Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

In the Lab: Chip Long in the Red Zone

June 27, 2017
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Last Thursday I wrote a little bit about Chip Long and how his offense was in the top 20 in scoring offense, but did not do that well in the red zone. In Long's one year of play-calling at Memphis, his offense was 50th in red zone touchdown percentage. That means he settled for three or less rather than six a little too much.

Like thdomer mentioned in the comments, that particular stat doesn't always correlate with wins and losses. Some teams were worse than Memphis (8-5) and did better than them in the W and L columns including USC (52nd) and Alabama (64th). I don't think that it means the stat doesn't matter, though.

It might not matter as much for the Trojans or Crimson Tide who were 20th and 1st respectively in S&P+ on defense. But when you are trying to win shootouts because of a poor defense (Memphis was 74th in S&P+), those lost points matter a lot more.

I think all of the lost points over the years for the Irish under Brian Kelly have mattered quite a bit. He's had only one year out of his seven that was above average in terms of red zone touchdown percentage. He's also lost 20 games by one score or less during those years. Being more efficient in the red zone would have helped him. A lot.

I went back and watched every red zone possession from five Memphis games. I saw some things I really liked, some things I didn't, and some reasons why Memphis wasn't that successful at getting six in the money area of the field. I also saw plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Notre Dame in the red zone this season given what I saw from Long.

Enough of the lead up, let's get into it.

What I liked: play-calling versus Houston


I really liked what I saw from Long against Houston in the red zone. He had things going in the right direction with a good mix of play-calling and use of tempo to keep Houston's defense off balance. They scored four touchdowns on five trips and that ultimately that proved to be the difference in a 48-44 win.

I would say the biggest reason they had success was because of Long's play-calling. He tried to keep it simple and run the ball when inside the five yard line and it worked due to tempo on this possession. They got stuffed on the one yard line and they lined up and ran right at a tired defense the play after for an easy touchdown.

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That's pretty standard stuff, but Memphis did not have the offensive line or the backs to just pound the football all the time. It's fun when teams can go tempo and run the ball down the throat of the opponent, but Memphis did not have the personnel to get that done.

It's a big reason why they struggled to produce offense against Temple. The Owls kicked the crap out of Memphis up front and even a tired Houston front held up decently against Memphis for most of the game in obvious running situations.

On a series towards the end of the first quarter, Long wanted to pound the ball into the end zone, but on first down got zero push from his line. After showing an I-formation look on second down and attempting a play-action pass, they were stuck in a bad spot on third and goal from the two.

Long bailed them out of the jam with a great call with a great design. It started with a split backfield with one back motioning outside to the right. That forced the corner and the linebacker to bump out to cover it.

The next part of the play was what opened things up for the touchdown. The remaining back in the backfield swung out to the right. He took the attention of both linebackers. The safety had poor eye discipline as well. He drifted with the swing for a split second and that allowed the inside receiver to be wide open for the touchdown.

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Late in the game Memphis was driving to either tie the game at 44 or go up to with a chance to win in the final minute. After the quarterback was forced to throw away the ball on second and five from the 10 yard line, Long had one more shot at getting six points or be forced to kick a field goal and play overtime.

Memphis waited and milked the play clock here and that forced Houston to show their hand. Unsurprisingly, they decided to bring the house. The quarterback knew it was coming and they checked to a slant to the slot who was one on one with a safety.

This is as much of a bust on Houston as it was anything Memphis did with a safety matched up on the other team's best receiver and no one covering one other wide receiver. They hit the slant for the touchdown to seal the win.

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What I liked: RPOs


I think everybody is aware that Long loves to call run-pass option plays all over the field, but I saw it work really well for Memphis in the red zone against Navy and Western Kentucky. These are the types of plays I hope to see run by the Irish this season.

This is a second and seven from the nine yard line versus Navy. It's the kind of no man's land area that most offensive coordinators hate where a run is probably not going to get you into the end zone, but will only get you a bit closer to the goal line.

