The Zone of the Dead

The “red zone” is frequently mentioned by announcers during football games because it is an important aspect of scoring (and preventing) many touchdowns. On a football field, the red zone refers to the final 20 yards before the end zone. When the ball is close to the end zone, offences modify their plays and defensive coaches change their strategies based on a variety of circumstances. Football in the red zone is some of the most exciting to play and watch. It accentuates the strengths of some of the best players while exploiting the flaws of others.

In the Red Zone, Offense

When the ball enters the red zone, many things change for an offence and its coaches.

To begin with, players have a smaller playing field to deal with. If the ball is on the 20-yard line, for example, receivers have fewer than 40 yards of field to work with (the 20 yards remaining plus 20 or less in the end zone). When an offence approaches the red zone, coaches frequently revert to shorter passes, runs, and screens, some of which are developed expressly for the red zone, while those plays calling for deep routes and long passes are shelved.

In addition, an offence only has eight downs to get into the end zone or kick a field goal if there are no penalties. Because the red zone is just 20 yards (or fewer) total, you only get two sets of downs, and the offensive plan changes when the plays are constrained.

Finally, there is an intangible strain placed on the offence when players realise they are so close to scoring. The disappointment of getting so far down the field and coming up empty-handed is a tough pill to swallow. That’s why, early in games, coaches will often kick a field goal rather than go for it on fourth down in the red zone to give their team three points instead of zero.

In the Red Zone, Defense

The defensive team is also under more pressure. When defending in the red zone, the classic phrase “bend but don’t break” is especially true. A defence would prefer not to allow an offence inside the 20-yard line in the first place, but if it “bends” and allows them to enter the red zone without “breaking” and allowing a score, it’s content to come up with a stop—and even hold an opponent to a field goal. Based on the offensive scheme that a team has researched ahead of time, the defensive strategy may change. There’s also the reality of the 12th man, in which the attack is limited by the back of the end zone boundary, which becomes a de facto member of the secondary. This is something that good defences are aware of, and they change their coverage and zone drops accordingly.