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Why NFL Teams Succeed and Struggle in the Red Zone

Does offensive efficiency in the most critical area of the field really come down to chance?

Getty Images/Casey Moore
Getty Images/Casey Moore

The term “red zone” has recently become more closely associated with a television channel than an area of the football field, but midway through the 2016 NFL season, teams’ offensive efficiency in the stretch between the opposing 20-yard line and the goal line continues to play a major role in shaping the standings.

Some of the league’s most productive offenses, such as those in Oakland, Buffalo, and New Orleans, have been buoyed by an ability to consistently punch the ball into the end zone. Meanwhile, dangerous offenses in Washington and Cincinnati have been hurt by piling up too many touchdown-less drives.

To get a better understanding of why NFL teams succeed or struggle in the red zone, I wanted to look at two separate factors: the numbers associated with performance near the goal line (namely, Football Outsiders’ invaluable drive stats and the Pro Football Reference figures about individual performance in that area), and teams’ play design and execution in that area of the field. In taking both of those variables into account, the goal was to determine whether red zone performance — good or bad — is merely a matter of chance, or whether there are some offenses in the league that are better suited to thrive when the field gets smaller.

The first, obvious, question about the relationship between offenses and red zone performance is whether the teams that perform best inside the 20-yard line are the same ones that perform best everywhere else. The answer is kind of a mixed bag.

Last season, the Panthers and their battering-ram duo of Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert led the league in points per red zone drive (5.54), according to Football Outsiders’ numbers, and were second in touchdown percentage per red zone drive (TDs/RZ), at 68.3. Carolina also happened to be the highest-scoring team in football during the 2015 season, averaging 31.3 points per game. Right behind the Panthers, though, were the Cardinals, who scored 30.6 points per game. And despite finishing second in touchdowns per drive, Arizona was 12th in TDs/RZ (60.3 percent).

Considering the Cardinals’ preferred style of play — an offense built on chunk plays down the field — that discrepancy makes sense, and that stylistic explanation extends to the other teams whose high 2015 point totals didn’t match up with their red zone efficiency. There were two other offenses — Pittsburgh and Seattle — who ranked among the top five in points scored last season but failed to crack the top 10 in touchdowns per red zone drive. The Steelers and Seahawks finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in pass plays of at least 20 yards (61 for Pittsburgh; 60 for Seattle).

Matt Ryan (Getty Images)
Matt Ryan (Getty Images)

The same sort of trend has held true this year. At 33.9 points per game, the Falcons comfortably lead the league in scoring, but rank just 17th in TDs/RZ (53.1 percent). Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, to learn that they have five more passes (42) of at least 20 yards than any other team in the NFL. San Diego, which is third in points per game (29.8) but a dismal 24th in TDs/RZ (50 percent), has 32 passes of at least 20 yards, tied for the NFL’s sixth-highest total. Sustaining a potent offense without red zone efficiency is clearly possible, but requires an explosive element that not every team can claim.

Of course, a majority of the teams that rank near the top of the NFL in scoring have also been among the most efficient around the goal line. Through eight weeks, the Raiders (fifth in scoring) led the league in points per red zone drive (5.96); the Saints (second in scoring) weren’t far behind at no. 4 (5.69).

Those two teams, specifically, raise a worthwhile question about the sustainable nature of red zone success. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out over the summer, the correlation between offenses’ red zone performances from season to season aren’t strong. In 2014, the Raiders’ red zone stats looked like a misprint; despite finishing 31st in touchdowns per drive, Oakland was somehow first in TDs/RZ (72.4 percent). Last year, though, even as its offense improved, its red zone efficiency dipped, to 10th in TDs/RZ (61.0 percent).

The Raiders once again led the league in TDs/RZ (73.9 percent) through eight weeks this season, but looking at some other numbers, it feels like those returns are another bit of luck in what’s thus far been a charmed campaign in Oakland. Quarterback Derek Carr’s touch on throws in that range of the field has been downright gorgeous at times — and wide receiver Michael Crabtree is undeniably a weapon near the goal line — but Carr is currently tied for 23rd in red zone completion percentage, at 50 percent. That’s one spot behind Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles.

Oakland’s red zone excellence likely has as much to do with chance as it does some unparalleled knack for putting the ball in the end zone, a takeaway that applies to much of the rest of the league. Looking at some offenses, though, there do seem to be a few basic elements that can make a unit more dangerous as it approaches pay dirt.

For the second straight season, Carolina has been among the most efficient red zone teams in football. Even though the 2016 Panthers have experienced a decline in overall offensive production, they’re still finishing off drives better than nearly any other group in the league. Through eight weeks, they ranked third in TDs/RZ (72.0 percent), despite being 13th in touchdowns per drive (23.2 percent).

