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Third & long: a litmus test for the defense.

Defenses are faced with a variety of down and distance situations in every game.

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First-down success can be described as holding the offense to three yards or less. On second and long you hope to force the offense into a third and long situation.

On fourth and long you seek to hold the offense to one less yard than what they need.

The defense must win the third down and long situations to be successful. Defensive failure on third and long can be fatal.

Statistically, third and long will arise 12 to 14 times a game, with a third-down conversion needed every fourth or fifth play of a series. Ten of these calls will occur in the open field, with two to four of them happening in the red zone.

Furthermore, 25% to 35% of first downs are generated on this down. Offenses faced with a 7+ call have only a 20% to 25% success rate.

Even novice football observers can readily see how successful or unsuccessful a team is offensively or defensively on third down. Offensive failure will usually bring out the punt team while defensive failure will cause the chains to move.

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Good calls and execution will enable the defensive team to get the ball and allow them to get off the field. Its confidence levels will soar and physically enable the defensive players to catch a respite.

Third down and long is usually a substitution down for most offenses, and substitutions will often tip off the type of play to be run. Substitutes often limit or restrict the scope of the plays. Teams who do not substitute retain all their options. The whole playbook becomes available.

Most offenses treat third and long as a passing down and may substitute to get more receivers on the field. Some coaches may choose to pass underneath or hand the ball off to pick up the distance needed in the open field. Screens and draws are always a possibility.

Defensively, you cannot expect a lineman to pressure the QB and play screen and draw. Unless a particular player has screen or draw responsibilities, he should rush the QB and react to the screen or draw.

Many offensive teams will trap or use some other type of run to pick up a first down against a nickel or dime package. Screens, draws, or runs are acceptable ways to get out of a series and safely punt the ball.

Many offensive coaches feel that any positive gain on third down and long is better than taking a sack or throwing an interception. Teams that subscribe to this conservative approach usually have a strong defense or variables such as the score, field position, time left, or personnel situations that may call for a wary approach.

There are basically three schools of thought on how to defend third and long. The defense may choose to approach it in a conservative manner, take a much more aggressive course, or, most often, use a mix of both conservative and aggressive mindsets. Whatever approach is used, matching personnel is paramount on third and long.

CONSERVATIVE APPROACH:

Teams that use this approach play a lot of soft zone, keeping the ball in front of the defenders who drive forward to make the tackle short of the first-down marker.

Conservative coaches don't mind giving up yards as long as the ball doesn't get to the marker. Characteristically, these defenses use a three- or four-man rush with emphasis on containment of the QB.

Individual line matchups are the preferred way to apply pressure. It allows a seven or eight-man coverage theme.

Lane exchanges are a good way to apply pressure with a minimal rush ratio. Defenses which use this approach must be superior, personnel wise. Obviously, the best solution is to be able to exert pressure with the line only. This will allow you to drop more defenders and still get an effective pass rush. Unfortunately, not many teams will out-personnel all their opponents. As a result, not many teams use this approach exclusively.

AGGRESSIVE APPROACH:

The antithesis of the conservative and cautious approach is a total pressure philosophy. This school of thought seeks to attack the QB with numbers and play some sort of man or combination coverage behind it. Such defenses try to force receivers to break off their routes or force the QB to throw hot and then tackle the receiver short of the first down. These defenses put their corners on an island a lot of the time.

Care must be taken to see that an inferior defensive back doesn't get caught too many times with one-on-one matchups without help. Many teams use a zone blitz scheme that inserts a line-backer or defensive back and covers up with a lineman who drops into coverage. This is a great way to apply pressure, but play zone behind it.

MIX:

Most defensive coaches have a philosophy somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Unless a defense is vastly superior, the sustained use of a conservative approach might put the defense, at a disadvantage. Conversely, the use of an all-out attacking style on every third down and long play isn't very judicious.

The prudent thing to do would be to use a well thought-out mix of both conservative and attack philosophies. This course of action will serve to keep the offense off-balance and, through the use of effective disguises, keep them guessing about your defensive intentions.

Your opponent must not be given the luxury of knowing which approach you will take on any given third-and-long situation. Sun Tzu in the Art of War sums it up best when he says, "All warfare is based on deception. When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away. When far away, we must make him believe we are near."

To paraphrase: When blitzing (near), make the QB think you are dropping (far away). When not blitzing (far away), make him think you are coming (near).

DRAW AND SCREEN:

Draw and screen plays are designed to take advantage of an aggressive pass rush. Obviously, this aggressive rush is more prevalent on long-yardage plays, especially third and long.

Defensive concepts vary from team to team on how they approach draw/screen situations. Some defensive schemes teach their linemen to rush the passer and react to the draw or screen. This is well and good for teams that have good team speed, but maybe not as effective for teams that are not as quick.

Teams that are speed deficient may have to assign draw and screen responsibility to particular players or positions. Care must be taken, however, to see that your best rushers are not tied down with this responsibility.

A sound move might be to give a 2i technique tackle in a 4-3 front the responsibility of spying because he will usually be doubled by the center and guard on passes. That will put him in a prime position to eat up two blocks and "mush" rush vs pass.

Regardless of the approach you choose, success or failure may well come down to how well your defense executes in third-and-long situations.

BY KENNY RATLEDGE

Defensive Coordinator

Sevierville (TN) County H.S.
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Title Annotation:Football
Author:Ratledge, Kenny
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:1206
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