Eight in the Box: The best and worst NFL offenses in the red zone
Each Friday, Eight in the Box will highlight a list of eight players, teams or moments and their impact on the 2013 season.
The Seattle Seahawks entered their Thursday night contest in Arizona having struggled to convert inside opponents’ red zones. Through six weeks of the season, the Seahawks had scored touchdowns on just 50 percent of their trips inside the 20 — a middle-of-the-pack ratio on which they emphasized improving.
“The red zone is still kicking our [tails],” center Max Unger told ESPN.com after a win over Tennessee last week. “We need to get it done there. I don’t have an answer for it right now.”
Whatever the solution, the Seahawks found it in time for that matchup with the Cardinals. Seattle traversed into the red zone four times, coming away with three touchdowns and a field goal in a 34-22 win.
Their prior struggles in that facet of the game, though, inspired this week’s Eight in the Box. We’re taking a look at the four best and four worst teams in the red zone through Week 6 of the NFL season.
(All red zone statistics courtesy of TeamRankings.com)
1. Denver Broncos (TDs on 82.1 percent of red-zone trips): The Broncos remain on pace to smash the Patriots’ single-season points record of 589, set during their perfect 2007 campaign, so it should come as no surprise that they’re dominating in the red zone. Denver leads the league in red-zone trips at approximately 4.7 per game and is finding the end zone more than three-quarters of the time.
Peyton Manning’s ability to spread the wealth through the air has been key: Wes Welker and emerging TE Julius Thomas have combined for 15 touchdown grabs, all but Thomas’ first two coming from the 20-yard line and in. Demaryius Thomas (four TDs) and Eric Decker (two) stand as viable options for Manning by the goal line, too.
The slightly under-the-radar star of the Broncos’ red-zone success, though? RB Knowshon Moreno. His longest run of the season is just 25 yards, but he’s leading the league with seven touchdowns. Moreno’s efforts deep in enemy territory have provided this offense with sensational balance.
2. Miami Dolphins (71.4 percent): The Dolphins have been brilliant in the red zone as a whole, scoring on all 14 of their trips there — 10 touchdowns and four field goals. Unfortunately for them, two of the possessions in which they settled for three points came in a 26-23 loss to Baltimore, when one more TD would have pushed them over the top.
Still, one has to appreciate Miami’s red-zone efficiency, especially considering that the Dolphins have yet to top 27 points in any one game this season. They’re not generating a ton of chances (2.8 red-zone trips per game, tied for 19th in the league), but they’re capitalizing when they get there. The numbers might be even better if Miami could generate any big plays. Right now, the Ryan Tannehill-led attack has just one TD from outside the red zone and 10 in tight (five rushing, five passing).
3. St. Louis Rams (66.7 percent): Like the Dolphins, the Rams’ red-zone chances are not coming quite as frequently as they’d like — 18 in six games — but they’re cashing in on them. St. Louis’ 66.7 percent success rate (12 touchdowns) leads the NFC right now.
“I think one of the things that has helped the red-zone production has been our ability to run the football,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “A number of these opportunities that we’ve taken advantage of have been off of play-action.”
Play-action is about all they’ve had from the run game, though. As of yet, St. Louis has yet to find the end zone on the ground, compared to 13 passing TDs from Sam Bradford.
4. Dallas Cowboys (65.2 percent): Dallas boasts a red-zone number that’s gone up — way up — over the past two weeks. In Weeks 5 and 6 combined, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on eight of 10 red-zone trips, while kicking field goals on their other two appearances inside the opponents’ 20.
Dallas has used six different players to score TDs during that stretch: DeMarco Murray, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Joseph Randle. That all-hands approach pays off in the red zone, forcing defenses to pick their poison. It helps that Romo, that late INT against Denver aside, is playing at a very high level right now.
4. Tennessee Titans (44.4 percent): Prior to Week 4, Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains blamed penalties and drops for a lot of his team’s issues with finding the end zone.
“That’s stuff we control ourselves,” Loggains told The Tennessean. “We have to eliminate that stuff.”
The Titans were 1-for-3 with two field goals on their red-zone trips against San Diego, the performance that touched off Loggains’ comments. They’ve been only marginally better over the remainder of their schedule. Jake Locker’s injury has been a contributing factor of late; the Titans have just one TD and two field goals on five red-zone attempts with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting QB. So, too, has been Chris Johnson’s consistent struggles on the ground. Johnson is averaging a career-low 3.1 yards per carry and has yet to find pay dirt.
3. New England Patriots (40.1 percent): Welcome back, Rob Gronkowski. The NFL’s leader in receiving TDs in 2011 (17) and a consistent red-zone threat for Tom Brady could be just the medicine New England needs here. After scoring TDs at nearly a 70-percent clip inside the red zone last season, New England is floundering in 2013, with touchdowns on just nine of 22 trips.
Gronkowski ought to be Brady’s go-to guy down deep again, now that he’s set to rejoin the lineup. Of Gronkowski’s 38 career regular-season TD receptions, 29 have come from inside the 20.
2. Pittsbugh Steelers (38.4 percent): Le’Veon Bell provided a spark for the Steelers during his debut in London, twice finishing off red-zone drives. Ben Roethlisberger also hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 15-yard TD in that game. But the Steelers still walked out of Wembley Stadium with touchdowns on a mere 50 percent of their red-zone trips — Shaun Suisham kicked two field goals and Roethlisberger fumbled late deep in Minnesota territory on their other three trips. Pittsburgh then mustered only a pair of field goals on two red-zone appearances last week.
Bell ought to continue to help in the red zone, but it is much more difficult for Roethlisberger to ad-lib in tight quarters. Thus, the Steelers have had a harder time moving the football via Big Ben’s creative play.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars (33.3 percent): Surprise! The Jaguars actually have made it to the red zone an average of 2.5 times per game, but they’re finishing those trips only a third of the time. Pick an area to blame: poor QB play, turnovers, a stopgap offensive line, Maurice Jones-Drew being less than 100 percent. They’ve all contributed at one time or another to Jacksonville’s red-zone misery.