San Francisco 49ers Red Zone Offense

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X (WR), Z (2nd WR), W (3rd WR), V (4th WR), Y (TE), U (2nd TE), 22 (2 RB, 2 TE), 11 (1 RB, 1 TE), 12 (1 RB, 2 TE), 21 (2RB, 1 TE), 7 OL (7 Offensive Linemen), 6 OL (6 Offensive Linemen)

I charted every offensive play the San Francisco 49ers ran in the red zone (25yd-GL), for all 19 of their Regular Season and Playoff games in 2013.  This report of the 2013 49ers’ red zone offense presents some of my charted data and will provide an idea of what the 49ers did, how they did it, and who they did it with in the red zone. The report is broken down in to 5 sections; play calling philosophy, run game, pass game, tendencies by personnel grouping and a conclusion.  Please make note that these stats are based on Kaepernick’s starts.  Therefore, in this report 2012 refers to a 10 game sample size and 2013 refers to a 19 game sample size.

49ers’ Red Zone Offense Play Calls

232 plays, 136 run (59%), 96 pass (41%)


The 49ers’ red zone offensive philosophy is team-centric.  It relies on the offense physically dominating their opponent as a unit and not on any particular skill player or Quarterback to carry the team.  The 49ers want to line up and smash the people across from them.  The 49ers red zone play calling philosophy seems to be designed to stretch a Defense out horizontally and then find/punch a hole into the front and get the ball through it.

Run Game: In the run game the 49ers prefer power runs and read options. photo

The most frequently occurring play is a power run out of a two-back set.  These occur out of 21 and 22 Personnel but also out of personnel groupings with 6 or even 7 Offensive Linemen.  They employ lots of shifts and motion.  However, the motion man is the key to their run game and will frequently tell you where the ball is going.

Pass Game: The 49ers’ favorite red zone passing concept is the 3-level concept.


The 3-level concept features 3 Wide Receivers running to one side of the field at different route depths.  The 3-level concept is also known as the flood concept because a team is flooding one part of the field with pass catchers trying to create a numbers advantage in their favor.

The 49ers’ red zone passing attack also features Horizontal and Drag Concepts and employs a lot of roll outs.  Some other preferred route combinations feature the inside Wide Receiver in a 3 Wide Receiver set running an Out route underneath the other Wide Receivers, or the outside Wide Receiver running a Slant route underneath the other two Wide Receivers.  Their red zone pass offense relies heavily on Flat Routes, Swing Routes, Out Routes and Crossing Routes to stretch the Defense horizontally.  They also run some pick or “rub” routes via Crossing routes from each side, or by sending a Wide Receiver in motion on a Speed Out behind the other Wide Receivers as his man gets picked off by the commotion.

The Pistol formation is a red zone offensive tactic the 49ers like to employ.  They started using it in 2012 and continued to get good results with it in 2013.  While the frequency of Pistol formation plays decreased from 2.1 plays per game in 2012 to 1.63 plays per game in 2013.  The effectiveness of Pistol plays actually increased in 2013, as Pistol rushing yards per game increased as well as the Pistol completion percentage.

Pistol Formation Red Zone Stats:

2013: 31 Plays (Run-19, Pass-12) 1.63 per game

  • Runs-19, 111 Yards, 5.84 YPC, 5 TDs (12 of the 19 runs were read option)
  • Pass-6/11, 54.5%, 58 Yards, 2 TDs (6 of the 11 targets went to Boldin)

2012: 21 Plays (Run-13, Pass-8) 2.1 per game

  • Runs-13, 67 Yards, 5.15 YPC, 3 TDs (10 of the 13 Runs were read option)
  • Pass 1/8, 12.5%, 14 Yards, 0 TDs

Greg Roman will intentionally try and hide things in his game plans throughout the season.  For example he used the Pistol formation in the red zone sparingly in an effort to save it for the end of the season.  The 49ers used the Pistol formation 31 times in the red zone.  11 of those 31 Pistol plays came in Week 1 against Green Bay, making it appear like the 49ers we’re trying to put a bunch of it on tape to start the year and give the illusion that they would continue its heavy use.  However, this was not the case as they would go weeks at a time without running it at all in the red zone.  The pattern of red zone Pistol formation usage went like this; they ran it for 2 weeks, they didn’t run for 4 weeks, they ran it for 2 weeks, they didn’t run it for 2 weeks, they ran it for 2 weeks, they didn’t run it 1 week, and then they ran it for 6 straight weeks to close out the season.  If a 49ers’ opponent had only watched the previous 4 games of film they wouldn’t have seen 4 games of 49ers’ red zone Pistol usage until the Playoffs.  In effect allowing the 49ers’ red zone offense to strike a blow with a powerful offensive weapon against unprepared opponents at a crucial point of the season.



