How to Dominate in the Red Zone

How to Dominate in the Red Zone
Andersen Ross

One of the biggest pet peeves for football coaches is failing to score any points when you get the ball in the red zone. The red zone is considered to be inside your opponent’s 20 yard line. Although a touchdown would be ideal here, coaches wouldn’t be too upset with a field goal. Despite the limited field space, there are many different plays that can be implemented to ensure the effectiveness and efficiencies of one’s red zone offense is optimal.

Back Shoulder Throw

The back shoulder pass can be utilized anywhere on the field, but can be particularly effective when trying to put some points on the board. The play itself requires talented quarterbacks and receivers. The throw takes plenty of practice to develop the timing and chemistry needed to use it in game situations. However, understanding the intent behind the play doesn’t take too long to learn. It starts off with the receiver running down the sideline. During this, the defensive back will have to turn his back to the quarterback and run with the receiver. The quarterback will then throw it to the outside shoulder, but not over the top. The trick is that the receiver has to turn around right at the time of arrival. If he turns around too early or slows down, the defensive back will know what’s coming and have time to break up the pass.

At the core of this throw is trust. Quarterbacks must trust receivers will execute the route and not hang the quarterback out to dry.

Similarly, the receiver must have faith that the quarterback is going to put the ball in the right place so it’s there when he turns. As seen with many quarterback-receiver tandems in the NFL, this connection isn’t developed instantly!


Some people love the fade, while others hate it. With this said, if the personnel presents itself appropriately, the fade can be a dominant tool for red zone offense.

Usually, teams throw the fade when they have the ball deep in the red zone, think inside the 10. The quarterback will take a one-step drop and lob the ball into the back corner of the end zone. While quarterback play is needed in throwing a fade, a talented receiver is vital. Whether it’s a speedster like DeSean Jackson that get off the line quickly and beat the defensive back to the corner or an athletic specimen like Calvin Johnson who can simply out jump the corner, a special receiver is needed. This is not necessarily going to be the best pure pass-catcher on the team, but rather a guy with special athletic ability.

When throwing the fade, the quarterback needs to put it in a place where only his guy can make a play. Don’t let an interception become a possible result! Likewise, when the receiver reels in the pass, remember to secure it and then focus on getting your feet in. There won’t be a ton of room in this area, so tapping the feet can be tough.

Run It In

One simple scenario for red zone offense is to utilize the ground game. If you’re a team that already uses a run-heavy approach, then this would probably make the most sense. While you can try outside runs, I recommend keeping it between the tackles if running is your teams’ forte.

In these situations, ball security is a must. It is critical to ensure no fumbles occur deep in the opponent’s territory. Additionally, when running the ball heavily, this could always set up the possibility for a play action pass. Many teams have used this inside the 10 to set up an easy completion to a tight end coming off the line.

Quick Slant

Perhaps the safest passing option in the red zone is a quick slant. The quarterback will receive the snap and take a quick one-step drop before looking to get the ball out of his hands. On the outside, the receiver will need to get off the line quickly and slant in while beating the corner’s inside leverage. Obviously, you’ll need to worry about linebackers in coverage, but generally speaking, this can be used effectively. There are two primary things needed for this to work:

Quick Release
The slant isn’t supposed to be a long drawn-out play. Upon taking the quick drop, the ball should come out quickly to prevent the defense from diagnosing the intent.

Not Afraid of Contact
As I’ve mentioned before, there isn’t a lot of space in the red zone. Particularly across the middle of the field, you can run into some traffic. With this being the case, receivers can’t be afraid of getting hit. Assuming they catch the pass cleanly, they’ll need to look up and understand where they’re at on the field.


Some teams have the luxury of a scrambling quarterback that can make things happen with his feet. For these teams, a bootleg is a perfect possibility. On a side note, bootlegs, if designed appropriately, can be used with any type of quarterback. Simply put, the quarterback will fake the handoff to one-side and then start running in the opposite direction. Upon doing so, the quarterback can either tuck it and run or go into play-action mode. There are two things all quarterbacks should be aware of when choosing this play call:

Naked Bootleg or Regular?
A naked bootleg involves no blockers pulling over after the fake, while a regular bootleg has blockers in front of him. A lot of this depends on the experience level in reading defenses by the quarterback. If he sees them playing heavily to the fake side, then a naked could work. However, failure to read their intent can turn this play into a disaster.

Throw it Away
The bootleg isn’t always going to work. Sometimes, a defensive end will diagnose it quickly and look to sack the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

In these scenarios, the quarterback can’t be hesitant to throw the ball away. If this means just 3 points as opposed to 7, that’s fine. The key is to get outside the tackle box and prevent any further losses!

Shovel Pass

Of the plays listed above, the shovel pass is probably the rarest option. A shovel pass provides an element of deception. As the quarterback drops back, he should make it look like he’s looking for a different route. As the defense drops, a receiver or back will make his way across the field closer to the quarterback. At this time, the quarterback steps up in the pocket and “shovels” the ball to his teammate. This is designed to be a safe play that puts the ball in a playmaker’s hands. However, the play doesn’t end here. In order for this to work, the rest of the receivers need to get their heads turned around and set up some blocks.

No Turnovers!

In breaking down each of the plays above, one thing I can’t stress enough is the prevention of turnovers. I’m not saying to be completely cautious, but don’t try forcing in passes where the risk isn’t warranted. The key is to put points on the board. If that means throwing it away, then do that. Unless you absolutely need a touchdown, don’t make a low-percentage decision!