Missed Opportunity and Failed Execution, Notre Dame’s Red Zone Woes
With few exceptions, the 2009 Irish offense had a very productive year. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate turned in brilliant performances and led an explosive unit that generated over 30 points per outing.
But if there was an Achilles’ heel—and there was—it was red zone point production.
The Irish struggled inside the 20-yard line in 2009, but this is hardly a new trend for former head coach Charlie Weis’ offensive unit. The same was true last year, and the red zone touchdown efficiency in 2007 was a paltry 52 percent. Coupled with an anemic running game, the recurrence of this fundamental problem was a tough pill to swallow for many fans.
Weis and his offense will not be back in 2010, but many of the same offensive players will and improvement in the red zone is a must to take pressure off a new starting quarterback, particularly if Dayne Crist does not completely recover from his ACL injury. But was Weis’ offensive scheme and play-calling really to blame for the red zone woes? Furthermore, is new head coach Brian Kelly’s spread attack the answer?
Before these questions can be answered, the fundamental problems must be identified. What follows is an evaluation of the 2009 Irish red zone offense framed in the context of Weis’ offensive approach and subsequent production, including a brief summary of how Kelly’s offense addresses these issues.
Definitions and Disclaimers
Before diving into the analysis, a few definitions and disclaimers are necessary to establish the framework for this assessment.
- The personnel groupings referenced in the discussion below are grouped into two categories: “heavy” and “spread.” Heavy personnel groupings have two or fewer wide receivers and two or more players from the fullback and/or tight end positions. Spread personnel groupings have three or more wide receivers (with one exception). The two tables below outline the heavy and spread personnel packages and the guys over at Blue Gray Sky have a nice pictorial summary for a subset of them.
Heavy Personnel Groupings
Spread Personnel Groupings
- This analysis includes charting of the offensive plays from all 12 games in the 2009 season but does not include plays that were significantly influenced by situational characteristics. These are listed below and exclusion of this relatively small number of plays is not expected to significantly alter any conclusions.
- Plays on which a penalty occurred—regardless of whether or not the penalty was on the Irish offense or accepted.
- Plays which took place in an overtime period. All play-calling and production is influenced by situational characteristics (see below), but overtime periods occur under a very specific set of circumstances that are not replicated in regulatory quarters of play.
- Plays that occurred in the “Victory” formation, i.e. snaps where the quarterback simply takes a knee.
- As scrambles and sacks are called pass plays, they are counted as such. Lost or gained yardage is included in the passing totals, but completion percentage calculations are based only on plays in which a pass was attempted.
- An explosive—or big—gain is a running play that produces 15 or more yards or a pass play that gains 20 or more yards.
- Finally, there are three categories of down series and plays:
- Outside the red zone refers to down series and plays that occurred beyond an opponent’s 20-yard line.
- Inside the red zone refers to down series and plays that occurred inside an opponent’s 20-yard line, but excludes goal-to-go situations. Nota bene, these are not the same as those characterized as red zone down series and plays which include goal-to-go situations.
- Goal-to-go refers to down series and plays that begin with first and goal, i.e. where a first down is not possible without scoring a touchdown.
Wherever possible, the data from the game charting was corroborated with that found at the Notre Dame football statistics homepage.
Irish Scoring Production
Scoring points in football can be expressed as a function of opportunity. Every possession is an opportunity to generate points and the odds of scoring are increased by gaining first downs in succession, extending drives, and moving closer to the goal line.
In other words, scoring is a considerably more facile—and potentially more lucrative—proposition from 10 yards than from 40. Not only does the probability of a successful field goal attempt increase at closer distances, far more touchdowns are scored on a short field than via long gains. This is where the higher payoff comes into play. The probability of scoring six points, rather than three, increases closer to the goal line.
To this end, part of an offensive play-caller’s goal is to generate situations that maximize scoring potential, i.e. red zone and goal-to-go opportunities. Once this is accomplished, the odds of scoring a touchdown are greatly increased and all that remains (in theory) is execution.
