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A Closer Look At Red Zone Struggles

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After scoring a mere two offensive touchdowns over the course of the past three weeks, it's safe to say that our once prolific offensive juggernaut has now effectively ground to a halt. One of the major complaints consistently aired has been our inability to convert in the red zone, so I wanted to take a closer look at that aspect of our performance. To that end, I've gone back through the play-by-play data for the past three weeks, focusing on the possessions in which we have gotten a 1st down and 10 inside our opponents 20-yard line to see what we could find.

Let's take a closer look. The following are all of the red zone possessions that we have had the past three weeks, broken down by game:

Ole Miss

  • First and goal at the Ole Miss 3-yard line, immediately after driving 63 yards. We moved down the field thanks to two nice runs, one by Mark Ingram and another by Trent Richardson, and two nice catches by Colin Peek, and it looked like an easy score was coming. Nevertheless, we threw an incomplete pass on first down, and then had a false start penalty on second down. With 2nd and goal from the 8-yard line, we threw an incomplete pass to Julio Jones, and Colin Peek couldn't quite hang onto a tough catch on third down. Leigh Tiffin trots onto the field for a 25-yard goal attempt, which is good.
  • First and ten at the Ole Miss 12-yard line, immediately after driving 54 yards. We get a decent gain with a run on first down, but an incomplete pass comes on second down, and Greg McElroy scrambles for a few yards on a pass play on third down. McElroy gets popped hard, but he hangs onto the ball and Leigh Tiffin hits a field goal
  • First and goal at the Ole Miss 5-yard line after Corey Reamer's blocked punt. We run for no gain on first down, and then go to the pass, where two incompletions follow. 'Bama settles for a Leigh Tiffin field goal.
  • First and goal at the Ole Miss 3-yard line after a long by Mark Ingram. Despite two good gains preceding this play from Ingram on the ground, we decide to line up in the pistol and it backfires immediately. We screw up the snap out of the pistol, losing three yards in the process. Back at the 6-yard line, we run for no gain and then fire an incomplete pass on third down. Another Leigh Tiffin field goal.
  • First and ten at the Ole Miss 16-yard line, set up by Kareem Jackson's long interception return. Trent Richardson goes off right tackle for seven yards on first down, but he fumbles at the end and Ole Miss recovers.

South Carolina

  • First and ten from the South Carolina 14-yard line after driving 66 yards. Ingram runs for six yards on first down, setting up a promising second and short, but two runs straight into the line net no real gain, and thus Leigh Tiffin comes on for the field goal.
  • First and ten from the South Carolina 18-yard line immediately after Mark Ingram's 54-yard run. Needing a breather, Ingram comes out of the game, and Trent Richardson runs on first down for no gain. Incomplete passes to Upchurch and Julio follow, respectively, and Leigh Tiffin comes on for the field goal.
  • First and goal from the South Carolina 4-yard line after Mark Ingram singlehandedly carried us down the field in the Wildcat. We bring McElroy back in for this one, who tosses it left to Ingram for the touchdown.

Tennessee

  • First and ten at the Tennessee 12-yard line after driving 56 yards. This is the controversial play-calling episode right before halftime. Mark Ingram goes off left tackle for eight yards on first down, setting up a second and a short two inside the UT five. Unfortunately, we throw an incomplete pass on second down to Julio Jones, and it is followed up by yet another incomplete pass to Julio Jones on third down. Instead of going for the first down, Leigh Tiffin comes on for the field goal.

So, what do we see from all of this?

First and foremost, the passing game, yeah, um, what passing game? It goes without saying that throwing the football in the red zone is very difficult because the field becomes so compressed, but nevertheless, even with that in mind, it's a harsh reality... we literally haven't completed a pass in the red zone since the Kentucky game. In the last three games, McElroy is 0-10 passing in the red zone, and the "best" passing play we've had in that stretch is the short gain he had on the scramble where he was ultimately lit up against Ole Miss. What can you say? It's not rocket science... you can either move the ball by throwing it or running it, and if you are completely and totally unable to throw, well that really narrows your options then doesn't it?

Beyond that, playcalling does seem to have a lot of questions marks in it. We've had around five snaps the past three weeks from inside our opponent's three-yard line, and just about all of them have been passes? Why? I'm generally an advocate of spreading the field and throwing the football, but that's too much for even my taste. Besides, where has Cody been in goal line situations? We have not failed to convert a single time with him in the game the past two years, so why go away from it? And since we are struggling to throw the football so much in the red zone, why not just go to the Wildcat and take advantage of the additional blocker?

All of that said, however, the real key to look at here is just how few possessions we've had from within the red zone. Not counting easy setups by the defense and our special teams units, as an offense we've basically driven down field into the red zone only a grand total of six times over the course of three games. Do the math, that's effectively boiling down to the equivalent two lengthy drives per game. Two. That's all. So we've basically been unable to consistently move the football down the field, and making matters worse we cannot generate any explosive plays -- the longest pass play in the last three weeks is a mere 22 yards, and it's the only passing play we've had over this stretch of over 20 yards. So what do you do? You cannot move the football consistently down the field, and you cannot hit any big plays, so what do you do offensively? Simple, you don't score many points. That ring any bells?

In hindsight, then, the biggest issues that we have are probably not necessarily isolated in the red zone. Everything gets magnified once you get to the red zone, but as a general rule you're as good there as you are everywhere else on the field. Nothing magical happens once you get inside your opponent's 20-yard line. And with that in mind, it's not so much that we need to improve in the red zone offensively, it's that we need to improve offensively, period.