Studying third-down theory, Part 1

Looking through the library this week, I rediscovered a text by Super Bowl-winning ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick on the theory behind establishing an offense - a detailed discussion of the development of an offensive game plan. First published in 1996, some of the information in Developing an Offensive Game Plan might seem a bit dated, but I found that taking a walk through his wheelhouse is an exercise in learning how extensive the knowledge of the game has to be to coach on his level. As I read through the text, it occurred to me that most of the perspective would be new to the majority of fans. It was to me, as well. Billick laid out a remarkably thorough process for creating an offense, and it was one that I hadn’t seen in quite that way before.

One of the many things that stood out was his perspective on achieving success on third downs. Billick subdivided that down into multiple categories and talked about exactly how many plays he’d allocate to handling the various options of down and distance. Like Bill Walsh and many of his followers, Billick considers establishing your weekly offense to be a matter of pre-scripting plays and creating specific options on each potential possibility that are effective given the team’s personnel. It’s just one aspect of the overall process of charting your needs, but to Billick it’s an essential one.

Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who learned this approach from legendary Niners coach Bill Walsh just as Billick did, would script about 15 plays for the beginning of each game. Walsh himself would script about 25. Billick feels that it’s basic to everything that you’ll do in the game. You start out by setting up your offense on a yearly, weekly and daily basis. You make sure that you’ve created options for all the variables that you can, in the comfort of your office and without stress or urgency. Spending time there watching film, considering matchups, and creating the game within the game, is how coaches win on Sundays. They can’t make plays for the team, but they can set them up in the right options to be successful and to win games.


To Brian Billick, three keys to third-down success were these:

First, get a first down. Make sure that you use your first and second downs to achieve a convertible down and distance. You can run the ball or you can pass the ball, but you have to to get yourself established to make that series into an achievable first down.

The second key, similar to the first, was to keep yourself in a convertible third-down distance. Again, this involves proper production of four more yards per play on first and second down. It’s a factor that Billick returned to again and again.

His third key was to frequently get what is called an explosive play. The NFL defines an explosive play as one that achieves 20 yards. Billick had a different concept in mind. To him, a better measure would be a running play that achieves 12 or more yards or a passing play that achieves 16 yards or more. I tend to agree with Billick. Whether you run the ball or pass the ball, if you're getting a first down on a single play, you’re achieving your goals.

Other factors

Billick established certain other key elements in creating the third-down package. The first on the list was determining the size and scope of the overall offensive package. Billick wrote at length, citing the specific route to creating an offense that would work for his teams. He laid out possibilities for programs at the high school, college, and professional levels. Because of this, I’d recommend this text very highly, and you might also expect to read it more than once. Going over how he approached the material from the very start all the way through the pros was well worth the time it took.

His next point was to recognize the success rate that you could expect to attain in each phase of the offense. For example, you will frequently hear that a particular quarterback played poorly because he was only converting about 28% of his 3rd downs. What interested me the most was that according to Billick’s percentages, on third and long you can only expect a 20-25% success rate. Long, in this case, was considered to be seven or more yards. Very often, a quarterback who’s struggling is having that trouble because he’s being placed (or placing himself) in a bad situation by a lack of production on first and second down. Billick considered that a coaching issue more than a player issue. It’s up to him to give that player a reasonable-to-overwhelming chance of success.

The required production to set this up via first and second downs would be to achieve an average of four or more yards on each play. Your success on third down is essentially set up by how well you play the first and second downs. Bill Walsh believed in achieving this by passing; often, in his approach, short timing routes were intended to achieve that four-plus yard average. Other teams do this by using the running game. However your players can best attack the problem, you have to reach the four-yard mark consistently in order for third down to be productive on a regular basis. If you don’t, you can’t expect a lot of success on third down.

A situation of third down and medium yardage to go was considered to be one of two scenarios. In the first, you’re dealing with third and 4-6 yards, and in the second you're facing two or three yards to gain. Billick would allot five plays for each of those options, both runs and passes. According to Billick’s figures, you should expect to have a third-and-long circumstance three times in any given game (on average), so you needed to know what plays you’d run. He saw the third down and 4-6 yards scenario twice on average in any game, and third and 2-3 yards also came twice. Obviously, you might see it more often in one game and less often in the next. Both of those options were considered to be third and medium distance, but he might have different plays in mind for them.

