There is only so much that can be taken from preseason games. While we should take production with multiple grains of salt when projecting to the regular season, we can get a glimpse of what some teams are trying to do schematically.
Through the first week of the preseason, here are a few notable changes and/or additions to team philosophies that could make their way to more regular season use.
All stats per TruMedia.
Falcons using pistol
Atlanta used pistol on 20.8% of plays in the preseason opener. Marcus Mariota was in pistol 25% of the time and Desmond Ridder was in pistol 19.5% of the time. The Falcons used pistol on 10 total snaps in the 2021 regular season (and averaged -0.98 EPA per play).
All of Mariota’s pistol snaps came on run plays, but those were effective. Three runs included an 18-yard run by Quadree Ollison on a second-and-5 from midfield. The Falcons were using a ton of condensed splits throughout the game and using pistol is a way to combine the elements of shotgun and under center offense. That helps for both the run and play-action game.
There were already signs of what could be with a play-action-heavy offense that the Falcons could want to be in their ideal form. The runs hit quicker than they would out of shotgun and in the tight splits, the receivers can be more immediately involved in the blocking, which also helps sell play-action.
Ridder had two completions off play-action from pistol. The first was a 20-yard pass to Damiere Byrd in the middle of the field and the second was a screen off the opposite side of a fake pitch.
Over the past few years, the Baltimore Ravens have used pistol the most among NFL teams, which has allowed them to take advantage of different looks with Lamar Jackson. With how Mariota and Ridder ran against the Lions, those pistol looks could add more to the quarterback run game, too.
Seattle shifting coverages
With Clint Hurtt hired as defensive coordinator, along with Sean Dessai and Karl Scott on the defensive staff, the Seahawks were expected to move toward a Vic Fangio-inspired defense and away from Pete Carroll’s Cover-3.
In Week 1 of the preseason, Cover-3 was still Seattle’s most used coverage (as it is across the league) but the Seahawks played it on just 29.9% of snaps. The Seahawks played Quarters on 23.9% of snaps and Cover-6 (quarter-quarter-half) on 17.9% of plays. Last year during the regular season, Seattle played 40.1% Cover-3, 12.9% Cover-6, and just 7.1% Quarters.
There were some mixed results in those coverages as rookie Coby Bryant had his ups and downs working against Steelers rookie George Pickens, but the shift in structure was clear. Only the New Orleans Saints used a combination of Quarters and Cover-6 more than the Seahawks in the first preseason game (the Saints were mostly all Quarters at 38.9%, which is something else to watch after New Orleans used it on 19.4% of snaps last season).
The Seahawks didn’t have a full array of starters and results should be better with the starting safeties in the lineup. Even then, Seattle might be a “doing cool things, but don’t have the talent to execute consistently” kind of defense in 2022. Still, the expected change in philosophy already appears to be taking shape.
Chiefs Getting Heavy
In the regular season and playoffs combined last season, the Chiefs used 21 personnel on 4% of their offensive plays. In the preseason opener, that rate was 27% (higher than the 49ers). With Patrick Mahomes on the field, it was 36.4%.
Without Tyreek Hill, the question was how the Kansas City offense would evolve. Part of the answer could be using heavier personnel (the Chiefs also went two plays in 12 personnel out of Mahomes’s 11 on the field) to bring defenses closer to the line of scrimmage.
On every 21 personnel snap, the Bears matched with just four defensive backs. That nearly guarantees that Travis Kelce will be against a linebacker in coverage when the Chiefs throw, as was the case on his 19-yard reception against Chicago.
Kelce remains the key for these personnel packages. Should a defense want to add a defensive back to get better coverage against Kelce, the Chiefs would have the size to bully the opponent in the run game. Using a fullback could also help Clyde Edwards-Helaire downhill faster. But if defenses continue to come out in base, the Chiefs have the advantage at multiple spots in the passing game.
Playing the long game, this could also be a deterrent for teams playing so much two-high coverage against the Chiefs. With an extra player in the backfield, defenses could be hesitant to keep so many players back in coverage. After the offensive line improvement last offseason, this was a counter some were expecting from the Chiefs in 2021 but it never came to fruition.
Kansas City might not major in two-back sets in 2022, but it appears to be a weapon defenses will at least need to be aware of during the season.
Wink Martindale Knows One Speed
Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is known for his desire to blitz heavily and play man coverage behind it. In the Giants’ opening preseason game, the defense blitzed heavily and played man coverage behind it.
The Giants blitzed on 46.3% of opposing dropbacks, one of three teams to blitz at least 40% of the time in Week 1 of the preseason. 20.3% of the Giants’ coverage snaps came in Cover-0. The next highest defense used a 0-blitz 9.5% of the time. The Giants also used man coverage on a league-high 61% of opposing dropbacks. Only one other team was above 50%.
The frequency of these things might not come as a shock and maybe the results don’t either, but that’s going to be a very difficult tightrope for the Giants to walk all season if this is how they choose to play on defense.
Despite that high blitz rate, the Giants only got pressure on 26.3% of plays with five or more pass rushers. When they blitzed, they allowed 8.94 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 23rd for teams in the opening preseason game.
Without great players in coverage, the secondary can be susceptible to getting picked on if the blitz doesn’t get home quickly. This was an issue Martindale ran himself into with the Baltimore Ravens last season after injuries struck the secondary but the defensive philosophy did not change much with the losses.
The Giants already aren’t starting with a deep group of cornerbacks, so asking them to play man coverage as such a high rate is a really tough ask and one that could lead to a ton of big plays given up.
Other notes of interest…
- The Patriots used 10 personnel on 18.6% of offensive plays. Tight end Matt Sokol actually led all Patriots in snaps played (81%) but he was the only tight end to see the field in the game. That’s unlikely to be how New England approaches offense in the regular season.
- After linebacker Jonas Griffith was injured early, the Broncos replaced him with a defensive vack. Denver used six or more defensive backs on 25.8% of defensive snaps overall and 45.5% in the first half.
- Houston played base defense on 68.1% of defensive snaps. No other team was over 48%.