Greg Roman, offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, spent a good portion of his weekly media session answering questions about performance in the red zone.
The 49ers have scored touchdowns three times in 15 red zone possessions (.200) over their past five games, down from 12 in 22 chances (.545) over their previous six. The drop has raised questions about the team's approach inside opponents' 20-yard lines. Only St. Louis ranks lower in red zone touchdown percentage, one reason 49ers kicker David Akers has already set a franchise single-season record for made field goals (32).
San Francisco 49ers Red Zone Offense
Roman addressed questions about Braylon Edwards and Vernon Davis serving as big targets near the end zone. Roman said one "very recent" opponent, presumably the Rams, broke from well-established tendencies when it double-teamed Davis inside the 20.
Without prompting, Roman pointed to the 49ers' running game as a leading culprit. Roman said red zone passing takes longer to develop because margins are smaller; defenses have less area to defend.
The 49ers like to load up with tight ends in the red zone, inviting heavier personnel from opposing defenses. They have used three tight ends on 31 of 66 rushing plays in the red zone, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The other NFC West teams have done so only nine times in 99 red zone rushes. But with the exceedingly athletic Davis and Delanie Walker at tight end, the 49ers aren't sacrificing speed when they use multiple tight ends.
The 49ers' problems in the red zone might not have much to do with field position.
Football Outsiders and others have questioned whether it's worth breaking out red zone performance. Good offenses perform well no matter where they are on the field, this thinking goes, and bad ones struggle regardless of field position. The 49ers rank among the NFL's bottom three in third-down conversion rate and sacks allowed per pass play. But their 2007 team, featuring one of the worst offenses in franchise history, converted better than half its red zone possessions into touchdowns.
With a strong defense, a somewhat limited offense and an accurate kicker, the 49ers can often afford to settle for field goals. They can take a conservative approach. They rank among the NFL's top three teams in fewest turnovers and time of possession.
The chart below compares rushing success rates inside and outside the red zone for NFC West running backs this season. There's nothing too fancy about the success rates. They're defined the way Aaron Schatz explained them years ago. A first-down run succeeds when the runner gains at least 40 percent of the distance needed for a first down. The bar rises to 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on the remaining downs.
Arizona's Beanie Wells has been most successful in the red zone, both relative to his success elsewhere on the field and compared to the other runners. There aren't many red zone plays from which to choose, but Gore's success rate in the red zone is lower than those for the others. He might need to pack an ax.
"We're going to keep chopping wood," Roman told reporters.