Kaepernick Red Zone Carries


Kaepernick carried the ball less in the red zone on a per game basis in 2013 than   he did in 2012.  However, his red zone Yards Per Carry average increased from 4.61 to 5.47.

Red Zone Read Option Runs 


 Read Option Red Zone Rushing Stats


 Read Option runs by Personnel Grouping


The frequency and effectiveness of red zone read option runs decreased in 2013.  In 2012 the 49ers ran read option in the red zone 1.8 times per game but only 1.15 times per game in 2013.  Additionally, the Yards Per Carry on read option red zone runs decreased from 6.05 in 2012 to 5.31 in 2013.

Pistol Red Zone Rushing Stats





Colin Kaepernick’s Red Zone Passing Stats


Colin Kaepernick is quick to run and dangerous when doing so.  His feet and elusiveness make him a threat on designed run plays, read run plays, and scrambling to extend a play or picking up yards to extend a drive.  His feet are more valuable than his arm at this point in his career.  Due to this talent there are designed runs for him like power sweeps, and draws in addition to his read-option prowess.  He’s arguably the best running Quarterback in the NFL.  Therefore, it is vital that a Defense maintain its rush lanes against Kaepernick because if he is given a hole created by an out of place defender he will run through it for big yardage.

Kaepernick’s completion percentage did decrease to 47.7% in 2013 from 49.25% in 2012.  Interestingly Kaepernick was asked to pass less in the red zone in his second season as the starter, from 6.7 attempts per game in 2012 down to 4.63 attempts per game in 2013.  That is a significantly large decrease at a full 2 less red zone passing attempts per game.  Consequently, there was a decrease in the amount of pass completions in the red zone from 3.3 completions per game in 2012 down to 2.21 pass completions in the red zone in 2013.  Why was Kaepernick being asked to throw it less?  Was it injuries to the Wide Receiver corps?  A more conservative play calling approach? Or are the 49ers’ Coaches having less faith in Kaepernick?

I highlighted in last year’s report that there were three areas that Kaepernick needed to improve on this year, situational awareness, pocket presence, and touch on balls (especially outside to the corners).  Kaepernick definitely showed an improved ability to throw to the corners in his second season as a starter, as evidenced by his high success rate targeting Vernon Davis on Corner routes.  However, the next fade he throws for a Touchdown will be his first so he still has considerable room to improve on throwing touch passes.  Kaepernick’s throwing motion and arm strength results in low-trajectory and high-velocity throws that get where they are going in a hurry but don’t differ that much in ball height.  He lacks touch and nuance as a passer but he has tremendous arm strength which can translate to plays on the field.  Kaepernick is like a fastball pitcher playing Quarterback.

Kaepernick’s pocket presence is still an issue as he can be flushed from the pocket fairly easily.  However, on the bright side Kaepernick’s physical ability allows him to extend plays by scrambling and buying time.  Kaepernick has big play ability and it will usually rear its head when he is on the move.  This shows up on film when he extends a play with his feet and improvises on the fly and throws a Touchdown pass.  The 49ers realize that Kaepernick’s strengths lie more outside the pocket than within the pocket and so they use plenty of roll out passes.

Kaepernick is given the authority to change the play at the line of scrimmage based upon what he sees from the defense.  He is recognizing things in the defense and making good pre snap reads at times.  However, Kaepernick doesn’t have a good track record of successfully exploiting advantageous situations as his passes are often incomplete.  In key situations he will frequently check to attack single coverage outside, even though the team doesn’t do it well and it is a low-percentage throw.  In fact, Kaepernick throwing a low-percentage pass to Crabtree in the corner of the end zone is exactly how the last two 49ers’ seasons have ended.  As a result, I will say that his situational awareness still has room to improve and the team will benefit if it does.

