Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where Scoring Drives Go to Die | by Michael

The Dead Zone. A terrific film adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Also, a descriptive twist on one of the few statistics for the Irish offense that didn't improve from 2007: red zone efficiency.
Red Zone Stats
2005 2006 2007 2008
RZ trips 55 49 34 42*
RZ scores 45 44 25 31
RZ points 285 277 155 184
pts per RZ trip 5.2 5.7 4.6 4.4
TD% 84% 84% 59% 55%
* Didn't include last drives against Stanford and San Diego State. ND was in the red zone, but they were trying to run out the clock by picking up a first down. No attempt was being made to score.

As the table above illustrates, when the Irish entered the red zone last year, the chance of scoring a touchdown was only slightly better than a coin flip, a drastic decline from the 84% peak established in 2005 and repeated the following year. Although Brandon Walker's early season field goal inaccuracy squandered numerous opportunities to put points on the board, the larger concern was the Irish's inability to just score touchdowns. After the halfway mark of the season, the Irish had kicked 8 field goals and scored just 7 touchdowns from the red zone (season totals here). So what happened?

One obvious answer is turnovers: the Irish fumbled the ball four times inside the 20 last year (twice inside the 10 after long drives), and were intercepted twice. But even when holding onto the ball, the red zone offense sputtered.

The stats are quite miserable: heading into the bowl game versus Hawaii, Notre Dame's anemic running game was actually more productive (3.3 yards per play) than its passing game (3.1 ypp) in the red zone. Talk about inept. (In their 49-21 thrashing of the Warriors, the Irish ran five times in the red zone for -10 yards and completed three passes for 50 yards. As a result, the passing game finally leapfrogged the running game's season-long production.)

Equally surprising is that the 2008 ground game differed very little from that in 2005 and 2006 when looking at the overall season statistics, this despite the fact that those offenses scored RZ touchdowns at a gaudy 84% rate. In 2005, Darius Walker led the Irish ground game to the tune of 3.3 yards per carry in the red zone, and in 2006, that number remained steady at 3.4 yards per carry.

While there is no question that the running game requires attention from the staff (and we'll be giving it the attention it deserves in the very near future), the larger red zone problem last year was actually in the passing game.

Outside the red zone, Clausen's statistics were impressive. He completed 63% of his passes and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. He did throw 15 interceptions, but there should be an asterisk: seven of those came between the opponent's 37-yard line and the red zone, which suggest some of the same issues he faced when he was inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Inside the red zone, Clausen performed poorly. He completed just 45% of his passes (25 of 55) for a meager 4.1 yards per attempt. He was also sacked once (for -17 yards) and scrambled twice (for 11 yards). Play action passing was similarly disappointing. Clausen's two for two performance and 32 yards against Hawaii matched his season total for play action completions and exceeded his passing yardage (23). In fact, during the regular season, he only completed 22% of red zone play action passing attempts. Rock bottom came against Syracuse and Pitt, where Clausen completed just four of 16 passes (25%) for 32 yards.

You might not be surprised to learn that Brady Quinn's numbers were much more impressive. In 2005, in the red zone Quinn completed 62% of his 53 passes for 291 yards (5.5 ypa). In the sack/scramble category, Quinn ended up with 10 yards in six situations. He also completed half of his 22 play action passes for 107 yards.

Quinn's numbers dipped in 2006, even though the offense continued to score touchdowns in the red zone at the same 84% clip. He completed 57% of his 60 passes for 269 yards (4.5 ypa). He also scrambled or was sacked ten times for 24 yards. His play action completion rate failed to reach 50% (8 of 18), and only 38 yards were gained through the air. It's worth noting that his stats against defensive juggernauts USC and LSU (without a healthy John Carlson at tight end) really brought his averages down.

