American football is a sport about options. If a team has less options, they’re in more trouble. If they have more options, they’re in less trouble. The former is the case when NFL teams are in a “third-and-long” situation during a game. They are left with few options, so the team currently on defense has the upper hand. This is bad news for the offense, which is already in a difficult spot.
The term “third” in this phrase describes that the offensive team is on their third down. Usually, the football will be punted to the other team on the fourth down, so the third down is their last chance. Their current objective is to get the ball down the field far enough to reach their next first down. When they get their first down, that will give them more options. However, with it being a third-and-long situation, this will be difficult. The term “long” describes that the team needs to move the ball at least six yards to get their first down. It is usually even more than six yards, so there is a significant amount of yards to gain in just one play. That can be a very difficult task, indeed.
The major problem with being third-and-long is that it usually requires a team to pass the ball, not run it. They are more likely to get the first down if they throw the ball, and helplessly hope one of the receivers is open and down the field far enough to catch it, resulting in the first down. Less often, a team will hand the ball to one of their running backs. This is a difficult task for the runner because he has to somehow push his way through a wall of at least four strongly-built men. He may be able to find a small opening and go around them, but it is unlikely.
On the other hand, when an offense is third-and-long, the defense is expecting that they will pass the ball to a receiver. This is the perfect opportunity for a draw play. This play is about deceiving the defense into thinking the offense will pass the ball, but actually handing it to the running back. With this play, the defensive players are all focused on blocking the receivers, which leaves the field wide open for the running back. The running back can then run in wide open space, usually resulting in the first down. However, this is a very tricky play to execute because the defense also realizes how effective a draw play would be in this situation. They have to closely observe the offense and determine whether or not they are trying to trick the defense. In this sense, football is a lot like poker. You try to read the other person’s poker face, while not showing all of your own cards.
As you can see, third-and-long is never a situation where NFL football teams want to be. There are few options, and getting more than six yards in one play is very difficult. However, if their running back can push his way through the defensive wall, then they might have a chance. Or, more likely, if one of their receivers can get open down the field long enough to get the first down, they might have a chance. Also, they could try to execute the draw play and catch the defense by surprise, and have a chance. The real tragedy, though, of a team being third-and-long is the anxiety it gives their fans.