The table below outlines the 2009 Irish scoring production (production from point after attempts are not included) broken into three categories: possession, red zone, and goal-to-go. The red zone numbers are a subset of the possession numbers, and the goal-to-go values are a subset of the other two. Logically, the points per opportunity should increase in the red zone and then again in goal-to-go situations.
Offensive Scoring Production
|Number||Scores||Score %||TD||TD %||FG||FG %||Points per opportunity|
The Irish notched 20 scores—15 touchdowns and five field goals—from outside the red zone. These 15 touchdowns represent 36 percent of all touchdown scores and came via big pass plays as the Clausen and Tate-led air attack was extremely explosive.
As expected, the scoring percentages and per-point opportunity values significantly increased once the offense entered the red zone. Irish kickers did their part and were successful on 13 of 15 red zone field goal attempts. Additionally, the touchdown scoring rate increased by more than 83 percent once the Irish crossed the 20-yard line.
But in goal-to-go situations, the rate of scoring didn’t appreciably change. While all seven field goal attempts were successful, touchdowns were scored at the same rate on goal-to-go down series as in all red zone situations.
This represents missed opportunity. The touchdown efficiency in goal-to-go situations should certainly be higher than 56.5 percent, but the offense didn’t convert a large percentage of these high probability scoring opportunities into six points. Because of this, the overall red zone efficiency suffered.
Moreover, only half of the red zone appearances resulted in a goal-to-goal series and three of these resulted in zero points. The Irish turned the ball over on downs against Boston College and Navy, and fell short against USC as time expired (with an extra timeout and down no less). Additionally, one go-to-goal opportunity against Michigan State was squandered as a fumbled snap on third down led to a field goal.
What Was The Approach?
Why weren’t more points scored inside the red zone? And, in particular, why weren’t more touchdowns scored in goal-to-goal situations?
This is essentially a question of red zone touchdown efficiency. As noted above, red zone field goal kicking was efficient, but the touchdown efficiency was in the bottom half of the country and was the primary deficiency preventing a good offense from being great.
Understanding the offensive approach is the first step to an answer. While there are a host of ways to dissect play-calling, the focus of this discussion is a high-level investigation designed to uncover Weis’ play-calling intent and answer two primary questions.
First, how were runs and passes used to gain first downs and score. And second, what were the preferred personnel packages and alignments.
To answer these questions, three metrics will be used to characterize the play-calling approach:
- Run/pass preference
- Personnel preference, i.e. the use of heavy and spread personnel
- Quarterback placement preference, i.e. the use of shotgun in the passing game
The charts below tackle the first category by illustrating the run/pass preference outside the red zone, inside the red zone, in goal-to-go situations, and as a whole (these four categories will be used for all subsequent charts).
As the charts indicate, the offense was pass-heavy in almost every category with a high of 60 percent outside the red zone. In contrast, the run was favored only in goal-to-go situations and comprised only 41 percent of total play calls.
The Use Of Heavy And Spread Personnel
Due to Weis’ penchant for creating player mismatches, the use of personnel groupings are often a strong indicator of his offensive approach. The charts below outline the use of personnel.
Under Kelly, the Irish won’t be changing to a spread offense as much as learning a new one.
As a whole, 64 percent of plays were executed from a spread personnel grouping with Half (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) the overwhelmingly popular choice. Half was used 445 times during the 2009 season, good for nearly 85 percent of plays run from spread packages and 54.3 percent of all snaps.
The preference towards spreading the field was strongest outside the red zone where almost 70 percent of plays were executed from these packages. As the offense neared the goal line, this trend faded. Inside the red zone the split was virtually even, and in goal-to-go situations heavy personnel replaced spread groupings as the strong favorite.
Similar to the spread packages, one heavy grouping was strongly preferred as Weis used Detroit (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) personnel on 26.5 percent of all snaps and 74.3 percent of all heavy packages.
