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Kyle Posey | October 28, 2013

Improving the San Diego Chargers Red Zone Offense

The San Diego Chargers rank in the lower half of the league when it comes to touchdowns scored from within the red zone. Kyle Posey identifies what the Chargers have done wrong, and what they can do to improve their effectiveness inside their opponents' 20 yard-line.

The San Diego Chargers offense is doing many things well this season: they're controlling the ball, sustaining drives and scoring points. One area where the team has shown a need for improvement is in the red zone.

The Chargers are tied for 18th in red zone touchdowns at 50%. That means when the Chargers get into the red zone, they only reach the end zone in half of their possessions. Compare that to Denver who has a 78% Red Zone touchdown rate, and Cincinnati is at 71%, Dallas at 69%; you get the picture. In their last 3 games, the Chargers have scored a touchdown in just 33% of their red zone possessions. Only Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville have faired worse.

How can the Chargers improve?

First, we'll identify where the team has gone wrong. We'll use the ugly, failed series to end the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Then we'll look at where other teams have success and how the Chargers can learn from them.

What Went Wrong

First Down

Down Position Formation Clock
1st & Goal JAX 1-yard Line Empty 0:19 left in 2nd Qtr

Red1_medium

From top to the bottom: Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead run a double slant, Gates runs a 3 yard curl, Eddie Royal runs a quick out route, and Vincent Brown runs a fade route.

Redka_medium

The play ends up being an incomplete pass. But, because the defender form tackles Allen, Defensive Pass Interference is called. The Chargers get another first down and move half a yard closer to the goal line.

First Down 2.0

Down Position Formation Clock
1st & Goal JAX 1-yard Line Gun Right Y Slot Left 0:16 left in 2nd Qtr

These next two plays are arguably the two worst plays called by Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's short Chargers tenure. Personally, I think they should've called 2 plays in the huddle here: 1 running play, 1 passing play.

Red2_medium

A play that involves Rivers throwing on the run … what good can possibly come from this?

Royalred_medium

The only chance this play has to succeed is if Rivers throws it now. When an offense rolls the pocket like this, the field gets cut in half. This makes it easier to defend against and makes the throwing windows much smaller. Also, when throwing on the run, a quarterback's accuracy is nowhere near as good as when they are throwing with their feet set. Rivers doesn't throw it here, because he doesn't feel like he can make the throw. Incomplete pass.

This was a wasted play. Totally disagree with the play–call. Whisenhunt has to know the athletic limitations of his quarterback.

Second Down

Down Position Formation Clock
2nd & Goal JAX 1-yard Line Empty 0:11 left in 2nd Qtr

Red47_medium

The play's primary read is to the top of the screen where there is a slant/flat combination. The read should be to see what the linebacker lined up over Woodhead does. If he hesitates, throw it to Woodhead in the flat for an easy score. If he jumps the flat route to Woodhead, throw the slant to Allen.

Woodred_medium

The linebacker hesitates, and if Rivers throws it anywhere near the front Pylon, this is a touchdown. Instead, Rivers is locked on Allen, and knows where he is going pre-snap. Bailed out by a bad Unnecessary Roughness penalty, the Chargers are able to inch even closer.

First Down 3.0

Down Position Formation Clock
1st & Goal JAX 1-yard Line Gun Right Doubles 0:07 left in 2nd Qtr

This. Was. Ugly. The announcers — who, I might add, were by far the worst of any game this season — thought that San Diego should kick the Field Goal here. I disagreed with them at the time, the Chargers had plenty of time to run a play.

If Rivers knew he was going to look to Royal in the flat, and if Royal wasn't an option as the play developed, Rivers would try to run it in. Why didn't Rivers audible an inside–zone run play here? Is it risky? Sure. Any play at this point is a risk. There will be tight windows no matter the throw.

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Look at the formation. I know it wouldn't be a popular idea to check to a run, but the Chargers have the numbers advantage. Not to mention, the way Johnnie Troutman was pushing guys around, I have a hard time imagining they wouldn't have been able to get half a yard here.

But it's a pass play, not a QB Draw. Usually when it's a Draw, there are dummy routes. Either that, or Woodhead would have served as the lead blocker. That wasn't the case here, everyone ran a route and was looking for the ball. This was Rivers trying to make a play.

