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How To Break Down Game Film, A Beginner's Guide

Learn how to break down film from one of the best in the business — Doc Bear.

I do some version of this yearly. It’s my belief that every fan can benefit from some level of watching film with intent. What I mean by that is that it’s not really all that meaningful to run the game a couple of times, watching the ball, essentially, and expect to get anything real from it. What I’m going to try to do is to cover some of the basics of what turns into breaking down film. How does it turn into that?

Two ways. First, you watch a lot of film — anyone can learn to do this quickly. You’ll be surprised at how fast you develop some skill, because it’s just a series of techniques for watching TV or video on your computer, just with the added aspect of watching for specific things. My focus this year is keeping it simple and enjoyable. There’s an endless series of options for garnering more info and detail, but if you’re not having fun, you won’t keep it up.

By the way, most folks keep notes as they watch — I do, too. It’s almost impossible to keep track of it all any other way. I use a new Google Doc for each game, and take notes on nearly everything from the live broadcast (usually just a “look for X on this play’ kind of thing), but that’s me. There are no laws broken and no fines — the video police won’t come to your door for this if you choose not to. Just have fun with it, and skill will come with time — and not that much time.

I do recommend that if the game has been played, go to and download the game report. Keep that document and the team sites' roster pages open for numbers and players and you’ll know more about what’s going on. You can, if you like, also grab the play-by-play, and follow along. It can help keep you clear on where you are and what’s happened.’s Game Pass is a huge advantage to the people who like to break down game film.

If you just sit down and run the game past a couple of times, you’ll make the same mistakes that the casual fan does, because the first rule of watching film is this:

1. Don’t watch the ball

Even if there’s a pass — don’t watch the ball. Walk through the things that I’ll give you and just do what you can. There’s no hurry, and you’ll pick it up fast. Even if you’re watching the running back on a carry, don’t watch the ball. If you can, check to see if it’s being carried right — 4 points of contact, one each at the point of the ball, which is cupped in the hand, pressed to the ribs, tight along the forearm, and stuffed into the nestling in the crook of the elbow. It’s kind of fun to keep track of what RBs actually practice ball safety. It’s usually the ones that aren’t fumbling....grin. If a RB get open, go back and see how.

2. Pick a position

What I think that you want to do as a beginner is to pick out a particular position and look for some specific things. I’m kind of a purist and start with the trenches, but look at whatever one position interests you. Look up some articles on basics of that position if you want. In any case, just start with the first from-scrimmage play of the game in which that position shows up (unless your freak is special teams, in which case, we’ll talk soon). Choose your position from among the different ones the Broncos have fielded and focus on that.

3. Clarify what formation they’re in

Now, run the play slowly a couple of times. Don’t worry about too much. Look at who’s got their hand down and what formation they’re in. I generally hit pause and spend a few minutes looking for that kind of smaller stuff — slight shifts, on a DT from the guard’s outside shoulder to the tackles’ inside, for example. Are the players milling around, which was picking up in frequency last season?

Does one guy have a foot back at an angle? How about their hand position? It doesn’t let the QB have as much time to discern the exact formation and probable play and to make the right adjustments if defensive players are just milling around, which  is how it got started. Who is in motion — and what motion? Once they get into position for the snap, I like to make sure that what I’m seeing is what’s going on.

How you handle it is up to you, but I found that when I was learning, trying to know what everyone did at once was overwhelming. I choose a position, and watched only that position during the game until I was catching stuff, then I added another position. I picked up people and techniques much faster that way.

4. Home in on your position

Don’t worry too much about anything right away — see generally where the play goes, and if you can see the positions that you want to watch during it. That is one reason that I often suggest watching the trenches first — in addition to the importance of the positions, you can usually see them for most of the play. It gives you a lot of visual work in a short space.

Get used to wearing out your clicker. Slo-mo everything until you’ve got it clear in your mind. Know what each player does before you move on to the next play if possible. If not — don't worry. It comes with practice.

5. Offensive Line

Let’s take the OL, just for fun. The first thing that you want to do is to identify every guy on the line. Make sure that you know their numbers and where they’re playing that game. Now, with the pause button that shows the formation still on, make sure of whose hand is down where. It’s usually the same, but from time to time, it might change if a player’s assignment — perhaps taking the OLB rather than a DE — also changes.

You also want to see if you can catch the position of their hands — and do any of them look like they’re leaning forward? No big thing if you can’t see much — coaches film is very different, and right now we make do with what we have. If you can get coaches film (NFL Game Pass), remember that one new trend in the NFL is that teams are now using both gameday broadcast and coaches film, since broadcast film shows close-ups that you miss on coaches, and coaches film shows the whole play, with all players, which broadcast doesn’t, since it focuses on the ball.

Basics of the line play: pass or run blocking? You only use a zone blocking scheme on run blocking, by the way. Pass blocking is a whole different animal. If they’re pass blocking, you’re interested in who takes on whom — which may take several forward and back viewings. Expect it — if you’re not watching the play several times, you’re probably missing something.

Did some player miss a block, move to the side too early and let someone on a delay through the line or was someone just overtasked, with two guys to block? Could be someone missed the playcall — and you may not know who — could be that the defense hid its intentions well. Don’t come to conclusions in the early stages, just keep track of facts.

If they are using full stretch zone blocking (defenses get to zone blitz — offenses get the zone blocking) the line pulls to one side, creating cutback lanes. If they don’t pull together, you have to watch carefully — key in on a tackle, then the guard, the center, the other guard, the other tackle.

Who moved? Where? What did he do when he got there? You’ll quickly see pulling and trapping. Did someone engage a guy, only to have a defensive player come through his hole? Oops...he misread the play. There are always reasons that plays do and don’t fail. You’ll see them quickly, starting with the OL.

A bit of study comes with watching film. For example, learn the differences between full zone blocking (the Alex Gibbs kind) versus inside and outside zone runs. Most teams use the later, but only a few (including Denver) use the former.

If the play is successful (pass or run), which guys from the line made it downfield and engaged another player? That’s huge — it’s hustle, and it usually means that he beat his own guy. Not always, though — he may have whiffed and run. You have to check each guy. Any bodies down on the field? Did your guys pancake someone, or did they whiff and grab air? Both will happen at some point.

When you feel like you have a grasp on what each guy did, just move on to the next play and stay with that position. Don’t try to do more than a half at a time, and I recommend a quarter. Let it take as long as it does — it will be faster very soon, as you get a little practice. It doesn’t take long to pick up the basics. Once you have, you can handle a lot of info.

6. Defensive line

If you’re going to watch the offensive line, you’ll want to learn the defensive line quickly. Start by making sure that you know all the players by number and position — which they may change at times. Make sure of where they line up — did Ayers roll to DT/ UT (most teams call it DT and NT for the 4-3 formation, so the DT is aka the undertackle)?

Read about under and over formations in my old article, on 3-4 and 4-3 Basics (you can still find it on Google, under or with my name) and know about them so you know what you’re seeing from the DL. Anyone out of their base position?

Here’s the fun part — watch only the DL guys. Don’t even really watch the OL at first — the DL players will come in contact with them, and then you can see both. After a few plays, you’ll know what everyone did. Did one DL player stunt around the guy next to him, to come in on a delay? Did they all try to burst in together?

You’ll often see a DL player stop and basically plant on certain plays — he’s taking away a passing and/or running lane, not taking a break. Once you’ve got them all understood, you can watch the OL and then put it all together. It won’t take long.

That's probably lots for right now, but we'll have info on every position on the field. I'm hoping that it will be of some help to you.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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