Third and Inches: Examining The Art Of Short Yardage in The CFL

Jonathan HamelinCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2009

It’s third down and inches to go, the back-up quarterback comes in to take the snap and the hoggies come in from the sideline to load up the line of scrimmage. The quarterback takes the snap and plunges forward… a simple play right? In the Canadian Football League short yardage plays are often taken for granted. Usually, a team can usually easily earn the few inches for a first down, but when the team fails to execute, it can be detrimental to the team…


In the three down game of the CFL, short yardage plays never fail to entertain.


With the defensive lineman having to line-up one yard off of the ball, teams in the CFL are much more likely to gamble on plays like third and inches, third and one, and sometimes even third and two. This differs from the NFL for example, where teams are usually hesitant to gamble when there is a yard to go.


On the surface, short yardage plays seem like they would be easy, especially with the defensive lineman one-yard off the ball. Yet, if short yardage plays are indeed easy, then why do we often hear about goal line stands, or teams stuffing their opponents when they only need one yard?


It is because short yardage plays can be like a work of art or a disaster.


In a short yardage masterpiece, the snap from the center to the quarterback will be clean, the quarterback will plunge forward or give the ball to his running back, and the offensive line will dig in and the team will pick up the first down.


In a short yardage disaster, there will often be problems with the snap, or the offensive lineman will fail to get a push or even let a defensive lineman through free to break up the play in the backfield.


To further understand short yardage in the Canadian Football League, let’s take a look at the team that executes arguably the best short yardage offensive in the league: the Montreal Alouettes.


Led by back-up quarterback Adrian McPherson, who comes in for Anthony Calvillo on short yardage plays, the Als have been nearly flawless in their execution. The Als have gotten a good push from their offensive line, but it has been McPherson’s ability to run that has made Montreal’s defence truly spectacular.


While most quarterbacks choose to plunge straight ahead on third down plays, McPherson quickly reads the defence, looking for any hole along the defensive line, and then sprints in that direction. This has usually resulted in a first down for the Alouettes, and McPherson usually pulls off five yards or more on these third down scrambles. A few times, McPherson has been one broken tackle away from going all the way to the house.


McPherson has probably become the first ever short yardage specialist in the CFL.


While the Montreal Alouettes have found success in the short yardage game with Adrian McPherson, other teams who don’t have such a playmaker have had some struggles.


These teams sometimes struggle in short yardage offence do so for one of three reasons: 1) They have trouble taking care of the ball. 2) They don’t get a good push from their offensive line. 3) They are too predictable.


The first point is really self explanatory. Teams who have trouble with the snap, or have trouble holding onto the ball in short yardage situations, will struggle to execute the short yardage offensive. Short yardage plays usually happen very quickly, so if there is a problem with the snap for example, the play will take too long to develop and likely be shut down.


The second point is also self-explanatory. Without a solid push from the offensive line, the play is doomed. The defensive lineman will stack up the line and the quarterback or running back will have nowhere to go.


The third point is one a bit more complicated. We have seen so far this year that teams that are too predictable in their short yardage offence will face difficulties. Teams in the CFL seem to love bringing in a lot of big lineman on short yardage running plays and then running straight up the middle. Rarely do these teams try and run to the outside or throw the ball.


So, what is the best way the best way to run an affective short yardage offence in the CFL?


A lot of it relates to predictability.


I never have understood why teams always stack the line on short yardage plays, especially on the goal-line. The team was able to march down the field with their normal offence on in the first place, so why change it up. Besides, if you are running the ball up the middle, you don’t need to bring extra lineman in on the outside.  


When offences stack the line on short yardage plays, defences will stack the middle of their line, making it hard to run the ball up the middle.


By keeping their regular offence on the field, teams will find that their short yardage offence is much less predictable.


Another way to make it less predictable is to be more creative.


Instead of settling for a dive up the middle, trying pitching the ball out the running back, throw a short pass out of the backfield or a lob in the endzone, have the quarterback roll out and run the option play. All of these plays would keep the defence on its heels and give the offence a better chance to score consistently.


In the past couple of seasons in the CFL, short yardage plays have proven to play pivotal roles in games.


During last season for example, in a game featuring the BC Lions and the Montreal Alouettes, the Alouettes had three chances in the fourth quarter to score from the one yard line. The team was stopped all three times and lost the game.


Short yardage in the CFL is most certainly an art in that it not always easily perfected. Teams who master the art by being creative will easily pick up the yardage necessary for a first down, but those who settle for dives up the middle will find themselves shut down every now and then.


Since short yardage plays can keep drives going, possibly leading to a touchdown, it sure makes those couple of inches seem very valuable indeed.












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