clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

6 ways to win in the red zone

You can learn a lot about a team by watching what it does in the red zone. In the right hands, a toolbox of tough plays translates to touchdowns inside the 20. Here's how a few of the mainstays work.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The red zone is not just a channel, a deodorant or a giant gimmick at the University of Phoenix Stadium. On the field, the red zone is everything between the 20-yard line and pay dirt. Once an offense gets past this mythical gridiron rubicon, things get more complicated and exciting.

The field is shorter and defenses tend to tighten up as the amount of space with to work with decreases. Playbooks gets smaller, receivers can't run their deep or slow-developing routes and quarterbacks tend to eschew longer drops for quicker releases. With linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, this makes it tougher for the run game to function.

Conversely, for a defense, everyone's job gets harder. The guys up front have to be stouter against the run because a yard or two can make a difference. The pass rushers have to be quicker to the quarterback because of the decreased release time. The corners have to be tighter on the receivers. The safeties have to be more efficient in their play recognition and reaction time.

You can glean a lot about a team and a coordinator based on how they operate in the red zone. You can see how much creativity they use in their red zone playbook and how much chutzpa they possess in their play calling. You can tell how much they trust certain skill players and how much they trust their quarterback, their line, their running backs, etc. based on the plays they call. Let's take a look at some red zone schemes from Week 5 to illustrate.

To the GIFs.

The back shoulder throw and the fade route

Ah, the back-shoulder throw and its close cousin, the fade route. A long-time red zone staple, you'll often hear announcers wax poetic about how 'that play was indefensible' after seeing a well-executed example. Still, if it's so impossible to defend, why not run it every time you're down there? Because it also happens to be one of the most difficult plays to execute.

There's probably no better example to start with than Peyton Manning, who has eleventy billion touchdowns and one interception this year. In the play below, with nine minutes left in the first half and a ten-point deficit, the Broncos presented the Cowboys with an impossible predicament: First and goal at the two yard line means that you can run or pass -- and  guessing which it will be is pretty futile.

1-2-DAL 2 (9:11 2ND Q) P.Manning pass short right to E.Decker for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN. 3-step drop back quick thrown 5 yards deep end zone.

The Broncos come out in their standard '11' personnel grouping, with one tight end, one running back and three receivers on the outside. Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Julius Thomas are aligned to the wide side of the field with Eric Decker to the tight side. This alignment virtually guarantees a one-on-one on the outside, as the Cowboys have to account for the three receiving options to the left and the run option up the middle.

Manning takes a quick three-step drop and fires the football out as he hits his back foot. He's so confident in making the throw with this field position, even with a Cowboys defender right in his face.


With Decker aligned at the numbers on the short side, he allows himself enough room to fade to the sideline. Manning, of course, delivers a perfectly-placed football. This kind of thing is literally almost impossible to defend and, as shown above, the corner has pretty tight coverage even when the ball arrives.

Consistent with how this game went, the Cowboys were not to be outdone.

1-2-DEN 2 (:20 3RD Q) T.Romo pass short left to D.Bryant for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Dallas found themselves in a mirrored situation later: first and goal from the 2-yard line, in 11 personnel, and in a power position to either run or throw. The fact that Denver has no real concept of whether a run or pass is coming gives the Cowboys an advantage. In this case, Dallas goes to what's called run-action. It's similar to play-action, except the offensive linemen are doing the faking, not the quarterback.

At the snap, each offensive lineman explodes out of their stance in run-blocking form, moving downfield as if DeMarco Murray should be right behind them. You can clearly see the reaction of the Denver linebackers to this run action; they're sucked up to the line of scrimmage, looking to plug any running lanes. Safety Rahim Moore (#26) is frozen for a second with the threat of the run so instead of drifting outside into the throwing lane between Romo and Dez Bryant, he's left making sure Murray doesn't come up off tackle.


Ultimately, this means Romo has a clear line of sight to back-shoulder it to Bryant, who positions himself perfectly for the pass. He even takes 'run blocking posture' for a split second, further throwing off the corner.

Now, the fade route.

While back-shoulder throws require velocity and precise ball location, fade routes require timing and touch. Lofting a football over the head of a defender while keeping the ball in bounds and catchable is not an easy thing to do.

3-5-NYG 5 (8:32 4TH Q) (No Huddle, Shotgun) N.Foles pass short right to D.Jackson for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Below, DeSean Jackson makes it easy on Nick Foles with a brilliant stutter-step route. Like a rocker-step move in basketball, Jackson fakes an in-breaking route, forcing cornerback Prince Amukamara to shift his weight back inside. This subtle movement, combined with Jackson's explosive athleticism, allows the Eagles receiver to get separation. It looks easy, but not all receivers can run this route so effectively.


It's a tough assignment for Amukamara considering he's on an island with one of the fastest/shiftiest players in the NFL. The important thing for Jackson here was forcing Amukamara to keep his eyes on him -- and not the quarterback.If Amukamara had been looking in, there's a chance to make a play on the ball so the stutter step to the inside played a big role.

