JORDAN: Third Down Defense – Part 1

Dec 28, 2019; Orlando, Florida, USA;Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) runs with the back as Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) defends during the second half at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A part of the fallout from the 2019 Iowa State football season was a perception that the defense regressed in large part due to an inability to make consistent stops on third down in crucial circumstances. For instance, on the win/lose final drive by Baylor where they converted three third downs and kicked a game-winning field goal (I identify that as the pivot point for the season for both of those teams).

I took a two-part approach to the analysis in order to look at whether perception was reality and to identify the factors that may have contributed to any actual issue that manifested. The first part was some statistical work which led me to view certain schematic elements that can be explored in a part II.

Third Down in General Terms – Decisions

It is obvious to all consumers of football that third down is important because it is a change of possession down. Also quite obvious is the dynamic that the more yards you need to gain to achieve a first down, the more stilted the odds of success are in favor of the defense.

Therefore, success for the defense on third down is a critical component to overall defensive performance and ranks very high on the scale of factors that win games. A team that dominates third down is at least going to be in a position to win a game under most circumstances.

With that underpinning, coaching staffs and defensive coordinators have preferences and game plans specifically for third-down both in the developmental stages (spring and fall camp) and in weekly game planning. Based on the distance of the down, there will be preferences for certain coverages (man, press, pattern match, zone), the front may change (3 on long, 5 on short), and a decision on if, when, and how one brings pressure will be made. All of that is predicated on the base defense and how the base defensive set can be effective.

There are teams that bring creative pressure as a high tendency on third down regardless of distance. This can be effective because the pressure is designed to cut down the time for a play to develop and give a negative yardage threat for the offense. For instance, against Oklahoma State, Iowa State faced seven-man pressures (a 0 blitz) on third downs in the second half. On multiple occasions, and truthfully quite often on third down, Iowa State did not provide an outlet or hot option and was caught in long-developing routes that could not bloom before the pressure got there.

Conversely, there are teams that will play base with a slight variation in coverage or pressure but are primarily defending the line to gain forward due to an ability to play solidly enough that a low percentage throw will be forced. Kansas State and TCU are examples of this approach. They will occasionally bring a fifth man in pressure and routinely play press or man on the outside in third-down situations. Both teams rely on, and get, pressure from their four down and defend the under zones inside and the outside release tightly so that getting the first down requires solid execution by the offense.

Iowa State’s approach in 2017 and 2018 was predicated on playing coverage with an 8 man drop defending the line to gain. The pressure was deployed strategically and as a changeup and was effective. The pressure package was varied. It came from the corner, a deep safety, two safeties on the backside of a slant, and from the OLB splitting the line and inside receiver. ISU enjoyed strong run defense with Ray Lima clogging the middle, JaQuan Bailey providing some pressure, and Joel Lanning and Mike Rose scraping cloudy to clear.

In contemplating the decisions and style of play above, the question became, why was there a perception of failure and what was the cause of the actual failures lamented during the 2019 season for Iowa State? Or, was it strictly perception based on a few high profile failures? And, what needs to change if anything?

ISU on Third Down – A Few Statistics

I am far from a statistician, however, I do spend a good amount of time trying to understand certain advanced statistics, but also looking inside of traditional measures for clues to certain performance criteria. The base-level statistic for third-down defense is the opponent’s conversion percentage.

Iowa State ranked 8th in the Big 12 giving up a first down on 41.38% of the third-down attempts faced. For comparison purposes, I took a deep look into the Kansas State defense which was 2nd nationally in third-down defense giving up a first down on only 28% of third-down attempts faced. Kansas State is an interesting comparison point due to their success, their varied approach, and the fact that their overall performance was only one win better than Iowa State, yet they achieved top marks on third down.

The opponent’s third-down conversion rate for Iowa State is not stellar. It is well into the back half of the conference. However, in 2017 and 2018, Iowa State ranked 8th and 5th respectively with conversion percentages of more than 40%. On the surface, it appears the perception was just a perception and there may not have been a problem.