Red3_medium

Right as Rivers pulled the ball down, Allen is jumping up and down in the back of the end zone wide open. He was clearly upset. That's another reason that I don't think it was a QB draw by design.

Rivers comes up short, the time runs out, and the Chargers get 0 points. A pretty dreadful series, considering the 2 defensive penalties and how close they were to the goal line. This was a direct result of poor play calling and poor execution all around, not just on Rivers.

The Chargers got to the red zone 4 times, and kicked 2 field goals. This has become a theme. This has become a problem. San Diego is scoring touchdowns 50% of the time when they are in the red zone; they should be somewhere in the 60's. Denver is #1 at 78%. That's what good teams do, they score touchdowns and don't settle.

The Chargers don't have any go–to plays in the Red Zoen. They've run the inside zone — the play that scored both touchdowns in this game — but we've seen that stuffed as well (just look at the game against the Raiders). They've run the shovel pass, which is a good play, but it seems like something always goes wrong when they run it (Gates fumble).

How Can They Get Better?

Red Zone Plays

This is an area where the Chargers look lost at times. They don't have a staple, go–to type play down inside the opponent's 20. That's why they struggle. Head coach Mike McCoy has admitted that they take ideas from other teams, and implement them. So why aren't they taking plays in the most important part of the field?

It's clear by now the Chargers have playmakers. Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, and even Vincent Brown have all proven that they can be great at catching the ball in traffic and high pointing the ball. That's not even who I feel like should get the ball down here. If only the Chargers had a 6'5 receiver who had an enormous catch radius.

Wait, they do?

How maddening is it that we don't see Ladarius Green down in the red zone? If the team doesn't trust him between the 20's, that's fine, we'll disagree there. It's extremely frustrating as a fan to watch as Green isn't utilized in the red zone, where he would normally be guarded by someone either two steps slower than him or three inches smaller than him.

There are 2 specific plays I feel that the Chargers should add into the playbook during the bye week to improve their red zone efficiency:

  • Back shoulder fade/fade
  • Isolation Routes
Back Shoulder Fade

This is one of the hardest plays to perfect, but also one of the hardest to guard. The Chargers have one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the NFL, so the fact that we haven't even seen this attempted is a little questionable. Both starting receivers on the outside seem like a good fit for the back shoulder fade, as does Green.

The first example I'll use is Peyton Manning to Eric Decker, who is close to Keenan Allen's size.

Decker_medium

The alignment here is everything. The short split by Decker allows Manning about 10 yards of room with which to work. Manning delivers a beautifully–thrown pass that Rivers is more than capable of executing. Even with tight coverage — because there is so much room to work with  and the ball placed behind the receiver — it's impossible to defend against.

Sticking in the same game, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant execute the same play. Dez_medium

The reason I wanted to highlight these plays, they both take place inside the 2 yard line.

There's also the fade route, where the quarterback throws it to the back pylon. It's a safe throw, especially when the intended target is a 6'5 receiver like Green. The back shoulder fade is a low risk high reward play that the Chargers should implement in their playbook.

Isolation Routes

In the fade routs, the receiver doesn't necessarily need to be a good route runner, they just need space. The receiver also needs the ability to make contested catches. Isolation routes are all about utilizing a team's playmaker in space.

This is another area that the Chargers fail to utilize their players. As I've shown in weeks past, even though he's a rookie, Keenan Allen wins 1-on-1 match-ups. That's because even though he's a rookie, he's an advanced route runner.

I think the Chargers should rely more on Allen's ability to create separation and Rivers' accuracy down in the red zone.

Jackson_medium

Now that the Chargers have shown slant after slant in the red zone, McCoy and crew should be using the bye week to implement more double moves. They are very tough for defenses to stop, because the defense is trying to jump on every route. Keenan Allen has the quickness to pull this off.

The next example could be Vincent Brown or Keenan Allen. Brown is very good at getting an inside release, selling an in–breaking route, then running the out route. Rivers has down a great job of anticipating out routes this year.

Tate_medium

The quick play action here eliminates any linebacker dropping to to the flat and under cutting the out route.

The Chargers have options in the red zone, they just don't have an identity.  There are too many play–makers on the team to be ranked in the bottom half in the NFL in touchdown percentage. If the Chargers want to make the playoffs, this has to be fixed.

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