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Fade Into the Red Zone: A Look at Hot and Cold NFL Pass Plays Near the Goal Line

Jimmy Graham dunk and scream after scoring his 10th touchdown

The “Red Zone” came into the football vernacular, as far as I can tell, in 1981, with an article in the Washington Post entitled Redskins Offense Zeros In on ‘Red Zone’ Today; Redskins to Concentrate on ‘Red Zone.’ The Washington coaches were bemoaning their 0-4 start, when they were among the league leaders in yards per game, but were struggling to convert those yards into points near the end zone.

“We found out that once we got to what we call the ‘red zone,” which is inside the opponent’s 20, we were the worst in the league in coming away with points, especially touchdowns,” said Offensive Coordinator Joe Bugel. “So all we’ve concentrated on since Thursday night is how to correct the problem. We’ve been thinking nothing but red zone, zone, zone, red zone. We’ve got to do better there if we are ever going to score consistently.”

Today, we will take a look at that red zone, but get more literal. Let’s see where in the scoring zone things get hot and cold when teams pass. Looking at the entire zone, from the goal line would be too expansive and diverse, so this will focus on a particularly area near the goal line, centered on the opponent’s 5-yard line. I viewed all plays from the 2013 season that resulted in a pass, with a line of scrimmage between the opponent’s 3-yard line and 7-yard line (302, including 10 sacks and 18 determined to be “thrown away”).

Here’s a heat chart showing what has happened so far in 2013 on passes in this zone, expected points added (and if you want the more in depth numbers and methodology, I’ve included a separate link here):

Red Zone Heat Map 2013 Passes The Big Lead

Does this chart match what you expect? The hot zones have been right down the middle, from the backfield to the goal line, in the back half of the right side outside the hashes and near the numbers, and lots of other areas short of the end zone. Most notable among these is the area near the line of scrimmage to the right, toward the numbers. This is fertile area for both quick slants on pick type plays, as well as play action with a fullback or tight end leaking out. 

Let’s go through a few more things that stand out from reviewing all pass plays near the opponent’s 5 yard line.

HOPE IS FADING 

I did not specifically track every pass that could be considered a fade, mainly because defining it is difficult. There are so many varieties of things that might not all be fades. Rather than judge the intent, I went with the location.

By volume, the sidelines in the end zone are the most popular place to attempt a pass. I don’t think this is a surprise. The two sideline zones comprise about 10 feet each, and make up one-eighth of the area of the end zone. 41 of 106 throws to the end zone went to this area (39%), meaning throws to the sideline make up about three times more volume than you would expect based on random distribution of passes.

We can estimate the likelihood of touchdowns on fades and other similar “one-look” routes where the quarterback is putting the ball up hoping the receiver can out jump the defender. For throws in the sideline zones, at least two yards past the goal line, 24.5% were completed. Not all of those were fades, and not all fades got to the sideline zone (some were under thrown and batted away, and a few were caught from tighter formation where the receiver did not have to get to the sideline). It’s a good estimate, though.

TEAMS NEED TO THROW SHORT OF THE END ZONE MORE

See all that red in the chart above? Most of it is on the field side of the end zone line. 33.8% of all passes targeted into the end zone were completed, and that does not include 18 charted throws intentionally out of bounds. In comparison, 66.7% of all passes thrown short of the end zone were completed. Exactly half of those scored, so the touchdown rate on throws short of the end zone was virtually equal to throws into the end zone. However, all those completions that came up short add up. The average non-touchdown completion gained 2.5 yards.

While the data may be limited in making judgments in a particular area, there is enough sample size on throws short versus into the end zone to say that throwing short is profitable. If we excluded things like late dump-offs and desperation check downs, the numbers would be even better.

Throwing short, safe passes is an alternative to running. Also, using the quarterback as a runner is a valuable weapon in this part of the field, as you might guess. I also went through all quarterback running plays. Excluding a couple of sneaks, kneel downs, and fumbled snaps noted as runs to the QB, there were 12 “scrambles” on what looked like passing plays where the quarterback ran after pressure. Those scored five times. There were also 17 plays noted as draws or keepers, either a zone read, or a bootleg, or a rollout. The scrambles were incorporated into the passing plays, to counteract sacks and throwaways, and divided proportionally between end zone and short.