So what's happening with Clausen? And what can be expected heading forward? A couple of answers:

• On his March 11th Power Hour, Mike Frank reported that Clausen played hurt down the stretch. Without knowing the details of an injury, especially when it occurred, it's hard to draw conclusions-- but Clausen's red zone performance seems to support the idea that he played hurt down the stretch but was healthier for the bowl game.

• A major factor likely played into Clausen's, and the team's, subpar performance in the red zone: the Irish offense lacked quite a bit of diversity after the losses of tight ends Mike Ragone, Will Yeatman, and Luke Schmidt. Nowhere was this felt more than the red zone.
Red Zone Packages
(WR / TE / RB / FB)
2005 2006
Goal Line (0/3/1/1) 9.0% 0.8%
New York (1/3/1/0) 19.3% 8.4%
Two Tites (1/2/1/1) 18.6% 16.8%
Detroit (2/2/1/0) 13.8% 16.0%
Regular (2/1/1/1) 13.8% 12.2%
Half (3/1/1/0) 22.1% 38.2%
Jax (4/1/0/0) 3.4% 0.8%
Denver (3/2/0/0) - 0.8%
3 Wides (3/0/1/1) - 0.8%
4 Wides (4/0/1/0) - 1.5%
5 Wides (5/0/0/0) - 1.5%
Out People (2/1/2/0) - 2.3%
Not only was the 3-WR set Half used overwhelmingly in 2008 than in previous years, but the Irish also used fewer 1-WR packages in 2008 than in the previous seasons. For example, consider Two Tites. This set was used quite a bit when the Irish were in the red zone in '05 and '06, but it showed up exactly zero times last season. Likewise, the TE-friendly New York has been used less and less as tight ends have become scarcer on the roster. Overall, a 1-WR package was used 38% in 2005, 25% in 2006, and only 5% in 2008. What's more, that 5% all came against San Diego State.

What's the upshot of this? A team that uses packages with fewer WRs is forcing the defense to respect the run more; with the defense crowded closer to the line of scrimmage, there is more space for athletic tight ends to beat a linebacker or safety in a pattern, especially if an offense can force an opponent into subbing run defense personnel into the game. Likewise, the run threat becomes more credible, and thus the play action pass to the lone WR is easier to make when the safety jumps into the box. Linked is an example from the 2005 Pitt game where the Irish line up in Two Tites, run play action, and send five receivers out -- it's this kind of design and play calling that the offense has been lacking recently.

On the other hand, when an offense is WR-heavy in the red zone, the defense can use the sidelines and the back boundary of the end zone as "extra defenders." There is less room to operate, which is why an offense even as dynamic as Texas Tech's was only able to score TD's 71% of the time (against D1 opponents) in 2008-- which is still 13% worse than how Weis's offenses operated in 2005 and 2006.

The charts below are another way to look at this data. The darker shades of blue correspond to more run-heavy packages (more TEs, fewer WRs) whereas the lighter shades of blue are for pass-heavy packages with multiple WRs.

Red Zone Package Distribution

It's quite obvious that the shades of blue have become lighter since 2005, and at the same time, several of the pieces have begun to dominate the pie. While some may believe this is by design, specifically that Weis prefers a pass-heavy offense, it truly seems more tied into team personnel, and who's available to play. In 2006, Weis lost Carlson and Schwapp, and the offense necessarily became more WR-heavy. The same adjustment occurred in 2008 after injuries and suspensions decimated the tight end position.

As a result, two key positions to keep an eye on during spring football are fullback and tight end. Who will replace Schwapp? How will the offense change? Will Ragone be at full speed? Can Kyle Rudolph and Joe Fauria continue to develop?

Meanwhile, Clausen enters his third year at the helm of the offense. Quinn's third year as a starter transformed him as a college superstar. At the very least, this off-season should help polish some of Clausen's game, and then next fall the comparisons to Quinn can rightfully begin. If the Irish can keep their young, athletic tight ends healthy, a more diversified offense in 2009 should be able to achieve a higher red zone efficiency.

And a rebuilt ground game wouldn't hurt either.