|Game Planning for 3rd Down
Originally Published - Nike 2013 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual - by Earl Browning
I am going to talk to you about one of the most important phases or situations in football. There are four situations in football defensively you have to take care of. The first is scoring. You cannot let the other team score. Another is red zone defense. If you cannot stop your opponent they are going to score and you are going to have a hard time winning. You will find the team that plays good red zone defense and stops or limits their opponent to field goals usually wins. The defensive situation most people do not talk about is first downs. If you can keep your opponent to second down and eight, ten, or even longer, it will help you further into the series.
What I want to talk to you about is third down. To win third down, first you have to win the first down. Or at least you have to be competitive on first down. If you can stop a team on third down and your offense converts on third down, you have a great chance to win the football game.
First of all I have to say there are a lot of ways to attack third down. Everybody does it a little different. I want to present to you how we do it. I am not saying it is the best way but it has been pretty good for me.
I was with the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and we were 13-3. We led the league in sacks. We were second in the league on third down. This gives you a chance to be good. Everywhere I have been we have been good on third down.
This year we were okay in third down. When I first got to Maryland, we were 108th in total defense. This year we were 20th in total defense. We were at 37 percent on third down conversions. My goal is to be 32 percent or less. I want to see our 32 percent reflected in our meeting, all of our practices, and everything we do.
Let me talk about our preparation. What I want to look at is our opponent's tendencies to our defensive plan. For every opponent we play we will have a distance plan. As an example, is their third down and short two yards or less or is it three yards or less. Every team may be different. It is based on what they do for each situation.
Next we will look at their run versus pass percentage on third down. If they are 90 percent run, they are telling you they are a strong short yardage team.
I want to know what they do with their personnel. Are they a 22 personnel team? When I talk 22 personnel, I am talking about two backs and two tight ends, which leaves one receiver. The first number is the number of running backs; the second number is the number of tight ends. We assume there are a total of five so the remaining quantity is the number of receivers. Are they 11 personnel? This is 1 back and 1 tight ends leaving three receivers.
Then I want to know what formations they run out of and the personal grouping they use. Are they lining up with two backs and everybody in the box or do they start with two backs and then explode into an empty set?
What types of runs do they go to in short yardage situations? Sometimes when we look at an opponent, it does not matter how they line up, they just run power. It may be one back power or two back power, but still it is power.
If they pass on third down, we have to know their route concepts. If they are a run first team, their route concepts have to come off play action pass. This is our initial thought process for third down and short.
Third down and medium for a given team may be at the three to seven yard range. If a team is at 75 percent pass in this situation, I know I need to prepare to attack pass protection. Third and long may be eight to ten yards. Third and extra- long in this situation was over ten. The yardages we use for short, medium, long, and extra-long will vary based on the team we play and their tendencies. A team with third and up to 10 yards may throw a high percentage of the time but when they get to their extra-long situations, they may start to show some draws and screens. You have to modify the distances by what they do.
For each distance, we want to break down what their pass percentage is. We want to know what personnel they are in. As we get into the longer distances, we focus more on what types of protections they use in each situation. We want to know what types of protections they use, by formation. If they are in 31 personnel with the back set to the trips side, what pass protections do they like to run? If the back is away from the trips, what protection do they like to run? All of this information will be used to prepare our scout team so we can get a good look at what to expect in a game situation.
We want to know the route concepts they like for these situations. What are route concepts? I am talking about the route combinations they use between two or more receivers. An example may be a slant/flat combination. I try to name them by the route so it is easier for the players to visualize. Once they become familiar with the route concepts, when they come to the sideline and communicate with me, we are talking the same language. This helps our understanding of the situation go much quicker.
The next step is to determine how they handle pressure in each of these yardage situations. While I was at the University of Houston we had the most prolific quarterback ever in Case Keen urn. We were a spread team. We sent everybody out on the pass. He was able to handle pressure by knowing where to go. We need to know that on defense. Are they going to be in an empty set, are they going to be in max protection, or are they going to site adjust. I want to know how they handle pressure and when do they expect pressure.
Most teams will have a go to concepts. I want to know what that is. When it is third down and seven yards to go, do they always run the curl/ flat concept. It may even be a Q0 to one player. If they have a go to receiver, they may move him from a #2 receiver to a #3 receiver to get a good match up on our Mike linebacker. If you are not aware of that and you do not practice it,the defender is going to bump his head on the goalpost. We have to know who and where their go to player is and make plans for that. We want to know that when the screens and draws start to show up.
We look at cutups of the offense of our opponent on third down and four. We look at it against different defenses. Against a four man rush, does the linebacker indicate if he is coming as a fifth rusher, or is he just hugging up on the running back.
I want to know if the back is trying to get out on a route. The quarterback tucks the ball and decides to run. What I am looking for in a quarterback is his ball placement. Does he double pat the ball before throwing? Does he stare down his receivers? We are looking for where he likes to escape to. For instance, does he go to the B-gap first because he can see it, and then bounce to the outside? When the quarterback brings the ball down to both hands, is he a dual threat?
