The San Diego Chargers offense should be even better in 2014—another year in Mike McCoy’s system, the return of Malcom Floyd and the addition of Donald Brown will make the Chargers one of the league’s most balanced and dangerous attacks.
But if San Diego wants to improve upon its 2013 divisional playoff loss, it must get better in one area: the red zone.
San Diego moved the ball easily last year. It placed fifth in yards per game with 393.3, first in third-down efficiency at 49 percent and led the league in 10-play drives with 39, per ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams.
What the Chargers couldn’t do was punch the ball in for an easy score.
The statistics back up the Chargers missing several red-zone opportunities. According to Team Rankings, San Diego ranked fifth in red-zone scoring attempts, but just 23rd in red-zone touchdown percentage at 51.5 percent.
This lack of red-zone efficiency led to more of kicker Nick Novak than Chargers fans wanted to see.
Was there any specific reason for the Chargers fizzling out with the goal line in sight? It certainly didn’t fall on quarterback Philip Rivers. Sporting Charts indicates he was third in the NFL with a 109.0 red-zone passer rating.
San Diego’s goal-line shortcomings stemmed from two sources: its running backs and play-calling.
The Chargers’ best runner between the tackles, Ryan Mathews, averaged 2.6 yards per carry and scored a mere five touchdowns in the red zone, according to Alex Cusick of Cover 32.
Since the oft-injured Mathews couldn’t punch it in, who else was left? Danny Woodhead is a receiving back—grinding it out four yards at a time was never his thing. Ronnie Brown was ineffective and clearly past his prime.
Whisenhunt continues to be the most boring red zone play caller I've ever seen. Won't miss that.— Bolts From The Blue (@BFTB_Chargers) January 5, 2014
The red zone is where the Chargers failed to utilize 6’6” tight end Ladarius Green and stuck to shovel passes much more than necessary. How about a back-shoulder fade once in a while?
The lack of effective play-calling at the goal line is ultimately what sealed San Diego’s fate in Week 9 versus Washington—the offense couldn’t score a touchdown from the 1-yard line in the final seconds of regulation, which led it to kick a game-tying field goal. The Chargers lost in overtime.
With Ken Whisenhunt out and Frank Reich in as offensive coordinator, perhaps the Chargers will get a bit more creative with less room to operate. They will have to if they want to get deeper into the playoffs.
San Diego has been fully aware of the red-zone troubles that plagued it in 2013. In the second week of OTAs, Chargers.com’s Ricky Henne reported that the team focused on improvement near the goal line. Wide receiver Keenan Allen said San Diego has to get better in the red zone this season:
Allen said @Chargers biggest area of improvement offensively in '14 must come in red zone. Jokes he wants to keep K Nick Novak off the field— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) July 26, 2014
The Chargers admitting they have a problem is great, but will their red-zone offense actually be any better in 2014? It could be due to pure statistical fluctuation—the safer bet, however, is for Rivers to start lobbing it up to his massive targets at wide receiver and tight end.
Bigger targets mean a better chance at scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
Jonathan Bales, author of Fantasy Football for Smart People and guest writer for Rotoworld, looked at every receiver drafted since 2000 who has seen at least 35 red-zone targets. He illustrated the percentage of those red-zone targets that were converted into touchdowns, sorted by height:
For most football geeks, this chart shouldn’t be surprising at all. However, the Chargers apparently didn’t understand the “Green equals touchdowns” equation in 2013.
With Green and 6’5” Rivers favorite Floyd back in the mix, San Diego should be able to finish drives more easily if it makes the most of these towering pass-catchers.
Plus, Donald Brown is a significant upgrade over Ronnie Brown. The former Colts running back averaged 3.9 yards per carry in the red zone last season and scored as many touchdowns as Mathews with fewer carries, according to Cusick.
An offense that has better play-calling with improved personnel should help the Chargers improve upon its lowly 2013 red-zone rankings.
More touchdowns and fewer field goals is always a formula for success, and the Chargers need all of the touchdowns they can get if they want to make it back into the postseason.