By Jordan Langs
Wheaton College (IL)
Getting off the field on third down is critical to winning football games. Here at Wheaton, we have had very good success on third down over the past few years. Last year, we finished 6th in the country in that category while also finishing 5th in scoring defense and red zone defense. We attribute this success to our approach on third downs. Here is a look at the keys to getting off the field.
Don’t Forget 1st and 2nd Down
For our defense, the emphasis on 1st and 2nd down has become about executing our fundamental schemes, fronts, and coverages. We believe that early downs are when offenses have the most flexibility and variety. It is when we feel like we have the least amount of control of the scenario because the offense’s options are all at their disposal. Because of this, we end up at our most fundamental and conservative on 1st and 2nd downs. If we start getting into a guessing game and try to match their variety, we think that puts us at a disadvantage.
So in these early downs, we focus on what we can control, which is our discipline, technique and effort. From an install and teaching standpoint, we are a 4-man front and want to be very gap sound in the run game. In the pass, we are most comfortable in match quarters type of schemes with a ton of focus and teaching placed on being great pattern-read pass droppers. So this is what we want to focus on in those early downs. If we decide to deviate from that and exert a little more risk with pressure or line games, our kids must have a cerebral understanding of where and how we are increasing that risk.
The factors that go into the decision to take some risk, obviously depends on things like field position, opponent and game plan. The players understanding weakness and objectives of certain calls are important on every down, but especially important on 1st and 2nd. By them understanding what we are trying to accomplish in each front and coverage, it enables them to have a grasp on how best to get the offense in 3rd and medium to long situations.
Get In the Driver’s Seat
Getting in the driver’s seat as a defense in this age of football is not an easy task, as outlined above. We see 3rd and medium to long as one of the lone times that we get a chance to drive the bus and dictate some things to the offense. If and when we get in these scenarios, we do not want show up without a plan.
A large part of that plan is trying to make both the Quarterback and the Offensive Coordinator unsure of what they are looking at. As we all know, the up-tempo style of a lot of offenses allows them the opportunity to change plays multiple times before the ball is snapped; with a lot of the changes being dictated from what the Offensive Coordinator sees from the press box. We know that we are not just trying to keep the QB guessing but also his play caller.
One approach to try and handle those late play changes is to go ahead and try to change your own defensive call in order to counteract what the offense is trying to do. We will do that occasionally, but it is not how we prefer to counter the play change. Largely, we would prefer to counter 3rd down (for the sake of this topic) offenses by having multiple options and facets that allow us to feel like we can stay in the call we want and execute it regardless of the offense.