Updated: Jan 21
The first step in the red zone roundup will be looking at which teams ran the ball the most inside the red zone. We’ll explore the differences we observed compared to the past with certain teams. Looking at rushing attempts, touchdowns and success rates we can then determine if it lends to running back production or if the quarterback buoyed the numbers. Finding trends and looking towards 2020 is our aim with the Chasing Touchdowns series.
The Ravens led the NFL with 108 carries in the red zone. Their stats this year- mirror last year. Not unlike years past newcomer Mark Ingram was in his comfort zone inside the opponents 20 yard line. He finishes 2019 inside the top ten for red zone carries and 5th in volume at the goal line. Mark Ingram’s 8 touchdowns at the goal line ranked behind only Ziek and Dalvin.
The Ravens had the most vacated rushing volume in the red zone available last offseason. They proceeded to bring Marky Mark in. He’s always been efficient and he’s excelled in the red zone, commanding some of the highest volume in that area of the field on an annual basis. With the power of hindsight Mark Ingram was an easy outlier to spot in 2019. He saw limited snaps but an abundance of high leverage work.
Baltimore is one of two teams with multiple players top 25 in red zone rush attempts. Despite playing just 15 games and sitting out several 4th quarters, Lamar Jackson ranked 24th in red zone carries. Lamar led quarterback in most rushing categories in the red zone I’m sure you guessed but it was down on per game level from Lamar’s starts in 2018. Lamar did compensate by leading the NFL in passing touchdowns in the red zone (More to come during this series on Lamar in the RZ) Both he and Ingram finished top 13 in red zone rushing yards.
With all that laid out it’s amazing to know Mark Ingram was outside the top 20 in team share of red zone rushing. He only had 38.5% of the Ravens carries inside their opponents 20 yard line. It wasn’t all Lamar. They say three’s company. I can only imagine that phrase came to pass via fantasy football. Inside the top 35 of red zone carries we find a third Raven! Gus Edwards.
I owned some Gus the bus in fantasy this year yet he failed to ever garner relevance. Only two players had more than 15 carries in the red zone and scored only one touchdown. Gus Edwards is one of those culprits. He was the only player in the NFL to have more than 6 touts inside the 10 yard line and the only guy with more than 3 carries at the goal line without a score. If his role shifts to Justice Hill that efficiency will undoubtedly rise.
Other than then Jerome Bettis being ashamed of somebody with such poor efficiency in close effectively stealing his nickname without earning it, I only have a few takeaways. I’m hoping Justice is served in 2020. Besides dat! I expect much of the same from The Ravens in the red zone. Projections could show Ravens weapons with some of the highest TD totals. The running backs could improve on their target share in 2020 too. They saw just 16% of the teams targets (Half that of the Patriots backs) That was a spike compared to their overall RB target share. Lamar will have low target numbers directed to backs every season but inside the red zone the benefit of using them in the pass game increases. Mark Ingram is the best example of that. He had 5 receiving touchdowns in 2019. That was as many as he had in the previous eight seasons combined. Only Austin Ekeler had more touchdown receptions at the running back position, and he had over 60 more catches than Ingram!
Marky Mark’s touchdown efficiency in the passing game is unrepeatable but the same is not true in the running game. His success in the rushing touchdown department at the goal line in Baltimore has been a continuation of his career success. Now in concert with the advantage Lamar Jackson provides his running backs. Ingram’s future is written in pencil and he’ll stand out in touchdown regression lists. But should Ingram be set for the Raven’s lead back duties in 2020 he could have one more big season in him.
A meteoric jump for the VIkings in 2019 in the run game as a whole. Volume and efficiency. All of which followed into the red zone. They rank 2nd in the table above for team totals. Minnesota ranks 1st in running back red zone attempts and touchdowns. They had over 20% more RZ carries by their running backs than anybody else. The Vikings ran the ball at the highest rate in close as well. Minnesota ran the ball 61% of the time inside the red zone! The offense proved to be a true overhaul in philosophy. Embodied most by the Vikings producing 3 times as many rushing touchdowns in the red zone in 2019 compared to 2018 (18 vs 6)
A healthy Dalvin Cook is the main contributing factor but it wasn’t just him. When we ask what the cause and effect is beyond Dalvin we have to talk about the coaching. Mike Zimmer has a defensive mentality which is synonymous with a run first attack on offense. Kevin Stefanski is a widely respected offensive mind and he was the Browns head coach runner up to Freddie Kitchens last offseason. He’s now the bride in Cleveland. His success and leadership are widely known. However! Both were at the helm in the 2018 season I referenced.
