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Florida’s third down woes have outlasted Todd Grantham. Can the Gators end them?

The Gators have notably struggled to get off the field of late — and there’s no Third and Grantham this year. Now what?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Napier notched the first SEC win of his career and the Gators broke a streak of six straight conference losses, but despite those victories, there was not a lot of joy inside the Florida fandom on Saturday afternoon. Florida looked a little sluggish early on offense against Missouri, and a pretty good defensive performance was marred by some poor play on third downs, particularly in the second half.

And in years past, Florida giving up multiple third and longs against Missouri and allowing the Tigers to keep themselves in the game would have prompted the “Third and Grantham” refrain heard across Gator Nation the last few seasons. But some fans believe that we may have moved on to a new catchphrase, as “Third and Toney” was blasted all over social media and message boards by the sawed-off hot take shotgun after the game.

Napier addressed the issue in his press conference on Monday, and said there were multiple issues on third downs, but that they were all of the correctable variety. I decided to take a look at four third downs. On one, Florida plays it correctly and gets off the field. The others are converted by Missouri and extended drives in a close game.

Play 1: Third and 18, 5:29 left in the first quarter

With 5:29 left in the first quarter, Missouri is facing a third and 18 from its own 25. Missouri comes out with a trips bunch to the field and the back to the strong side. Florida is playing dime personnel and it looks like they are running Cover 3 Double Buzz. The deep safeties will play top down on the hook area, and you will have three deep over the top.

One key here — that will come up later, too — is understanding down and distance. The flat players do a good job here getting some depth, but vacate the flats. This is perfectly fine: You are (probably) not going to allow a first down by giving up a five-yard throw to the flat.

Missouri decides to throw a screen to the strong side. You can see that both flat players are getting close to being about 10 yards off the ball. (Unfortunately, this is not the case later on.)

The pass is completed, and you can see the strong side flat player coming up to make the tackle. The key here is that the defender is coming from outside in. In doing so, he is forcing the ball back inside to the pursuit. Allowing pursuit to get there should slowly close the net around the ball carrier.

That pursuit arrives and they close the net. This is actually exceptional pursuit, as there are seven Gators around the ball when the back is tackled well short of a first down.

Play 2: Third and 22, 8:27 left in the fourth quarter

With 8:27 left in the fourth quarter, Missouri is facing a third and 22. Florida has a great chance to get off the field and take a stranglehold of the game by getting the ball back up two touchdowns.

It appears to me that Florida is playing a version of quarters against this Missouri look. The Tigers have twin receivers to the field, two backs, and a single receiver to the boundary. The boundary safety for Florida appears to have eyes towards the two receiver-side, and is looking to cut crossing routes. The corner and safety to the field are getting depth and the nickel is working to the flat.

You can see in this post-snap still that the boundary safety has snapped his eyes to the field looking for crossers. The fact that his focus is on this side also means that he will likely be a part of the pursuit if the ball is thrown that way.

The ball is thrown that way, and the flat player is in position to do the same thing he did in play one: Turn the ball back inside. You have a defender dropping to the hash and the safety over the top to help you close the net here.

Unfortunately, the flat player does not keep his outside leverage. The ball carrier is able to hit the sideline and lengthen the pursuit distance.

Even with the flat player’s mistake, you have a chance to make the play with a good pursuit angle here.

The pursuit angle wasn’t high enough and now you have a back running with a full head of steam.

The tackle is made by the boundary safety who came all the way across the field. You were in position to get off the field like you did in Play 1 above, but a couple of simple mistakes allowed a conversion for Missouri.

Play 3: Third and 15, 6:35 left in the fourth quarter

A couple of minutes after Play 2, Florida has another chance to get off the field and take control of the game.

Missouri is in the same look at the previous play, and the Gators have changed their look to a version of Tampa 2. Florida is showing a one-high presentation at the snap that looks like it could be man coverage to the boundary side. The boundary safety will roll to deep half and the corner to the field will be playing deep half up top. The middle safety is playing the “pipe” — that area between the two high defenders that offenses look to exploit. The boundary corner will play the flat, as will the nickel to the field.

Missouri will run a flood concept that should look familiar to Florida fans, as the Gators love this same combination on offense.

Theoretically, you should be in good shape here. The middle safety is running the pipe where the post wants to go. The corner will be over the top playing deep half. If your nickel plays the down and distance correctly, you should be giving up a throw to the flat. You then rally to the ball, tackle, and get off the field.

When the nickel sees one and two get vertical, he should probably gain some depth. You can play the flat route from the top down. You don’t need to smother it. In fact, that’s the route you actually want to leave open.

If the flat player gets some more depth on his drop, the ball isn’t likely thrown to the out route. He’s giving way too much attention to the flat route based on down and distance.

He should be closer to the “X” when the ball is thrown. And if he’s there and the ball is still thrown that way, it’s an easy interception for him; if the ball is instead thrown to the receiver in front of him, he’ll be in position to rally, make a tackle, and force a fourth down.

Play 4: Third and 18, 2:27 left in the fourth quarter

Of course, Florida did not get off the field on the previous drive, allowing Missouri to make it a one-score game. Yet Florida has the chance to get the next drive to a long fourth down play and get a stop for the win.

Missouri comes out in a trips bunch look to the top with a single receiver and the back weak. Florida is showing a two-high, middle-of-the-field-open look at the snap, but they will rotate to Cover 3 Double Buzz — the same coverage they executed well in Play 1 above.

Missouri is running another flood concept with a go, a deep out, and a flat route all together. The ball is shading the right hash, so Missouri more or less has formation into the boundary here.

Florida is in the same look as Play 1. They are in dime personnel and have an outside backer/edge as the flat dropper to the boundary, the same as before. By putting the formation into the boundary, Mizzou is able to attack that “non-coverage” player.

It’s good design by the Tigers, but Florida is still in a decent position — theoretically. The corner is over top of the go route. Considering down and distance, the flat player needs to gain depth and play the flat top down. He should be underneath that out route, making it prohibitively difficult and causing a throw to the flat.

The flat player needs to gain some depth with the two verticals, but you can see that he is driving on the flat route right now.

You can see the window being created by driving on the flat. Gaining some depth in your drop could eliminate this route.

Again: If you’re at “X” when the ball is thrown, you put yourself in a much better position to make the play — and your defense in a better position to prevent a third down conversion.

As you can see, it wasn’t just one thing that needed to be changed to solve these third down issues. It’s not like Patrick Toney was simply calling the same play on each of these attempts, getting the same results, and not switching things up.

Now, if he isn’t going to bring pressure, could he just simply call a Cover 2 man and get the benefits of both man and the safeties over the top? Yes, but it’s not as if the calls are terrible. If executed, like in Play 1, all the calls should have worked against what Missouri called.

I also took a closer look at the offense in video form. Check out my look at why that unit sputtered to start the game and what they did to get going in the second half.

I think it’s premature to start the “Third and Toney” talk. However, in two games (USF and Missouri) now, their inability to stay on the field offensively and get off the field defensively has allowed a team to hang around until the end of a game that could have been well within the Gators’ grasp before the last gasps.

If the Gators want to take a step forward this season, their defense routinely earning the privilege of walking off the field on third down would be a major start.