A Three-Man Front Is A Late-Game Defensive Formation For SuckersS

The weekend, as I watched the absurd denouement of the Northwestern-Michigan game, something struck me as familiar — beyond the now-routine bumblefuckery that inspires the Wildcats to turn fourth-quarter leads into triple-overtime losses. No, it wasn't simply that Michigan drove in the dregs of game clock to kick the tying field goal (false start, refs, btw). It was how Northwestern allowed that to happen.

You can see the key plays of regulation in the opening seconds of ESPN's highlight reel. With 18 seconds remaining, down by 3, at the Northwestern 43, with no timeouts, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner drops back, sets his feet and throws a 16-yard completion to Jeremy Gallon. The Wolverines hustle out their field goal unit and from 44 yards out kick the tying points as the clock expires, a play Michigan coach Brady Hoke later said "might be the best single play I've ever seen."

It's that penultimate play that really sticks with me, though, because Northwestern's pass rush resembled the three-man push the Cats attempted on their final play against Nebraska two weeks earlier. With four seconds remaining, down by 3, at the Northwestern 49, Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg III dropped back, set his feet, rolled out and launched a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp in the front of the end zone.

Nebraska went with six linemen on that play, meaning the matchup at the line of scrimmage was three defenders, all double-teamed, against seven offensive players. Northwestern had an eight-on-four advantage in the end zone, and still gave up the completion, when two defenders converged on the ball and tipped it out to Westerkamp.

With the caveat that I'm extrapolating from a limited data set here: Rushing three defenders when the offense is in a desperate long-yardage situation is quite possibly the dumbest thing football coaches do, save perhaps rote punts on fourth-and-millimeters. Any college or pro quarterback worth his salt can make a long toss if you don't harass him. Defenses are generally built to threaten the quarterback to maximum effect. So why, in an obvious passing situation, when the only thing that can beat you is a perfect pass, do teams leave quarterbacks to make the best toss possible?

Expanding the data set slightly: in this sampling of "top 10 Hail Marys All Time," Nos. 10, 9, 7, 6, 3, 2 and 1 all feature three-man rushes.

So, first, the exceptions to the rule. In No. 8, the Braxton Miller prayer to beat Wisconsin in 2011, isn't a desperation Hail Mary situation (Ohio State had 30 seconds to go 40 yards) and features a modified four-man rush that flushes Miller to the sideline. He makes a Herculean toss across his body to the end zone. In No. 5, LSU sends four linemen at Iowa quarterback Drew Tate, plus a pair of late blitzers. Tate, in the shotgun, is never threatened and throws a strike to Warren Holloway, who runs it in for a 56-yard touchdown. In No. 4, Arizona rushes four at Washington's Isaiah Stanback, who, untouched, steps up and throws a 69-yard touchdown as the first half expires.

But all your favorite Hail Mary situations, and many late-game prevent-defense hero drives, also feature namby-pamby three-man rushes that willingly allow the offense to take its best possible shot at a miracle heave. For instance:

Auburn over Georgia on Saturday. A 73-yard completion on fourth-and-18 in the final minute gives Auburn the victory. Of course the Dawgs sent only three guys on the rush.

Michigan State over Wisconsin, 2011. "Three-man rush … Cousins … on the last play of regulation … to the end zooooone … caught! Michigan State's caught it!"

Jacksonville over Houston, 2010. Three-man rush at midfield. Fifty-yard touchdown.

LSU over Kentucky, 2002. The Bluegrass Miracle. Three-man rush.

Middle Tennessee against Kentucky, 2008. The Wildcats won this by tackling the receiver at the 1-yard line after a 61-yard completion. Maybe proves that a gaggle of defensive backs is the way to go. I say the three-man rush didn't help matters.

Boston College over Miami, 1984. The Hurricanes actually manage to harangue Doug Flutie into a prolonged scramble — and this is key in a Hail Mary situation, because the quarterback can't force a throw to receivers who haven't yet run downfield. But Flutie, exceptionally agile, buys time with his legs. Had there been another defensive lineman in the mix, who knows. "My own twist on it was to hang onto the ball as long as I could, so that's why I scrambled out to the right," Flutie later recalled (1:31 in the video below).

Detroit against Tennessee, 2012. Three-man rush by the Titans allows Lions to tie the game on the final play of regulation on a 41-yard touchdown. In overtime, Detroit finally gets around to losing.

Seahawks over Packers, 2012. Three-man rush by the Packers. Russell Wilson heaves a game-winning interception.

Colorado over Michigan, 1994. Kordell Stewart dawdles in the pocket for more than six full seconds, then, unfettered by the three-man rush, lobs the 64-yard game-winner.

Cincinnati vs. Baltimore, Nov. 10. The Bengals eventually lose, but it takes a 51-yard touchdown against a three-man rush with no time remaining to send it to overtime.

Cleveland over Jacksonville, 2002. In the final three plays of the game, the Jaguars rush five (result: sack), rush four (result: quick throw, short gain), then rush three (result: Tim Couch throws a 50-yard javelin for the touchdown).

Pittsburgh over Oakland, 1972. The Immaculate Reception was thrown over an apparent four-man rush that softened into a three-man rush.

Not every legendary long pass comes against such token resistance at the line. The touchdown Roger Staubach threw in the waning seconds of a 1975 playoff game came against a four-man rush by the Vikings — and that was the pass that reportedly coined the name "Hail Mary." Brett Favre launched perhaps the best pass of his career — the game-winner over San Francisco in 2009 — against a four-man rush (a microsecond before he was clobbered). Tyler Palko chucked a 38-yard bomb to end the first half against the Bears in 2011 with four defenders in his grill.

This is far from an exhaustive analysis. So many desperation-heave situations never mature because the prevent defense forces an interception or a turnover on downs. Some three-man rushes result in sacks that end the game without the fanfare of a long bomb. Some three-man rushes are only three-man rushes because the defense shows a five-man rush, forcing the offense to post six linemen in front of the quarterback, and then drops linebackers into deep coverage, effectively forcing the defense to sub out a receiver. I'm quite open to the idea that, in fact, the conventional wisdom of defensive coordinators is sound — that having seven or eight defensive backs patrolling the back of the field is in fact the stoutest defense in an all-or-nothing obvious passing situation.

But I've watched too many defenders trip on each other's dicks while trying to figure out who, exactly, gets to swat the ball to the turf, and too many quarterbacks set up comfortably to throw the ball half the length of the field.

If you stand by using a three-man rush, that's fine. Just let me remind you that Northwestern does, too.

Photo credit of Jordan Westerkamp about to break Northwestern's heart: AP