Film Study: The Anatomy of 3rd & Long

By Kyle Jones on July 10, 2014 at 3:00p

In Part 1 of our analysis of Ohio State's 3rd down offense, we discussed how coaches often set up their gameplan in different segments, depending on the amount of yards to gain:

  • 3rd and Short (1-3 yards)
  • 3rd and Medium (4-6 yards)
  • 3rd and Long (7-9 yards)
  • 3rd and Extra Long (10+ yards)

We went on to explore the ways the Ohio State offense approached 3rd and Short as well as 3rd and Medium situations, with both scenarios leaning heavily on the offense's established ability to run the football.

While the 2013 were very good in those situations, they failed to find the same success on longer downs. Simply by the nature of the scenario, it's easier to gain three yards as opposed to eight. But the qualitative factors at play, such as an opponent's personnel or alignment, appeared to magnify the difficulty of the task at hand for the 2013 Buckeyes.

Last season, the OSU offense faced 62 3rd downs with seven yards or more to gain, qualifying as 3rd and Long or Extra Long. Of those opportunities, the Buckeyes successfully converted only 14 (not counting defensive penalties that extended the drive), equating to a success rate of 22.5%.

Of those 14 conversions, six of them were scrambles by Braxton Miller or Kenny Guiton. Though many teams will call a quarterback draw in 3rd and long situations, the Buckeyes rarely seemed to call a play directly for the quarterbacks, instead relying on their athletic ability and pocket sense to know when to run.

Perhaps more alarming, the Buckeyes often went weeks at a time without converting a 3rd down like this. In the first quarter against California, Kenny Guiton completed a 12 yard pass to Devin Smith, converting a 3rd and 9 opportunity. The Buckeyes would fail to convert 13 straight attempts before finally converting a 3rd and 7 in the 4th quarter against Iowa, nearly four full games later.

As we approach the 2014 campaign, some clear patterns have emerged as to what we can expect to see from Urban Meyer's offense in these situations. 

Speed Kills

One of the tenets of Ohio State's offense is the play-action passing game. In an effort to keep defenses on their toes, the Buckeyes often looked to throw the ball deep to Devin Smith as a way of making defenses pay for playing the run too aggressively. Smith's speed along with the threat of Carlos Hyde running the ball made for a lethal combination.

However on 3rd and Long, the threat of a traditional running game is virtually gone; every defense will happily give up a five yard rush when the offense needs eight. However, the threat of Devin Smith's speed was still there. Opposing defenders often gave Smith a huge cushion, giving him room to make fairly easy catches on the comeback route:

While the Buckeyes didn't have many successful 3rd and Longs, twice in the first three weeks were they able to convert with the comeback route.

OSU Comeback 1

Since the Buckeyes have been known to run the "4 Verticals" concept often under Meyer, opponents have looked for it in these 3rd and Long situations. As the defender gives himself a head start in the potential race downfield, Smith breaks off his route at 10 yards and turns back towards the sideline to see a ball coming right towards the number 9 on his chest.

OSU Comeback 2

This concept is all about timing though, and there's no easier way to throw off the rhythm of a wide receiver than by jamming him at the line of scrimmage. Most notably, Michigan State and Clemson made life miserable for Buckeye receivers, physically beating them up at the line and not allowing them to get into their routes.

Not only could the Buckeye receivers get into their routes, but against elite athletes like Vic Beasley, Braxton Miller's scrambling ability was far less effective. The result was five sacks and only one 3rd and Long conversion in the two contests.

Pick A Side

Although offenses have more ground to gain in 3rd and Long situations, it also means defenses have more ground to cover. Coaches will often identify concepts that overload one side of the field with more receivers than there are defenders in zones to cover them. 

When the Buckeyes successfully converted a 3rd and 9 against Michigan and ended up with a 53 yard touchdown pass, the Buckeyes sent all their receivers to one side of the field. Lining up from the right hash, Tom Herman knew that the Michigan defenders on the wide side of the field would have more ground to cover, getting stretched horizontally. To make their lives even more difficult, the Buckeyes stretched them vertically, as well.


Flood routes, like the Sail concept seen here, give quarterbacks an easy decision while still getting multiple receivers deep enough to cover the ground needed to convert a first down. 

OSU Sail Route

With a deep-to-short read, going from the vertical route (#1) and working down towards the flat route (#3), the quarterback can easily identify which receiver is open with having re-set his feet to make a throw. Ideally, he should be in position to step into any of the three throws, regardless of which one comes open.

Not only does Braxton Miller have a quick, easy read for where to throw the ball, it makes it very easy for him to decide IF he throws it at all. If all three receivers are covered, he knows he is the fourth option. Very few teams are able to cover that much ground, rush the passer effectively, and still have eyes on a running quarterback.

(Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, one of those teams happens to reside in East Lansing, Michigan.)

With the loss of Carlos Hyde and four starting offensive linemen, the Buckeyes can't count on their rushing attack to be quite as effective as it was last season. The Buckeyes often set themselves up for manageable situations on 3rd down in 2013, thanks to strong production from Hyde.  

