Gold Medal Squared
Practice Execution Means Game Reality
Volleyball Coaches – This is a great article the outlines the importance of practice planning. Enjoy!
Original Article Written by Jonathan Clegg and Kevin Clark
Ahead of their playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend, the New England Patriots signed to their practice squad someone named Reggie Dunn.
Dunn is an undrafted, unheralded wide receiver. But he also is roughly the same height, weight and speed as Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, who had scorched the Kansas City Chiefs with 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the wild-card round.
As a practice-squad Patriot, Dunn was charged with imitating Hilton, giving New England’s defense a head start. Apparently it worked: In a 43-22 win over the Colts, the Patriots held Hilton to four catches for 104 yards.
The Dunn hiring illustrates a little-known scheme that Patriots coach Bill Belichick employs for slowing down opponents: He clones them, stacking his practice squad with replicas of some of the NFL’s most dangerous players.
“I don’t know where he finds these guys,” said former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt. “Every week, they bring in someone. Same height, same speed. It’s like they practice against your twin brother.”
To prepare for Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Denver against the Broncos, the Patriots in recent weeks signed to their practice squad 6-foot-3-Greg Orton, a doppelgänger for 6-foot-3 Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas.
“It’s something Bill does,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “To (practice against) a guy with the same height, weight, speed, it helps a lot.”
Before the playoffs began, the Patriots prepared for a possible matchup against Kansas City by signing undrafted running back Sam McGuffie to the practice squad. At 5 foot 10 and 200 pounds, McGuffie is identical in height and weight to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, while their 40-yard dash times are separated by just four hundredths of a second.
Belichick’s rotating-cast-of-ringers approach relies on a mostly overlooked element of NFL roster construction: the practice squad.
NFL teams are permitted to keep just 53 players on their active rosters. But they also have a practice squad of up to eight players who are eligible to participate in midweek practices, though unable to suit up for games.
Most teams use the practice squad as a means of keeping hold of competent backups who are familiar with their systems and can step in as ready-made replacements in case of injuries.
“A lot of teams just see it as eight more practice bodies,” said Russ Lande, a former NFL scout. “But the Patriots are one of the few teams that understand how to manipulate the practice squad. They’re using those guys to fill specific roles based on their opponents.”
To be sure, a long-standing NFL custom is to sign an opposing team’s former player in advance of a big game in the hope of gaining trade secrets. On Tuesday, the Broncos announced the signing of veteran defensive back Marquice Cole, whom the Patriots released last month.
Five days before their playoff game in New England, the Colts signed former Patriots receiver Deion Branch to their roster. He wasn’t activated for last weekend’s game.
League insiders say that New England’s ringer strategy reflects a broader Belichick obsession with improving the quality of team practices.
Since 2011, the league’s collective-bargaining agreement has limited the number of practices a team can hold, particularly in full pads. But within those constraints, Belichick has remained committed to practices that simulate game conditions.
By bringing in players who are the same size and speed as upcoming opponents and instructing them to run plays the coaches have identified from film study, the Patriots say they are able to get an accurate idea of how to attack or defend a specific player. The team also can try out different blitzes and coverages.
“Our big thing is taking the practice field and bringing it to the game,” said Patriots safety Kyle Arrington. “The saying here is ‘practice execution means game reality.'”
Belichick’s grand strategy is consistent with his philosophy of taking away what an opponent does best.
Lande, the former NFL scout, said that Belichick has long been known for drawing up game plans that focus on stopping his opponent’s most valuable player—usually a running back, receiver or tight end—and forcing them to put the ball in the hands of less heralded players in clutch situations.
“If they don’t have anyone on their roster that can emulate that particular player in practice, they’re going to bring somebody in for a week, or even two if it’s a big game, to give them that look,” Lande said.
Before their last playoff meeting with the Broncos following the 2011 season, the Patriots added a 6-foot-3 receiver named Britt Davis to their practice squad to simulate Thomas. In a New England victory, the Denver receiver had six catches for 93 yards.
Ahead of last season’s divisional-round matchup with the Houston Texans, the Patriots signed wide receiver Andre Holmes to their practice squad. At 6 foot 4, Holmes is less than an inch taller than Texans star Andre Johnson, and they have identical 4.40 times in the 40-yard dash. In a Patriots victory, Johnson was held to 95 yards.
The strategy is inexpensive: Practice-squad players cost as little as $6,000 a week.
Not surprisingly, “Silent Bill” declined to talk about this strategy or its origins. One theory is that Belichick happened upon this approach while facing the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. To practice defending against Rams running back Marshall Faulk, Belichick was able to lean on a replica in his own backfield: Kevin Faulk, the superstar’s cousin.
In winning that Super Bowl, the Patriots held Marshall Faulk to 76 yards rushing.
“That’s Bill for you,” said Brandt, the former Cowboys executive. “He’s ahead of the curve in about 99% of the things he does.”
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