Ben’s Breakdown: handicapping CFL third-down gambles

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

In last week’s four-game CFL slate, the eight teams combined to run 19 offensive plays on third down, converting on all but four of these occasions for a success rate of almost 80 percent. That’s a great conversion rate, yet three of the four failed attempts had what I view as serious but avoidable flaws in either personnel, formation, or design.

For this week’s breakdown, let’s take a look at the plays teams across the lead are calling when the chips are down on third down.

Quarterback sneak
I hate quarterback sneaks. They’re boring. That said, you won’t find a more reliable way to gain a yard on third down in Canadian football.

Not surprisingly, all 13 third-down quarterback sneaks this week were run with a single yard to gain, and 11 of them converted for an 85 percent success rate. At this down and distance, a sneak should hit at close to 100 percent in the CFL. The one-yard neutral zone and knowledge of the snap count are huge advantages. Only a mistake on the offensive side of the ball, like a bobbled snap or a loss of footing, should lead to a stop.

An exception to this is extreme crowd noise which can negate the snap count advantage. This is what appeared to happen on Antonio Pipkin’s stuffed sneak against Winnipeg. With the noise level at IG Field, half the Riders’ offensive line was late to react. Winnipeg’s defensive line exploded forward into a roll, preventing Saskatchewan’s line from driving forward, which led to the stop.

The other failed quarterback sneak on third down was Tyrell Pigrome’s in Ottawa. He’d already failed to convert sneaks on first and second down, fumbling the ball on the previous attempt. Pigrome looked cautious on the third down attempt, perhaps thinking about ball security. Given what happened on the previous play, I’d like to have seen Dustin Crum come in for this sneak.

On that topic, not every quarterback is built for sneaks. I like Pigrome as a backup but at five-foot-nine and 206 pounds, I wouldn’t use him on short-yardage. I feel similarly about Toronto’s quarterback sneak specialist Cameron Dukes. Both are great dual-threat guys, but I’d run sneaks with Dustin Crum and Chad Kelly instead. I want a taller, heavier quarterback who can drive the pile like a rugby lock in a scrum. If need be, they can extend forwards and use their length to get a first down or touchdown. We saw this exact mechanism with Taylor Cornelius this weekend.

Down the line
Out of a traditional quarterback sneak formation, Montreal’s Caleb Evans ran parallel to the line of scrimmage before attempting to turn upfield. Evans was stuffed for a loss. This is a highly risky play on third down because every player on the defence is coming downhill, especially when they see this formation.

By running down the line, the quarterback gives the defence time to flow to the ball, beat their blocks, and overwhelm the offence with numbers. On third down, this should only be run as a reaction to an over-stacked interior or an overly aggressive contain defender.

Shotgun plays
The remaining five third-down plays were run out of shotgun, though three of them had more than a yard to go to get a first down. I hate to see shotgun on third-and-one, but it works for me when there are two or more yards to go. Traditional shotgun runs are risky on third down. Coaches sometimes get lost in their analytics and call a play that generates over four yards a carry, but those numbers may not apply on third down and short with every defender on their way to the ball carrier.

The most successful play in terms of yardage from this group was Tre Ford’s run for Edmonton. Ford faked a handoff up the middle to the pistol back and then ran out wide himself for a 24-yard gain. I only like this call because it’s Tre Ford. Calgary blew the contain on defence but even if they hadn’t, Ford is the fastest guy on the field so I’ll always trust him one-on-one with a defender in space.

My favourite third down call this week was a well-designed play by Toronto on third-and-three from the Montreal five-yard-line. Chad Kelly faked a handoff, rolled to his left, and then ran it in himself. This was a designed pass, but Kelly had the option to run, which is what I like so much about the play. The jet motion and subsequent flat route from Dejon Brissett drew two defenders, widening the contain and bringing down the safety, which left a wide gap for Kelly to run through.

My least favourite third down call was Edmonton’s slow-developing middle run play out of tight right pistol, where Tre Ford had to reverse around for the handoff. As mentioned in the above sections, this play might have had a successful history on first down, but with every defender attacking the backfield on third down, and no options for anything but a run on this play, it was doomed before the ball was even snapped.

With 10 Calgary players in the box, by the time running back Kevin Brown got the ball five yards behind the line of scrimmage, there were already three Stampeders in the backfield with another five clogging up the middle of the line. Brown was tackled for a loss.

You won’t find a lot of third-and-short plays on weekly highlight packs, but their importance can’t be understated. CFL teams devote practice time each week to work on and tweak their short-yardage packages, knowing that those are the very plays that may decide that week’s result.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.