Third and ten is a common down and distance scenario that can arise from many situations, but mainly it occurs when an offense either suffers from two incomplete passes or gains positive yardage and then loses yardage due to a penalty. Third refers to the down, meaning that particular play is the third in a set of downs. Ten refers to the distance in yards the offense needs travel to earn a first down. Because most, if not all run plays are only designed to gain three to five yards at a time, run plays are rarely chosen over pass plays for 3rd and 10, making the offense's play call more predictable to the defense. This scenario is considered a pivotal moment in an offensive drive, because if the offense fails to gain a first down, then they will be in a fourth down situation and likely be forced to punt or kick a field goal, effectively ending their drive with a lower score, if even a score at all, than that of a touchdown.
In most any third and 10 scenario, the punter or kicker will begin warming up on the sideline, preparing for an impending punt or field goal attempt depending on field position. However the offense should never be deterred and continue to make an attempt at gaining a first down, and in the case of a 3rd and 10 scenario, the best bet is for the offense to pass. Many 3rd and 10 play designs will feature a motion at the beginning of the play. This helps to discern the defense's coverage, and it allows the quarterback to make key inferences about which receivers will be open. Once the ball is snapped receivers will often run a shallow route, such as an in route, out route or 3-step hitch, and a deep route, such as a wheel, a post, or a corner. Another common occurrence in 3rd and 10 play design involves imploring crossing routes, such as having a wide receiver run a slant and the slot receiver to run a wheel route. This serves to confuse the defense, ultimately creating an open receiver.
As mentioned before run plays are not favored in 3rd and 10 situations. Even the best running backs in NFL history only had about five yards per carry, with all time career leader Jamaal Charles earning 5.49 yards per carry. For a run attempt on 3rd and 10 to succeed, an offense needs the perfect blend of an exception running back, an outstanding offensive line, great play calling, and a hope to catch the defense unprepared. Unfortunately this is an order too tall to fill in most college and professional football settings.
Any good defensive coordinator should expect a pass attempt on 3rd and 10 and should adjust their defense accordingly. This typically means running a 3-4 offense, with only three down linemen and four linebackers. The defense will either utilize a cover 2 or cover 3 shell over top with either a zone or man defense played by linebackers and corners underneath. Selecting which combination of techniques and coverages depends on what the defensive coordinator feels is mostly likely to come from the offense. Cover 2 and cover 3 defense offer great protection from long passes, but both are susceptible to short passes. Because of this, stopping the offense, and ultimately the drive, will typically rely on the linebackers and corners. While zone offense allows for the defense to have coverage across the field, zone defense is susceptible to floods or crossing routes. On the other hand, man coverage can minimize these risks, but relies on proper footwork and speed from the defense to keep up with and cover a receiver.