At Dallas when we played against Donovan McNabb we would bring pressure to his passing hand side to make him run the other way. We would always put DeMarcus Ware to the opposite side. We made the quarterback run to DeMarcus Ware. We got 20 sacks doing that.
If we notice a quarterback that escapes on this play to his left, it makes it a very tough to throw back to his right. If he decides to pull up to throw the ball, he is most likely to throw the ball to the left. By watching tape you know where he can throw and what routes he can throw.
Our next cutup shows a third and five situation going in from the 34 yard line. They have two wide receivers to the left and a tight end and wide receiver to the right. We can see the defense is attacking the tight end side by slanting away from the tight end and bringing the linebacker off the end. The tight end immediately releases into his route. The running back picks up the tackle slanting down inside but nobody picks up the linebacker. He comes in free to the quarterback. We want to know if it happens that way all or most of the time.
What does the quarterback do? He looks to the middle of the field to see if it is open or closed. He tries to find his read but before he can, the linebacker is on him so he throws the ball out of bounds to save himself.
We are looking at how they protect under this type of pressure. Who is the weak link? The right tackle and the tight end do not get a block.
Our next cutup scenario shows a two back protection concept. This situation is third down and five coming out from the 37 yard line. Their three wide receivers are all go, and the running backs are working a cross combo. Their concept here is all go. When we look at the protection, we can see the left tackle is having a bad day. He makes the defensive tackle change direction but then barely gets a hand on him. My defensive line coach and outside linebacker coaches have to identify that. They have to say "we have to attack #74 and we have to attack the back."
The next scenario is third down and seven from the 45 yard line, The offense lines up with a tight end to the right and a single back in the
Again, the right tackle does a poor job in pass protection. It is pretty consistent what the running back does. As we look at the running back in pass protection, what is he going to do? He is going to cut block the defensive lineman. We know if #74 is in the game, we can chalk one up.
At third down and seven, we see the defensive tackles run up the field too far and leave a seam for the quarterback to tuck it and run up the middle for a pretty good gain. Let's look at the quarterback's actions when he decides to tuck and run. The quarter back is holding the ball with both hands in the middle of his sternum. That tells me that if I am coming from behind, I have to do a full two hand strip and drape down. If I am in front of him, I have to put my face on the ball and do a full hug. I have to do a good job of coaching these points. We have seen several times when the quarterback tucks and runs; he is running to save his life. He is not running to throw the ball.
The other thing I want to notice is how many hands he has on the ball when he runs. When most quarterbacks take off, they have the ball in their throwing hand because they are thinking they are going to reload and throw the ball. That is when they fumble the football. Once they tuck it they are less likely to fumble.
I do not like to just watch a team by formation. I like to watch cut ups by down and distance. I can see how they attack that situation and then I can look how they attack defensive coverage's. You can see what fits you best from these scenarios. I do not go into a game thinking we are going to run cover 2 until the cows come home. I might find out they have cover 2 beaters and they attack us with them. I do not go into a game thinking we are better athletes than them so we are going to run man to man coverage all game. I might find out we have one bad match up and they can exploit this match up. it is for this reason we also look at the cutups by formation.
When we look at cutups, we list the down, distance and line of scrimmage directly on the cutup. We list the formation and the pass concept. We list the defensive front and the coverage, What I learned from the NFL and Dorn Capers was to put as much information on the cutup as possible. This keeps you from having to write stuff down on paper, so you actually watch the cutup. You can really start to see some tendencies this way. We usually look at four games worth of tape for an opponent. The exception is third down where i will use all of their games, especially if they use a lot of different concepts.
We will break down our cutups into segments based on field position. If you play against an air raid type of team, they will be very similar in the red zone as they are in the green zone. If you play against a team whose bread and butter is an all go concept, they are not able to run their primary pass offense in the red zone. They have to use a different type of pass concept.
Let me talk about some quarterback notes for a moment. I touched on this earlier.
DESCRIBE POCKET PRESENCE
Does he run or throw. In just the few clips we have watched, I would say if this guy decides to run, he is committed to run. I would want to see a lot more clips before I put it in the game plan but from what we have seen, he is going to tuck and run. If the defense is coming, he is getting out of there. How patient is he? How does he handle pressure up the middle in his face?
In the cutups we saw, the quarterback got hit several times by the rush. As he went on in the game, he started to flinch and watch the pass rush up front. I make sure my guys know if he gets hit early on he will flinch and be distracted.
The quarterback has good arm strength. He was able to hit one of those go patterns down the field while he was getting hit. I want to identify if he throws harder and with more velocity to his left or to his right on all deep throws. want to know all of his body cues when he throws deep. Does he fishtail at the end of his drop, if he is going to throw the ball deep to his left?
Where is the ball placement before he throws? Does he hold the ball high or low? Does he hold the ball with one hand or firmly with two?
Where does he launch the ball from? Is it five yards or nine yards from the line of scrimmage? We change the rush depending on his launch point. Some coaches decide they are going to rush to seven yards. We try to rush to where the quarterback is going to be. When we run through our pass rush drills for the week we put the bag where the quarterback is going to be. If you do not tell your defensive guys where he is going to be, if he steps up, they will fly right past him.
