Defense wins championships, except in today’s NFL. From the rule changes over the years to more emphasis on creative, innovative ways to run an offense, scoring points has never been more important. Teams are paying 20 percent of their salary cap to quarterbacks and spending a premium for offensive weapons.
Need more proof? Look no further than the last two Super Bowls, with final scores of 34-28 and 41-33.
Everyone loves home run touchdowns that make the highlight reels. But the most vital part of the field for scoring or denying points is the red zone, which is generally from the 20 to the goal line. (There is also a high red zone from the 30-21, and we can break out another subset from the 10-1.)
Last season, three of the five most productive red zone offenses were also in the top five for all scoring. And vice versa, the top three red zone defenses were in the top three for points per game.
But just how crucial is it to succeed in the red zone? The Atlanta Falcons might be the best example of this: Atlanta’s offense was third in yards per play, first on third-down conversions, but 23rd in the red zone, which left them in the middle of the pack in points per game.
What makes the red zone unique is a whole different set of play calls and scheme design for that part of the field.
The first reason for this is simple: The area of the field where the action happens is much smaller.
If the ball is on or inside the 20, routes aren’t going far over the safeties with only 30 yards to work. Even throwing vertical down the seam can be difficult with space hard to find. Defenders can squat on routes and jump quicker ones without fear of getting beaten deep.
The pass rush also changes, which is something we are made aware of on the offensive line. Defenders are more direct to the quarterback because they know the ball should be out quicker than usual. We get more bull rushes and power moves or quick inside moves. The inside defenders might rush and then look to knock down any quick passes being thrown over their heads.
The next reason is there isn’t much fooling the opponent. Because of the shorter field, defenses get basic.
The most common coverage in the red zone, and it’s especially true the closer you get to the goal line, is quarters, also known as Cover 4. (It can often be referred to as “7” for the defense.) This defense allows for the entire field to be covered and keeps everything in front of them. A defense can bracket high/low and adjust who brackets who. It’s a catch all coverage for that part of the field with elements of man coverage built into it.
So how can teams succeed in the red zone? I’ll give you three ways.
Attacking with play-action passes
Offenses can attack quarters coverage in the red zone with hard play-action passes that find windows between the corners and safeties, same as the regular part of the field, but with quicker passes.
Notice the safety biting hard on the play action with Jordy Nelson getting behind the safeties.
More work for running backs and tight ends
A great option for winning against Cover 4 is using your running backs out of the backfield and/or the tight end. They tend to have a favorable matchup against a linebacker, especially as number three, the inner most route runner, when they can’t be bracketed.
You’ll often see New England take advantage of this against quarters coverage in the red zone using their running backs or tight end on nod routes where it looks as though the tight end will break inside (give a small head nod inside), get the linebacker to bite, then hit the tight end between the safeties.
Of course, you can set up successful plays against Cover 4 with formations. There are ways to isolate the tight end in man coverage by putting him in a 1-3 formation, often called the nub tight end. Here’s an example from last season with the Cowboys. There are many other great examples, including the Zach Ertz touchdown to win the game in Super Bowl 52. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olson have connected often on this play, too.
After Cover 4, the most common coverage in the red zone is a variety of man coverage including two man, Cover 1 (with some bracket elements) and zero coverage.
Zero coverage is exactly what it sounds like. There are zero defenders in the backend of the defense. It’s a pressure concept with man coverage. If you’re not guarding a player on a route, you’re pressuring. Why run zero coverage? Well, if you’re in the high part of the red zone, it’s a way to attack the offense and get a sack, which could put the offense out of field goal range.
The same principle applies in the low red zone. Zero coverage forces the offense to throw one of two routes. The first is the fade. One-on-one coverage on the outside, it’s a 50/50 ball. The second are the rub routes. That’s where an offensive player runs a route close to another defender guarding a receiving option in the effort to “rub” that defender so the corresponding wide receiver runs free.
Running well in the low red zone
There’s usually a lot of focus on the passing game in the red zone. But taking a deeper dive into the numbers shows just how important being able to move the line of scrimmage can be in the red zone, especially from the 10-yard line to the goal line.
Using the wonderful stats provided by SB Nation’s own Bill Connelly, it’s not a coincidence the top five teams in converting in the low red zone (inside the 10) were all teams with excellent run games. New Orleans converted on 55 percent of chances in that area, followed by the Cowboys, Rams, Jaguars, and Chiefs.
As mentioned above, Cover 4 is the most common in the red zone. That means vanilla looks upfront to run against and light box counts. If the offense is in shotgun with a basic formation with two wide receivers on each side, they’re getting a six-man box. It’s easy to pound inside zone if you’re offensive line can move people.
Also, an excellent red zone run is trap. When trap is executed well, it’s deadly, but it’s a fickle play. You must have the right look with a three-technique on the front side, or the play side guard with a defender on his outside shoulder. The linebackers need to remain static in the box. If you get any pressure or any line movement, the play is over.
Here’s two trap looks in the red zone, one against Cover 4 and one versus Cover 1. Notice how still the linebackers are, which allows the lineman to work cleanly to their assignments.
Weirdly enough, these plays are are close to the same time of the game in Week 17.
Another great thing that happens in the low red zone is that EVERY quarterback becomes a running quarterback. Even Tom Brady.
Look at that form!
This is all a nice sample of how offense succeed in the red zone, but it’s really only a small window into the complexities of how teams operate when the field gets smaller.
I hope it’s something that adds to your enjoyment of the game. Now, when your friends are screaming about a 40-yard breakaway run on Sunday, you can remind everyone that the real action, where teams ultimately win or lose, happens inside the 30.