But, let’s dive a bit deeper. I threw out the UNI game and the bowl game. For each conference game and Iowa and ULM, I looked at the results of every third down defended by Iowa State. In addition, for the same games, I looked at every defensive play in order to determine the defensive success rates.

For third-down analysis, I noted conversions v. holds, run or pass, scoring plays, sacks, and whether or not the play involved a quarterback run. I broke the analysis down by distance looking at short – 1-3 yards, mid – 4-6 yards, long – 7-10 yards, and behind the chains – 11+ yards.

For success rate analysis, I noted the yards given up on each play. Defensive success on first down means that less than 50% of the available yards were gained, on second down less than 70% of the available yards were gained, and on third and fourth down less than 100% of the available yards were gained. I broke the analysis down by success on each down and overall. Note, that in my research of success rates for defenses, if you are below 50%, then you have serious issues, and if you are at or above 60%, then you will be considered a nasty defense.

There are telling numbers within the breakout:

*** ISU forced opponents to third down more frequently than the norm. In the 11 games analyzed, there were 173 third down plays. That means that ISU did a solid job winning on first and second down. In fact, Iowa State’s success rate was an inline 55.5% on first down and a big-time 62.5% on second down.

*** Iowa State obtained 14 sacks on third downs in 2019 during the 11 games analyzed. Iowa State achieved 24 sacks during those same games total. That is 58% of the sack total occurring on third down. This indicates that Iowa State takes a higher risk pressure approach to third down while playing more base type defense on first and second down.

*** RED ALERT. 20 times the quarterback ran the ball on third down. The runs were either escapes, planned, or sneaks. 17 times the quarterback achieved a first down. This includes 6 out of 7 conversions on third and 4 or more (4 to 6 – 1/2, 7 to 10 – 4/4, 11+ – 1/1). Quarterback contain was an issue.

*** RED ALERT 2. Teams only ran the ball 11 times when faced with more than 7 yards to gain on third down. This is typical as most consider that a passing down. However, teams converted 7 of those attempts on the ground. That is a disturbing statistic.

*** Kansas State was elite on third down. They faced very few third downs, which was due largely to difficulty on first and second down. But, on all yardages, Kansas State only gave up 35.8% conversions against the run. Iowa State gave up conversions on 66% of the run plays attempted at all yardage levels.

*** Passing against Kansas State on third down (except for West Virginia) was a non-starter. Overall K State gave up only a 22.8% conversion rate when teams decided to pass on all distances. Iowa State gave up a 32.7% conversion rate under the same circumstances. Iowa State’s performance is on the upside of good against the pass – Kansas State is doing something right that should be looked at as a pivot in the league similar to what Iowa State’s defensive scheme has been.

*** When looking at success rates you find that Kansas State was slightly behind Iowa State on first down success rate – 54% to 55.5%. In success rate analysis, a 1% margin is a meaningful difference. On second down KSU was a solid 55% performer, while Iowa State was elite at 62.5%. That is an enormous difference. Then, on third down, Kansas State was a ridiculous 70% performer while Iowa State was middling to poor 56.6% performer. Overall, ISU 57.8% – KSU 57.4%. The third-down performance brought ISU and KSU in line in defensive performance which via their records bore out throughout the season.

Perception was Reality

My largest takeaway from the overall analysis of the statistics is that the perception regarding the inability to get off the field on third down for the 2019 Cyclones was reality. However, it wasn’t for the reasons largely echoed among the fandom.

The bright star of the numbers is that Iowa State has to be better in containing the quarterback on third down. More stark and disturbing is the overall inefficiency against the run on third down. While run plays are generally third and short calls and Iowa State’s 75% conversion rate given up is in line with most defenses, the 50% rate attributed to third and mid, long, and behind the chains is starkly poor.

