How can a pass-first team score more touchdowns in the red zone?

I received this great question from a reader:

We run the Airraid offense, and we’ve noticed that it’s very easy to move the ball down the field to the 20 but then it gets really difficult as the field compresses. We can’t power run because that’s not what we do and it’s hard to throw a lot of stuff because the field is compressed. The options shrink dramatically. Any suggestions?

This falls into the “easier said than done” category, but at the risk of stating the obvious here are some thoughts.

First, and I think Dan Holgorsen has moved in this direction, is to take the philosophy that you need to just run the stinking ball into the end zone. Gus Malzahn (who runs a more run-oriented offense) recently said this was his goal line philosophy to a group of high school coaches. It’s not exactly what you do as an Airraid (or run and shoot, or one-back spread) team but you should have some kind of package — two-back power, that three back set Holgorsen uses, maybe use an H-back, or even a wildcat type deal — as it’s important to get the ball directly forward. I think a lead blocker is key in short yardage because the defense can cover your offensive linemen and thus free up their linebackers to fill. (I think a lead blocker is overrated on normal downs and distance, however, but obviously the advantages to the spread diminish as you get closer in.)

Second, you can create some kind of other little package for “scoring” plays. Georgetown College of KY used to do this. Here is an excellent article describing their methods. They were a true run and shoot team under Red Faught and the later staffs, but also developed this little short yardage special situations package where they used the Delaware Wing-T and a handful of plays off of it — some runs, a speed option, a shovel pass, bootleg, and so on. I think doing something like this is highly doable and doesn’t ruin the rest of your offense. You only need a few plays. They averaged something like 70 points a game over a few seasons. Don’t just say you’re going to be an I-formation team and run the other team over. The Delaware Wing-T thing worked because it was so weird — unbalanced set, wingback — but also completely consistent with their philosophy with all the misdirection and set-up plays despite not being the run and shoot stuff they ran the rest of the time.

Third, you just run your offense but try to find your three or four scoring plays.

As a general matter, when throwing the ball near the goal line you have essentially two options: throw the ball to the back of the end zone where only your receiver can get it or throw it short of the end zone to an athlete who can get in. Screens are underrated near the end zone. When he had Crabtree, Leach wanted to throw him either a slant or a fade, which is great if you have Crabtree. If you don’t, you have to get a bit more creative. To me, corners and posts are the best plays near the goal line — and you’ll find that you can use “mesh” for both and control the underneath coverage too. For the run game, Leach typically went with the direct route — if they covered the fade and the slant, he just wanted to hand it off and let the back go straight ahead into the end zone. In my mind, the best red zone or goal line running play of all time is/was the Lombardi/Packers sweep, used by Bill Walsh as well. Outside zone can get you a similar look, which allows your runningback to run laterally and then burst forward into the end zone when he finds a crease. You have to find a guy with a knack for scoring.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you’re a pass first team you have to overcompensate for this and practice it more. It sounds simple but Holgorsen and some of the other Airraiders build red zone offense into almost every drill. For example, when practicing seven on seven they will do that for about half the time from the fifty yard line and then spend the last ten minutes on it from the ten. The next day they will go from the fifty but move to the five. Most teams have some kind of red zone period, but that tends to be just one day or so a week. As pointed out, it’s tougher to be a wide open spread team when the field is reduced, so you have to overcome that by spending extra time on it. It pays dividends.

As Bill Cronin of Georgetown said, it’s more fun to score.

  • Someone said this (Bill Walsh?): When he team gets to the 20, they are looking to score *from there* instead of merely trying to advance the ball. A lot of teams, especially inside the ten, see a few yard gain as good because they move closer to the endzone. Rather, pass-heavy teams with weaker run games should see this as an almost binary outcome. You’re either in the endzone, or you aren’t. No advantage to being on the 15, the 10, or the 5.

  • Chris

    Gary, that was Walsh. A lot of his thinking was that, as soon as he hit the 25, the defense, having given up some yards to let you there, will get more aggressive. Thus it gives you the chance to hit some touchdown passes. He used to say that once you hit the 25, if they didn’t blitz the last down, they will the next. It’s a good point and I agree, this should be a big part of any pass-first team’s scoring mentality: Score just outside or as soon as you hit the red zone. Still, it’s worth trying to improve in that area.

  • Canuck

    Just move to Canada…we have 20 yard endzones. You can still use all of your air raid concepts in the redzone.

  • endersgame

    @ Gary, Chris:

    Here is the article where Walsh talks about passing in the red zone:

    The section you’re both remembering is “In Scoring Territory.”

  • ko49

    We’ve been a pass-heavy (if not pass first) team for a few years now on the high school level and have had success throwing the ball in the red zone out of bunch sets. The natural picks you can create by using stick, spacing, mesh and smash concepts out of that compressed formation creates advantages against the man defenses most teams like to use inside the 20. So yes, running the ball is almost always the best idea. But you can still use formations to exploit man coverage in the red zone and not have to try to reinvent yourself…

  • daniel tyler

    get a 250 pound power back to run it in there. I don’t understand why more spread/passing teams don’t have a big bruiser, at least in college and the NFL. THink about it, defenders are smaller with the rise of 3 to 4 wide receiver sets, more defensive backs on the field, or hybrids. Just get a big back in there to punch it in and run over those guys . Worked with Tebow…

    and look what June Jones did last year at SMU, had Zach Line, a 240 pound back running the ball, first guy to rush for 1,000 under June Jones and hasn’t been done at SMU for a long time. He was originally considered a fullback, but hes quick, his speed in the 10-20 yard range is great and has soft hands. There are tons of high school backs like this that get misplaced in some offense wasted as just a battering ram. Instead, teams like Tech would have smaller backs, who never rushed for much. The point for the running game isn’t to have a homerun threat, rather just to get a short first down or a goal line td.

  • Will

    10 points Daniel, also another point of the running game is to keep defenses honest, even a failing unproductive running attack needs to be used some minimum ammount of the time to prevent pass rushers from killing the QB, pass first teams need to sprinkle in draw plays (and screens which aren’t running plays but still) to slow down pass rushers, although I prefer the idea of running straight at pass rushers to beat them up a little bit

  • Michael

    In the Washington State HS Championship, I saw a team that runs the spread in most situations, but then goes with the Double Wing in short-yardage and goalline situations. I thought that was a great idea. You only need about 4-5 plays: Super Power, 2 Traps, a Reverse and then a playaction pass. The Double Wing is very hard to stop in short yardage situations and it is so simple to teach. I would go with that approach.

  • CoachK15


    That was Ferris HS, they beat Skyline…both teams are Spread, but Ferris is not AirRaid like Skyline is. Therefore, it’s a bit easier for them to switch gears into DoubleWing mode. That said, I was thinking about doing the same thing after playing 3 DoubleWing teams this season…it did look like it was working well.

  • Devilsadvocate

    Chris, I don’t have the statistical data at hand, but if my memory serves me (which admittedly is becoming less reliable with age…), we scored more touchdowns using the unbalanced formation than any other. The somewhat suprising thing is that we scored more from passing than running out of that formation. In my time with the Tigers and Red, I can remember measuring the output of that formation in MILES! (Red was big into unit conversion for his offensive production… 🙂 )

  • Pingback: Bills vs. Dolphins: Breaking Down Miami's Game Plan — PureFootballPureFootball — Your source for everything about football! — News and tweets about everything football — Football scores, news, NFL()

  • Pingback: Bills vs. Dolphins: Breaking Down Miami's Game Plan – Fantasy Sports Gamer()