in the game, they’re confident enough they’re going to catch the ball. I tell all the returners: number one it’s ball possession. I don’t care if we get any yards, we have to maintain ball possession. So, that’s the key.”
9. The Vikings have seen a steady diet of play-action passes and pre-snap motion from their first four opponents, as teams try to neutralize their pass rush, and they know they’re going to keep seeing it until they prove they can stop it. “It makes it tough, because you’re dealing with a lot of seven and eight-man protections,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said this week. “A lot of times it’s just two receiver routes, and they may leak the back out late, but that’s the problem that has shown up. We’ve got to do a good job in those down and distances of doing some things that counter it, and hopefully we can get back on track this week.”
10. As Stephen Weatherly prepares to start his third game of the season at defensive end, he’s started to get more attention for his unique backstory, which we chronicled in the Star Tribune last December. Weatherly’s intelligence off the field has helped him become an instinctive football player — which Priefer said isn’t always a given. “The regular intelligence of a normal human being does not always translate to football intelligence,” Priefer said. “I think with Stephen it does. He does a really good job of studying tape. He does a really good job of who he’s blocking on kickoff return and punt return. He understands. He studies who’s going to be rushing his gap when we’re on punt protection. He’s been great.”