Pistol Pass Stats:  6/11, 58 Yards, 2 TD

  • Boldin-6 targets, 3 completions, 29 yards, 1 TD
  • Miller-3 targets, 2 completions, 9 yards
  • Davis-2 targets, 1 completion, 20 yards, 1 TD


Colin Kaepernick’s Red Zone Passing Targets

Vernon Davis

Red Zone Target Routes: Out-5/7, Flag-5/6, Cross-4/6, Back Shoulder Fade-0/2, Vertical-0/1, Slant-0/1, Post-0/1, Flat-0/1.



Anquan Boldin

Red Zone Target Routes: Out-5/7, Slant-3/4, Screen-2/3, Vert-0/3, Back Shoulder Fade-2/2, Post-1/2, Cross-0/2, Scramble Drill-1/1.



Michael Crabtree

Red Zone Target Routes: Vertical-0/4, Out-1/3, Screen-2/2, Flag-0/2, Slant-0/2, Fade-0/1, Cross-1/1.



Bruce Miller

Red Zone Target Routes: Flat-3/4, Out-1/2, Cross-0/1.



Frank Gore- 3 targets, 3 completions, 25 yards

Vance McDonald- 2 targets, 2 completions, 27 Yards

Kyle Williams- 2 targets, 0 completions, 0 Yards

Jon Baldwin- 2 targets, 0 completions, 0 Yards

Quinton Patton- 1 target, 1 completion, 5 yards

Garrett Celek- 1 target, 0 completions, 0 Yards

 49ers’ Red Zone Offense: Tendencies by Personnel Grouping

*Listed in order of preference


22 Personnel (2RB/2TE)


22 Personnel Scoring: 67 plays, 8 TDs.  TD Per snap .11

22 Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

22 Run-(72.0%) This was the 49ers preferred personnel grouping in the red zone and accounted for 29% of their red zone calls.  The 49ers liked to use 22 Personnel when they wanted to eat clock and demoralize their opponent by running it down their throats.  The preferred runs were power runs and read option runs.  When it is wasn’t a read option they’re was a very strong tendency to run right where the move TE ends up.


This is one of the reasons the 49ers employ so much pre-snap movement.  By shifting at the last moment or sending the move TE in motion it lets them reveal at the last moment where the ball is going.  The 49ers line up in a Pistol formation approximately 22% of the time in 22 Personnel.  The plays from Pistol were 10 run/5 pass.  Blocking Tell: U motion to C gap equals Outside block of lane 5 out of 6 times.

22 Pass-(27.9%) Their favorite 22 Personnel pass concept was 3 Level.


They used roll-outs, play-action, Out routes and Vertical routes.  In 22 Personnel the preferred targets were Outs and Verticals.  10 of the 19 passes were play-action.  The vast majority of pass targets were outside of the hashes.  Preferred 22 Targets:  Davis-6 targets. Miller-4 targets (all in the flat).  Boldin-3 targets.  Kaepernick recognized and attacked single coverage by audibling to vertical routes (Vertical, Back Shoulder Fade, Fade) but they were all incomplete in 22 Personnel.

22 Personnel Targeted Routes

X-Vertical, Out, Back Shoulder Fade

Y-Cross, Back Shoulder Fade, Post, Out, Slant

Z-Cross (2), Screen (2), Slant (2), Fade



11 Personnel (1RB/1TE)


 11 Personnel Scoring- 43 plays/5 TDs.  TD per snap .116

11 Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

11 Run-(34.9%) Read option and designed QB runs were heavily used.


7 out of the 15 run plays in 11 personnel were by the QB.  Another 4 of the runs were read option plays where Kaepernick could have ran it, and on 3 of the 28 pass plays he scrambled for positive yardage.  There is a good chance that Kaepernick will be running with the ball in 11 Personnel.  It appears their intention is to spread out the Defense and let Kaepernick make plays with his legs.  They ran both a designed QB draw and a QB sweep out of 11 Spread formations.  Pistol should be viewed as a running formation as they didn’t throw any passes out of 11 Pistol sets.

11 Pass-(65.1%) Their favorite 11 Personnel passing concept was the Horizontal concept, designed to stretch a defense from the inside out.


