Rich Hribar

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Red Zone Notebook

Monday, June 20, 2016


We’ve looked at play calling splits in relation to game script and their potential relation to 2016 output and rolled over that thought process in diagnosing fantasy fallout from the direct relationship that the Eagles, 49ers and Chiefs share with their head coaching changes. Continuing that trend, here are a few general notes on 2015 red zone production that were major outliers for individual players and teams.

 

Beginning at the low end, the now-Los Angeles Rams ran just 84 offensive plays inside the red zone, the 8th lowest mark for any NFL team since 1999. Teams' average amount of plays run in the red zone over that span is 140, and was 139 plays in 2015. The Rams ran just 40 pass plays in the red zone. In comparison, Blake Bortles threw 51 passes inside the 10-yard line last season.

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The Rams were the 27th team in that gap to run fewer than 100 red zone plays. In the following season, every one of those teams ran more red zone plays the following year, with an average increase of 41 and 7.8 more team touchdowns scored. Only one of those teams went back to back seasons with under 100 red zone snaps -- the expansion Cleveland Browns in 1999 and 2000. No matter how we feel about their personnel and coaching philosophy, the Rams are a good blind faith bet to have more scoring opportunities and more touchdowns than they had in 2015. This is relevant because despite that futility in reaching the scoring zone, Todd Gurley still managed to score 10 touchdowns on the season (with only one of those outside of the red zone).

 

You might be surprised to find out that the Detroit Lions had a historically effective season scoring in the red zone. Detroit scored a touchdown on 69.4 percent of its red zone possessions, good for the 7th highest mark over the past 13 seasons for teams that reached the red zone at least three times per game. The Lions scored a touchdown on 27.2 percent of their red zone plays, the 5th highest total over that same timeframe. Teams that reached the red zone three or more times per game while scoring on 65 percent or more of those possessions averaged a 58.1 red zone touchdown rate the following season. Teams scoring on 25 percent or more of their red zone plays scored on average 7.7 fewer offensive touchdowns the following year.

 

That’s not where it ends for Detroit. It would be one thing to say the Lions won't be as efficient with their short scoring opportunities, but it’s another thing when you realize that they were completely dependent on those short scores in producing their point totals. Out of their 40 touchdowns on the season, 34 came in the red zone. That 85 percent dependency on red zone touchdown production is 16th highest of the past 385 individual seasons in which a team scored 30 or more touchdowns. Of the 15 teams ahead of the Lions, all but two scored fewer red zone touchdowns the following season with an average loss of 7.9 scores.

 

So, we know that the Lions were reliant on generating short scores to provide their point totals. That’s problematic if Detroit sees any decrease in reaching the red zone, and even if they are able to roll over the same amount of scoring opportunities from a year ago, natural average regression suggests they’ll score five to eight fewer touchdowns in 2016. While a half-touchdown per game loss doesn’t feel like much broken down, a loss of eight scores would move them from a team in the top third in touchdown output into the bottom third.

 

Detroit only had seven rushing touchdowns on the season, so the primary beneficiary from all of those short touchdowns was Matthew Stafford. He threw 21 passing touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in, tied with Blake Bortles for the league lead. That total is tied for the 10th highest mark in a season since 2000. Stafford averaged just 9.8 yards per touchdown pass, a mark only higher than Matt Hasselbeck (6.6) and Ryan Mallett (6.0) last season. We’ve seen Stafford have an outlier type passing touchdown season before in 2011, but what he did near the goal line last season was extremely over the bar he set for his career prior.

 

YearCompAtt Comp%PaTDTD%
2009 8 18 44.4% 6 33.3%
2010 6 10 60.0% 5 50.0%
2011 21 48 43.8% 19 39.6%
2012 18 46 39.1% 10 21.7%
2013 17 35 48.6% 13 37.1%
2014 16 38 42.1% 12 31.6%
2015 29 38 76.3% 21 55.3%

 

Now-retired Calvin Johnson accounted for five of those scores, but the main recipient of those targets and touchdowns was Golden Tate. Tate caught 10 of 11 targets there for all six of his touchdowns on the season. His 3.5 yards per touchdown reception was the lowest in the NFL for all wide receivers or tight ends with five or more touchdown receptions. The transition to Jim Bob Cooter draws a lot of credit for both Stafford and Tate, as Tate frequently scored off of rub routes near the goal line. The midseason coaching change made an impact, but that narrative likely masked a major shift in strength in competition. Tate has yet to prove himself as an elite touchdown producer, scoring on more than nine percent of his receptions just once in an NFL season. If any of the short scoring opportunities are compromised as suggested above, he’s going to have to find a way to find the paint on his own merit more often than he’s shown in his career thus far. 

 

On the other end of the spectrum, the 2015 Buffalo Bills completely bypassed the red zone with almost unprecedented regularity compared to their total touchdown output. Just 45.2 percent (19 of 42) of their offensive touchdowns came from reaching the red zone, the second lowest total for any team since 1999.

 

That in itself helps explain the lowly target totals that Sammy Watkins had near the end zone. Watkins had just seven red zone targets, with just four from the 10-yard and in as he scored eight of his nine touchdowns from 20 yards out or longer.

 

There’s reason to believe that we see an uptick there, as teams that scored fewer than 55 percent of their touchdowns in the red zone have come back the following season and seen their red zone play totals increased on average 30 percent and their red zone touchdown total increase 46 percent (with a seven percent increase in touchdowns scored overall).

 

The issue here is that even with another 35 more plays in the red zone, if the Bills maintain a similar rate of 61:39 run-pass ratio in those situations, we’re only looking at another 15 or so pass attempts. Watkins will need to see a noticeable improvement on his 16.3 percent target market share in the red zone to bolster his touchdown totals from strictly being reliant on big plays. But more touchdowns for the Bills offense as whole is a good thing for Watkins, assuming he’s on the field to start the season as he recovers from foot surgery.

 

Speaking of needing to see an uptick in red zone usage, Amari Cooper was questionably missing from the Oakland Raiders’ plans the closer they got to the goal line. Cooper had just eight red zone targets on the season, trailing both Seth Roberts (10) and Michael Crabtree (13) with zero of those looks coming from inside the 10-yard line out of the 22 targets dished out to Raiders players. Cooper was forced to lean on splash plays as he averaged 34.3 yards per touchdown reception, the 6th highest total for all receivers with five or more scores on the season. It seems odd that the Raiders would continue to freeze out their best offensive player when calling plays to generate touchdowns, but Cooper's ceiling is in question if that lack of red zone usage rolls over.


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Rich Hribar is a husband, father, sports meteorologist and a slave to statistics. A lifelong sports fan and fantasy gamer. You can find him on Twitter @LordReebs.
Email :Rich Hribar



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