Though 3rd Down is probably one of the more overrated downs in football (in terms of importance), being able to get off the field is an important concept for any defensive coach (yes, I’m being dense). Any series is won on 1st Down. Win that down and now the offense becomes more predictable on each subsequent play. By winning 2nd Down and forcing the offense into an obvious passing situation, the defense can now attack the offense. This is why looking at efficiency stats are important.
Looking at BCfToys.com’s DEff, you will only find two teams in the Top 25 with losing records against FBS teams, Northwestern and Miami (N’western’s OEff is 124 and Miami’s is #76 which explains their 6-6 record). Winning early downs is key to winning 3rd. That being said, defenses need to have a plan for 3rd Down and it’s variations (short, medium, long). The ultimate goal is to get off the field. Understanding how your opponent attacks 3rd should reflect your gameplan too. If a DC regularly goes to the same pool for 3rd Down, an OC will learn your rules and beat you at your own game.
Predictability in football is the holy grail. It is why coaches spend hours diagnosing film and coming up with a plan. Wining the base downs (1st and 2nd) is key to a successful defense. 3rd Down efficiency is a decent metric and does, to an extent, help with win probability. T. Tony Russell of Blue Stampede wrote an interesting article on the topic of 3rd Downs and win probability. Russell found that “3-and-Outs” doesn’t necessarily correlate to win probability. Yes, defensive coaches love to get off the field, especially if you have a dominant offense, but this stat over time doesn’t directly correlate to wins.
As Russell explains, the use of 3rd Down Efficiency (the percent of 3rd downs that a team is able to convert into a first down) ignores about 71% of all other plays. 1st Down conversion rate or just passing down efficiency are better stats to use when looking at win probability. So what does this have to do with winning 3rd and Long?
First, there is always a point at which a team chooses to pass at a high rate. This means a defense needs to win its passing downs. In the NFL, any yardage mark is a throwing down, but generally, if the yards to gain is around 4+, most NFL teams are throwing. In College, that mark moves to around 6+, which is probably similar at the High School level. Second, defensive coaches need a plan for passing downs, especially on 3rd Down. Finally, not all schemes are created equal when it comes to pressuring the QB. A defense needs options. A DC needs to consider several things:
- Is the QB a runner? Is he a thrower?
- Do they have a dominant WR?
- Do they slide, Big-on-Big, or Combo their pass-pro?
- What is the RB doing, or who is he responsible for?
All these questions need to be answered as a plan for 3rd Down is developed. This particular article gives you several ideas and ways to attack an offense in obvious passing downs, especially 3rd Down. As Russell pointed, winning passing downs is a better metric for win probability. Win your passing downs, or get a sack/turnover, and you have a higher chance of winning the game, which at the end of the day, is the only thing that matters.
1) The Overload Front
One of my favorite ways to attack an offense on 3rd Down is the Overload Front. In an Overload Front, the defense will put all its numbers to one side. This front mainly runs from a four-down look, otherwise, you have something completely different. Above, the Georgia Bulldogs align three linemen to one side. The boundary side only has a DE and a LB that is responsible for the “B” gap and RB. Versus a nub-set, as shown above, the CB will be over there as well.