As football analysts, we tend to overcomplicate the game. You can ask 100 different “experts” what the key is to winning in the NFL, and you are likely to get 100 different answers. It happens. Everyone has their own idea of what it takes to win, but that’s why we love this game so much. There is no “right” way to ensure victory 100 percent of the time.
However, a lot of the best teams in the NFL share certain traits, such as passing the ball well, converting on third down, limiting turnovers, etc. One of the most obvious "ways to win" is to have success in the red zone — both on offense and defense. Teams that can score touchdowns in the red zone on offense and can limit them on defense typically win a lot of games. This isn’t rocket science. Take a look at the three most efficient offenses in the red zone in 2017:
1. Jaguars - 69%
2. Eagles - 64%
3. Patriots - 63%
It’s not a coincidence that the top three teams all appeared in the championship round of the 2017 season. Winning in the red zone is still king in the NFL. The reason that red-zone success is so important is because that is where most of the league’s touchdowns are scored. Over the past 10 seasons, over 74 percent of all offensive touchdowns were scored in the red zone. That number has stayed awfully consistent over the past decade:
The data isn’t earth-shattering, but it is noteworthy. Part of the reason that these red-zone numbers have remained static is that, for the most part, the NFL believes in scoring touchdowns in the same way. Think about a traditional red zone offense in the NFL. What types of plays do you associate with red zone offense? In terms of passing the ball, the first play that likely comes to mind is the fade throw. Every fan base hates it, but teams call for it multiple times per game, despite it having limited success.
When it comes to running the ball in the red zone, almost every team does it the same way. They line up as many blockers as close to one another as possible and ask their back to find the smallest of holes to run through. Some teams will use a QB sneak, others will line up in I-formation and try to score that way. If a team is getting really innovative, they might put a 300-pound defensive lineman in the FB position to try to lead block for the tailback. Crazy stuff, right? It’s frustrating how innovative the NFL has become on offense until we get to the 20-yard line.
However, in Week 1 of the regular season, we finally started to see some change in how teams approach red zone offense. Across the league, teams opted to run variations of the read-option, triple-option and Wing-T to score touchdowns. It was really beautiful to watch. The Cowboys, of all teams, actually ran a speed option to Ezekiel Elliott, which produced their only touchdown of the game.
Today, we are going to look at how one team, the Kansas City Chiefs, used new formations and plays in the red zone to find success. Their creativity could spark a new wave of red zone offense in the NFL.
Let’s start with a concept that we have already seen in the NFL — the read-option. Most of the time, read-option concepts are used outside of the red zone, but the Chiefs decided to use it at the goal line.
However, instead of just a typical read-option out of shotgun, the Chiefs used a “Diamond” formation (popular with Air-Raid teams) to get two lead blockers in front of QB Patrick Mahomes if he decided to keep the ball. Mahomes was clearly reading the right defensive end and was making his decision on what to do with the ball based off of his movement.
That play is very common with college football teams. The next one we'll view has been a staple of spread teams at the college level for years. On this play, Mahomes was lined up in shotgun with a running back to his left. The offensive line blocked to their right as if Kareem Hunt was going to take the handoff on a read-option. Instead, Mahomes gave the ball to De’Anthony Thomas on a shovel pass to the opposite side of the field for an easy score.
A little bit of misdirection at the line of scrimmage causes so much confusion that by the time the defense realizes what is going on, Thomas is already in for six. Just a wonderful play design to capitalize inside the five-yard line.
The last play I want to highlight is another misdirection play that incorporated the read-option. This time, it appeared that Mahomes and Hunt were running a read-option to the right. But as soon as Hunt crossed the face of Mahomes, Tyreek Hill ran in front of both them on the jet-sweep. Mahomes handed the ball to Hill as he continued to carry out the read-option run. Another easy touchdown for the Chiefs.
These are just a handful of plays that we saw on Sunday, and the innovation should only grow as teams look to one-up each another for the rest of the season. Instead of low-percentage throws and the same run plays, we are finally starting to see coaches and teams switch things up near the goal line to unique, multiple-read plays to maximize efficiency. The 2018 season may completely change the way we look at red zone offense in the NFL — and I am in favor of it.