Improving Red Zone Efficiency: Time for the Option?

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 24: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers runs for a 49 yard touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were absolutely horrible last season. And one reason they were so horrible was their red zone efficiency: it was hard for the team to score touchdowns once they got down to the red zone. Aside from the many, many, many, many, many, many turnovers the failure to convert opportunities into points may have been the team's biggest problem last year. On offense, at least. You know, because on defense they were mostly concerned with how to not look like buffoons. On offense, though, the Bucs converted just 50% of their red zone opportunities, which ranked 19th in the NFL.

That's far from the worst ranking in the NFL, but there's certainly room from improvement. And there's an easy fix for this problem, although the team may be loathe to implement in: run some option plays with Josh Freeman. The Carolina Panthers had a lot of success with that strategy last season, as they ranked 7th in red zone efficiency in the NFL, converting 58% of their red zone opportunities. Cam Newton was responsible for an NFL record 14 touchdowns, most of those coming on quarterback sneaks and option plays. The Bucs already implemented the QB sneak last season to some effect, with three of Freeman's four rushing touchdowns resulting from sneaks.

The option, though, brings a whole new dimension and greater efficiency to a red zone offense. Josh Freeman is certainly capable of running the option: in his final year in college he notched 14 rushing touchdowns as the Kansas State Wildcats lacked any and all healthy running backs, requiring him to take over some of those duties. For comparison's sake, the 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed a whopping 9 total rushing touchdowns, 4 of those coming from Josh Freeman. That is a problem that should be addressed.

The downside to running the option or indeed any play in which your quarterback is likely to get hit is simple: your quarterback is likely to get hit, and offensive coordinators do not like to see their quarterbacks get hit - although the presence of Jeremy Trueblood on Freeman's right side might tell you something else entirely. Still, quarterbacks who get hit frequently are quarterbacks who get injured, and teams with injured quarterbacks don't generally get very far. The Buccaneers suffered from this very problem in 2011, when Josh Freeman had to miss one game after suffering a shoulder injury on a quarterback sneak on the final play of the game against the Tennessee Titans.

Greg Schiano is undoubtedly intimately familiar with the problems option looks present to defenses: they involve all 11 players on a rushing play rather than just 10 on a regular handoff, and they put defenders in tough positions. Frequently that leads to untouched touchdowns, especially in the NFL, which is not used to defending the option. The Bucs would do well to add the option to their repertoire, if only as an occasional change-up.

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