The 2015 Irish red zone offense was often a point of concern throughout the season. Ineffectiveness from inside the 20 very well could have meant the difference between a win and a loss in the Clemson and Stanford games. So what are the Irish trying to do in the red zone and what are the issues?
The red zone is usually a double edged sword to most offenses - you're extremely close to the end zone and a touchdown, but the fact that you are so close means there is less vertical space for the defense to cover. As I've said before on the site, football is at it's core, a numbers game. If I can put more players in one spot than you can, I'll end up with a positive play. This is done in many ways: bringing an extra blocker to the point of a run, using the option to "remove" a defender, and in the passing game, by stretching the defense horizontally or vertically (or both).
When an offense reaches the end zone, the vertical stretch threat is effectively removed as an option, making things a lot easier for the defense. In that manner, the red zone often comes down to one on one matchups, the running game, and playaction passes.
Let's take a look at a few plays that Notre Dame used several times this season in the red zone that covers each of the red zone play styles.
One on One Matchups
One of the best weapons an offense has in the red zone is a fade target that can overpower a smaller cornerback one-on-one. Generally, defenses will stack the box on the goal line, leaving a "my guy vs your guy" matchup on the outside. If you have the WR to take advantage of it, it's a strong option near the endzone. Both Chris Brown and Corey Robinson are good targets for the red zone fade.
Running Game (Especially Involving the QB)
As the field gets shorter, stretching a defense horizontally becomes more and more important as more and more defenders are brought near the ball. The threat of a QB run via a zone read or a speed player getting the ball on a jet sweep often can put enough defenders into conflict that the offense can waltz into the endzone. The Irish have shown a desire to threaten both the outside and the QB run on the same play in the red zone.
The threat of the run must be respected when all that's needed is a couple of yards. With not much room in the back of the endzone, however, playaction passes on the goal line need to be quick hitters. Pop passes are a great option and are something the Irish have used to some success when in close this season.
So what do I see as the biggest issues with the ND red zone offense?
The first and most impactful is plain to see and something ND has been dealing with for several seasons - turnovers in the red zone. Fumbles on the goal line and interceptions in the endzone killed several productive drives, not even giving the opportunity to put three points on the board. This is something that all of the players know can't happen, but the goal line fever gets the best of everyone from time to time as we've seen this season.
The second, which is less impactful, but still interesting to look into, is our "long" red zone play selection. Often times when the Irish reach the 20 yard line, but aren't within the 10, they will choose to still run plays meant to score touchdowns. The 20 yard line is kind of a no-man's land when it comes to the passing game - if you look to reach the end zone, you're still making a 20 yard pass downfield, which is lower percentage. Add in the fact that safeties can play more aggressively due to the short field, and it seems like a tough sell that taking endzone shots from this area of the field is worth it.
Time and again, the Irish had little to no productivity from these shots towards the endzone from the "long" redzone - I'd like to see them work in some more horizontal stretch plays (short spacing passes, jet sweep, etc.) in this area of the field to then setup the full redzone package when they are closer to the goal line. We will see what their plan of attack in the red zone is against a tough Ohio State defense in the Fiesta Bowl.