Coming off of this weekend's Super Bowl, and rolling into the full schedule that is the off-season, I wanted to take a look at an area of the game that Offensive Coordinators and QB's around the league seem to be struggling with. We know about the Cowboys struggles with failing to score touchdowns and settling for 3 points when in the red zone, and millions of people around the world saw the situation play out twice, in the 4th quarter, both on the 49ers 2 pt conversion attempt, and on the final 4th & goal situation in the last 2 minutes of the game.
When backed up in the red zone, defenses tend to take one of two approaches. They will either drop into Cover-2 or Cover-4 and use the back of the end zone as a 12th defender, causing the zones to shrink and the throwing lanes to narrow to a point that makes it difficult to complete a pass, or they will dial up pressure, bring 6 men into the pressure scheme and play Cover Zero (man to man no safety in the middle of the field), hoping to force the QB into a quick throw to a guy with a defender right on top of him. In the fourth quarter Sunday night, Baltimore opted for the latter, bringing pressure in both of these key situations.
The 49ers failure to execute in this situation, combined with the Cowboys struggles against Zero pressure in Wk 17 vs. Washington brought to mind a consideration of how I would handle this situation as an Offensive Coordinator.
Let's look at the X's & O's
Here we have the Cowboy's with 11 Personnel (1 Back 1 TE 3 WR) on the field aligned in a Trips Rt Near Formation with the Austin, Harris and Witten in a bit of a bunch due to Austin's "Nasty" split. The reason I have them aligned this way is 2 fold. First off, it is an unbalanced look, the passing and running strength of this formation is clearly to the offense's right. This can force the defense to come out of a 2 Deep shell that would come with Cover 2 or Cover 4 by presenting the threat of over loading the zones on that side of the field. Secondly, the bunch set helps prevent the defensive backs from pressing their man at the line and disrupting his timing.
If you look at our W receiver, Dwayne Harris, he will go in motion across the formation just before the snap, NFL teams use motion for several purposes, them motion here serves 2 main purposes, again it prevents Harris from being jammed at the line. The motion also allows Harris to have a running start in his bubble route which will help him out flank which ever defenders would come chasing him if he were to get the ball.
Now if we isolate the 2 sides of the field, we see basic route combinations (slant-flat & flat-7) wrapped up in the window dressing of the bunch set, and motion. In the middle of the field I've got Jason Witten running an option route, which will allow him to react to the leverage of the defender, and potentially be a quick target for Romo.
My goal for this play is to create opportunities for guys who are good with the ball in their hands, to make a catch around the 5 yard line, around the numbers, and allow that guy to make a play in space with a 2 way go (race to the pylon, or cut inside up the field). If the defense, (which is showing pressure) is indeed playing Cover Zero, the man responsible for making the play on those receivers would be coming from the core of the formation and would likely not have the angle to make a stop before the ball crosses the goal line.
Bottom line, give the QB an easy throw to make, to a guy who knows how to make plays with the ball in his hands, with a chance to get it in the end zone.