AFM RSS Feed Follow Us on Twitter       

   User Name    Password 
      Password Help

Article Categories

AFM Magazine

AFM Magazine

Point-Counterpoint Third and Long

How do you make that next first down vs. How to make your opponent punt?
by: David Purdum
© More from this issue

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

Heading into December, USC's overwhelming offense was tops in the nation in third-down efficiency. After outlasting Pat Hill’s impressive Fresno State squad in November, the Trojans were converting on an amazing 54% of third downs. Having Reggie Bush doesn’t hurt. Pete Carroll’s explosive bunch was also No. 1 in turnover margin. It’s not hard to figure out why Matt Leinart and company keep rolling.

The third-down efficiency rankings are filled with explosive offenses, including Texas, Notre Dame, Louisville, Fresno State, Auburn and Minnesota. Avoiding third-and-longs is the ultimate goal. Against Fresno State, USC converted 7 of 13 third downs with an average distance of less than five. But they also picked up first downs on third-and-10 and third-and-seven.

No one wants to end up in third-and-long, but it happens. A false start here, a sack there, and suddenly, it’s third-and-eternity. You got a play call for that? Obviously, anything that picks up the first down is the best option, but depending on the situation, not always the smartest call.

“We were in a situation this season,” Western Branch (Chesepeake, Va.) head coach Lew Johnston lamented, “where, quite frankly, we weren’t throwing the ball very well. So there were times on third-and-long, we would spread everybody out and run a fullback trap, hoping that we could pop it past the linebacker for a big gain.”

In contrast, third-down-and-eternity is a defensive coordinator’s first love. Some prefer to be aggressive and not allow the quarterback to have time to sit back and pick you apart. Others choose to drop back in a deep zone and force the quarterback to look underneath.

The NCAA’s third-down efficiency defensive rankings feature the stingy D’s of Miami, Florida State, Ohio State, Texas and Alabama. When deciding on a defensive call for a big third down, Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Joe Kines says he puts an emphasis on what has transpired in the game, rather than relying on an opponent’s tendency picked up in film. Teams converted only 28% on third downs against Kines’ defense.

“Most importantly,” said Johnston, “I think you need to consider your team’s strengths and weakness.”

If you have an experienced quarterback who’s careful with the football, a receiver that is able to create space and a reliable offensive line, you’re probably pretty good and feel comfortable heaving it down the field. But without all three of those ingredients, calling the deep crossing pattern on third-and-eternity from your own 17 may not be the wisest call. Against USC, three of Fresno State’s five turnovers came on third-and-long situations.

Like Johnston at Western Branch, Camden County (Kingsland, Ga.) High School Head Coach Jeff Herron features the Wing-T. Camden averaged only six pass attempts per game. But the ‘Cats, who tied the Georgia state record with their 59th consecutive regular-season win this year, did pick up almost 12 yards per rushing attempt. Herron has no problem calling the sweep or a dive on third-and-eternity.

“I heard Lou Holtz say along time ago that any good offensive possession is one that ends in a score or a punt,” Herron said. “There’s times, and I’m not going to deny it, that’s our philosophy. Let’s not try to make the great play. Let’s try to make something happen with our running game, and if it doesn’t let’s punt the football and play defense.” It helps when your defense surrenders only six points a game, like Herron’s Wildcats did this season.

“We have a defensive mentality,” he added. “We believe in our defense a lot and prefer to play field position. We’re more conservative than a lot of folks on third down because of that. We don’t want to do anything to hurt ourself.”

When You Should Blitz

While he claims to be conservative on offense, Herron is very aggressive with his defense. In obvious passing situations, he prefers to bring pressure, unless there’s the threat of the option. That aggression helped the Wildcats force 30 turnovers and score nine defensive touchdowns.

While the constant considerations of score, clock and field position play a role in Herron’s decision to bring the heat or not, the opponent’s capabilities in the running game also factor in to the equation.

“First and foremost,” he said, “we look at what kind of offense we’re facing. Mobility of the quarterback also plays a big part on whether we blitz or not. We’re more likely to be a little more conservative in our approach if the quarterback has the ability to make big plays with his feet.”