The isolation route, using your playmaker

Speaking of isolation routes ...

2-10-IND 10 (6:21 1ST Q) (Run formation) R.Wilson pass short right to G.Tate for 10 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Somewhat like the Dallas exampled cited above, Seattle uses play-action to control the depth of the opposing linebackers and their false-steps forward at the snap give Golden Tate more room to operate outside. He takes advantage, faking a post route briefly before turning back outside toward the flag.

The absolute key to this play is defensive back Greg Toler turning his hips and working back outside. Once this happens, Russell Wilson has an easy throw and Tate -- who leads the NFL in yards after the catch per reception -- jukes inside again before turning outside to finish for the touchdown.


The rub route

2-2-NO 3 (2:47 2ND Q) (Shotgun) J.Cutler pass short left to A.Jeffery for 3 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

This is diabolical. It's also controversial. The rub route (or pick route, depending on whether you're on offense or defense), is extremely hard to defend and can be pretty hard to pull off as an offense without getting a penalty. The picker in this situation needs to keep his shoulders turned upfield (not perpendicular to the end line) and he can't really initiate contact. In this case, it looks like Alshon Jeffrey pauses briefly enough on his pick to allow the outside Saints defender to pause and work his way upfield. Technically, he doesn't knock him down or impede him physically, he just gets in his way.

The brilliant thing about how this play is drawn up, though, is that the outside receiver (Earl Bennett)  would typically be the number one option in this situation. This is how the Saints play it, looking for the quick slant from Jay Cutler after Jeffrey had picked off Bennett's defender. Only here, the picker becomes the target. Like a well executed pick-and-roll, it's Stockton to Malone after the defensive miscommunication.


Marc Trestman apparently knows what he's doing.

Zone flood

I am a Seahawks fan. Obviously Seattle was not the first to use this time-tested concept; but what Carson Palmer and the Cardinals did to the Panthers last Sunday was familiar to someone who follows the Seahawks. Flashback to the Seahawks-Niners Sunday Night Football matchup in Week 16 last year. Seattle used an angle route with Marshawn Lynch in a flood concept to get a big touchdown. See below (ignore the GIF notations).

Watch how the receivers' routes from the outside in flood the zone. Doug Baldwin's vertical route gathers the attention of safeties over the top and Golden Tate grabs the attention of the middle linebacker. Lynch just settles in and is home free.


Back to 2013, Week 5. Arizona uses the same basic concept, but this time with their TE Jim Dray after he starts out aligned as a fullback.

3-7-CAR 7 (2:28 4TH Q) C.Palmer pass short middle to J.Dray for 7 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

The Cardinals added a distraction on the outside, making this concept that much more effective. The first two 'distractions' for the defense run a vertical route and a drag route, respectively, and you can see the defense react to them. Add in the threat of the swing pass outside and Jim Dray is left open on his quick angle route.


Pay dirt. A cool concept against a zone defense.

The shovel pass

I wouldn't say that the shovel pass is the most common play in the NFL these days, but we saw two teams -- Atlanta and Denver -- use it to score touchdowns in Week 5. The Broncos and Falcons used slightly different schematics for their shovel pass touchdown plays, but the concepts were mainly the same.

1-4-DAL 4 (2:32 1ST Q) (No Huddle, Shotgun) P.Manning pass short middle to J.Thomas for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

The main thing with Denver's version was that they intentionally left the defensive end unblocked on the play side. This is the same concept that the read-option uses and gives the offense an advantage in number of blockers at the point of attack.

The defensive end has to keep his eyes on Peyton here in the event he rolls out to pass (or rush for the end zone, something he actually did in this game on another red zone play, weirdly enough),  allowing Manning to pitch it back inside to slicing tight end Julius Thomas. Without blocking that defensive end, the Broncos now have three lead blockers against two defenders.

They get away with a pretty blatant hold, but the scheme is sound. It's also just cool.


Falcons' OC Dirk Koetter used this exact play call successfully against the Seahawks last year in the NFC Divisional Round. It's a difficult play to defend because it stretches the defense laterally -- it looks a lot like a roll-out pass play -- but also fixes the numbers up front in favor of the offense.

3-4-NYJ 4 (14:57 2ND Q) (Shotgun) M.Ryan pass short middle to J.Snelling for 4 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

The defensive end ignores Matt Ryan so the pulling guard engages him to seal off the lane for the shovel pass. With the threat of a pass to the right, four Jet defenders bunch up on the offensive right while leaving room for Jason Snelling to operate.


This is not an exhaustive list of the red zone moneymakers from Week 5, but just a small sampling of some of the schemes that teams utilize to punch the ball in. Keep an eye out for these types of concepts in Week 6. Odds are, you'll see some variation of them in every game.

Follow @FieldGulls on Twitter

More from SB Nation NFL

"League of Denial" creators discuss concussion crisis

NFL Week 6 picks: Good bets on bad teams | Watchability

Can the Ravens rattle Aaron Rodgers?

NFL Power Rankings: Chiefs and Colts climbing

Bois: The Quarterback Internet Hate Index