Does he hold the ball looking to run or looking to pass? How does he hold the ball, with one hand or two? We have to know this to coach our defense on how we want them to strip the ball. When he runs, can we chase him down? When a quarterback escapes to his throwing side, he always thinks he has a chance to throw the ball. This is when he typically has poor ball security. This is when you want to go for the strip.
Most quarterbacks today are pretty good with this. They will try to look down the middle of the field and get their cues from the safeties.
In all of these situations, it is important for you to coach your defense to the tendencies the opponent is going to run. It is just as important to show them what you are talking about with cutups. You can tell them all you want. When they really understand what you are saying is when they see what you are talking about.
We have cutups of just quarterback runs and another one just for quarterback throws. I want to know if the quarterback has a tendency to scramble to the left or to the right. If he scrambles to the left, do the receivers react a certain way.
Then when you practice it in seven-on-seven. you can coach up the scout team as to what you want them to show as well as coach your defense on how to handle the situation. Once we are practicing in a team period, I script a scramble for the scout team quarterback and tell him what I want him to show.
It watching cutups, I always like to show my defense other good defensive players. They see a great play and think, Whoa! I ask them if they can make the same type of play as they just saw against the same opponent.
After we go through all of the cutups, we work up our defensive game plan. This is when the self-scout idea comes in.
WHAT ARE OUR DISTANCE TENDENCIES?
WHEN DO WE PRESSURE?
Do we blitz every time it is third and five? need to know so I can determine if I need to change it up. Even though it may be something I like, I do not want to become predictable.
Do I run certain coverage in third and short? Do I have a tendency to run a certain coverage if it is third and long? If you get beat by a cover-2 beater is it because you ran a cover-2 every time you face a third down and ten? If you do it should not surprise you that you got beat.
SLOT VS. NICKEL
A 5'10" defensive back is not usually a good match up with a 6'5" receiver. We are going to have to do something different. We are going to have to press him and keep him at bay, or put a safety over the top and knock the living daylights out of him. We have to do something because it is a bad match up for us. Maybe we can put a bigger guy on him.
If you have a substituting defense, have a good middle linebacker who can cover backs out of the backfield. In the cutups of the team we just saw, their favorite play was all go, back burst out of the backfield. The back is bursting off of somebody and it is likely to be your Mike linebacker. He has to be able to cover and tackle the running back in space.
BASIS THAT WE CAN USE TO COMBAT
WHAT THEY WANT TO DO?
WHAT PRESSURES DO WE LIKE VS.
Do we know who the quarterback is going to throw to hot, if we bring a blitz package? If we know that, we can sit on it and make some plays. If we know they are going to run a bubble screen against us in certain blitz situations, we need to know that and make the appropriate adjustments to handle it.
My nickel back is my best defensive back. I am betting on my guy. I need to know that my nickel can handle their slot receiver. If I know that I can do other things with my scheme and not worry about the slot receiver.
When we play our opponent we know a lot about them. Our guys know if the running back is going to cut whoever he is blocking. We know on third down and ten if they were going to run an all go route with a burst out of the backfield.
When we were in this situation, I want to make sure we have a 4 deep coverage. It did not matter how we line up, we are going to get to four deep defenders who can cover the deep ball. In the cut ups we had the right coverage but the linebacker got caught up watching the quarterback and not their man. They had what call an eye violation. They kept their eyes on the quarterback and did not keep their eyes on their luggage.
On third down and three, we know their protection is to slide to their left. We bring two guys off the edge from their right. The quarterback does not have the time to complete his pass. His timing is messed up and the ball does not get anywhere close to the receiver.
The next time they ran the all go from a third and 13, we were ready for it. The quarterback tried to hit the slot receiver but the nickel back did a good job and he could not fit the ball in. We practiced against the all go in practice all week. If they were going to fool us, it was not going to be on the all go route.
This is how we prepare the game plan for third down situations. We then make our call sheet for pressures based on down and distance. We list our best coverage's and we want to run by down and distance. We list the offensive linemen and or the backs we want to attack based on down, distance, and personnel.
I think it is important to teach rules and responsibilities at the high school and college levels. In the pros they have a lot of defensive play based just on personnel rules. Teach A-gap, B-gap, and C-gap responsibilities based on your beliefs. Give your kids simple rules to follow and they will know their responsibilities.
I get a lot of questions about self-scouting and when do you make changes away from who you are so you do not have the same tendencies. We are a 3-4 pressure defense. I tell anybody in our program that. We are not going to change just to change.
I have to mix up how we apply pressure from our 3-4 pressure defense. You cannot be blind to what you do. I will at times do something completely different to throw off our tendencies. If the offense knows what you are going to do, they can draw up something likely to be successful. You have to put your team in situations where they are most likely to be successful. I try to stick to who we are but I also try to be as realistic as possible. If I know they are going to just throw the ball up to Plaxico Burress if we pressure them a certain way, I probably will not throw that pressure at them, even though that is what we have a tendency to do.
Thank you guys, I have enjoyed being with you today.