Football 3rd Down Conversion

football 3rd down

What Is a 3rd Down Conversion?

A third down conversion occurs when an offense successfully reaches the first down line, also known as the “line to gain,” during their third out of four downs, leading to a new set of downs for them on offense.

Why Are 3rd Downs Important?

Third downs are some of the most critical moments in a game. The offense knows they need a first down, and the defense knows they cannot allow them to convert. 

When an offense is faced with a third down, execution becomes more crucial. Third down conversion percentages are often used to determine the best offenses.

3rd Down Offense Strategy

Depending on the number of yards a team needs to get a first down, offenses will run either a pass or run play for the first and second downs. When it is third down, and the offense needs more than three yards, they will almost always run a passing play. This is a good choice on third and long because run plays rarely result in large gains, especially if the defense has been good enough to stop previous run plays on first and second down.

Alternatively, on third and short situations, when there are only a couple of yards to reach first down, coaches will usually choose to run the ball. However, passing in short-yardage scenarios is becoming more popular in the NFL as offenses are continually trying to trick defenses by going against the grain of common tactics.

On third down passing plays, receivers are instructed to run their routes “to the sticks,” meaning they should be prepared to catch the ball at the line to gain, rather than having to run up to it. This is because a pass caught behind the first down line essentially becomes a run play, meaning that the defense can scramble quickly to stop the receiver’s progress before he reaches the line to gain. However, if a receiver is already at the first down line, catching the ball will mean that they don’t have to run and can either go out of bounds or take a tackle, as they have managed to secure a first down.

3rd Down Defense Strategy

Third downs are often the most important down for both offenses and defenses because they both have the most to gain and lose. Failing to convert a third down means an offense will face fourth down and likely be forced to punt the ball back to their opponent or settle for a field goal attempt. Additionally, defenses hate giving up third down conversions because they have almost stalled an offense’s drive but fallen short at the last moment.

To best guard against receivers running stick routes, defensive backs are taught to “play the sticks” on third down so that they may prevent receivers from reaching the line to gain. Being aggressive with the offensive receivers is a means of causing incomplete passes and disorienting the quarterback by giving him few passing options. Another way to defend a third down is by “overloading,” or placing the majority of the defensive line on one side, meaning that they can press back the offensive line while a single player from the secondary rushes the quarterback or runner. 

In order to effectively defend on third down, the entire defense must have excellent communication. Defenders typically communicate via hand signals to designate who is covering which player on the offense. Without effective communication, the entire defense can crumble and fail on a third down conversion attempt.   

3rd Down Conversion Rate

One of many ways to assess the effectiveness of an offensive or defensive squad is by their third down conversion rate. The lower the rate is, the more stops and turnovers per game the defense gets. The higher it is, the more opportunities to extend a scoring drive are achieved by the offense. These rates only give a partial picture of a squad’s overall effectiveness, and conversion rates for every down should be considered when determining the abilities of a squad. 


What teams have the best NFL 3rd down conversion rates?

Although the number-one spot changes from year to year, the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs have had the best third down conversion rates in recent history. Other teams with consistently high third down conversion numbers are the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Green Bay Packers.

Why is 3rd down so important?

Third down is so important because it is effectively the last chance for an offense to get another set of four downs. Although they get a fourth down, most teams use the fourth down to punt, as the alternative is to turn the ball over in an unfavorable field position. Third down is important for defenses as it is their biggest opportunity to prevent the opposing offense from advancing or scoring and to get possession back for their team.