A three and out in football occurs when the offensive team does not get a single first down on an offensive possession. This term specifically refers to three offensive plays without a first down.
A football team has four attempts to achieve a first down, with the fourth being a punt or field goal attempt the vast majority of the time.
This means most teams typically attempt three plays to get the first down and punt if they are not successful. If your drive consists of three plays and then a punt this is considered a three and out.
The name comes from the fact the offense has failed three attempts before heading off the field.
Why To Avoid Three And Outs?
Three and outs can be deadly for a football team. Of course, the object of the offense is to score but there are several other reasons you are going to want to avoid three and outs at all cost.
Time Of Possession
Time of possession refers to the amount of time each team is on the offensive side of the ball. Though this is not the end all be all of football statistics it is a fairly accurate predictor of who will win the game.
If you have the ball for a shorter amount of time than your opponent it is likely you will lose the game. The reason this is relevant to three and outs is that they take up an incredibly short period of time. In 2013 the average team had a total of 12 offensive drives per game.
This goes to show how a few three and outs can completely alter the time of possession in a game. Winning the team of possession though not a guarantee can reap your team some serious benefits.
Field position is another major issue tied to three and outs. This term refers to where the ball is located on the field, this term is typically used when referring to where the drive started.
If a teams average field position when starting a drive is at their own forty-yard line they would only need twenty-five yards to get into field goal range. This compared to starting field position at their own ten would require a fifty-five yard drive to get into field goal range.
As you can see starting field position is going to greatly affect your ability to score on your drives. So how exactly do three and outs play into this?
When a three and out occurs your drive will have travelled less than ten yards total. This means you are now punting the ball from virtually the same area you started.
Say the opponent moves the ball twenty yards and then punts. You will likely find yourself starting from twenty yards further back than your previous drive aka worse field position. By not gaining yards and going three and out you will lose out on improving your field position on your next drive.
Defensive Player Stamina
Another factor that plays into three and outs is the defensive player’s stamina. When playing against a defence you can begin to wear them down if things are going your way. Multiple long drives will have defenders slowing down and putting their hands on their hips.
With a three and out you are allowing them a long break in between short bouts of play. This is going to keep the defense energized and ready to go whenever you have the ball.
This also factors into your defense’s stamina as well because if your offense isn’t out there then your defense is.
Rewarding your defense with a two-minute break in between drives is not going to be enough to allow them to regain their energy.
How Often Do NFL Teams Go Three And Out?
Three and out stats don’t seem to be kept by any publicly accessible websites like espn or nfl.com. But we did come across a tweet displaying the top 3 and out defenses from 2013.
We can gather from these stats that the top defence is able to force a three and out 40% of the time. While the worst only forces it 21% of the time.
We can assume from these numbers that three and outs occur roughly 30% of the time. Or close to one and three drives result in a three and out.
The main thing you want to do to avoid three and outs in football is to avoid negative plays. Negative plays are ones in which a team loses yards instead of gaining them. This cost them yardage as well as a down.
Taking a negative play such as a run for a loss or a sack are going to make a first down much more unlikely.
Once teams have more than ten yards to go they will have to use lower percentage plays in order to make up the yardage.
It will also force the offense into passing, if the defense knows the offense has to pass it makes it much easier to defend.
Additionally, penalties are another way in which a team can generate a three and out. A penalty such as holding is going to result in your team going backwards ten yards. Once the team has twenty yards to gain for the first down it becomes much more unlikely.