The Hall of Fame Game is the official 2023 NFL season kickoff. Football is back, and we may all officially cease foaming at the mouth.
In 2021, the preseason schedule changed. The league cut back from four games to three, with the exception being the two teams loosely vying for Hall of Fame Game superiority. And while there’s no guarantee that a large portion of each team’s starters will actually see the field, that doesn’t mean there won’t be specific things to look for throughout the contest.
2023 NFL Hall of Fame Game
New York is the biggest market there is in the United States, and the New York Jets are at the forefront of everyone’s mind at the moment. Nathaniel Hackett was verbally assaulted by his successor in Denver, the Jets traded for arguably the most… interesting… quarterback in the NFL, and there are heavy expectations surrounding the squad.
On the opposite sideline, the Cleveland Browns look to improve upon a disappointing campaign in 2022. Jim Schwartz takes over from Joe Woods, and Deshaun Watson looks to reclaim his on-field form from his days as a Houston Texan.
Who Is Going To Play?
The change in preseason formatting threw these professional coaches through a loop. When there were four preseason games, there was a set system. Starters played sparingly in the first outing, about a half-game the next time out, most of the game as the dress rehearsal in Game 3, and then very little or not at all in the final preseason game.
In last season’s HOF game, Derek Carr and Trevor Lawrence didn’t play. However, Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs received five carries, and many of each squad’s defensive starters saw some action. The year before appeared strikingly similar.
There is absolutely zero doubt that Aaron Rodgers, a man pushing 40 with 18 years of NFL experience, doesn’t need to sniff the newly turfed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. But Watson was a shell of his former self when he finally saw the field last season, an outcome likely spawning from being away from the field for over 700 days. Even though it’s already been reported that the Browns’ QB won’t play, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had.
The Jim Schwartz Defense
Before Watson returned from his suspension a season ago, Cleveland had already found a way to disappoint the fanbase. A defense with talent from front to back, particularly in the secondary, completely underwhelmed. While it was a foregone conclusion, given the lack of talent issue on the defensive interior that the run defense may suffer, there was no excuse for the secondary to play as poorly as they did.
In fact, Jacoby Brissett had played well enough to make the Browns a contender because of the offensive efficiency, but the defense was unable to complement them. Woods’ defense must have been a bit too complex for the defensive backfield. Far too often, it appeared there were five or six individuals playing on the third level instead of a cohesive unit.
K.I.S.S. is a popular defensive mantra. Playing simply means playing fast, and being able to react in a flash is critical defensively. Schwartz has undoubtedly simplified things, which should allow the very talented group of DBs to play freely. It will be fascinating to watch and see how his defense looks structurally.
Nathaniel Hackett’s Redemption Arc
Things went horribly wrong in Denver a season ago. Injuries to the receiving corps early were no help (déjà vu, anyone?).
But things went from bad to worse as the real games began. Hackett led a Packers offense from 2019-2021 that, over that period, ranked behind only the Monstars of Kansas City in EPA per play and success rate.
Additionally, they ranked inside of the top four in dropback EPA, dropback success rate, rushing EPA, and rushing success rate. In Layman’s terms, they were as well-oiled as a machine gets.
Can Hackett’s wide-zone principles create the same environment in New York? Although we won’t know much after just one preseason game, it’s never too early to look at the offensive structure to see what may or may not work.