Billick also emphasized the importance of maintaining a balanced ratio between running and passing on any given down. That is something that the Broncos are trying to achieve, meshing their own running approach with the passing acumen of Peyton Manning. It’s a powerful combination when properly executed.

Billick’s final option for third down is the third-and-short (one yard or less) scenario. You can only expect to see the third-and-one situation once in any given game, on average.  He set a standard for converting third and medium yardage at the 45-50% mark. For third and short, however, he felt that you should achieve a first down on 75-85% of your plays. You have to have a line as well as the running backs that can convert it.

This is an area where Denver struggled mightily last year. The addition of Philip Blake as the potential new center for the team was directly related to the inability of J.D. Walton and Co. to convert on third or fourth and short. The failure of the two guards, Zane Beadles and Chris Kuper, to create a sufficient push on those downs and to force the ball across the line also played into the problem. One of those three players has to be able to lead and to drive the ball successfully across the plane. Since Walton scored the poorest among that trio, he's the first one to potentially be replaced.

Measurable probabilities

Billick also considered specific areas that show you most effectively how your offense is playing. Different people have established different correlations for particular factors as a means of showing success or failure. For Billick, the four areas he considered most important were these:

  1. Turnovers
  2. Explosive plays
  3. First-down efficiency
  4. Red-zone efficiency

Billick wrote that turnovers have long been recognized as a major determinant of the outcome of the game. I think that's generally agreed-upon. We've covered what he considers to be an explosive play, and his theory of both first- and second-down efficiency. Many sources have also considered red-zone efficiency to be an important measurable.

Other keys

There were four other areas that Coach Billick considered essential for success on third down.The first is this: leave your options open for your quarterback and be sure that he understands what those options are.

Bill Walsh took the perspective that you should minimize the number of decisions that the quarterback has to make. Obviously, a player such as Peyton Manning will be able to take on a wide variety of offensive situations with his cerebral abilities, reading the defense and altering the plays to create success. With a player of that caliber, Billick would simply go over the game plan in excruciating detail with him, much as offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will presumably do, covering any and all circumstances that Manning might see in the upcoming game.

His next point was: you have to have a plan on how to handle the blitz. Broncos fans were treated to a brutal lesson in this particular point back when Kyle Orton was playing quarterback for them. For a long time, it seemed that former coach Josh McDaniels was unable to establish a hot read that would permit his quarterback to complete the play without landing on the turf due to problems handling the blitz. Orton was eventually blitzed to death while his coach stood and watched - teams would even blitz on first down at times. While Orton's lack of mobility certainly played into this circumstance, it's also true (and is even more clear from this text) that the coach hung him out to dry. At no point did it appear that McDaniels had a plan for handling the blitz. Under that situation, it's unreasonable to expect success from your player.

Billick’s next point was simple: you have to match plays by personnel and formation to give them the best opportunity for success. The example of the play of the Broncos interior line is one way of illustrating this point. Another came up in the time of McDaniels’s failing to have a plan for the blitz, while knowing that Kyle Orton had mobility issues. That’s another good way to see this: in both cases, the coach failed to meet the requirements of this key point. If you have the defense in a weakside overload blitz and you don't have an audible option for dealing with that via your protection, you are going to pay for it. You have to have a plan. It’s your job as offensive coordinator.

In the text, Billick also laid out a series of formations and charted multiple plays that fit both in together and can be run out of those formations. Mike Shanahan used to have a knack for doing that. It's another way of meeting this requirement. Again, I’d recommend going over the book’s offerings in detail when you have the time. There’s no way to cover all the information he gave - the book is much like the man. It was detailed, thorough, well-planned and carefully carried out. This is a fairly short book that is heavily illustrated with play charts and has at least a month’s worth of concepts within it.

His last point emphasized the importance of what may be a single play over the course of an entire game. He repeated the importance of determining a plan for success on 3rd and short. You have to establish that during the week before the game, and then you have to stick with your plan. Denver has seen what happens when that’s not fully covered. The better your players are prepared for whatever situations they may find themselves in, the greater your likelihood of success.

In our next segment, I’m going to cover some of the specific plays he suggested and provide more detailed information on making them successful. I’ll look forward to seeing you then. 

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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