The difference or addition to the gang this offseason was Gary Kubiak. His title was to be an assistant coach and offensive advisor; His mandate was to revive the run game. Again, Dalvin Cook being healthy and dominating early in the season is top of the list but the influence of Kubiak has been felt… Mostly by Dalvin Cook owners.
Dalvin Cook did miss some time this year (Drink!) He still managed to be 5th in red zone carries. He was tied for the lead alongside Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones with 14 red zone rushing touchdowns. Dalvin Cook led the NFL in touchdowns inside the 10 yard line and at the goal line!
Eye popping figures. The scoring was so prolific it could facilitate the classic back to earth narrative. Regression. That efficiency will be extremely hard to replicate but there could be a compensatory factor. Volume. Dalvin had just 50% of the Vikings carries in the red zone. That ranks 18th. At the goal line Dalvin had 63% of the Vikings carries. Outside the top 10. Remarkable he was able to lead the league in these categories with missed and split time in the red zone.
Alexander Mattison was 22nd in red zone rush attempts. Making Minnesota the only team with multiple players that high. Mattison was top 10 in the NFL for rushing yards inside the opponents 20 yard line! The fact he wasn’t usable in fantasy all season is astonishing. He had only one red zone rushing touchdown. Gus Edwards was the only player in the NFL inside the top 30 for red zone rush attempts OR red zone rushing yards to have less than two touchdowns. His red zone efficiency was catastrophic and his presence and use in close should persist. Mattison does have draft capital, he’s young, and improvement is likely but his volume can’t go much higher inside the red zone though.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams will be more of a deep dive when we hit Todd Gurley during this series. He’s among the leaders in touchdowns over expectations. 2019 was business as usual in the red zone as a team. L.A. was one of seven teams to run the ball more than they passed inside the opponents 20 yard line.
Ram’s nation ranked 3rd in running back carries inside the red zone and their 17 touchdowns were the 2nd most. It’s a slight downtick. In 2018 the Rams were tops in football with 120 attempts by their running backs inside the 20. They led the NFL with 26 touchdowns! Yeah 26! In 2017 they were 3rd in carries and had 15 rushing touchdowns in the red zone.
Sean McVay clearly doesn’t want to lean on Jared Goff the closer to their opponents end zone L.A. get. The Ram’s success is proving to be heavily tied to the offensive line and success of the run game inside the red zone. The two collided this year and it showed in their 2.9 YPC in the red zone.
Stay tuned for a deeper discussion on Todd Gurley at a later date. In 2019 Todd Gurley saved his fantasy owners by performing admirably in the red zone. Admirably is a far cry from historically dominant though. That’s what Gurley was for 2017 and 2018 fantasy owners. In the red zone this season Todd Gurley saw a decline in carries, production, and touchdowns. His use in the passing game evaporated so naturally his targets and catches regressed in this area of the field.
Worse was the extremely high leverage work. The fantasy gold. Inside the 10 yard line is where touchdowns are born. Referred to as the green zone by some. Todd Gurley had similar gaudy stats inside the 10 yard line this year as he had in the previous two. On the ground. He had 1 target in the passing game.
Gurley led the NFL for both the 2017 and 2018 seasons in goal line carries. Gurley had 22 touchdowns at the goal line over that span! This year his 6 scores at the goal line look good on the stat sheet but not on his football card (Kids still collect those right!) The Rams chose not to use Gurley as much. Malcolm Brown and Derrell Henderson factored in but we had worries about Gurley entering 2019. His workload and a comparison to Terrell Davis were at the forefront. Touchdowns at the goal line were cut almost in half because of his workload. Todd Gurley had zero targets and just 55% of the goal line carries for L.A. (Compared to 80% from 2017 and 2018)
New England Patriots
The trend continues for the Pats. Not the playoff success!! New England’s reliance on the run game in the red zone. This year they rank 4th in touchdowns and carries in this area of the field. Last season they ranked top 3 in both categories. We seemingly chase the touchdown upside in New England every fantasy draft season. But again this year we suffered from a timeshare.
The Patriots leader in red zone volume was fairly ineffective... And he’s got a bum knee. Sony Michel had the 7th most red zone carries in the NFL this year. He had the 8th most in 2018. That illustrates the upside that exist at the RB position in New England… in theory. This year Sony Michel saw just over 50% of the Patriots total red zone rushing attempts. In 2018 he saw just under 50%. Amazing New England can lift a back into the top 10 in red zone volume while seeing less than half the teams work! Far less when we remember how often the Patriots target their backs in the passing game.