Pass defense was in line historically and could not be considered poor, though memory and in-game perception tell you otherwise. The moments in which teams were successful throwing the ball on third down is the simple explanation for that (3rd &2 v. OSU – 71 yard TD, 3rd & 22 v. Iowa – a 27-yard completion to get out of a hole). However, there is a statistical indication that there was a discipline issue in the structure of the scheme utilized.

Further, the statistics reveal the approach of ISU’s defensive staff on third down. Pressure or prevent. That was the modus operandi. Iowa State brought pressure which is supported by the third-down sack total. Prevent is supported by the passing conversions and quarterback run success. Ultimately, it indicates a high risk/high reward approach to third down in 2019. Part II will discuss more about this approach and why it wasn’t more effective.

The higher risk approach to third down is not wrong. It was also successful in parts, but it allows for more disappointing conversions when teams are dialed into what the possibilities are and where the vulnerabilities lie in both personnel and scheme.

The 2019 defense was only marginally worse than its two predecessors. In some categories, it was better and elevated. The analysis certainly shows deficiencies in run defense on third down, but the overall performance against the run was in line with the established norm. The question then shifts to where and why were those deficiencies present in the big moments and why did some show up consistently throughout the season.


Familiarity with the defensive scheme is a very valid answer to the question of where the deficiencies appeared. What “familiarity” means is that teams have studied enough film now to know how to run the ball against the structure and where to attack the pass defense. They still aren’t overly successful against the ISU defense, but where certain situations arise, there is now a “book” out on where to go and how to get there.

Essentially, in the run game, teams keyed on TCU’s run game success in 2017 (yes, ISU won that game, but TCU aided the victory by stubbornly trying to pass when all they needed was the run game). The simplified explanation is that the blocking scheme shields and separates the end and nose and releases a lineman to the second level to interfere with the initial scrape by the linebackers. Then, they attack and adjust and the oft used 4 technique of an end (playing inside shoulder of the tackle which gives an easy pin to the inside on the edge) by pinning the end and leading to the fill backer or safety and opening an alley to the outside. The examples were Texas Tech, Kansas, and Kansas State. The example of what not to do was Texas. Personnel was an issue as well in the run defense.

In the passing game, the defense did not play with its characteristic discipline. It was pulled apart and shifted by route combos that provide an underneath slide component and runoffs. The defense did not maintain its integrity and larger gaps were created than what should have been in an eight-man drop. Baylor ran a very similar defense to Iowa State, but they deployed more discipline in their drop and match up and were more effective in coverage because of it. The pass rush has a ton to do with this as well, but a topic for another day.

In addition, the Iowa State defense operates like a funnel and they leave open the flat extending to 7 yards from the tackle to the sideline on a diagonal line. The reason for this is it allows greater coverage to rob the RPO game that is generally deployed in the Big 12 and great trust is imparted to the outside defenders to drive and tackle any completion to the open area. Iowa State was able to get away with that previously because Payne, Peavy, Harvey, and Eisworth were excellent driving to the ball on the short flat routes. 2019 saw complete turnover due to graduation and injury. The area was less well defended and defended inconsistently which allowed teams to extend drives with simple, pressure beating throws. Texas Tech did it all game. Oklahoma State did it all game. Others used it more selectively, but it was a major weakness in the Iowa State defensive structure.

Those are teasers for Part II where I will present some clips to further illustrate what I deemed the flaws in the scheme that led to a perception of third-down inefficiency and left fans with a tinge of doubt by season’s end.

In addition, I will explore some speculative fixes that may manifest when a sport is allowed to be played safely again. See you in Part II.


Jay Jordan


A graduate of Parkersburg High School, Iowa State University, and SMU Dedman School of Law. I am a practicing attorney and business consultant in the morning and an armchair quarterback in the afternoon. I played at Iowa State under Jim Walden. Turned a football obsessed hobby in to writing beginning with a stint at Wide Right and Natty Lite during the 2015 season. I am currently the Film Room writer and contributor at, will be a co-host on Big 12 recruiting podcast, The OV, and am an analyst here at Cylcone Fanatic.

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