The Red Zone in Football

Football field

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Announcers repeatedly mention the "red zone" as they’re calling a football game because it's a critical part of scoring (and preventing) many touchdowns. The red zone refers to the last 20 yards before the end zone on a football field. Offenses change their plays and defensive coaches change their strategy based on several factors that develop when the ball is close to the end zone. Red zone football makes for some of the most exciting football to play and watch. It brings out the skill sets of some of the greatest players and capitalizes on the weaknesses of some others.

Offense in the Red Zone

For an offense and its coaches, many things change when the football enters the red zone.

First, players don’t have as much field to work with, obviously. For example, if the ball is on the 20-yard line, receivers have less than 40 yards of field to feasibly work with (the 20 yards remaining plus 20 or less in the end zone). This reduces an offense's playbook based on the depth of the routes; those plays calling for deep routes and long passes are scrapped when an offense hits the red zone, and coaches usually resort to shorter passes, runs, and screens, some of which are designed specifically for the red zone.

Also, barring any penalties, an offense only has eight downs to get in the end zone or kick a field goal. You always have only four downs to progress 10 yards, and since the red zone only has 20 yards (or less) total, you only get two sets of downs, and the offensive strategy changes when the plays are finite.

Finally, there’s an intangible pressure that is put on the offense when players know they are so close, and they just have to score. The letdown of getting that far down the field and coming up with no points is a tough blow to deal with. That's why earlier in games, coaches often kick a field goal rather than go for it on fourth down in the red zone so that their team comes away with three points rather than none.

Defense in the Red Zone

For the defensive team, the pressure rises as well. The old adage “bend, but don’t break” is particularly relevant when defending inside the red zone. Ideally, a defense doesn't want an offense inside the 20 in the first place, but when it "bends" and lets them in the red zone but doesn't "break" and give up a touchdown, it's pretty happy to come up with a stop—and even hold an opponent to a field goal. The defensive strategy may change based on the offensive scheme that a team has studied ahead of time. There’s also the 12th man that becomes a reality, in that the offense is limited by the boundary of the back of the end zone, and the boundary at the back of the end zone becomes a de facto member of the secondary. Good defenses know this and adjust coverage and zone drops accordingly.