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Successful teams turn the red zone into the go zone

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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In the Minnesota Vikings' 30-23 win over the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football, Brett Favre led the Vikings to touchdowns on all three of their red-zone chances. Conversely, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers failed to convert either of their red-zone chances into touchdowns. Offensive production and ultimately success in the red zone is vital to winning any football game.

The red zone is simply the area from the opponent's 20-yard line to the goal line. Any play executed in that area of space is considered a red-zone play. Teams often refer to the red zone as the "green zone" in an attempt to remind themselves that green means go and get a touchdown. Most teams consider the area from the opponent's 35- to 20-yard line a "green zone" because they want to strike for the end zone with vertical passing plays before the offense runs out of space for their speedy receivers. Favre and the Vikings executed a play from the "green zone," as Favre hit Bernard Berrian for a 31-yard touchdown strike.

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With four weeks of the 2009 season in the books, there is enough information to take a look at red-zone production. Also, a number of coaches have explained what it takes to be an effective red-zone team.

Here are the things most mentioned as components to being a successful red-zone team (in no particular order):

1. A mobile quarterback -- The threat to also run the ball in for a score can break down a red-zone defense.
2. An athletic tight end -- Teams need a player who can open up his alignment and take defenders away from the line of scrimmage to open up the running game.
3. A tall receiver -- With size, there is always the threat of a fade route in the end zone.
4. A power back -- Pushing the pile and moving the chains can keep defenses honest.

Successful red-zone teams don't necessarily need to possess all four of the aforementioned components. Also, keep in mind that wide receiver speed is not mentioned as a critical component for red-zone success. This makes sense when you consider that the short field does not permit speed to be a big factor.

Here is an inside look at what has transpired in the red zone from 2006 through 2008. Teams averaged slightly more than three red-zone trips per game, which equated to 1,558 visits per season. Last season saw an increase in visits to the red zone, with teams averaging 3.1 visits per game. On average, teams come away with points 84 percent of the time they visit the red zone. Those teams finished those visits to the red zone as follows: 23 percent scored rushing touchdowns, 28 percent scored passing touchdowns, 33 percent resorted in field goals and 16 percent walked away without points.

This season, with 62 games complete -- or 124 teams with red-zone production statistics to evaluate -- things are slightly different than previous seasons and deserve a closer look. This past weekend of games featured 94 trips into the red zone, which is a good sample size for an in-depth look.

Hans Deryk / Associated Press
The Dolphins found extraordinary success in the red zone behind first-time starter Chad Henne.

For the year, rushing touchdowns are down one percent (accounting for 22 percent of red-zone visits), passing touchdowns still account for 28 percent of red-zone scores, while field goals are down to 30 percent. Visits to the red zone that do not result in a score of any kind are up four percent (or 20 percent of red-zone visits). Teams are turning the ball over in the red zone at a seven percent rate, which is up one percent. However, as one defensive coach said, "Blitzing the quarterback down in the red zone is up on our call sheet, and that is forcing more incompletions and more importantly sacks that push teams back out of the red zone."

Home-field advantage has been an indicator of red-zone success, especially in Week 4. Home teams have made 53 trips into the red zone and came away with a score 32 times (or, on 60.3 percent of red-zone visits), while visiting teams made just 41 trips into the red zone and scored just 21 times (or, on 51 percent of red-zone visits).

The Miami Dolphins -- playing at home with a first-time starter in Chad Henne -- went 4-for-5 in the red zone, while the Buffalo Bills scored on just one of three red-zone trips. The New England Patriots -- playing in Foxborough -- went 3-for-5 in the red zone, while the Baltimore Ravens were just 2-for-4. On Monday night, the Vikings were perfect (3-for-3) in the red zone, but the visiting Packers were 0-for-2. One Vikings player said that the noise level at the Metrodome was deafening and it made things tough on the Packers.

This season, the Saints and Ravens have scored the most red-zone touchdowns with 11, as both teams have successfully mixed scores between the run and pass. Meanwhile, the Bills, Chiefs, Rams and Texans have yet to score a rushing touchdown while in the red zone. The Raiders are the only team in the league without a passing touchdown in the red zone, which seems to indicate that quarterback decision-making should be added to the criteria for good red-zone production. The Patriots have been to the red zone 18 times and came away with points on each occasion, but had to settle for a field goal 11 times. That trend could come back to haunt the Patriots if they can't figure out how to finish drives with touchdowns.

When you consider that teams get about 12 offensive series a game, and on average cross the opponents' 20-yard line three times a game, those teams must come away with points. Last week, the Raiders and Packers failed to produce touchdowns in their red-zone trips, and the Rams never even made it to the red zone against the 49ers. It should come as no surprise that all three teams lost their respective games.

Keep an eye on how your team does when crossing the opponent's 20-yard line, and don't accept scoring points on less than 80 percent of those red-zone trips.

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