The top fantasy RB season solely on the back of touchdowns is a mirage. New England produces numbers few other teams do when it comes to running back production, it’s just spread out. Growing up I learned many lessons in life. Some the hard way. If I can remain strong enough I’ll give an example. Drafting the most expensive Patriots back in fantasy drafts will leave you with sorrow and heartache.
Chasing touchdowns is usually a mistake. This series we want to look deeper. So we have a better idea of how teams operate in the area of the field where scoring is at a premium. Drafting the goal line back in New England has been a fool's errand. It hasn’t paid off relative to the price paid in fantasy drafts.
The chase goes back to 2016. LeGarrette Blount was a touchdown station that season. He led the NFL in red zone carries and touchdowns in 2016. His goal line carries led the league and his 12 scores at the goal line tied for 1st with David Johnson. In 2016 Blount saw a higher share of the work than anything we’ve seen since in Foxborough. His 69% share of Patriots carries in the red zone and his 75% of carries at the goal line were both top 10. In the three seasons since, a Patriots running back hasn’t eclipsed 50% of the carries in the red zone or the goal line! In 2017 neon Dion Lewis led the Pats with just 34% of the red zone carries. Meanwhile Mike Gillislee! Led the team with 38% of the goal line carries followed by sexy Rexy Burkhead at 33%. Sony Michel has been the guy over the last two seasons on the ground in the red zone but his usage has been far from what we saw from LeGarrette Blount four years ago.
The Sony Michel role is a solidified one for the Patriots. So is James White’s! 2019 saw Patriots running backs have the highest target share inside the red zone (32%) The last three years in a row New England backs have enjoyed a 30% or more share of the teams passing attempts in the red zone. Year after year the running backs in New England enjoy some of the most volume and touchdowns in football regarding the redzone. However the roles are extreme and that caps the fantasy value of everybody involved. Fantasy drafts have failed to recognize this. Damien Harris (Remember him?) He even broke the trend this year of the cheapest fantasy RB in New England being the best fantasy draft pick.
Doug Peterson is the RBBC king. Its infuriating for fantasy because he annually runs an offense that leaves us wallowing in what ifs. Look no further than the red zone rushing production in Philly. Top 5 this year in red zone rushing volume and the Eagles attempts have been as sticky as any statistic you’ll find in Peterson’s tenure. These are the carry totals for the Eagles in the red zone under Dougie fresh. 84, 84, 89, and 81. If you’re religiously superstitious skip this stat: Eagles ranked 6th, 6th, and 6th in team rush attempts in the red zone heading into their top 5 season in 2019. Their offensive line provides a high ceiling for efficiency and touchdowns in close too.
I had the illusion that Carson Wentz had hung his running game up for good in the red zone after his injury a while back. I always cringe when he does pull the ball down, there’s just something about him runnin’ the rock that feels like a giant collision is imminent. Arriving at my point. Carson Wentz had a career high and his 1st season of his career with double digit red zone rushing attempts.
Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard will be a visit on the running back segment of this series (hopeful we have some Jordan Howard clarity by then) Howard had yet again a good success rate in the red zone. Meanwhile Miles Sanders had very little success in close. For now we know this is a potent running back situation for fantasy when we look at rushing production in the red zone.
San Francisco 49ers
I assumed the Vikings had the biggest jump in red zone rushing production this year. I was wrong. The 49ers were T-3rd with 18 rushing touchdowns inside the opponents 20. Skyrockets in flight from 2018 when they had only 5 rushing touchdowns in close.
With the absence of a mobile quarterback in the bay, the majority of the work was split amongst the backs. Split, being the operative word. The running backs had the 3rd most touchdowns as a unit. Matt Breida accounted for a grand total of zero inside the red zone (My bestballs say ouch) Three other running backs had 4 or more. None had 7. The only bay area runner who ranks top 20 in red zone rushing touchdowns is the Mustard tiger. Before Tevin Coleman’s playoff goal line use I was starting to think Raheem Mostert could be a top 50 pick in fantasy drafts next year.
In addition the touches are among the league lead for San Fran backs. Their use in the passing game accelerates once they reach their opponents red zone. Overall the 49ers runners see a 22% target share. Inside the red zone it climbs to 28% (Tied 5th most) They ranked 6th in success rate and 3rd in the NFL in yards per attempt when targeting running backs in the red zone.
Tevin Coleman’s future is in question and that begs a different question. Will Raheem Mostert see the bulk of the coveted Shanahan red zone work or is Raheem for a dream the 2020 Alex Collins or Damien Williams. A previous years waiver wire addition turned top 24 RB in fantasy drafts. Historically, they have very low hit rates.