They also frequently used the Vertical and Corner concepts.  The primary pass targets were Outs, Slants, Verticals, and Screens to Wide Receivers.  11 Personnel was a Wide Receiver heavy Personnel grouping from a production standpoint.  They used slants run by the outside WR in a 3-WR set, underneath the two inside WRs creating a natural lane.  They didn’t start attacking vertically in 11 Personnel until Crabtree came back and they for some reason begin to heavily rely on this tactic in the Playoffs.  Crabtree saw 3 of the 4 vertical targets in the Playoffs.  The Quarterback was primarily lined up in Shotgun with a couple of Pistol appearances.  The RB lined up as a WR 5 times but they were all decoys who were never even targeted.  The mistake defenses made was by covering the RBs with a DB.

ALERT: Spread formation (no RB in the backfield) is often a QB run.

ALERT: Pistol formation equals run play.  No Pistol passes in 11 Personnel.

11 Personnel Targeted Routes

F-Curl, Screen

W-Slant, Out

X-Vertical (3), Hitch, Slant, Screen

Y-Cross (2), Out

Z-Slant (2), Out (2), Post, In, Screen, Vertical



12 Personnel (1RB/2TE)


 12 Personnel Scoring: 35 plays/4 TDs. TD Per snap .11

12 Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

12 Run-(41.1%) Mostly runs up the middle.  Gore had 11 touches and Hunter had 2 touches.  Motion across the formation equals down block the edge defender.


12 Pass-(58.8%) The preferred pass concept is the Vertical concept (majority of WR routes are going vertically downfield).  They also frequently use a Drag concept.


The most frequently targeted pass routes were Verticals, Crosses and Slants.

Davis and Boldin each saw 5 targets while Crabtree saw 4 targets (in 7 games).  For the second year in a row the majority of their Vertical pass targets came in 12 Personnel.  They frequently align with 3 pass catchers to one side.  They were in spread sets twice and the RB wasn’t targeted either time he lined up wide.  They will put Vernon Davis out wide and attack single coverage with him.  I think this is why he was practicing with the WRs before the 2013 Season and also a reason behind his desire for a new contract.

12 Personnel Targeted Routes X-Vertical, Out, Back Shoulder Fade Y-Cross, Post, Back Shoulder Fade, Out, Slant Z-Screen (2), Slant (2), Cross (2), Fade



21 Personnel (2RB/1TE)


 21 Personnel Scoring: 31 plays, 4 TDs.  TD Per snap .129

21 Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

21 Run-(54%) 16 of the 17 runs were to the Halfback.  In 2012 the preferred run in 21 Personnel by far was a Draw but it wasn’t called at all in 2013 in 21 Personnel.  They were in Pistol formation in 21 Personnel approximately 1/3 of the time.


21 Pass-(45%) Their preferred pass concept was the Drag concept (with a WR crossing the field on a shallow drag route).


5 of the 14 passes were play-action.  They frequently used rub routes to get WRs open.  Many of the passes were roll-outs.  The preferred pass target is the Z receiver on an Out route or one of the Running Backs in the flat.  21 Targets: Boldin-5, Crabtree-4, Miller-3, Davis-1, Gore-1.  21 Personnel production is more WR heavy than TE heavy.  There were more passes (6) than runs (3) in 21 Pistol formation.

21 Personnel Targeted Routes


F-Cross, Flat (2)

X-Cross, Flag, Out


Z-Out (4), Screen, Vertical



Jumbo Personnel


These Personnel Groupings consisted of more than the standard 5 Offensive Linemen on the field.  It could be 6 or 7 Offensive Linemen.  If there is more than 5 Offensive Lineman on the field, it’s primarily a short yardage power run with lots of pulling and lead blockers or a play action pass to Vernon Davis.


  6 Offensive Linemen (6OL) Personnel

 2013: 18 Plays (.94 per game), Run-11 (61.1%), Pass-7 (38.8%)

 6OL Personnel Scoring: 18 plays, 3 TDs.  TD Per snap .16

 6OL Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

6OL Run-(61.1%) A run heavy personnel grouping with a 2:1 Run to Pass Ratio.


All runs were to the HB other than one QB sneak.  Move man motioning to C gap equaled middle run.  In week 10 they ran their infamous “offsides” play where they repeatedly shift and motion trying to draw an offsides penalty on the defense and extend the drive.  It didn’t work.

