Third down is where you make your money in the NFL. This isn’t any kind of revelation. 1st and 2nd down, you can do all the trickery, all the game theory, all the experimentation that you want. On 3rd down (and, should you chose to go for it, 4th down), you have to convert. Do you achieve this by putting the ball in the hands of your best players and have them make a play, or do you try to have the defense overreact to your playmakers and get it to a role player? In their Week 1 game against the Bears, the Falcons tried to get the ball to their best players and have them make a play. On every play. Not once did they try to fool the Bears. In fairness, the Bears defense is pretty hard to fool, so maybe it’s just best to go headstrong.
The Falcons had 14 3rd or 4th down plays, plus two that got called back due to penalties. On 14 of those 16 plays (12 of the 14 that counted), they were in shotgun. To no surprise, every 3rd and 4th down shotgun play included Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Eric Weems and Harry Douglas alternated as the fourth receiver. Only once did the Falcons run the ball, on 3rd and 1, Turner broke past a stacked box for a 53 yard gain. The other 13 times they passed, and every time Ryan looked at one of his three big targets first, second and third. Not once was Harry Douglas or Eric Weems the primary target on a play where White, Jones and Gonzalez were dummies to open up space for the role players. Douglas, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers were each a pass target, Snelling twice, all were on check downs, all of them were dropped.
So the Falcons game plan was get the playmakers the ball on 3rd down, and to do it in shotgun. Certainly a good philosophy to have. But when you do it on every play, it becomes really predictable and bland. This is highlighted by a sequence in the 3rd quarter, where the Falcons are facing 3rd and 17. The ball is on the left hash, the Falcons come out in shotgun, as always, in a 3 x 1 formation with Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the trips to Ryan’s right. Gonzalez is flanked by Harry Douglas to the inside and Roddy White outside the numbers. Julio Jones is alone on the left. Pre-snap, the Bears show Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings directly over White and Jones, with DJ Moore over both Douglas and Gonzalez. Gonzalez comes in motion to the left, stopping in front of Matt Ryan, then goes back to where he came. Moore floats with Gonzalez during his motion, staying with him but apparently ready to pass him off if he crosses over to the other side of the field. When Gonzalez sets he his locked in, back on his original spot, Moore is on him. Douglas is left to be picked up by Brian Urlacher in zone defense. On the snap, Jason Snelling, lined up to Ryan’s left, checks to block any oncoming pass rushers then finds open space. Douglas runs down the seam, Jones and White run fly routes. But Falcons backup center Joe Hawley is flagged for a false start due to a head bob. Gonzalez is about to give Moore some kind of move but the whistle blows before he can do it. So now it’s 3rd and 22.
The Falcons run the exact same play again. Every single thing I just described in pre-snap happened exactly the same way, except that Moore didn’t follow Gonzalez around as much during Gonzalez’s motion. He knows that Gonzalez isn’t going anywhere, and if he does that Lance Briggs will pick him up. Urlacher is set up a few yards deeper than before, but still with the same pre-snap responsibilities: Briggs and Urlacher are dropping back, splitting the area between the numbers into zones. All the receivers in the frame did the exact same thing. Douglas ran down the seam, the linebackers dropped into zone. Jones ran a fly, Gonzalez makes his move on Moore at the same place, it’s a curl route but seeing that Moore is playing zone he options to an out route. Snelling checked for a pass rusher, there was none so he headed to the middle of the field. Ryan, pressured by a straight four man pass rush, had no place to go and dumped it off to Snelling 4 yards past the line of scrimmage. On 3rd and 22. Snelling dropped the ball and would have immediately been tackled by Moore and Briggs.
The Falcons went 4 for 14 on 3rd/4th down. Maybe it’s because they were so vanilla.
Now compare this to the Eagles, who by design threw at Jason Avant, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson (from that bunch formation Dave hates), Brent Celek and Dion Lewis. The Eagles went 8 for 12 on third down, which isn’t a sustainable rate (the Falcons’ 31% on 3rd down however is, it would have been 29th in the NFL last year). One team tried to force the ball to three players, the other team spread it around to twice as many. The former had terrible results, the latter was ruthlessly efficient. Good processes lead to good results. 3rd down will be something to keep your eye on Sunday night. Will the Falcons try to spread the ball around instead? What if that doesn’t work early on? Do they stick with it or try to go back to force feeding it? Or do they chalk up the poor performance as a not likely to repeat result and force feed it from the get go?