O vs. D-Win 3rd Down With a Thought Process

3rd & Medium is one of the most frequent sets of calls on a game plan.  For those who excel at moving the chains or getting off the field, it is much more than a set of calls on their sheet.  

They instill a mindset and thought process with their coaches and players.  Those who do it best have it detailed out, and today we present the thought process of an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator that illustrates the approach that should be taken on this critical down.

Defining 3rd & Medium:

3rd & 4-6 yards to go. The offense runs out of short yardage and they are not going to run every time unless they are a run dominant offense. For multiple spread types of teams this becomes a pass situation more often than not.

Offensive side

Let’s start with offensive coordinator Dan Gonzalez.

First and foremost, they begin by preparing the staff and players in terms of thinking:

  • Convert 1st down
  • 100% ball security
  • Use tempo and cadence as a weapon

In their planning they become very aware of what the defense likes to do with personnel.  There may be times where the offense wants to keep their personnel off the field at times (using tempo) and they script this on the game plan sheet.

Emphasized Calls:

  • Drags
  • Options, pivots, turn-flat
  • Wing, stack and bunch sets to deter/defeat press

On the call sheet they will carry 6 calls devoted to this down and distance. The offense will utilize those things at their disposal that make moving the sticks a higher percentage conversion.  Routes that allow for a quick completion and run with the ball are the focus.  Being able to deter tighter coverage with compressed sets becomes a consideration.

They also want to have a shared understanding of what the defense likes to do in this situation. The defense has to be aggressive because completion is 1st down. The offense MUST make the defense cover the back but protect formations (empty and free release).


The objective is to make the defense standardize what they do. Most defenses are stereotypical; they can do a lot, but usually adhere to certain philosophical points that hold true even over the course of years.  Personnel  of the team and personality of the coordinator dictate what they will call.

In order to control what the offense, especially the quarterback, does, sometimes Gonzalez will give direction to the QB with their “FALCON” navigation tag.  It stands for “Forget the Advantage and Look off to the CONcept.  As the adult, he overrides the player to let the shot go because we want the possession route to move the sticks.

Third and medium doesn’t wait until game week to be addressed.  They install 6 base plays that they learn by the 3rd day of installation in camp and it is taught all the way down through the system into middle school and youth programs.

Gonzalez explains the thought process in this video:

Source: 3rd Down Passing

Defensive Side

Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller has a thought process that mirrors and counters that of the offense.

It starts with installing a set of “mindset calls” that get signaled in before the play call. In the Seminoles’ defense those are “Sheriff, Ranger, and Deputy.”  Like the thought process that Gonzalez installs in camp, this is also part of the FSU installation of third down in the early days of camp.

On game day, the 3rd down mindset is signaled and “Sheriff” call signifies these things for the defense on 3rd and medium:

  • Expect the hard count
  • Expect combination short routes and RB utilized in a route
  • Quick game protection – DL get hands up in quick game
  • Underneath coverage – jump the underneath routes
  • Run game is still alive
  • 4 minute mindset – type of pass game and direct runs
  • Man free coverage tools to not get picked
  • Possible late stem
  • Be aware of tempo and prepare for 4th down tries

Fuller covers the 3rd and Medium “Sheriff” Mindset in this video:

Source: Adam Fuller Florida State – 3rd Down Teaching

It’s easy to see that both the offense and defense are thinking about the same types of things.  It comes down to which team has a clearer situational focus and can react and execute against their opponent.

It is clear though that successful offenses and defenses utilize the thought process teaching with their players.  Knowing what may happen based on the situation can put your team at an advantage.


Whether you are an offensive or defensive coach, placing the 3rd down situational thought process into your installation plan and constantly teaching and reinforcing it can provide you advantages on game day on this critical down.


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