It’s fourth-and-short, your team lines up for the critical play and the quarterback begins barking out the signals 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Do you feel compelled to yell at the television? “Why the shotgun?! Why the shotgun?!”
Well, you’re not alone.
Sports radio was flooded with questions like, “if you’re going to run the ball on fourth-and-short, why are you doing it out of the shotgun?” And media members peppered players and coaches about it after the Bears failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 at Denver’s 18-yard line late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
On the play, Justin Fields handed the ball to Khalil Herbert on an option out of the shotgun that was stuffed by the Broncos’ less-than-imposing defensive front. Russell Wilson then hit rookie Marvin Mims Jr. on a 48-yard pass play and Denver marched into field goal range to complete a comeback from 21 points down in the third quarter.
“That’s the play we thought was the best at the time,” coach Matt Eberflus explained to reporters. It’s about moving people off the ball, as we’d been doing all day, and we just have to execute in that moment.”
It’s also been a controversial issue at collegiate football powerhouse Alabama, where fans have become vocal about the Crimson Tide’s preferred offensive formation – yep, the shotgun – in short-yardage spots.
While the college game is a different animal with a whole lot more shotgun formations and spread offenses overall, it gets us back to the point that fans believe playing out of the gun seems to defy common sense given the situation.
Are they right? Is it wrong to line up in a shotgun formation in short-yardage situations? Or is this an example of fans in Chicago, Alabama, Pittsburgh (more on this later) or wherever not knowing what they’re talking about?
Let’s take a look at the 4,414 plays that have taken place since the start of the 2021 season on third or fourth downs with 2 yards or less to go. It’s a decent enough sample size and recent enough to account for modern schemes.
Teams that have lined up with the quarterback under center in those situations have had a 69.9% success rate, while the teams that have chosen to go with the shotgun have been successful 61.0% of the time.
While it’s not the eye-opening difference fans might expect, it is large enough to want to lean toward lining up under center. Instead, teams have chosen to play out of the gun the majority of the time (55.4%).
Formation Success Rate on Third- or Fourth-and-2 or Less (Since 2021)
- Under Center (1,967/69.9%)
- Shotgun (2,447/61.0%)
Of course, that’s an examination of short-yardage play-calling in its simplest form. And yes, personnel or roster construction matters. In the case of the Bears, they chose to run an option with Fields either giving it to Herbert or keeping it depending on how the defensive player at the end of the line reacts.
Gaining the short yardage on the ground has been the most successful in third- and fourth-and-short. Teams have lined up under center and run the ball 1,578 times in the situations we’ve lined out, gaining a first down 71.5% of the time.
That’s No. 1, but it’s only marginally better than running out of the gun, which is the next most successful play at 67.2% (1,003 plays).
Though there have been only 389 drop-backs from under center compared to 1,444 out of the shotgun, the pass plays from right behind the center have had a 63.2% success rate with the designed throws from the gun at just 56.7%.
If we break it down even further, quarterback scrambles – which we deem as designed pass plays in which the then QB takes off and runs – has been successful 94.9% of the time when the QB lines up under center and 82.5% when working out of the gun. (Though it is a much smaller sample size.)
But overall, scrambles, pass plays and run plays have all been more successful when running them from a traditional under center alignment than from the shotgun. And it’s important to note that the quarterback has been sacked 72 times in the shotgun but only 32 times when under center.
Again, running the ball has been the way to go. And we can see that across the play-calling data, even running the ball from the gun has been slightly more successful (67.2%) than throwing it from under center (65.7%).
The worst thing a team can do appears to be calling a designed pass play from the shotgun in third- or fourth-and-2 or less to gain. Even though coaches have done just that 1,309 times since the start of 2021 (the second-highest total of the plays shown in the chart below), it’s had nowhere close to the success rate (58.6%) that running the ball from under center (71.5%) has had.
Regardless, that’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers did in a 30-6 loss to the Houston Texans in Week 4 when embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada called a shotgun pass on fourth-and-1 on the Houston 33-yard line with 1:16 left in the third quarter and the Steelers down by 10.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett was sacked on the play, and the Steelers turned the ball over on downs.
We’re not done digging deeper, and we have a question for you: You’ve decided you want to run the ball from under center on a third- or fourth-and-1. Smart move. But what kind of running play should you call?
Really, there are several options that have had similar results. Teams have run the jet sweep just 58 times but with a 75.9% success rate, a QB keeper (not a sneak) 183 times with a 74.3% success rate, a pitch to a running back 145 times with a 71.7% first-down rate and a basic handoff 1,183 with a 68.5% success rate.
But if you really want to be a smart NFL coach, sneak it in short yardage – particularly with 1 yard or less to gain. Granted, the Philadelphia Eagles’ unstoppable “Tush Push” might have skewed the success rate somewhat (90.4% since the start of 2022). Still, teams have gotten the first down on 82.7% of the 491 occasions they’ve run a sneak in those spots.
Mike McCarthy has drawn the ire of fans and media for some of his coaching decisions. The most recent being his decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 4-yard line (Dak Prescott’s pass was incomplete) in the third quarter of a stunning loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3.
However, his Dallas Cowboys have been the best team in the league in third and fourth downs with 2 yards or less to go since 2021. It’s probably not as much of a surprise that Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are second, the Tennessee Titans with workhorse Derrick Henry are third, the previously mentioned Eagles rank fourth, and Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills sit fifth.
Where are the Bears? Not as bad as you might think, ranking 11th with a 66.1% success rate. The Steelers? Believe it or not, sixth (68.7%). Instead, the teams with the lowest success rates are the Jacksonville Jaguars (60.0%), Minnesota Vikings (59.2%), Atlanta Falcons (58.8%), New York Jets (51.7%) and Miami Dolphins (51.2%).
How have the Cowboys done it? You already know the answer. They’ve run the football on 64.3% of these occasions during this span with a success rate of 77.6% with Dak (or Cooper Rush for a stretch) under center – along with a 76.5% success rate when working out of the shotgun.
Most of their runs (61.5%) have been simple handoffs (the majority to either ex-Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott or current No. 1 Tony Pollard over this span) and those have been good for a first down 75.0% of the time.
But their pitches (14 plays; 78.6%), sneaks (17; 76.5%) and non-sneak QB keepers (10; 70.0%) have all been similarly effective albeit with smaller sample sizes.
So while fans are correct that running the ball in a traditional QB-under-center formation has led to the highest rate of success in short-yardage situations, rushing plays in general from either formation have proven to be more successful than throwing it – especially out of the gun.
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