Studying third-down theory, Part 2

When we started talking about third downs last week, I put up a set of numbers on how many third downs Brian Billick said that you could expect per game. Some readers found it light on total first downs, and they were right. Part of the reason the number seems low was that I left a set out deliberately - the number of third downs that you should expect in the red zone. It’s an entire area of study on its own, and I’m going to talk about it separately next time.

For today, we’re going to take on the offensive coordinator’s headache - third and long, both third and 7-10 yards and third and eleven or more. They are handled in much the same way, but the odds of success are understandably different.

There’s nothing surprising about it. The toughest third downs are the longer ones, just as you’d expect. When you’re dealing with a third down and more than ten yards, your odds of success are down between 12% and 18% for getting a first down. It’s a little better at 7-10 yards - about 20-25%. You can’t overestimate the importance of gaining your average of four or more yards on first and second down - how well you convert your third downs depends on it.

Peyton Manning said,

I think (Offensive Coordinator Mike) McCoy (is) really preaching balance, and trying to be three-dimensional -- where on any down and distance, you can drop back, you can hand the ball off or you can run play-action. If the defense can be thinking about all three of those things, hopefully that gives the offense an advantage.

It’s a good general approach. But, when you find yourself in this position (third and long), there are some things that you have to remember. The first is that the defense will generally be using one of two approaches to confound you. You should know from your preparation which is more likely, but you have to be ready for either:

The most common approach of the defense is to sit back in zone and keep the play in front of them, which forces the offense (in theory) to throw underneath. Fans often hate it as the dreaded ‘prevent’ defense (which it's technically not), but it forces the offense to run multiple plays, increasing the odds of a mistake. If you’re the offensive coordinator, this one has a special danger that you’ve had to emphasize with your quarterback. There’s a test of maturity involved here - some quarterbacks are going to try and get the first down by forcing the ball into heavy coverage. Broncos fans groaned when the rocket-armed Jay Cutler would regularly do that. No matter how good you are, you’re fighting long odds. It’s better to punt than to turn the ball over. Jake Plummer was guilty of this on more than one occasion - he once threw a left-handed interception near his own end zone in a 2004 victory over the Chiefs. Even the usually conservative Kyle Orton reprised Jake's blooper during a 2009 preseason game in Seattle.

The second option was the one used against Cutler’s heir - Orton lived with constant overload blitzes. He also saw double A-gap blitzes, safety blitzes, and cornerback blitzes, but the overload blitz tends to be preferred on third down. If you’re the offensive coordinator, job one is making sure that you have the protection package you need to pick up the blitz, because the longer down and distance calls for a five-step drop on the play and that takes time to set up.

If the defense sits back in a Cover 2, it may permit a slant that splits the safeties for a first down. Every defense creates some weakness as well as having some advantages. It’s up the OC to design multiple plays that can be adapted on the spot to handle various matchups with scheme or personnel to achieve the longer yardage needed.

This is essentially a passing down, and usually five passes are designed for each yardage to gain, one for 7-10 yards and another for 11 yards and longer. Runs are limited to draws (and screens). Screens are tough to execute in this situation - the D often sees you coming on this down and distance. They usually work only when not used to excess and if called when they aren’t expected. New England runs a couple every game - defenses always expect Brady to pass and are often caught napping. Those five plays will usually be run out of just one or two formations to minimize play recognition by the defense.

Each of the five plays scripted for this situation must do one or more of the following:

  1. Given the right rotation by the secondary, it gives an opportunity for a deep throw.
  2. If given the right one-on-one matchup, permits a route that creates a first down and/or...
  3. Provides the QB a dumpoff to a primary receiver that allows YAC to gain the first down

What if you buck the tide and run the ball? This is only done by an NFL team, on average, about 11 times a year - not even once a game. This average team completes two of those 11 opportunities. That’s slightly lower than the 20-25% you’d expect success on third and long, so you want to pick your shots carefully.

