The red zone is the money zone. This part of the field, the 20-yard line to the goal line, is where all the magic happens. Want to be a great scoring offense? You have to win in the red zone.
The best red zone quarterback in the NFL over the last two seasons is Marcus Mariota of the Titans. Since entering the league as the second overall pick in 2015, he’s been red-hot in the money zone. Tennessee leads the NFL in red zone efficiency at 76 percent.
Here's how Mariota's numbers compare in the red zone with the rest of the field.
|Red zone||Rest of the field|
|Completion rate||65.4 percent||62.7 percent|
When teams install an offense for the week, they do it in segments. On Wednesday of the typical week they install normal down and distance runs and passes. That’s first-and-10, second-and-4, and so on. Thursday has been different for each team I’ve been on, but the constant is third down Thursdays. That covers all third-down situations.
Short yardage and goal line can be installed on Thursday or Friday. It’s not given the same amount of time for practice as the other situations on the field because it’s not as common, and frankly, it’s pretty straight forward.
All of these installs handle from the 3- or 4-yard line to the opposite 20. The red zone, the 17 yards from the 20 to the 3 (where most goal-line plays start), get an entire install and multiple periods of practice time. It’s that important. It’s the difference between three points and seven, winning and losing a close game.
The red zone is such a unique area of the field for multiple reasons and each of those benefit Mariota’s skill set. Coming out of college, we knew Mariota had a cannon, made quick decisions with the ball in Chip Kelly’s spread offense, and used his legs well. Things he had to improve on were reading a defense, taking a ball from under center, and learning a pro-style offense. The things he’s good at are excellent for the red zone.
The field is obviously condensed inside the 20. If you’re starting in the red zone at the 20, there’s only 30 yards of field to use before you run out of space. This leads to less complicated defensive schemes, especially as you get closer to the goal line.
Teams will typically do three things when they run a red zone defense. They will run some sort of two-high safeties, mostly quarters coverage as they get closer to the end zone, sort of a blanket coverage of the end zone. The second is some version of one-high safety. If a team is a big one-high defense, it’s easier to stay in one-high because that’s what you know best.
Lastly, zero pressure. Zero pressure is an "all out blitz." It’s man across the board, and whoever isn’t guarding anyone, they are rushing the passer. Zero pressure is most common on third down to force a quick throw in the fringe area around the 30-yard line. The thought is that teams can force a long field goal with this pressure.
Because of these factors listed above, the defensive schemes aren’t complicated in this area and fairly predictable. It’s hard to disguise coverage and spin safeties late with nowhere to move. They would almost certainly know what coverage a defense is using, and it’s easy to see pressure in this area of the field.
It’s important to get rid of the ball quickly in the red zone because the windows close fast. Pass rushers also change their style of rush. They know the ball is out sooner and try rushing with a more direct path to the QB.
Having an excellent run game helps the passing game in the red zone because it can suck up the linebackers who are in the way of routes. Play action passes are a wonderful weapon in this area of the field.
All of these factors listed above are part of the reason Mariota has been successful in the red zone. He can make quick decisions, use his arm, use play action pass to get easy throws, and he doesn’t have to read the defense like he does in the middle of the field.
On to the tape. I want you to notice the calm and poise that Mariota plays with. He never looks panicked or in a hurry which tends to happen with young QBs in high leverage situations.
Let’s start early in the season at Detroit. The game is on the line here. Lions are up 15-10, it’s fourth down at the 9-yard line with 1:44 left in the game.
The Titans motion down into a stack to get better releases. They run a two-high beater here. Andre Johnson, the inside receiver runs directly at the middle linebacker to get his eyes and stop his feet, then goes directly up the field in the middle of the two-high safeties. Mariota has excellent anticipation, and throws a beautiful ball to Johnson to win the game.
Moving on to another play against a defense with two-high safeties in the red zone. This time the Jaguars are running a quarters look. Mariota reads the defense quickly, takes his drop, hitch and boom. In rhythm and in the tight window where the receiver is open for a touchdown strike to Rishard Matthews.
Here’s one with zero pressure. It’s easy to see. Here come the linebackers creeping up. What I love about Mariota here is that there’s no panic. He doesn’t try changing the play or protection. He trusts his offense and he already knows where he’s throwing the ball.
Notice how he uses his legs to buy just enough time. He’s not running out of the pocket trying to play hero ball, but he knows where the free rusher will be and where he must move in the pocket.
Now we get to one of my favorite offensive concepts because it works about 95 percent of the time. It’s the tight end sneak play. You have a strong rushing attack so you fake a run. The tight end pretends to block, but instead he leaks out across the formation unnoticed by the defense.
Great play against man coverage, but it really works well against anything. Atlanta ran it for a long touchdown against the Panthers earlier in the season. This play only works if you’re rushing attack is elite. This is just an easy throw and catch for Mariota and the Titans offense.
I watched every snap of Mariota’s college career because he’s an Oregon Duck, just like me. I always knew he had the skills to be an elite quarterback, and I’m glad he’s slowly starting to reach that potential. He’ll be exciting to watch for years to come.