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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A deeper look at red zone defense

OU’s opponents have scored roughly nine out of 10 times they’ve had the ball in the red zone in the last three seasons.

NCAA Football: Houston at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In the last three years, red zone defense has become a thorn in the side of the Oklahoma Sooners.

Statistics show OU has been terrible when opponents have possession inside its 20 yard line. From 2017 to 2019, the Sooners have finished no better than 104th nationally in opponents’ red zone conversion percentage – the rate at which teams get points from inside OU’s 20. Teams have scored on roughly nine of 10 opportunities in OU’s red zone during that three-year period.

That sounds concerning, but good red zone defense is a nebulous concept. Also, to be fair, to be fair, the red zone situation has improved to some degree in Alex Grinch’s first season. Here are a few things to consider when trying to interpret what is happening when teams get the ball inside OU’s 20.

First, why should we care about red zone defense?

That’s actually a great question, and it doesn’t seem as though there’s a satisfactory answer. Ostensibly, the importance of red zone defense lies in the fact that a team is more likely to score when it is closer to the end zone. The 20 yard line makes for a useful starting point for determining where TDs become more likely.

At the same time, offenses can’t use deep pass routes to stretch defenses out and create room to maneuver closer to the line of scrimmage. Defenses should therefore benefit from a compressed field in the red zone. At least, that’s the theory.

So this raises an important question: Are red zone offense and defense distinct skills?

If so, that has implications for how a team tries to defend the rest of the field. As an example, it may behoove defenses to guard against big plays and concede sustained drives when coaches believe their teams excel inside the 20.

Process over results?

Consider the following scenarios: The offense is facing third-and-goal from the six yard line. In one timeline, the defense breaks up a pass, and the offense makes a short field goal on fourth down. In the other, the offense gains five yards on third down, then turns the ball over on downs after coming up short of the goal line on fourth down.

Which of these is “better” red zone defense? In the former scenario, the defense’s play on third down forced the offense to accept an easy three points over a challenging attempt at a touchdown. In the latter, the D allowed the opponent to get a crack at an easy touchdown, but it didn’t give up any points.

Coaches would likely prefer the outcome on third down in the former timeline over the latter. A “process-oriented” evaluation would probably conclude it’s better to concede a field goal in this scenario than to increase the likelihood of a touchdown. On the other hand, a stop on fourth down beats a made field goal on the scoreboard.

This is a long way of saying that grading red zone defense is somewhat convoluted.

Not all opponents in the red zone are created equal.

The standard caveat applies with analysis of red zone performance as every other statistic in college football: The quality of opponents can dramatically influence a team’s raw stats.

In other words, major differences from one year to the next may just be a function of which teams you play. It might be relevant that OU played one team that finished in the top 10 nationally in red zone scoring rate last season and four this year. And what if the Sooners faced a string of great kickers in one season?

Not all red zone scores are created equal.

Literally. From a raw statistical standpoint, a made field goal counts as a red zone conversion the same way that a touchdown does. However, one is worth three points, and the other counts for, give or take, seven.

A year ago, OU’s foes scored TDs on 83% of their trips to the red zone, the worst rate in the country. The other teams scored on field goals 9% of the time.

In ‘19, 63% of opponents’ appearances inside OU’s 20 wound up in the end zone, ranking 80th nationally. Meanwhile, three in 10 trips resulted in made field goals.

Although the rate of TDs allowed by OU may not be great relative to the rest of the country, it would represent dramatic improvement over ‘18. (And, admittedly, the ‘18 rate was atrocious.) Keep in mind that OU essentially gave up 1.25 fewer red zone TDs per game this year versus the previous season.

So what is the takeaway about OU’s red zone defense?

I object to the question. Generally speaking, I have my doubts that red zone defense is actually a thing separate and apart from defense.

Fine. Make believe that it is a thing.

Relative to the rest of the country, OU wasn’t as bad in the red zone in ‘19 as in previous seasons. The national median for defensive red zone scoring was about 84%. In that stratosphere, the difference between that and OU’s rate of 93% doesn’t seem all that significant.

You could say the same about the percentage of TDs allowed. Even though OU ranked 80th nationally there, one fewer TD allowed would have put the Sooners at the national median of 60%.

Ultimately, opponents averaged 5.3 points per trip inside OU’s red zone in this season, down from 6.1 in ‘18. While that signifies dramatic year-over-year improvement, the ‘19 average still ranked in the bottom 30 nationally. With all of that in mind, we can conclude that although the Sooners didn’t play great red zone defense this year, their performance flew over the low bar set in ‘18.