While Hyde posted strong numbers in both the Buckeye losses, it was clear that the Buckeyes lacked the balance needed offensively to truly compete on a national championship level. For Ohio State to get past teams like Michigan State and Clemson, there must be development in all phases of the drop-back passing game. 


Comments Show All Comments

ScarletNGrey01's picture

In the middle part of last season Miller was throwing nice, crisp spirals, I thought he had finally "figured out that throwing thing" and was on his way to becoming a great dual threat QB.  Then, his passing seemed to deteriorate at the end of the season.  BMill is going to have a ton of records before he hangs up his helmet, but would be wonderful if he has a great senior season passing, runs less, wins a B1G Championship and helps take the bucks to the playoffs.  I think the receiving corp will be a little better this year, but the OL is probably a big question mark at this point.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

Killer nuts's picture

Great analysis as always. You and Ross are a powerful tandem

+2 HS
ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

I remember many years ago...I think it was heading into the 2008 season because it was right after losing the back to back title games...they were doing some analysis on ESPN about 3rd downs and how horrible OSU's 3rd down conversion rate was overall in those two losses.  I remember the last article saying the conversion rate against MSU and Clemson was pretty bad, too.  That seems to be a common theme in OSU losses.  Not only does Braxton need to keep taking steps forward in his passing, but WRs need to start being more physical, too, and do a better job of getting open.

If the offense was lacking balance with the points that they put up, imagine what it would've been like with that balance.

Class of 2010.

+1 HS
SLVRBLLTS's picture

The key to 3rd down conversions will always rely on what is done on 1st and 2nd downs. No matter how well they improve on 3rd and extra long, it still won't yield sustainable success. Not many scoring drives are built by converting multiple 3rd and longs. That being said, I'm just glad we're not in 2011 anymore seeing play action on 3rd and 12.

"Because we couldn't go for three"

+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

Completely, 100% agree. The 2013 team was excellent at avoiding 3rd and Longs (they didn't face a single one against Northwestern). But, when they did face 3rd and Longs, they became a different team.

I'm all for focusing on getting into good 3rd down situations, but there has to be improvement in the drop-back passing game for the Buckeyes to have any shot at beating an "elite" defense.

HeuermanTheFireman's picture

When it was a third and long (and I wasn't at the game) I treated it as extra time to get up, use the restroom and grab a beer. That is how confident I was the Bucks wouldn't convert. Hopefully that'll change this year.

The person responsible for toes clearly wanted you to stub them.

Nutinpa's picture

Interesting article and spot on.

I blame the failure to convert 3rd and longs on one more issue or limitation:  Rarely has B Miller thrown a pass into a tight zone with a D Lineman draped on him or when taking a hit.  Part of this is due to what I presume has been the coaching Miller has received limit the hits that he takes.  Hard to argue with that, but how many times have we seen opposing quarterbacks complete passes at the very last second?  I'd say often....especially against the sorry D we have fielded.  Still....I would think....within reason of course, Miller will need to prove he can throw accurately into a tight zone and do so under duress or these 3rd and long stats will not improve....and neither will Miller's stock as pro quarterback.

KBonay's picture

Jeesh....I hope the competition is not reading this!

M Man's picture


(Superb job, btw, Kyle.)

+5 HS
MikeTheBuckeye's picture

I love the break down and analysis. Great work, staff.

NuttyBuckeye's picture

Great work, Kyle!  You mention our success rate was 22.5% at 3rd and long.  I am curious what the national average was, and where our offense was ranked compared to other schools in this category.

Thank you for your very informative articles!  I love this stuff.

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!

+1 HS
jpbuckeye's picture

Great question Nutty; always good to have a bench mark. Hopefully with all the databases out there this type of information will get easier to derive.


Kyle Jones's picture

If anyone can find one, I'd love to see it. Sadly, I did this all manually, going through the play-by-play of each OSU game last year. has a downloadable database of every play last year that I'm terrified to break into, but doesn't have it broken down by situation on the regular site, sadly...

NuttyBuckeye's picture

WOW!  Now that is impressive!  Give yourself 200 helmet stickers from me!!

What's round on the ends and high in the middle? Tell me if you know!

Buckeye Chuck's picture

One of my complaints about the passing attack a year ago was that we seemed to have few options for converting third-and-long passes "just past" the down marker. It seemed like we either threw deep -- never the most high-percentage option -- or threw short and hoped the receiver could find space to gain the necessary yardage.

We haven't really had the larger possession-type receiver along the lines of David Boston, Michael Jenkins, or Brian Robiskie in recent years, so maybe that's part of the reason.

The most "loud mouth, disrespect" poster on 11W.

Kyle Jones's picture

You're dead on. OSU had more than a few 3rd and Longs that came up short by only a yard or two. More often than not, they were the result of Braxton checking down to a safety valve like Hyde and hoping they could get yards after he catch. Definitely a safe play, but we'd all like to see completions beyond the sticks.

apack614's picture

These stats wouldn't be so upsetting if our defense wasn't so bad last year

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

-1 HS
BroJim's picture

Awesome read, Kyle. I with your point about the drop-back pass.

I season my simple food with hunger