Together, Half and Detroit accounted for 662 of 819 (80.8 percent) snaps and comprised the majority of the Irish offense. Integrating run/pass preference, the run was favored in Detroit (61.3 percent), while a pass was called on 70.8 percent of all plays run from Half (more on these integrated tendencies below). Even with these one-sided tendencies, the Irish still averaged 5.4 yards per carry in Detroit and 7.4 yards per pass attempt in Half.
Clausen was in shotgun more than he was under center in 2009, but not by a large margin. Outside of the red zone Weis utilized the shotgun 54 percent of the time. Somewhat surprisingly, this increased to 57 percent inside the red zone before diving sharply to 34 percent in goal-to-go situations.
These percentages do, however, come with one caveat. The shotgun plays noted above include 35 snaps taken from the Wildcat formation. As these plays accounted for only five percent of all snaps, they were not excluded.
Putting It All Together
Personnel, quarterback placement, and run/pass tendencies are certainly of value, but more insight is gained from mixing the first two with the latter. The data above indicates strong trends in personnel use as well as the run/pass mix, but the chart below shows how the two were coupled.
The offense essentially moved form a spread passing attack outside of the red zone to a heavy, run-based approach in goal-to-go situations. Inside the red zone there was more balance, particularly in heavy packages, but spread personnel still strongly indicated a pass.
As a whole, 46 percent of all snaps were passes from spread personnel. In contrast, only 23 percent were runs executed from a heavy package. While the Irish were predictable, there is asymmetry to the trends, i.e. the personnel used in the running game was more balanced.
The charts below indicate sharper trends for quarterback placement.
The offense operated similarly outside and inside the red zone, but that doesn’t mean both weren’t predictable. In either situation shotgun formations were almost synonymous with a pass. There was more balance when Clausen was under center, but the run was still favored nearly two-to-one. Finally, goal-to-go situations were mostly runs from under center.
The data above indicates Weis preferred to place the quarterback under center and run with heavy personnel close to the goal line in lieu of the shotgun-based, spread passing attack utilized in the open field. In other words, inside the red zone—and especially in goal-to-go situations—the Irish offense looked nothing like it did beyond the 20-yard line.
Approach + Execution = Production
Does it really matter? Is there something fundamentally wrong with a spread passing team shifting to a more balanced, heavy-personnel offense in the red zone? The short answer is no, not if it is productive.
The table below shows the production in the running game outside and inside the red zone. The “Under center run %” and “Heavy run %” columns indicate the percentage of runs that occurred from under center and in heavy personnel groupings respectively.
As goal-to-go down series are entirely unique, production in these situations will be outlined later rather than directly compared to the numbers shown here.
The numbers indicate, as the charts did above, that more and more runs occurred from under center and in heavy formations once the Irish crossed the 20-yard line.
Due to the increased predictability and shorter field, the per-carry average dips approximately 13 percent, but a decrease of this magnitude doesn’t suggest the running game to be entirely ineffective inside the red zone. Additionally, no rushing touchdowns were scored outside the red zone and only four came from non-goal-to-go situations.
A quick glance at the passing data paints a slightly different picture (the under center and heavy run percentage columns have been replaced by shotgun, spread and play-action pass percentages).
|Comp %||Avg/att||Avg/comp||TD||TD %|
Again, the numbers show Weis called fewer pass plays from spread formations on a shorter field. Play-action, on the other hand, was used at a fairly even rate.
The sharpest trend in the data occurs in the efficiency categories (completion percentage and average per attempt), as both decrease significantly on a short field. Due to the lack of real estate, the latter is somewhat expected. But the completion percentage declines from an exceptional 69.9 percent outside the red zone, to a pedestrian 54.5 percent inside the red zone.
“Equivalent” Production Outside And Inside The Red Zone
The production outlined above indicates that the offense didn’t perform as well inside the red zone as outside it, but the comparison isn’t back-to-back.
