Trends in the game: Run on third down?

On my NFL summer camp tour a number of offensive coordinators said to me that the running game in the league today works best when you have at least one of the following three things ... a personnel grouping that has a heavy pass-to-run ratio, a formation that looks like pass or a down and distance that has a heavy pass to run ratio.

One coach said, "we intend to run the ball more on third down than we ever have in the past."

I wondered if the third down run philosophy could be a trend in the game for 2007.

Well, I took a long hard look at the third-down running game on opening weekend and not that all the teams intend to run the ball more in this situation but there are some very interesting numbers that should be discussed in game-planning meetings around the league.

On Week 1 of the NFL season, the 32 teams ran the ball 89 times on third downs. That works out to be 2.8 times per team per game. It includes quarterback sneaks on a few third and less than 1-yard situations, and the times the quarterback scrambled and ran on third down. But more often than not there were run plays called on third downs. For example, the Texans ran the ball eight times on third down from third and one all the way to third and 35. They converted six of the eight tries. In fact, around the league in those 89 attempts teams moved the chains 59 times or 63 percent of the time. That intrigued me, so I broke down the down-and-distance situations to see where the running concept fell off and it became ill-advised to use a rushing play. That offensive coordinator who told me his team was putting it up less on third down may be on to something.

Of course, there were another 18 third-down runs on more than third-and-seven situations, and only five of them converted to first downs at a rate of 27 percent, which is far below what good teams convert on third downs and it remains a bad choice. But it may be time to look at expanding the run calls in other moderate third-down situations. Of the 71 attempts on third and seven or less, only 11 were quarterback scrambles, which leaves 60 plays for a run play call. The 11 scrambles did produce seven first downs, which is satisfactory.

A close look at the third down runs in the range of third and 4 to 7 yards minus the QB scrambles is a trend number for sure. I can remember breaking down opponents for years and seeing many teams with zero runs in this range. On opening weekend there were big runs in this situation all for first downs. Aaron Stecker plus-14 in New Orleans, Shaun Alexander plus-22 in Seattle, Clinton Portis plus-9 in Washington, Najeh Davenport in Pittsburgh plus-13, Larry Johnson plus-6 and plus-8 in Kansas City, Ahman Green plus-18 in Houston to name a few.

Finally, it goes back to the idea of what the defense thinks they are defending. Right now most computer scouting reports say it's just about all pass on third downs but a month from now it seems like those reports are going to be more balanced. How can offensive coaches look at a 90 percent success rate on third and one runs and keep throwing? How can a QB look at a pass defense on third and three knowing the run success rate is 60 percent and not check to a run? The tapes don't lie and this potential trend is going to get hotter.

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