5 Things Defenses Hate in the Low Red Zone
MQ takes a look at how offenses attack in the Low Red Zone.
Have you ever heard of the “four-point play?” In football, that is a third down stop in the red zone that forces the offense to attempt a FG. On first down within the 25-yard line, the EPA for an offense is +4. So if a defense can force a FG within the Red Zone, that can be a net gain of points from one to four depending on where the defense gains a stop.
Defenses and offenses change the way they play once they cross this magical line, which is why both sides of the ball spend time in practice working situational football. For both sides, the field is restricted. At the 25-yard line, the offense only gets 35 yards to work with, and as the ball moves closer, the space disappears.
DB play becomes tighter, and techniques change once you pass the +25. For example, some DCs get over-aggressive and “take the fight” to the offense, while others become more passive and flood the underneath zones. Regardless, it is vital to have a plan for how an offense likes to attack each area of the Red Zone.
I like to break the Red Zone into three parts: High, Low, and Goal Line. The “High Red” begins at the +25 and goes to the +15. Usually, in this area, the offense will take one shot within the first two downs that will attack the middle of the field (MOF) because there is not much room to throw a high-arcing Fade route. The goal in this area is to get the next first down while the defense is trying to earn a long 3rd Down and tackles for loss (TFLs). Doing so puts the offense out of FG at the lower levels.
The “Low Red” is from the +14 to the +5 and will be the main focus of this article. In this area, offenses will use all means necessary to get into the end zone. Crossing and mesh routes, restricted or condensed formations, and motion all assist them in their goal to score. Defensively, a coach cannot get overly aggressive and expose the defense. Space is important, and there isn’t much to earn.
Finally, the Goal Line stretches from the +4 to the end zone. In this area, offenses must decide to get big or condense the formation. If going big, they have to match the weight by the defense.
Attacking the edges of the box is a premium if relying on lighter packages with condensed formations. If going big, boot-action, off-tackle runs, and pop-passes are usually the got too. Gap schemes are limited because an offense doesn’t want to get tackled behind the line of scrimmage (LOS). The slightest mistake on either side could spell disaster with everyone in a tight space.
1) Condensed formations:
You don't have much space to work with in coverage in the low Red Zone. Lack of space can be a blessing and a curse when the defense is backed up. In the Red Zone, defenses must be highly aware of communication, and condensed formations stress the defense. Everyone must be on the same page because there is no room for error.
Condensed formations also force the defense out of playing man; they can easily get picked if they choose to do so. Another factor here is that many DCs don't like to blitz condensed formations because it can create windows, and the ball can get out quickly in the Red Zone to the voided space. Finally, as we know, predictability for defenses in the modern era is a no-no.
For offenses, utilizing condensed formations is about predictability. If you can guarantee that the defense won’t blitz, an OC can pick a play that will work off the personnel provided by the defense. Like in the middle of the field, if the defense decides to go heavy, the offense can out-race it to the edges, and if it goes light, batter them into the end zone. By reducing the surface area of the formation, the offense can attack the low pylons and keep the defense’s personnel tightly bound.
Kansas City has one of the best offensive designs in all of football. HC Andy Reid consistently has a deep Red Zone package. In the clip, the Chiefs use a pre-snap shift to identify the coverage and then quick motion to stress the defense. The play is a Levels concept that uses three receivers at different depths and locations to stress the defense. First, #9 JuJu Smith-Schuster runs a low crosser (Cruise), while TE Travis Kelce (#87) works on a deep Cross. Then, #1 Jerick McKinnon runs an Angle route that trails the Cruise.
The play is all about getting defenders to move and create space. Kelce had the leverage and depth to beat his defender (and a natural pick by the defender tracking the quick motion). Underneath, the Out by #11 Valdes-Scantling, plus the Cruise and Angle routes, kept the Raiders defenders low in the zone.
All Mahomes had to do was throw his TE open. Finally, the route by Kelce also details a Low Red trend that many offenses use, running a WR at the back of the end zone. You’d be surprised how many defenses lose track of that guy!