As noted, production will often appear lower on a compressed field as players can’t reel off big plays to increase averages. Additionally, offenses routinely face different, more compact defense inside the 20-yard line.
This is especially true for the Irish. Explosive gains were a huge part of the offensive output in 2009 as big plays accounted for 40.3 percent of the total offense and increased the per-snap average by almost 53 percent. In particular, the pass production was a huge contributor to this trend. The Irish averaged 4.7 yards per attempt excluding big plays but 7.6 yards per attempt overall.
These influences make it much more appropriate to use similar situations and exclude big plays than to directly compare production outside and inside the red zone. To this end, the two tables below show “equivalent” production by comparing the same run and pass metrics as above, but without big gains and only including plays on first and 10. To a large extent, this effectively removes situational bias and is a much more back-to-back comparison.
Equivalent Run Production
- big runs
Equivalent Pass Production
- big passes
- big passes
There are relatively few data points, but the equivalent comparison shows the offense performed similarly inside and outside the red zone, especially throwing the ball.
The Irish averaged 3.3 yards per carry inside the red zone compared to four outside the red zone, but the running game predictability certainly played a part in the lower production.
The passing data is very similar for both categories. Weis used play-action with less frequency inside the red zone and the completion percentage was lower, but the other numbers compare favorably and a 64.3 percent completion rate is still very high.
In other words, the Irish offense threw the ball with nearly equal efficiency inside and outside the red zone on first and 10. The per-attempt average inside the red zone is only slightly less than outside the red zone, a quarter of the pass plays inside the red zone were good for touchdowns, and the average per completion was actually higher.
This type of first down efficiency is critical on a short field. Maintaining favorable down and distance situations is always important, but on a short field defenses play much tighter and there is no opportunity make up ground via big gains. As such, getting behind the chains is severely limiting.
This wasn’t a problem for Notre Dame, particularly in the passing game. The run/pass balance was nearly even outside (40.5 percent run) and inside the red zone (38.5 percent run), but production in the latter category was actually better. So, if production inside the red zone wasn’t the problem, what was?
As stated above, goal-to-go situations are so specialized that they aren’t comparable to down series on other parts of the field. Whereas maintaining favorable down and distance situations and gaining first downs are both good measures of performance outside and inside the red zone, the only objective of a goal-to-go situation is to score a touchdown. Any play that fails to produce a touchdown or, in the very least, inch closer to the goal line is ultimately unsuccessful.
As such, the tables below use some different metrics than those above. First, the goal-to-go production is categorized by down. Additionally, “Run %” and “Pass %” columns have been added to indicate the run/pass split and an “Avg yds to goal line” column is used to gauge the impact of distance on play-calling. Finally, per-play averages have been replaced by “Gains <= 0” and “Gains <= 0 %” to indicate how many and what percentage of plays went for zero or negative yardage.
Goal-to-go Run Production By Down
|Down||Runs||Run %||Under center|
to goal line
<= 0 %
Goal-to-go Pass Production By Down
|Comp %||Avg yds|
to goal line
<= 0 %
On goal-to-go series, Weis was run-heavy on first and second down but passed more on third and fourth. All but six runs came from under center in heavy formations while the passing game was more balanced in terms of personnel and quarterback placement.
On first down, runs and passes yielded nearly the same touchdown scoring percentage but other downs showed a bigger disparity as overall the run was slightly better than the pass. Weis preferred to keep the ball on the ground in shorter yardage situations as the average distance to the goal line was 3.6 yards for runs compared to 6.3 yards per pass attempt.
Compared to inside the red zone, rush attempts in goal-to-go situations generated a 50 percent increase in touchdown percentage as approximately one out of every four runs resulted in six points. The goal-to-go passing touchdown percentage (22.2 percent) isn’t appreciably different.
But perhaps the most disheartening trends are the relatively low use of play-action, the paltry completion percentages, and the number of negative or zero gain plays.
On the only part of the field where play-calling favored the run, play-action was only used on 25.9 percent of called passes, not much higher than inside (17.4 percent) or outside the red zone (20.8 percent).
