Chiefs suddenly struggling in red zone

To the expanding litany of woes that has plagued the winless Kansas City Chiefs through the first three weeks of the 2004 campaign, a spate of unexpected problems that extends far beyond the usual defensive shortcomings versus the run, one more has now been added.

Typically among the NFL's most productive "red-zone" offenses, in large part because of tailback Priest Holmes, the Chiefs went from efficient to deficient in last Sunday's defeat to a Houston Texans team which characteristically struggles when backed up inside its own 20-yard line.

"We weren't as precise (in the red zone) as we have been," acknowledged Holmes, who was stuffed for a one-yard gain on a fourth-and-two from the Houston six-yard line in the second quarter. "One of our trademarks when we're down in close is that we always find a way to get the ball in the end zone."

Well, not always anymore, apparently.

The failure to create a crease for Holmes on the fourth-and-two play on Sunday paled in comparison to the Chiefs' other red-zone gaffe. That would be a much-replayed pratfall in which Texans free safety Marcus Coleman stepped neatly in front of a Trent Green aerial intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone, and then sprinted 102 yards up the left sideline with the interception return.

Of such failures -- a touchdown there would have staked Kansas City to a 21-7 lead but instead knotted the game at 14-14 -- are ugly 0-3 starts hatched.

Through three games of the 2003 season, the Chiefs had cashiered touchdowns on all seven trips to the red zone, and Kansas City concluded the year as the league's premier red-zone offense. This year, the Chiefs have ventured inside the opponents' 20-yard line nine times, and have six touchdowns and a field goal.

Kansas City's 66.7 percent touchdown rate in the red zone for 2004 isn't embarrassing but, as with most things Chiefs-related to this point, it is significantly less than we have come to expect from a Dick Vermeil team. Vermeil is marvelous in preparing a team, a stickler for detail, and efficient red-zone offense has been one of his teams' trademarks.

Then again, the Chiefs are hardly the lone offense for whom the red zone has become a dead zone so far in 2004.

Scoring from in-close has become, at least through the first three weeks of the campaign, much more difficult. To this juncture, this has been a season in which a constricted field seems to have tightened the gullets of head coaches and offensive coordinators. It is a red zone year marked by reduced scoring, a dearth of imagination, and costly turnovers. And in many cases, particularly in some high-profile early-season matchups, inconsistency in the red zone has defined the outcome of games.

"Definitely, it's kind of a deflating thing to not score touchdowns in the red zone," agreed Indianapolis' emerging young wide receiver Reggie Wayne. "I know, in our case, we feel like we can score from anywhere, but especially down (close), because we have so many weapons that Peyton (Manning) can go to near the goal line. Let's be honest, you turn the ball over in the red zone, or don't get into the end zone, yeah, it's magnified."

Indeed, the first three games have represented a red zone mixed bag for the Colts, who lead the NFL with 69 red-zone points but have squandered some notable opportunities. Indianapolis has nine touchdowns and a pair of field goals on 14 red-zone forays. But the Colts would be 3-0, and have finally excised the New England monkey from their backs, had they been more proficient in the red zone in the season opener against the Patriots.

Three times in that reprise of the 2003 conference championship game -- on an interception tossed by Manning from the New England six-yard line and two Edgerrin James second-half fumbles -- Indianapolis coughed the ball up in the red zone. They also settled for a field goal, on another occasion, after driving to the New England 14-yard line.

Likewise, the Minnesota Vikings, second in the league with 58 red-zone points, certainly have experienced mixed results inside the 20. The Vikings have 15 red-zone possessions, but have scored on just two-thirds of them, with seven touchdowns and three field goals. Wide receiver Randy Moss has been brilliant in the red zone this year, with all five of his touchdown receptions coming from four yards or less, and an average of 2.6 yards.

But those have been somewhat overshadowed by red-zone meltdowns, like the fumble at the goal line by quarterback Daunte Culpepper in the Monday night loss at Philadelphia, or settling for a field goal from the Eagles' one-yard line in that defeat.

"Those kinds of (failures)," acknowledged Vikings center Matt Birk, "will make you crazy. You play with such a small margin for error in this league to begin with, you know, and when you lose scoring chances like that, boy, it hurts."

For sure, then, red-zone numbers from the first three weeks must be particularly painful for offenses around the league.

To date, teams have an aggregate 50.1 percent touchdown rate in the red zone, scoring on 137 of 273 opportunities. There have been 83 field goals and 1,205 points. Compared to the first three weeks of the 2003 season, however, those numbers are puny. At this point a year ago, offenses had scored touchdowns on 55.1 percent of the red-zone opportunities, and scored either a touchdown or field goal 91.3 percent of the time (compared to just 80.6 percent this year).

Points per red-zone possession this year, 4.41, are down 5.2 percent from the 2003 level after three weeks. Turnovers in the red zone have increased by a similar percentage.

The reason the red zone has become such a riddle this year? Well, in any given season, there are going to be offensive mistakes in the scoring zone: bad decisions, fumbles and interceptions, missed blocks and squandered opportunities born of ineptitude. But while blaming offenses, it might be time to credit defenses, too, for ramped-up aggression.

One quarterbacks coach from an NFC team insisted that he has seen more blitzing from defenses in the red zone this year than in most recent seasons. Defenses typically blitz more in red-zone situations anyway, because there is less real estate for exposed corners and safeties to cover. "But we're seeing more all-out (blitzes) in the red zone, people taking more chances, trying to force the error," said the quarterbacks coach.

More offenses continue to use three-wide receiver sets in the red zone, too, as opposed to formations featuring multiple tight ends. At a time when tight ends have re-emerged as a presence in the middle of the field, their role, ironically, has diminished in the red zone. One more factor: The bigger cornerbacks that have become so popular over the last few seasons are more adept at taking away lob and fade routes. Moss may be an impossible matchup, no matter the cornerback, but there aren't many Moss-type receivers around.

The upshot of it all is that, through three weeks, some offenses have been left red-faced by their red-zone struggles.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.