By Ed Zaunbrecher
Editor’s Note: Coach Zaunbrecher (EZ) coached 34 years at the FBS level, including a three-year stint at Marshall as the Offensive Coordinator where he tutored QB Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich and spent a five-year duration at the University of Florida in the same role while developing Rex Grossman. He currently runs the Ed Zaunbrecher QB School (http://www.ezqbcoach.com) developing young QB’s into leaders.
Step 1: Know the Tendencies of Your Defense Opponent
Ed Zaunbrecher, former Offensive Coordinator, University of Florida and University of Marshall
Most coaches know that in preparing a game plan for the red zone it is crucial to study the upcoming opponent to see what they do on defense in that area of the field, but even that concept is not specific enough. You must understand if they do change and where on the field those changes begin. These areas and concepts vary from team to team and are not etched in stone.
I always like to start the study at the 25 yard line. The first section of the red zone continues through the 13 yard line which we’ll call the ATTACK ZONE. This area can show the attitude of a defense if they make drastic changes. Some go from not blitzing to major blitzing to make a big play and switch momentum. Depending on the time left and score, it could be to keep you out of field goal range. Other teams stop blitzing here and try to make you earn your way on a short field. There are usually not defenses specifically for this area but rather how and when they are used.
The SCORE ZONE starts at the 12 yard line and extends to the 4 yard line or wherever the opponent likes to go to a GOAL LINE defense. If they never go to a heavy package it goes all the way to the goal line. This also applies for two-point plays. This area of the field does have a higher chance of getting a defense special for the situation. Many teams are playing some variation of quarters coverage by playing 7 players across. The 12- yard line is the farthest out they play the coverage because the depth of the end line gets too great. Most teams will wait until the 10 yard line. You need to observe how they play the coverage if they do. Some drop to specific spots such as 2 yards deep in the end zone while others use more of a matchup zone principle.
Step 2: Determine the Essential 6 Questions
When designing your red zone offense, there are several questions you need to ask yourself when putting your game plan together. The questions I would always ask are as follows:
- Do they load the box? If you spread the field, will they spread as well? If so, you may gain an advantage in the run game. If they move in tight you could get the ball wide.
- How much are they stunting the line? Will it be feast or famine if they take too many chances? See if they have a pattern against certain formations.
- Do they disguise their defense? See if a pattern emerges from your study. Some never play what they line up in and others always do.
- Will they take chances? Some are overly cautious and some go only for the big play with numbers of defenders and max blitzes.
- How do they play within their coverage schemes? Do the deep defenders play tighter or react faster to play action fakes? Do they back up at all? Do they play any man coverage and how do they play it? Do they flood the end zone with defenders?
- What have other teams done well against them? Which types of schemes have they stopped? Adjust your plays to fit the opponent if necessary.
Some teams change week to week so go more by what they do against teams similar to yours above the rest. What they do against a spread team might not matter if you are a wishbone team.
Step 3: Design Must-Have Offensive Concepts
Once you have completely scouted your opponent’s tendencies in the Red Zone, now it is time to develop your "menu" of must-have concepts to attack this area of the field. Although they are certainly not limited to the selection I include below, in my experience I’ve found that utilizing these types of ideas can produce big-time results.
- To start with, have plays especially designed for this area of the field. This is more important in the SCORE ZONE on in to the end zone. Of course, you can vary how you get to them with motions, shifts, etc., but I would practice them weekly so your players know them inside out.
- Be able to attack all basic looks, not just the ones they have shown before. They are allowed to change to try and stop you. Prepare for looks that have worked well against you recently.
- Have a new wrinkle or two each week. It can be the same play from different formations or motions or it can be a variation off a favorite play of yours like a new misdirection. Just have a surprise ready.
- Don’t let your opponents relax by changing your tempo. Go on long counts but not when a penalty will kill you. Change personnel or use a different formation but run the same base plays. Practice these as you will use them in a game. Don’t try and surprise your players. Give them some familiarity with what you’re doing.
- Use formations to create space. Study a defense’s reaction to different formations and pick the best plays for their normal alignments. Have a plan if it is different. Your QB has to understand the concepts.
- Vary your receiver splits. This causes adjustment issues for the defense in their support patterns. Get them more worried about getting lined up than reading their keys or using good technique. You can also vary the splits of bunch and stack formations that are especially good versus man coverage.
- Work few runs and get proficient with them. Use plays you are good at running and then the players will have great confidence in them. Have your play action passes off the same looks.
- Know when a defense changes concepts. Better still, make sure your players know when to expect the changes. It is not an exact science but most teams do have tendencies by yard line or down and distance. It is important everywhere but especially when points are at stake.
- Give the QB a chance to create a score either by run or pass. If you drill the same base concepts weekly it really helps the QB more than anyone. He makes better decisions that way.
- Against man coverage protect the QB and attack with your best receiver matchups. If you have trouble with releases use bunches and stacks. On stacks I prefer to offset the deep receiver about a yard outside the one on the line.
- Against zone coverages use levels to work in front and behind a defender so he cannot be right. You can use 3 level routes farther out and 2 level routes in close.
- Occupy the safeties then go over their head. This is relevant all the way from the ATTACK ZONE in. They tend to sit down since they don’t have as much depth to defend.
- Use play action to distort coverage. Open more space between deep coverage and underneath defenders. Use boots and nakeds to take advantage of fast flow. Be sure to have quick throws available as well.
- Have at least one receiver going deep on each play. The more plays it takes to score the more there is a chance of a bad play to prevent a TD. Don’t force it but have it available.
- Is anyone peeking? Take advantage of a defender looking at the QB in man coverage. Beat him with a quick double move and be careful not to bring the safety over to the play too soon with your eyes.
- How tight is the coverage? School the QB on when to go deep or short by the cushion and matchups that are available on that play.
- From the 15 yard line in, the QB should be sure his throws to the front part of the end zone are down in front of the receiver. T