NFL offenses generally do not suddenly assume vastly different characteristics when crossing the opponent's 20-yard line.
Bad offenses tend to struggle inside and outside the red zone. Good ones fare better.
Red Zone Offense: Last Four Games
Does that thinking apply to the San Francisco 49ers? I am not so sure.
To review, the 49ers settled for too many field goals during the 2011 regular season, raising questions about their ability to keep pace with higher-scoring offenses.
But as the regular season came to a close, the 49ers started scoring touchdowns more frequently. They scored touchdowns six times in nine red zone possessions over their final three games. They scored two in four chances during a 36-32 victory against New Orleans in the divisional playoffs.
This would indicate their offense was improving overall, not just inside the opponents' 20-yard lines.
It is also possible the 49ers have become a little more aggressive, as needed, in going for touchdowns in the red zone. For much of the season, they knew field goals and strong play in other areas -- defense and special teams -- could translate to victories.
49ers Red Zone Play Selection
That wasn't going to be enough against the Saints.
Alex Smith's 4-yard scoring pass to Michael Crabtree against New Orleans came on third down, after the team threw incomplete on its two previous plays. Smith's winning 14-yard scoring pass to Vernon Davis came when a field goal would have forced overtime.
Overall, the 49ers called four pass plays and two runs inside the 20 against New Orleans. They have now called more red zone passes than runs in five of their past nine games, beginning with a Week 10 victory against the Giants and despite having no red zone possessions against Baltimore. They never called more passes than runs in the red zone during their first eight games.
Coincidence? I tend to think not. Frank Gore's health could be another consideration here. He has been less effective overall late in the season. Also, Davis said he has become more comfortable in the offense. His scoring reception against Pittsburgh in the Monday night game came on a red zone throw.
The added emphasis on passing in the red zone hasn't always produced the desired results. The trend would seem to be positive lately, however. Note that Smith's 8-yard scramble for a touchdown against St. Louis in Week 17 came on a called pass play. The second chart shows called passes and called runs; a quarterback scramble, sack or pass attempt counts as a called pass, with other plays counting as called runs.
Note: And, as Devin notes, the 49ers have practiced red zone offense against their first-team defense recently. Thanks for pointing out the oversight.