Long has an RPO called and the run action by the offensive line is what freezes the linebacker (44) and opens up the slant for the touchdown. The other outside linebacker (58) could have been a factor too, but you see him rush up to play the run. He was supposed to be dropping back into that zone and if he did, that may have turned into a pick. But the run fake sucks him in and allows for the quarterback to throw the receiver open without any inside help to the defensive back.

Strike up the band because that is almost too easy.

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This next one against Western Kentucky is by far the hardest RPO to defend. It's essentially a triple option play where there is the threat of the dive, the quarterback run, and the pass. It's a nightmare for the linebacker who is lined up on the slot receiver and you can see he hesitates when he thinks the quarterback is about the run outside. By the time the quarterback delivers the ball to the slot, it's already too late when he tries to react back to the receiver.

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I didn't see Memphis run this a lot near the goal line, but I think we may see it more with Notre Dame because of Brandon Wimbush's athleticism. The defense will have to respect him as a runner or he'll score on his feet. If they overplay the quarterback run, though, this can happen. I love this call.

The offensive personnel


I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that personnel on the offensive line and in the backfield was responsible for some of the lack of success. The line didn't just struggle to move people off the ball, they made mistakes in protection too.

The right tackle getting beat in a one on one situation against Temple is one thing, but the confusion by the line when they went unbalanced (shifting an extra tackle over to one side of the formation) is inexcusable.

Three guys block one and two others get beat with one rusher running unblocked. You don't see this kind of breakdown from a Notre Dame offensive line. They may get beat in protection one on one or screw up an exchange on a stunt, but it never looks like this.

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This next play versus Navy is 3rd and goal from the 1. I put this completely on the back. Josh Adams is not getting stoned like this. The back needs to drop his pads and truck this defender here.

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I feel very confident in saying that Long is going to have better personnel to run the ball and protect the passer in this area of the field than he had at Memphis.

What I didn't like: final drive against South Florida


With a chance to tie the game at 49, Memphis had a 1st and goal from the 8 yard line. After a 5 yard gain on 1st down, they ended up with one timeout left and 53 seconds on the clock. The game ended with three straight incompletions on three straight 50/50 balls. It was definitely not a strong showing by Long in this situation.

Two straight back shoulder throws to the boundary were not completed. The 3rd down throw probably should have been caught, but that left Memphis with only one play left.

I really, really hated this last call. They went to their best receiver and that's fine, but they pretty much tried to throw over top of the defender. There was no separation and the defensive back probably got away with a hold, but this put way too pressure on the quarterback for the ball to be perfectly placed (it was not) and the receiver to make a catch with no chance at separation.

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This was probably a case of a first time play-caller and a head coach making a mistake by not utilizing their final timeout to set something up. It didn't make sense to me that Long didn't at least call a play that involved some kind of rub route to scheme someone open rather than a straight man to man throw it up for grabs situation.

I don't have a problem with mixing in a jump ball or two to some big targets for Notre Dame, but this is not the kind of call you want to see when the game is on the line.

What I liked: uptempo quarterback sneak


Memphis had a scenario earlier in the game where the receiver may have scored or he may have have been down just short of the goal line. Instead of waiting for a potential review, they took advantage of the confusion and ran a quarterback sneak for an easy touchdown.

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This is the kind of thing you practice and that I hope the Irish will practice this season with Long. Even if it's a 3rd and inches play in the middle of the field, it's a good call to play fast and catch the defense off guard. USF actually did a decent job of getting ready, but the timing was off for them and Memphis ended up scoring.

One year is not enough evidence to say Long is a good or bad play-caller in the red zone no matter if his team finished in the top 10 in touchdown percentage or if they finished 80th. He'll have different personnel to work with that will help him, but he'll also have to develop a feel to call things like that 3rd down against Houston rather than three straight 50/50 routes against USF.

It could be said that he learned from his mistakes after USF because when he had the game on the line against Houston, his offense delivered on the final drive. Hopefully he took what he learned from the good and the bad last season and takes advantage of the good personnel he'll have at his disposal to produce an efficient offense when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone.
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