Play-action or not, passes were completed at a dramatically lower rate in goal-to-go situations than anywhere else on the field and this ultimately limited its success.
Including incomplete passes, 63 percent of pass plays went for zero or negative yardage and 41.2 percent of runs fell into the same category. Combining both runs and passes, better than half of the goal-to-go snaps did not move the Irish closer to scoring a touchdown. In these situations, desire and execution are primarily responsible for success, and the Irish seemed lacking in both.
The Goal-To-Go Execution Problem And What Is To Come
The scoring and production data above illustrates that the poor red zone efficiency was really a goal-to-go touchdown problem.
The Irish didn’t generate enough of these scoring opportunities and didn’t take advantage of the ones they had. Five additional goal-to-go touchdowns (out of 10 non-touchdown outcomes) would have increased the goal-to-go touchdown efficiency to 78.3 percent. This is closer to the national average and would have put Notre Dame in the top 30 in red zone touchdown efficiency.
The drop-off in passing efficiency for goal-to-go situations can be attributed to the shorter field. But it is puzzling that the offense struggled running the ball near the goal line when they were very effective rushing for first downs in short yardage situations.
These first down conversions, however, mostly occurred in the open field where there remained the possibility of a downfield throw. In fact, Weis’ primary form of play-calling randomness is the big play, and the passing game was—by far—the biggest threat to produce an explosive gain. Without this threat, the offense sputtered trying to pound it into the end zone.
The deliberate and bipolar approach didn’t help.
It isn’t practical to create an even run/pass split in each personnel grouping, in every down and distance situation, and irrespective of quarterback placement, but the rushing and passing trends in 2009 were far too much in either direction. There is something to be said for keeping things simple, but simplicity doesn’t necessarily equal predictable, and the Irish certainly were.
Two personnel groupings (Half and Detroit) comprised better than 80 percent of all snaps and the run/pass mix was very one-sided for both packages. Compared to earlier versions of Weis’ offense, the lack of diversity is astounding. Heavy personnel with the quarterback under center meant run and shotgun, spread formations all but forecasted a pass.
This deliberate approach made execution difficult as opposing defenses were able to anticipate tendencies and force a very small margin of execution error. The Irish were talented and explosive enough throwing the ball to overcome this in the open field, but struggled in the red zone without the threat of a big play.
Similar to 2008, the offense was also disjointed and lacked synergy. Weis favored a spread passing attack in the open field, but morphed into run-first, heavy-personnel approach closer to the goal line. This made it difficult to establish any identity and created unnecessary complexity. Moreover, asking a third tight end (or reserve offensive lineman) to come off the bench, enter the game cold, and suddenly pound the rock in from first and goal, isn’t always reasonable.
Ultimately, the approach spelled disaster in goal-to-go situations where failed execution prevented the offense from cashing in on high probability scoring chances. The rate of zero and negative yardage plays in these situations is indicative of poor execution, and the efficiency and effectiveness throwing the ball elsewhere on the field suggests Weis would have been better served riding the spread passing approach all the way to the end zone. Perhaps most discouraging, both suggest a disproportionately small amount of practice time spent on goal-to-go offensive situations.
And this is where Kelly’s offense will help. He favors simplicity and execution over complexity and scheme. As Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike’s 2009 red zone production indicates, better execution translates into more touchdowns and enables the offense to capitalize on high probability scoring opportunities.
Furthermore, Kelly’s offense has many more complementary looks including runs and passes in the shotgun, from the same personnel groupings, and on virtually all parts of the field. In other words, Kelly’s approach aids offensive execution via consistency and less predictable play-calling.
That isn’t to say he won’t use heavy personnel groupings or be deliberate and predictable in certain situations, but it does mean that his offensive strategy is consistent and applicable on all parts of the field and in almost all situations. His spread, pass-happy approach may not be well received by Irish fans pining for a more dominant run game, but results are all that matter.