Tackling players on the field, crunching numbers off it

It seemed too good to be true, but there it was. As the St. Louis Rams prepared for an opponent a couple years ago, they noticed that when the pending rival used a certain personnel group, they did just one thing: blitz. Every time. So, the Rams put in a screen pass to counter the move and waited.

When the situation arose, they threw the screen, and it hit for a big gain.

Score one for the numbers guys. The NFL is about moves and countermoves. Teams want to see what their rivals are doing and then take measures to adjust. A big weapon in that weekly dance is the statistical report created to help a team analyze itself, analyze an opponent or practically analyze the stock market. You want a number? It's available at the click of a mouse.

"It's a question of figuring out what you don't want," says Baltimore outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine. "You can pretty much get anything you want in seconds. You just pull up whatever you need."

Statistics have always been a big part of the game, both for fans and the teams they follow. In recent years, thanks to ever-more sophisticated computer programs, coaches have access to facts and figures that allow them to guard against predictability on their own sideline and hunt it down on the other. And since it's tied to video, teams can be even more precise in their accumulation and application of numbers.

One of the most popular statistical analyses performed by teams is the self-scout. Often completed every three or four weeks, this allows a club to examine how it looks from the other side's eyes. Is it doing the same things in the same situations? Will it, like the Rams' opponent did, allow a rival to take advantage?

"If you're very predictable, and teams know what you're doing, they can do things to stop you," says Rams offensive quality control and assistant special teams coach Keith Murphy. "Every team has some glaring tendencies."

Through computer reports, teams can break down everything. In Baltimore, for instance, the Ravens look at their defensive situations and assign grades, the better to ascertain what has worked. If they hold an opponent to fewer than three yards on first down, that's a success. If they give up less than half the yardage to go for a first down on second, that's another triumph. The goal on third down? Get off the field.

"We're able to see what's good and not good," Pettine says. "If a team goes to an extra wideout, how good are we against that?"

While the Ravens' defense is looking for ways to be even more penurious than usual, other offenses are looking for ways to maximize their production. St. Louis will examine the various running plays it calls for Steven Jackson and see which are particularly effective against certain schemes. It can cross-reference that against its statistical findings of various opponents' tendencies to figure out which plays would be best to call for him on a given Sunday. "It allows us to know what [Jackson] runs well and sees well, so we can use it," Murphy says.

The key, as Pettine said earlier, is not to inundate coaches or players with data. Because of the infinite permutations that can be explored, it's possible to churn out too much information. Because of that, coaches will ask for specific reports, which they will then hard-boil for the players, the better not to confuse them. Each week, Pettine does a down-and-distance report that he provides for each player, the better to give a "flavor" of what a rival does, compared to previous opponents. But he has no illusions. "I don't expect them to study it," he says.

There's more. In Baltimore, long-time coaching veteran Vic Fangio is like the closer. He analyzes tendencies and statistics each week in a consultant's role and produces his own report that adds another view to the Ravens' preparation. The goal is to prepare for everything, the better to minimize ways the other guys can exploit you and how you can take advantage of them. But after the numbers are crunched and the analysis is performed, teams have to be careful. As Pettine says, teams don't want to deal in "absolutes."

"You can say they use this coverage in this situation 90 percent of the time," Murphy says. "But what about the other 10 percent?"

On Sunday, the paper goes away and the game is played. Pettine's down-and-distance reports are part of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's gameplan, but for the players, it's about the specific call on a specific play -- and how well they carry it out.

"It's an execution league," Pettine says. "As Rex says, 'Football is a simple game made complicated by coaches.'"

And statistics.

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