Under Jon Gruden, the Las Vegas Raiders have become one of the best third-down offenses in football. His best play designs are on the crucial down, where he constantly beats defenses to keep the chains moving.
In the past two seasons, the Raiders have finished seventh (2019) and sixth(2020) in third-down conversion rate. This has helped the Raiders offense become one of the most efficient in the NFL. The Raiders were fifth(2019) in ESPN’s offensive efficiency rankings and ninth in 2020.
It’s an area where he has improved Derek Carr dramatically. Look at the comparison from SIS between 2016 and 2020 for Carr on third down.
- 57% comp%(20th)
- 4.5 TD%(17th)
- 7.0 Y/A(17th)
- 8.6 Average depth of throw(18th)
- 91.9 passer rating(10th)
- 63.7% comp%(7th)
- 6.7 TD%(6th)
- 9.1 Y/A(2nd)
- 10.2 Average depth of throw(3rd)
- 106.1 passer rating(4th)
Gruden's play designs are leaps and bounds over former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He dials plenty of deep shots and always gives Carr options to get past the sticks.
The play above is a perfect example. It is third and 15 against the Broncos right before halftime. The Raiders will be running their double go concept, which they love on third down. Carr holds the safety and throws a dime to Bryan Edwards, who displays his contested catch ability.
One of his best designs is the mesh corner design that the Raiders run to perfection. Here it is against the Chiefs on third down from Week 11. Waller will be running one drag from the bunch while Nelson Agholor fakes the drag and breaks to the corner. Carr buys enough time to hit the Chiefs with an explosive play on third down.
According to Sharpfootballstats.com, The Raiders were second with 16.7% explosive plays on third down(10+ rushing yards, 15+ passing yards), but what about the other downs?
No movement on early downs.
While the Raiders create explosive plays on third down with early downs, it is a different story. They drop from second on third down all the way to 13th, according to sharpfootballstats.com. The offense gets conservative in every way possible.
First, the Raiders run the ball on first down 57 percent of their opportunities which is fifth in the NFL. Out of those five teams, the Raiders have the lowest YPC at 4.1, and no other team is below 4.5, according to sharpfootballstats.com.
The Raiders finished third in the league running plays on second down with 7-9 yards to go. They ran 99 of those plays in 2020 with an average of 6.19 yards per play. Yes, that is not seven yards; you read that right.
Passing becomes just as conservative, with Carr’s average depth of target falling to just 7.5, which ranks 20th overall on early downs according to SIS. Carr tends to play it safe on the early downs and not be aggressive downfield. That could be coaching based on how it plays out, but still, it is an area to point out with the passing offense.
Carr on first and second down according to SIS.
- 68.5% comp%(16th)
- 4.2 TD%(17th)
- 7.5 Y/A(17th)
- 7.5 Average depth of throw(21st)
- 97.9 passer rating(20th)
Relying on third down is not sustainable.
The Raiders' reliance on third down is part of why the offense slows down during the second half of the season. The top team in third-down conversion rate was 49.7%. That’s an extremely impressive rate.
Last season the offense started Week 1-9 with a 51% third-down conversion rate which ranked second. That fell all the way to 40.6%(16th overall) from Week 10-17 forcing the offense to stall more often.
To take this offense to the next level, they have to become explosive on every down. The offense exhibited elements of this in the Week 16 matchup against the Miami Dolphins.
Gruden's four verts designs have been money all season. Switch verticals at the bottom mixed in. Eric Rowe had problems with Waller all day. pic.twitter.com/iOxy9mt2J5— Marcus Johnson (@TheMarcJohnNFL) December 28, 2020
The Raiders were able to keep moving the football even when they were 0-10 on third down by producing explosive plays on early downs.
The philosophy has to be replicated into 17 games and not just one. Gruden has to unleash great play designs that he saves for third down to every down. Finding ways to create chunk plays through play-action, drop-back passes, or just well-designed runs can help the Raiders finally make a playoff run. At the end of the day, the best strategy for third down is to avoid it.