That the Panthers were a forgettable 27th (46.8 percent) in that same TDs/RZ stat during the 2014 campaign seems to point to the idea that red zone success indeed has more to do with chance than with other factors, but looking at their performance over the past five years, 2014 was the outlier. Since 2012, only three teams have finished in the top 10 in TDs/RZ in four different seasons: Carolina, New Orleans, and New England. (The Broncos did it three straight seasons from 2012–2014.)

The factors that make both the Saints and Patriots so dangerous in that area aren’t hard to figure out. Having Drew Brees and Tom Brady, respectively, is a good start, and we’ll get to that later. With Carolina, though, the effectiveness near the goal line stems from Newton emerging as a unique weapon.

Carolina has ranked in the top 10 in power-run success in each season since Newton arrived in town (and in the top five in three of those years). The Panthers have a guy with the size of a tight end playing quarterback, and it makes stopping them close impossible in short-yardage situations. Since Newton’s rookie season in 2011, Carolina has converted 79.4 percent of its runs on third and fourth down with a yard or less to go. That’s the best rate in the league by four full percentage points.

On those plays, Newton’s sheer size goes a long way, but the Panthers’ knack for punching the ball into end zone goes beyond him being a wrecking ball. Simply having to account for him as a runner — no matter the yardage needed to convert — is a nightmare for any opposing defense.

No team has fine-tuned its red zone use of a mobile quarterback quite like Carolina, but more teams are starting to understand the threat that theirs can present. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott has carried the ball just 31 times in his eight 2016 starts, but Dallas has often used read-play-action, which involves the QB having the option to hand the ball to a running back or keep it near the goal line, in order to tip the math in its favor.

As the field shrinks vertically, some of the ways in which an offense can put stress on a defense are inherently going to disappear. With less field to cover, a defense can flood the end zone with bodies, and that only becomes easier to accomplish when offenses choose to line up in tight-end-heavy formations and try pounding the ball inside. That handful of feet between the line of scrimmage and the end zone can occasionally lure play callers into focusing so much on those final couple of inches that they forget the abundance of space still at their disposal — and the best ways to attack it.

By using a quarterback as a runner and shifting the number of blockers to their advantage, offenses can gain an edge even when downfield real estate disappears. The Bills, fifth in TD/RZ through eight weeks (71.4 percent), have regularly used quarterback Tyrod Taylor as a runner near the goal line, including on his easy touchdown scamper during Buffalo’s opening driving in a 31–25 loss at Seattle on Monday night.

A mobile QB is one way to create mismatches with a condensed field, but even in the red zone, the best means of creating a high-octane offense is having a secondary-shredding passer. And in that regard, Brady and Brees have been able to regularly transform their teams into excellent red zone units; this year, both have somehow taken it up a notch.

Brady is completing an absurd 79 percent of his red zone throws, tops in the NFL. Brees is second, at 70.7 percent. No quarterback with at least 50 red zone attempts has cracked the 70 percent completion mark for a full 16-game season since 2007, when — shockingly — Brees hit on 71.8 percent of his red zone throws.

Both Brady and Brees have been terrifyingly accurate near the end zone this fall, and while that’s largely a product of their immense talent, it also has a lot to do with the QBs taking advantage of schemes that are excellent at using every bit of field between the sidelines. The Patriots are content to pound opponents into submission near the goal line when the situation calls for it (see LeGarrette Blount’s 24 carries for 127 yards with two touchdowns in a 27–16 win at Pittsburgh on October 23), but New England does as good a job as any offense in the league of spreading defenses out in these short fields, making them account for as many receivers as possible.

By inserting James White at running back in the red zone, the Patriots put as many as five pass catchers on the field and force defenses to account for every inch of grass. The result can be easy pitch-and-catch plays like the one above, which have been a fixture of the Pats offense since Brady returned from his Deflategate-related suspension.

New Orleans has a similar strategy, but to the delight of football nerds everywhere, it spices things up a bit. Without a Rob Gronkowski (or Jimmy Graham) –type presence as a red zone target, the Saints do all they can to create space and separation for their legion of receivers, and that’s deadly with someone like Brees running the show.

No team in the league is quite as good at using (and getting away with) the subtle pick plays that allow for easy throws in tight spaces near the goal line, and with the bevy of receiving options that Brees has at his disposal, an equal-opportunity approach makes it brutal for defenses to game plan for who will get the ball.

That type of system has turned the Saints into the most dangerous red zone team in football outside of New England. That status has turned the Patriots into the early Super Bowl favorite; for New Orleans, it’s helped establish the offense as the type of unit that’s been able to keep a 4–4 squad afloat in the mediocre NFC.

For most NFL teams, the ability to consistently manufacture touchdowns from their red zone trips can be a product of chance, a pitfall of small sample sizes and a hard trait to predict. But there are some offenses that can draw a distinct edge from their play design or personnel, and when they do, they’re devastating.