Thanks to Vince Young’s smooth strides, Texas picked up first downs on half of its third downs this season. Ohio State with shifty quarterback Troy Smith and Michigan State with their mobile QB Drew Stanton also converted on close to half of their third downs.

Any kind of big-play running threat, not only the quarterback, can deter Herron from blitzing. “Against an option offense or wing-T,” he said, “sometimes when you blitz, you can get yourself out of position. If we know someone is going to try and sit back in the pocket and try to throw we’re a whole lot more aggressive in how we come after him. But if there’s a risk of an option or some kind of running threat, then we’re less likely to blitz.”

How to Take Advantage of the Blitz

As the blitz continues to evolve, any number of players from anywhere on the field may be coming on any given play - especially on third-and-eternity. This makes picking up the blitz all the more complicated. But as Johnson has found out, sometimes simplifying the quarterback’s reads help the Bruins take advantage of a blitzing defense.

“We’re complicated enough, that we’re going to give our quarterback a one-side read,” he explained. “We’re not going to ask him to read the backside also. We’ll pick them up for him. Then we’ve got a hot receiver to go to in each of our patterns. We’ll pick up the inside backer with a running back since he’s got the shortest distance between two points. The quarterback is watching the outside linebacker that way, if he comes, we’ve got a dump off to a wide receiver or running back coming out of the backfield.”

With his Bruins struggling in the passing game, Johnston also stayed conservative on third down this season. Along with the fullback trap, the reliable screen was one of his favorite calls. The screen, says Johnston, is especially effective against a defense that is consistently blitzing linebackers on third-and-long. With misdirection being a major part of his wing-T philosophy, Johnston uses the throwback screen to create big plays. Perfecting the timing of the screen in practice must be done at full-speed, insists Johnston.

“Usually the kids on your scout team – we call them ‘scout team heroes’ – work on their offense.” he said. “If they know the play, they’re not going to rush. They’re going to drop off and try to make an interception,” he said. “We’ll try to sneak it on them the first time, then really emphasize to the scout team that we need to run this again, and you guys need to come and not drop off and play the screen.”

How to Break the Big Run

Against Fresno State, Bush had runs of 50, 45 and 20 on his way to accumulating more than 500 yards of total offense. Breaking big runs like that on third-and-long are crucial for run-first offenses.

“Our style of offense, looking for the big run play, might deter blitzes more than others,” said Herron.

Both coaches agree that third-and-eternity is not time to panic. An out-of-the-box call can do more harm than good. Remember, according to Lou Holtz, a good offensive series ends with a score or a punt. That said, eventually, you’re going to have convert on third downs. Suffering through a one-win season, Syracuse’s offense ranks last in third-down conversion percentage, converting less than 20 percent of the time. If you’re passing attack is less than potent, finds ways to generate big plays in the running game becomes imperative.

Here’s how Johnston tries to turn a five yard run into a 25-yard burst for a first down: Get a helmet on the “Gamebreakers”: Every block is important, but impeding a defense’s playmakers is crucial to breaking a big run. Once your back is past the defensive tackle, it’s not likely the big fellow’s going to run him down from behind. So don’t waste too much time or manpower on controlling their front. “We really stress to our linemen that whoever has a block on the linebacker that’s the ‘gamebreaker,’” said Johnston. “If we can get on their best athletes, typically their linebackers, now we have a chance to break the long run.”

When running a trap, Johnston will sometimes commit as many as five players to blocking the linebackers. “If we can get the trap block and the back block from the center, we’re going to release everybody else to the second level or even the third,” he said. “Sometimes that wingback will be after the free safety. We figure those are the guys that are going to stop the trap.”

As a counterpoint, here’s how Herron tries to avoid having teams turn a five-yard run into a 25-yard burst for a first down:

Blitzing in a timely fashion: Herron’s Wildcats play an aggressive style of defense. They’re fast and can quickly get into the backfield. But even so, if a team has shown the ability to make a big play in the running game, Herron will limit his blitzing. “As I said we don’t want to do anything to hurt our team’s chances and we believe in our defense and prefer to play field position.”

Either way, on third and long – offense vs. defense--will risk equal reward?


AFM Videos Streaming Memberships Now Available Digital Download - 304 Pages of Football Forms for the Winning Coach


Copyright 2024,
All Rights Reserved