6OL Pass-(39.8%) 4 of the 7 passes were play-action.  Vernon Davis saw nearly half of the targets.  Verticals and Corners concepts were employed the most.  They also used their slant under and motion speed out combinations.


6OL Personnel Targeted Routes


X-Flag, Slant

Y-Out, Flag (2)

7 Offensive Linemen (7OL) Personnel

 2013: 35 Plays (1.9 per game), Run-30 (85.7%), Pass-5 (14.2%)

 7OL Personnel Scoring: 35 plays, 13 TDs.  TD Per snap .37

 7OL Personnel Preferred Plays, Concepts, Routes and Targets:

7OL Run-(85.7%) This was their preferred short yardage Personnel grouping.  All but two of the runs were to the Halfback.   The majority of the runs were power runs.  They did not run any read option out of the 7OL Personnel grouping.  7OL was most heavily used in the 5 yard line to goal line range (25 plays).  All 3 times they went for it on 4th down in the red zone, the play was a run to the Halfback in 7OL Personnel.


7OL Pass-(14.2%)  All 5 pass targets were play action to Davis, all were complete (4 TDs). They used a play-action, one-man pattern, run-pass option with Davis.




13 Personnel-2 Plays (Run-0, Pass-2)

Targets were an X-Post and a U-Vertical.

02 Personnel-1 Play (Run-0, Pass-1)

Target was a Vertical route to Y.

Conclusion and Trends


The 49ers’ red zone offense is basically a 4:00 Minute Offense and they can play keep away with the best of them.  They have a run first mentality and a physical playing style.  From the opposition’s perspective, it would be better to have the 49ers passing than running.  First, running the football is what the 49ers do best.  Second, Kaepernick has a low red zone pass completion percentage.  Therefore, there is a good chance run plays will be more successful than pass plays for the 49ers.

Playing zone coverage against the 49ers helps to minimize Kaepernick’s big play scrambling ability and takes away several of their favorite passing concepts.  Additionally, playing zone coverage creates tough throws for Kaepernick trying to place the ball over the intermediate coverage and under the deep coverage.

If Kaepernick sees pressure he will start to move early.  However, he is more dangerous on the move so it’s best to try and keep him flushed from the play but not the pocket.  Kaepernick will quickly exploit an out of position pass rusher so it’s important that pass rushers maintain their rush lanes.

Kaepernick makes plays but he misses his fair share of plays as well.  His best years as a passer are ahead of him but on passing ability alone he would not be in the top half of NFL starters.  Kaepernick is young, talented and a physically gifted athlete.  The 49ers hope he continues to show development as a passer.

Their biggest red zone weapon is Vernon Davis.  Davis is the 49ers’ most explosive playmaker in the pass game and an excellent blocker in the run game.  Davis caught more red zone Touchdowns than Boldin and Crabtree combined in 2013.  He is highly targeted and highly successful in the red zone.

To  conclude this report I offer the following 30 trends of the 49ers’ red zone offense.

10 Noticeable trends from the 2012 Season to the 2013 Season:

“As far as read-option runs and Pistol formation (used predominantly as a way to run the read-option), it would seem like these trends will continue into the 2013 Season as they have both been used successfully and with increased frequency as the Post-Season wore on.  Considering Colin Kaepernick’s strengths are his legs and his read-option ability it would make sense for this to be a featured part of the 2013 49ers’ Red Zone Offense.”–From my 2012 49ers’ Red Zone Offense Report.

  1. This proved correct as the 49ers did indeed continue to use read option runs and the Pistol formation quite often in the red zone in 2013.
  2. However, read option frequency and production declined in 2013.
  3. The Kaepernick to Davis pairing was far more productive in the 2013 season than in 2012, and Davis should have been targeted more.
  4. There was an increase in 11 Personnel play calls.
  5. There was an increase in 7OL Personnel play calls.
  6. There was a subsequent decrease in 22 Personnel play calls.
  7. There was also a decrease in 12 and 21 Personnel play calls.
  8. Kaepernick carried the ball less and threw the ball less in the red zone in 2013.
  9. Gore didn’t show the same type of explosion in 2013 that he did in 2012.
  10. They began to pass more frequently out of Jumbo Personnel in 2013.