Let's examine a few play designs that work well on third and long, starting with a Spot route as utilized by Mike Martz and explained by Matt Bowen over at National Football Post:

(image via NFP)

This route calls for regular personnel - two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers - using it to get the needed yardage on third down and 7+ yards to gain is simple.  It’s just a 7 route from the TE (Y), with the Z on a short inside Curl and the FB (F) running a basic Flat route, and you can adapt it for longer yardage by simply changing the Z receiver’s a few yards. The X may not be an option - the F receiver would need to be in a good yards-after-catch position to achieve your goal. You keep in mind that the odds are against you, and don’t force anything.

Next, a bunch concept pattern that every team keeps around in some form, and a good test for a Cover 4 defense:

(image via

You have the option of using the running back as a checkdown receiver or as a blocker, depending on the defensive approach. Wheel routes are a great Cover 4 beater that can be run off a three- or five-step drop, and Broncos rookie Ronnie Hillman is perfect for them.

For the longer yardage downs like this you can also have the Z receiver (and all receivers who would normally break at the 12-yard mark) make his cut a couple of yards deeper; the Y receiver becomes the primary read. The fullback can be used as a checkdown with the hope for yards after the catch. You can also use him that way just to get out of the series gracefully with some positive gain in yardage, if he’s not needed in protection. Offensive coordinators do that more than fans usually know - in a dangerous situation for turnovers, backed up in your own territory with long yardage to go, they often choose to ‘live to fight another series’.

You can also go with the same regular personnel package (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) from a pro formation (with the RBs split to either side of the quarterback). When you’re looking at 3rd and 7, you can get away with the aforementioned Spot pattern - every team has some version of it. If the OC decides that his field position is good enough and he trusts his punter, here's an excellent option Ted laid out in his recent series on the Manning offense:

You’re looking at a 5.5 protection package, so if the QB sees an overload blitz developing, he’s going to be responsible for re-tasking his TEs (both the right and the Y receiver, in this case) and/or the RB to deal with it. You’ll see this kind of play when a third-and-long situation comes up in the open field, usually between the 40s. If the defense sits back in zone, you can also take advantage of that by using the common Hi-Lo patterns. If you’re backed up in your end zone, you stay with safe plays and calls, shooting to get far enough out to make the punt productive and trusting your defense to get you back better field position for the next series.


Solving the issue of protection is fairly straightforward. If you’re looking at a longer distance to go or looking at a five- or seven-step drop, you have to have the personnel in on protection or life will get difficult fast. You can use a dedicated inline TE to block (or chip, if you need the outlet man), plus either one or two RBs. Going with two backs limits your number of receivers, but if you don’t have the personnel in to block, you won’t get the ball to a receiver anyway. Peyton Manning helps this out in two ways. The first are his cerebral talents, which let him move to the line already knowing which defensive formations and approaches the opponent has used in the same situations in the past. Second, he’s able to call out his changes at the line. For him to do that, the only thing that’s essential is having enough personnel on the field in the right positions. With Manning, though, if he’s got an extra receiver but is missing a blocker, his release is fast and accurate enough to often put the ball through the hole the defender left.

That doesn’t mean that he won’t need the proper protection out there, though. He’s not at a point where you can afford to have him take an unnecessary hit. It’s better to have the running back block, chip, or release as a checkdown option than to expose the QB to the potential of a hurry, hit or sack.

And, that’s one of the advantages of merging Manning’s copious talents with a quality running game. Players like Ronnie Hillman have the skill to run or catch the ball, and he’s learning NFL level blocking. It’s more than a one-season task, but Hillman is a hard worker. I believe that he’ll make it work - at 5-9 and around 200 pounds, his one advantage in blocking is leverage.

In an upcoming segment, we’ll be examining the pre-red zone (30 yards and in) and red zone issues with regard to being effective on third down. As the offense approaches the goal line, the end zone acts as an extra defender - you lose the benefit of the ‘9’ or dagger routes and have to find new ways to get a man open. The good news is the running game serves you in good stead, but there’s also an advantage to using the whole field in the pre-red zone area as seen by Billick and by Bill Walsh. I’ll see you there.


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