Third Down Play Call Plan:
3rd and Short (1 to 3 yards)
By Steve Axman, Contributing Editor, X&O Labs
The best place to start your 3rd and short thinking is with your base run and passes games. These are the plays you should know how to execute the best and the plays you, your coaches and your players have put the most practice effort in. Slight adjustments might have to be made to be sound so that you can effectively execute such run and pass concepts against the various types of opposing teams’ coverages and fronts you will see. If you are a zone run team, find ways to effectively run such zone run concepts against the various types of opposing teams’ fronts and coverages you feel you will see. The same would be true if you run an off-tackle power play, a favorite short yardage run play of many teams. If you are an option team, find the option plays in your run option arsenal that you feel best attack short yardage defenses. If your zone counter play is an important play in your run package, then put careful consideration into its usage for 3rd down, short yardage run offense.
Some coaches feel counters are not effective plays to utilize on 3rd down situations because of how many defenses work hard to penetrate gaps to disrupt plays. Other coaches, who have strong counter run plays in their offenses, can think just the opposite. They believe that their counter play blocking schemes are extremely sound in shutting off, and sealing, defensive gap penetration efforts. The bottom line is that you start with your 3rd and Short run attack by determining which of the base offensive run plays you believe can be effective 3rd and Short run plays. One of the reasons I like have the off-tackle power play as a part of my base offense, beside being a great run play, is that it is also a great 3rd down offense run play.
What to Design:
Use Your Bread and Butter Plays:Third and Short (1 to 2 yards) is, without a doubt, crunch time. Coaches talk all the time about the goals of getting to a 3rd and manageable down and distance situation. Having to get a yard or two to convert to a new set of downs is, certainly, a manageable 3rd down situation. Yet, 3rd and Short can often seem to be about as tough as it gets in an offense’s efforts to succeed and move the chains. As a result, it is very important to be sure that you rely on "….your very best stuff, ….very best base offense!"
Divide Your Practice Time Based on Frequency: This does not mean from early on in your fall, pre-season practices that you can’t install plays for short yardage package that are, in themselves, special to this vital game situation only. Running a blast isolation run play or a toss sweep as part of your 3rd and Short offensive attack is fine as long as you give such plays the proper amount of practice time repetitions needed to make it a play your staff and players feel they can hang their hats on. The only problem with this is that if you have a significant number of such special situation run plays for all, or many, of the different special game situations that you may face at one time or another, you may find yourself overloaded in regard to the number of total plays you have to install, teach and coach. In addition, the use of loaded up defensive fronts with extra defensive line and linebackers and the use of extra, "….big…..," tight ends and fullbacks on 3rd and Short situations can definitely add to the increased amount of volume an offense may have to deal with to properly get its 3rd and Short offense ready to execute successfully.
Use Play Action Schemes:Play action passes should be a "….big…." thought for 3rd and Short (1 to 2 yards) offense. The reason for this is that so many defenses are run stop oriented on 3rd and Short yardage situations that play action passes, with good run faking action, can greatly affect the play of 3rd and Short yardage defenses. Such 3rd and Short play action passing should, however, focus on quick play action. The offense has to keep in mind that 3rd down defenses are often in an attack mode, with penetrating stunt and blitz pressure a focal point of such an attack. Quick play action passing helps to effectively combat such 3rd and short defensive pressure. Remember, a quick and, possibly, short pass completion on a 3rd and Short situation will, probably, produce the amount of short yardage needed. Actually, this is also very true for quick, three step drop back pass action as it is for quick, play action passing.
Create Space by Formation:Spread offensive formation usage has increasingly been put to good use in attempting to convert 3rd and short yardage situations. Such spread offenses can be as simple as utilizing 11 personnel, 2x2, balanced formation to isolate on an outside linebacker or nickel type defender.
Option Football Out of Spread Looks: The use of double and triple option run action from a spread offensive formation is also a very effective means of converting 3rd down yardage situation needs. A key thought about Spread offense usage is that spread formations spread out a defensive front. Defensive gap control, a positive factor for defenses when the offenses pack in its personnel with extra, BIG, tight ends and fullbacks, is now spread out to a much greater degree. A linebacker can, suddenly, find himself responsible for covering four to five yards of open space instead of a tightened, eighteen-inch gap. Add to this concept the fact that the defense may be faced with run option play assignments where the defenders are placed in far more vulnerable situations. Add to that a quick, nifty quarterback run threat and Spread run option offense is all the more threatening to a 3rd and Short defense.