 10 Noticeable in-season trends during the 2013 Season:

  1. Greg Roman’s pattern of hiding the Pistol Formation periodically throughout the season before calling it every week to end the regular season and in every Playoff game.
  2. There were noticeable changes in the red zone personnel groupings after Crabtree came back from injury.There was a sharp increase in the number of 11 Personnel (1.58 per game without Crabtree, 3.42 per game with Crabtree) and 12 Personnel (1.33 per game without Crabtree, 2.71 per game with Crabtree) plays called.  The 49ers’ red zone offense ran 22 Personnel plays 3.75 times per game without Crabtree but it decreased to 3.28 times per game with Crabtree.
  3. There were also changes in the red zone play calling after Crabtree came back from injury.  The number of red zone pass plays per game went up from 4.41 per game without Crabtree to 5.28 per game with Crabtree.  There are plays designed to get Crabtree the ball in space quickly as an extension of the run game.  However, Kaepernick passing the ball vertically (Vertical, Fade, BS Fade, Flag, or Post routes) to Crabtree was not successful at all for the 49ers’ 2013 red zone offense.  Crabtree had 7 vertical targets (4-Vertical, 2-Flag, 1-Fade) and none were completed to him and one was intercepted.
  4. Pistol formation red zone plays per game decreased from 1.91 per game without Crabtree to .71 per game with Crabtree.
  5. The 49ers went from scoring 2 red zone touchdowns per game without Crabtree to 1.83 red zone touchdowns per game with Crabtree.
  6. The move man or motion man is the key to their run game as the run is usually directed off of one of his shoulders.  Basically follow the motion man because that’s where the run is going and the motion man is putting himself in the best position to carry out the block.  There are definite patterns to their motion and blocking as detailed throughout the report.
  7. In 7OL Personnel, if the Move player motions across the formation he was down blocking the Defensive End on 7 of the 8 runs.
  8. In 22 Personnel, if the U motions to the C gap he was the outside block of lane 5 out of 6 times.
  9. When they needed a tough yard for a 1st Down or a Touchdown they went to 7OL Personnel.
  10. They ran the triple option in the year 2013!  They ran triple option both with the traditional two Running Backs where the first option is a FB dive and also one with the first option being a player in motion.


10 Trends to watch for from the 2014 49ers red zone offense:

  1. Following the 2013 Season the 49ers drafted a Running Back, a Fullback, a Guard and a Center.  This is a good indicator that there will be a sustained commitment to 49ers’ smash-mouth football going forward.
  2. Triple option plays started getting called towards the tail end of the season and that should spill over into 2014, perhaps as a tactic to get more of their talented Running Backs on the field at the same time.
  3. I expect someone else will start taking carries from Gore.  That someone could quite possibly be Carlos Hyde.
  4. I expect the 49ers will pass the ball in the red zone more in 2014 than they did in 2013 due to the additions of Ellington and Johnson to the WR corps and a healthy Crabtree.
  5. I expect Crabtree will have the best season of his career from a statistical standpoint in 2014.  He is in a contract year and he is heavily targeted by Kaepernick in the red zone.
  6. I expect Kaepernick will have the best year of his career from a statistical standpoint in 2014.
  7. I expect Jumbo Personnel to continue to be used heavily, although not as heavily as 2013.
  8. However, I expect the Jumbo Personnel package will continue to grow more varied in the play calls.
  9. I expect the amount of red zone pistol usage will increase in 2014 as it is still a highly productive formation for the 49ers.
  10. And last but not least……the exotic pre-snap shifts will continue.


Study Notes


 *All photos courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.

 *All statistics are my own.

 *The reason I chart the red zone out to the 25 yard line and not the 20 is because I don’t know the exact moment an Offensive Coordinator actually goes to his red zone sheet.  There are some scenarios when an Offensive Coordinator might be calling plays from his red zone play call sheet even though the ball might be spotted at the 21 or 22.   Also some Offensive Coordinators consider the red zone from the 25 to the Goal Line on their sheets anyway, so I felt that charting out to the 25 would include more actual calls from the red zone sheet than if I stopped charting at the 20.  Therefore, it would yield a more accurate representation of the Offensive Coordinator’s red zone play calling philosophy.