New Orleans Saints
Before 2019 the previous two years were a spectacular transition to the run game by the Saints. Namely in the red zone. That came to a halt in 2019. The team dropped from 118 red zone carries to just 72 this year! The failure was even more palpable when looking at touchdowns. They ranked bottom 10 in football as a team with only 9 rushing touchdowns inside the red zone. Last year they had 25! In 2017 they were tied for the league lead with 19.
The other drop off was the use in the passing game for running backs. New Orlean’s backs T-8th with a 26% target share inside the red zone. They were 20th in yards per attempt and that was 11th in the league. That was a substantial decrease. Last year Saints running backs had a 34% share, in 2017 they had 38% share of the red zone targets! Both season they were top 12 in YPA as well.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius will be broken down at a later date. I do want to convey that we came to anticipate multiple running backs could be used in this offense. The anticipation was connected to their upside. The upside was connected to their touchdowns. The touchdowns are connected to the red zone! (I hope everybody was singing there)
This season Kamara was outside the top 20 for carries in the red zone and Latavius was just behind him. It’s a cliff drop from last season, when Alvin Kamara had the 2nd most in the NFL and Mark Ingram, lest we forget, ranked 18th. At the goal line it’s more severe. Kamara was tied for 8th this year with 8 goal line carries. Latavius Murray had just 3! Putting him outside the top 50. Last year Alvin Kamara was tied for 4th in goal line carries, meanwhile Ingram ranked 7th! Positive regression is imminent in 2020 and necessary as Drew Brees winds down his career.
New York Giants
The Giants have a new coaching staff coming in 2020. One of their top priorities should be to take advantage of one of the NFL’s best running backs in the are of the field you score points! In Saquon Barkley’s two seasons they’ve had 72 or less carries in the red zone. Less than 10 rushing touchdowns in both years. Having Saquon in addition to not having a top 3 quarterback (Yet a mobile one!) Makes it hard to fathom how the Giants ranked 3rd to last in red zone carries in 2019.
The G-men became one of the pass heaviest teams when they reached their opponents 20 yard line. They passed 64% of the time in the red zone (3rd highest rate) It gets worse! Inside the red zone the running backs have just a 15% share of the targets. Ranking bottom 10 in football. With Saquon Barkley on the roster sitting bottom 10 in that category along with success rate and yards per attempt when targeting running backs in the red zone. Despicable. Compounded by the fact they were the 3rd pass heaviest team down close. We have to expect Judge to shift the mentality in the big apple.
New York Jets
New York… Coaching… Adam Gase will again be a head coach in the NFL in 2020. Again head coach of the Jets. I think he’s the worst coach I may have ever seen call plays in this revolutionized era. Nothing he’s done since Peyton Manning's season that propelled his career has been anything but pathetic. How he got and kept the dolphins job for 3 years is almost as proplexing as how he got this job in New York.
This is red zone rushing team level themed. Sorry. The Jets produced the least red zone carries for their teams running backs this season. As a team they had 33 carries inside their opponents 20 yard line. Oakland sits 17th. The Jets have half as many as them. A total that’s almost half as many as the Jets themselves put out in 2018. Before Gase arrived.
He was in Miami then. In 2018 Adam Gase’s Dolphins ranked dead last with 35 attempts and just 4 touchdowns inside the redzone as a team. The year before Miami’s offense again ranked dead last with 30 carries and just 2 rushing touchdowns in the red zone. The running game is consists of a poisonous marriage between Gase and Lev Bell. Barely edible for fantasy owners. What does Gase have on people for the bribery and extortion he’s obviously leveraging to get these jobs!!
The Jags were middle of the pack this year for run volume in the red zone but had 50% less rushing touchdowns than the next lowest team in football. Their 3 Touchdowns in the red zone is quite the anomaly. Leonard Fournette has an uncertain future. Speaking of which the quarterback position is an unknown. If Minshew were to win the job we’d have to project for him to contribute in the red zone with his legs. What’s known is the offense could go through the run game in the red zone no matter how the offseason shakes out. They have a vacant offensive coordinator position as well.
Last season we keep in mind Blake Bortles was the quarterback. Regardless the Jaguars as a team ranked 2nd in the NFL with 100 carries as a team inside the red zone. They also tied for the most rushing touchdowns with 19 inside the opponents 20 yard line. Part of the turnaround is contingent on an increase in pass-rush ratio in the red zone. Jacksonville passed 62% in the red zone. That was tied for the 7th highest pass rate. Targets fell inside the red zone for Jaguars runners but they still saw 20% of the targets in close and had the 6th best success rate when targeted. Whoever the lead back in Jacksonville is in 2020, comes with a big ceiling.