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It’s Time to Complain About the Red Zone Offense Again

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It’s not your imagination.

LSU v Florida
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Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

It’s a near annual right of passage around ATVS, I write a column about Red Zone Efficiency and try and hammer home the point that while red zone efficiency is important and can obviously be the difference between wins and losses, it is also a nearly random stat in which the leaders change every year without much rhyme or reason.

The thing is, as much as everyone else bounces up and down the ratings, LSU seems near permanently affixed to the bottom. All of that seemed to change in 2018 when LSU actually ranked third in red zone efficiency, as kept by the NCAA.

The problem here is that traditional red zone efficiency is completely misleading. LSU, as any LSU fan tell you, was not good on the red zone last season. LSU’s 88.33-percent conversion rate ranked third distracts you from the fact LSU’s 51.67-percent touchdown rate ranked 12th.

It’s not just about how often you score, it’s how many points you score. This just in, seven points is better than three.

This is where I use my own stats again. We’ve done it before, but the idea is this: we look at how many points a team scores per red zone trip. Then, we compare that to league average and see how many points a team is gaining by its red zone efficiency or leaving on the table via its inability to convert in the red zone.

2018 Red Zone Offense

Offense Attempts Scores Score % TD % FG % Pts P/RZ Att Off RZ PPG
Offense Attempts Scores Score % TD % FG % Pts P/RZ Att Off RZ PPG
Alabama 45 39 86.67 68.89 17.78 241 5.36 2.93
Missouri 36 31 86.11 66.67 19.44 189 5.25 2.16
Tennessee 18 18 100 66.67 33.33 102 5.67 2.02
Auburn 27 24 88.89 62.96 25.93 140 5.19 1.40
Mississippi State 22 19 86.36 59.09 27.27 109 4.95 0.51
Florida 30 25 83.33 60 23.33 147 4.90 0.49
Vanderbilt 30 22 73.33 63.33 13.33 145 4.83 0.24
South Carolina 35 30 85.71 54.29 31.43 166 4.74 -0.12
Georgia 36 31 86.11 52.78 33.33 169 4.69 -0.30
Texas A&M 39 32 82.05 51.28 30.77 176 4.51 -1.25
LSU 37 31 83.78 48.65 35.14 165 4.46 -1.44
Kentucky 18 12 66.67 50 16.67 72 4.00 -1.73
Arkansas 22 17 77.27 40.91 36.36 87 3.95 -2.24
Mississippi 34 29 85.29 38.24 47.06 139 4.09 -2.90
Average 429 360 83.92% 56.18% 27.97% 2047 4.77 0

And there is our Tigers, ranked 11th in the SEC in both points per red zone attempt and points gained/lost per game by the red zone offense. The average SEC team scores 4.77 points per red zone trip in SEC play (I only looked at conference games to reduce the number of mismatches). LSU comes in at 4.46, which ends up costing LSU one and half points a game.

If LSU average just 1.44 more points pre game, LSU would have cleared the 30 point-per-game mark. Things could have been worse, but an excellent field goal kicker kept LSU from completely squandering its opportunities.

This is bad, but it also ain’t the full truth. LSU’s numbers are hopelessly skewed by its 7OT marathon against Texas A&M. With the ball placed on the 25, each team repeatedly got red zone chances, and cashed them in against an exhausted defense. LSU went 7 for 7 in the red zone, including 6 touchdowns. A&M went 10 for 10 with 7 touchdowns.

So what happens when we remove that one game, which is propping up the numbers?

Hide the children.

In the remaining seven SEC games, LSU averaged just 4.00 points per red zone trip, a number that only avoids the basement of the SEC thanks to the overall incompetence of Arkansas. LSU cost itself, on average, 3.30 points per game due to red zone inefficiency. That’s the worst number I have seen in the four years I’ve been tracking this.

LSU wasn’t bad in the red zone, it was historically, catastrophically bad. And that was with a kicker who never missed a red zone range attempt and was named a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. This was a poor performance for the ages, saved only by a flukish night of incessant overtimes that LSU lost anyway.

LSU went to the red zone 30 times in 7 SEC games (not counting A&M). The Tigers scored 12 touchdowns. How bad is that? Tennessee also scored 12 touchdowns… they had just 18 red zone trips. Florida went to the red zone 30 times, just like LSU, and they scored 18 touchdowns. Vanderbilt also went to the red zone 30 times, and they scored a touchdown 19 times.

You want to know the difference between going to the playoffs and losing four games is? This is. This is the difference. LSU has got to cash in its opportunities. It didn’t really cost them last season, but it nearly did in the Fiesta Bowl, when LSU made five trips to the red zone and scored 4 times… all of them field goals. That’s how you dominate a team, outgain and outpossess them 2-to-1, and only win by 8.