Play Types Near 5 Yard Line

Another under-utilized area is right to the front edge of the goal line, in the middle of the field. Now, what we don’t know in looking at where plays have been successful, is whether teams try to get to the middle of the field, but it is defended most frequently forcing throws to the sidelines. That is to say, there is a selection bias in the final numbers, where we see successful plays because quarterbacks are cautious to throw right down the middle unless it is a very favorable situation. However, viewing the sheer number of quick throws without reads to things like fades tells me that is only part of the answer. Six of the eight throws to the front edge of the goal line right in the middle, or just short of the goal line, have scored, with one drop.

The routes that work here are bringing an outside slot type receiver into the middle (perhaps with a rub out of a bunch set) and getting them free against a blitz or one-on-one with a linebacker not as good at covering in space. Six of the eight passes thrown within two yards of the front edge of the goal line scored, and another was dropped.

Here’s a route concept that showed up a few times with success, particularly against blitzes bringing at least one extra man. Kevin Ogletree is coming from the outside and slanting underneath. You can see the natural pick created without the players ever making contract, and the pass will be caught short of the end zone but in space to walk in.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 1.50.19 PM

The Ravens scored on a similar play to Marlon Brown, where Brown came from the outside with the slot receiver and tight end running to the corner. The ball was delivered sooner and closer to the line of scrimmage, and the defender came underneath. Brown was still able to pull him into the end zone.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 1.45.59 PM

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SHOVEL

Philip Rivers to Danny Woodhead shovel pass against Oakland

Teams need to run the shovel pass concept more near the goal line. I know we are dealing with small sample sizes here, but there were only seven run at the goal line. Five of them scored a touchdown (including two run to tight ends Julius Thomas and Heath Miller) and the other two gained yards that got close. Jacksonville stopped both, so hey, we’ve found something positive about the Jaguars.

Another play from the Miami Dolphins at least applied a similar concept, where there was a fake to Brian Hartline on a jet sweep, and then Tannehill hit Daniel Thomas for a touchdown crossing back the other way just past the line of scrimmage. We’ll call that a distant cousin, as it was an overhand throw after play action the other way.

Daniel Thomas Touchdown

Shovel passes comprised less than 3% of pass plays in this area, but were more successful than both traditional runs and passes. I don’t think that teams would continue to convert over 70% of them. In a world where throws to the sidelines are successful less than 30% of the time, though, teams should be utilizing it more often. It’s a safe play, and it is likely to pick up yards, even if it does not score.

 SCRAMBLE DRILL AND BACK SIDE RECEIVERS

The final notable area is on rollouts. You may notice that red zone to the right in the end zone. Most quarterbacks are right handed and tend to scramble or rollout right. Here’s an example of why that becomes a hot zone.

Aaron Rodgers rolls right in week 2. Jermichael Finley is circled along the side of the end zone, and you can see another receiver heading toward the pylon. Finley spins back and Rodgers throws it to that hot spot.

Jermichael Finley

Several touchdowns employed a similar theme: rollout, receiver gets to the sideline, the defender loses track, and the receiver doubles back to that area. Note to defenders: the sideline is your friend (as the relative success rates show). Make the quarterback throw there, and try to be wary of that double back.

The other type of play is to bring a receiver from the other side to get to that area, behind the defenders watching the rollout near the goal line. We saw this on Nick Foles’ record-tying seventh touchdown against Oakland. Cooper started to the left side of the formation out of the slot on this play, and beat the defender to that spot, while DeSean Jackson occupies attention at the front of the goal line.

Riley Cooper

Similar plays worked to the left side, often with a tight end or slot receiver coming across the end zone, which is why we see a smaller red zone there, though the rollout option makes going right more attractive for most teams.

Overall, while it is cool to see where teams have the most success, it is still based on a relatively small sample of less than 200 throws into the end zone. It helps to see things like just how valuable a defender the back line is (throws targeted in the last two yards of the end zone are completed only 15% of the time), and to see how successful sideline throws are.

The overall success in other areas, like the middle, short outside between the 2 and 4 yard line, and on shovel passes, suggest teams should explore utilizing those strategies more, rather than just fading out of the red.

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