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© April, 2014

by Tanner Engstrand
Assistant Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach • University of San Diego

Third down is one of the most crucial situations in a football game. The offense either converts to stay on the field or they fail and give the ball back to their opponent. There is a myriad of different situations an offense can experience and they must be prepared and react accordingly to each. The offense must be flexible and find a way to convert as defenses adjust, blitz more frequently, and introduce unique coverages. We have been very successful on third down, finishing in the top 10 in the FCS the last two years at 50%.

We talk about third down as a critical situation of each game, and as such, we break it down into five segments:
•  3rd and 1-2 (short yardage)

•  3rd and 3

•  3rd and 4-6 (medium)

•  3rd and 7-10 (long)

•  3rd and 11+ (extra long)

When I say third down to our players, a list of plays should come to mind for each of the five segments. By segmenting third down, we are able to focus on each individual yardage situation to find tendencies in a defense and give our players the best chance to be successful. I want the players and the QBs in particular, to be thinking the same as I do when I call a play for each different situation. I will discuss our thought process on each segment of third down and the different types of plays we run for each.

3rd and 1-2: Short Yardage

We must convert here. This is generally a running yardage situation. However, be ready for a home run call as well as “Spiders” (quick play-action) as seen in diagrams 1 and 2. On the home run calls, the QB must know by the game plan what we are looking for. If the play is there, take it. Otherwise, check the ball down or throw it away.

3rd and 3:

This is a very unique situation, averaging just over one snap per game. It is neither a pass first nor run first distance giving the offense the advantage to keep the defense guessing. Defenses have a high propensity to play man coverage and blitz, but we must also have an answer for full underneath zone coverage.

Possession passes (Diagram 3) will be implemented along with more “Nickel” type runs (11, 10, 20 personnel). We will go into a game with no more than two passes for this yardage.

3rd and 4-6: Medium

We call this a possession situation and we must convert. It is generally a passing distance. The QB must like these plays and be comfortable with them. We will expect pressure and man coverage from the defense, but also have the ability to adjust to full zone coverage.

In this segment, we will use isolation routes and multiple coverage beaters (Diagrams 4 and 5) designed to cut the field in half. Passes will be designed to catch the ball on the run to pass the first down marker quickly, or to catch the ball past the first down marker. We do not want to be short. We will have between three and five pass plays designed for this situation each game.

3rd and 7-10: Long

This segment is largely filled with drop back passes; however, screens and draws are clearly alternatives. We must understand that the longer the distance, the less likely of converting. The QB must be ready to check the ball down vs. max coverage or scramble if protection breaks down. Sacks are not acceptable here.

Defenses often play one of two ways in this situation – they either bring pressure with zone dogs or man blitzes to force the ball out quickly, or drop 7-8 in max coverage forcing the QB to make an accurate read and pass.

Our pass concepts in this situation will reflect the tendencies of a defense. If they fall into the pressure category, we will implement more 3-step passes, quick 5-step drop back passes, and max protection schemes. If they are a coverage team, we will use plays designed to beat those specific coverages (Diagram 6). We will carry between two and four pass concepts for this situation.
3rd and 11+: Extra Long

This is a very low conversion percentage situation. We do not want to be here very often, but when we are thrust into third and extra long yardage, we will most likely be passing the ball. The QB must learn to “live to fight another day” and remember that sacks and turnovers are not acceptable, but throwing the ball away is.

Defenses will often play max coverage on these long yardage plays by flooding the zones, which makes downfield passes very difficult to complete. However, we must be ready to adjust to the occasional cover 0 blitz.
Our pass game in this segment will largely consist of sprint outs (Diagram 7) and screens, but the occasional drop back pass or draw will be called. Drop back passes will generally rely on yards-after-catch to pick up the first down. If we add a new pass concept for this situation, it will be specifically designed to beat a new unique coverage.

There are many different philosophies for converting on third down to keep the chains moving. We believe the keys to being successful on third down are very simple – put yourself in a manageable situation (medium to short), get your players comfortable with your “third down” plays, and be sure they understand every situation and practice them often.
About the Author: Tanner Engstrand is now in his tenth season on the staff of the University of San Diego and serves as assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at USD under former head coach Jim Harbaugh. A former quarterback at San Diego State, Engstrand received his bachelor’s degree from there and his master’s from USD.

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