And while the offensive red zone is all over the map, the defensive counterpart is a bit more predictable: have a good defense.

2018 Red Zone Defense

Defense Attempts Scores Score % TD % FG % Pts P/RZ Att Def RZ PPG
Defense Attempts Scores Score % TD % FG % Pts P/RZ Att Def RZ PPG
Mississippi State 27 19 70.37 25.93 44.44 85 3.15 5.20
Auburn 25 21 84 32 52 95 3.80 2.78
Missouri 27 22 81.48 48.15 33.33 118 4.37 1.08
Alabama 23 16 69.57 56.52 13.04 100 4.35 0.87
South Carolina 44 35 79.55 54.55 25 201 4.57 0.67
Kentucky 22 17 77.27 54.55 22.73 99 4.50 0.52
Vanderbilt 34 30 88.24 52.94 35.29 162 4.76 -0.32
LSU 32 27 84.38 56.25 28.13 153 4.78 -0.36
Georgia 28 25 89.29 57.14 32.14 139 4.96 -0.85
Florida 24 23 95.83 58.33 37.5 125 5.21 -1.56
Texas A&M 23 19 82.61 73.91 8.7 125 5.43 -2.14
Arkansas 41 35 85.37 65.85 19.51 213 5.20 -2.59
Mississippi 40 36 90 65 27.5 215 5.38 -3.43
Tennessee 39 35 89.74 71.79 17.95 217 5.56 -4.26
Average 390 325 83.33% 54.6% 28.97% 1830 4.69 0.00

Okay, Missouri kind of comes out of nowhere there, but the top teams in red zone defense are mostly the best defensive teams overall. Take a look, especially, at Mississippi St.

The Bulldogs’ red zone defense was off the charts great. They essentially averaged a field goal per trip allowed, well below the SEC average of 4.69. Teams only scored 70 percent of the time upon reaching the end zone, and scored a touchdown just a hair over one quarter of the time.

That is a level of defensive dominance we will not see again for a long time. Even peak Alabama has come nowhere near those kind of red zone defensive numbers.

Of course, the top defense missing from the top half of red zone defensive efficiency is LSU.

A huge part of this is, again, the Texas A&M game. Allowing 10 scores on 10 trips completely throws the numbers out of whack, as LSU only allowed 22 red zone trip the rest of the SEC season. The A&M game alone accounted for nearly a third of red zone trips, in an overtime format that puts defenses at an extreme disadvantage.

Without the A&M game, LSU’s red zone defense improves to allowing just 4.32 points per red zone chance, and saving the team a little over a point a game. The defensive red zone stat doesn’t reveal a systemic failure of the LSU defense, just that they played a really long game.

So the real question for LSU is how to improve the offensive red zone numbers, as the formula to improve the defense is to avoid overtime.

Looking at the overall data including the play-by-play of each game, a pretty clear answer makes itself apparent: LSU could not run the ball to save its life in the red zone. LSU averaged just 2.77 yards per carry in the red zone. Now, before you completely panic over that number, remember that everybody’s rushing average goes down. That said, it still ranked 10th in the SEC.

Even more revealing, all of the teams which ranked near the bottom of the SEC in rushing average in the red zone ranked in the negatives in red zone efficiency. The worst rushing teams had the worst scoring averages.

But before we anoint John Emery the new king and agree to hand him the ball a million times, the passing data is even worse.

LSU went 14-43 for 102 yards, a 6/3 touchdown/interception ratio, and an 84.57 QB rating. Almost all of those numbers weren’t just last in the SEC, they were last in the SEC by a wide margin.

First off, let’s consider that Joe Burrow threw just five interceptions all season, and THREE of them were inside the red zone. Only South Carolina threw more interceptions, and that was at least balanced by 17 touchdowns. Only Kentucky threw for less touchdowns, but that was on a mere 17 attempts and with one pick.

Joe Burrow completed 32.6 percent of his passes inside the 20. Mizzou was the second worst team in the SEC, at 40.4. LSU was the only team with a passer rating inside the red zone below 100, and one of just two teams (Ole Miss 108.03) below 140. ONE FORTY.

LSU’s passing game wasn’t bad inside the red zone, it was comically bad. It was so bad that if Burrow literally doubled his yards/attempt (2.37), the new number would still rank only fifth in the SEC. I would like to point out right now that LSU has a 6-7 receiver on the roster who ranked second on the team in receptions and yards, and who is yet to catch a red zone pass in his entire LSU career.

The red zone offense is broken. LSU couldn’t run the ball, throw the ball, or catch the ball in the red zone. There are no more excuses: fix it.