November 10, 2022

Cauz: The third down is a double-edged sword

Christian Bender/

The greatest amount of pressure a football team will experience during a game is what happens on third down. In the regular season it’s easy to forget the decisions made by coaches and the execution on the field, but in the playoffs when the stakes are ratcheted up to the highest levels, every move is magnified.

In both Montreal and BC’s Semi-Final victories the success and failures on third down played a massive role in last Sunday’s outcomes and will again be a factor in the Eastern and Western Finals. In Montreal’s 28-17 victory over Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats’ lack of aggression on third down doomed them and aided the Alouettes until it nearly didn’t. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.

Let’s start with Hamilton. I promise this is not meant to be an armchair critique of one of the best coaching staffs in the game. It’s easier to yell at the screen in the moment from the comfort of your couch than standing on the sidelines with mere seconds to make critical calls.

With the ease in which Montreal scored their opening two touchdowns I expected Hamilton to be more aggressive, but both of their field goal attempts came on third-and-two. I understand that even though it is just one yard, there is a mountain of a difference between third-an-one versus third-and-two. In different circumstances, sending out Seth Small is the right decision but on the road in the post-season with Trevor Harris and Jake Wieneke slicing through you on touchdown drives of five and eight plays, I thought that moment called for something daring. Instead, it was two successful field goals and the Tiger-Cats trailed 22-6 at the half.

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On the other side, Danny Maciocia went all in on a third-and-inches from his own 20 with under five minutes left in the first half and his team leading 22-6. This play highlights the fickle nature of sports criticism and how we in the media use the results to shape our narratives.

I thought the decision to send out Dominique Davis was crazy, but it worked out and allowed Montreal to run seven more plays, eat up nearly three minutes of clock and played a part in Hamilton not scoring again in the first half. Then in the fourth quarter with Montreal clinging to a one score lead the call again is given for Davis, but this time Richard Leonard and a host of defenders are up for the challenge and stop the 13-touchdown man dead in his tracks.

The only reason this play has not been a part of our conversation this week was Mike Rose’s second interception of the day three plays later that stole away any momentum Hamilton had gained. Then we all forget about how coach Maciocia’s daring may have cost his team a trip to the Eastern Final.

Those plays incapsulate just how difficult and sometimes unfair it is to criticize or praise decisions made on third down. Yes, Orlondo Steinauer could have been more aggressive early on when Montreal’s offence was humming, but his team had so many subsequent chances to tie the game and could not get it done. When looking at these games, I try to focus more on the overall impact on what happened on third down over just assigning blame and praise. It is clear that Montreal benefitted on these high leverage situations and are moving on.

As for the West, the headline is not that Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson was fearless on third down but rather the nature of some of the calls. The Stampeders were successful on their first two attempts, but a failed Malik Henry end around late in the first extinguished a promising drive and miscommunication between Jake Maier and Henry would soon lead to the eventual demise of Calgary.

What fascinated me about the role of third down in this game was not about the Calgary play calls but rather what happened soon after Maier was not able to hit Henry on third-and-two with under eight minutes to go in the third quarter and the Lions only leading 13-6.

The most celebrated play of last weekend was the short yardage, 45-yard touchdown pass from Antonio Pipkin to Keon Hatcher. It was a perfectly timed call, executed flawlessly; Hatcher will never have an easier touchdown in his entire career. The fact that he was so wide open is a testament to not only what happened on that play but also what happened four times earlier.

In the first half, Pipkin was called upon to convert on short yardage. Once on second-and-two and then three more times on third-and-one. Each carry was both brutally efficient and just as boring, as Pipkin lowered his shoulders and burrowed ahead behind a solid push.


These conversions were fantastic for the Lions but dreadful from an aesthetic point of view for the viewer at home. It was all a long con for Lions head coach Rick Campbell, who was waiting to hit that big red homerun button.

So, when the call was made it was easy to understand how the talented Stampeder secondary would get sucked in. We were all waiting for ‘Pipkin Plunge Part V’ but instead we were treated to a long bomb that gave the Lions a 20-6 lead. That touchdown drive came after the failed third down pass from Maier to Henry, so once again it is easy to link the final result to what happened on third down last weekend.

I can’t wait to see how each of these coaching staffs approach third down on Sunday. Normally I am waiting to see what bag of tricks Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has in store but with his team a clear favourite and possessing the greatest array of talent, my focus is on the other three squads.

The Blue Bombers dummied the league this year and handed Rourke the worst loss of his young career. They have the privilege of not having to take as many chances to win, as is the benefit of coming into this Sunday with such a complete team.

As for the Lions, I fully expect Campbell to take chances, especially with his star young quarterback not fully healthy. We all saw the moments where he was limping in the Western Semi-Final. You are not vanquishing the two-time Grey Champs by playing it safe. As the expression goes, “If you come for the king, you best not miss.” In this case whether it is Pipkin, Rourke or some other unlikely hero they better be ready on third down when their number is called.

As for the Eastern Final, this is an even match-up. The Toronto Argonauts outscored their opponents by 18 points while the Montreal Alouettes held a 10-point edge. As for the overall yardage battle it is Montreal that has a slight season long edge over the Argonauts. Toronto won the season series 2-1 with both their victories by a single point. Montreal did finish the year with a win at BMO Field but Toronto had already won the division so many starters were rested in Week 21.

This is a gross oversimplification, but I give Montreal a slight edge on offence, Toronto a larger advantage on defence while special teams are basically a dead heat. The easy answer is whoever wins the turnover battle will move on to the Grey Cup, but keep an eye on what these teams choose to do — or just as important, what they don’t do — on third down.

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