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Red zone offense under a microscope

Posted Oct 12, 2011

The Chargers have been one of the NFL’s best teams in the red zone under Head Coach Norv Turner, but after falling short of its typical high standard, the team is striving to improve its execution inside the 20.

SAN DIEGO – Everyone loves the big play, but what happens inside the 20-yard lines usually dictates success on Sundays.

Since Norv Turner took the reigns as Chargers’ head coach in 2007, San Diego is third overall in points scored (1,311) and fourth in touchdowns (143) inside the red zone.

“First of all, it’s matching up with the team you play and getting into the right schemes for what they do,” Turner said. “I believe when you can run the ball in the red zone you have a chance to have a little bit more of an effect on how you’re defended.”

Running back Mike Tolbert has been primary option inside the red zone through the first five games. He leads the team with 28 receptions to go along with two receiving and two rushing touchdowns.

Tolbert’s teammates have coined the four-year running back with the nickname The Vulture because of his red zone scoring capability.

“It’s a different mindset inside the red zone, it’s more of a hard-nosed, ‘let’s go get it’ type run,” Tolbert said. “Especially when you’re down inside the 1. All eyes are on that goal line.”

Since 2007, quarterback Philip Rivers has been a model of efficiency inside the red zone. He has a 76-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 92.6 quarterback rating. 

“More than anything, you need to make sure you get points,” Rivers said. “It gets crowded down in there (the red zone). One of the things we’ve done in the past is score on big plays, but we’ve got to keep finding ways to get in there.”

One of Rivers’ favorite big-play targets is wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Thirteen of Jackson’s 31 career touchdowns have come on plays of 20 yards or longer.

“There’s always difficulties scoring in the red zone,” Jackson said. “It’s a small area to work in, there’s not as much space and the defense has less of an area to cover. Once you get down there you can’t make mistakes. You have to be precise in your routes and precise in your blocking.”

Only the New Orleans Saints (286) have more offensive touches than the Chargers (277) and San Diego is sixth in total offense (430.0 yards per game), but Nick Novak kicked seven field goals inside of 40 yards the last two games.

Opponents are focused on defending the Chargers’ pass offense in the red zone, Turner said, adding San Diego hasn’t been executing well enough when given opportunities to run into the end zone.

“I’d like to get touchdowns (but) we seem to have the one bad play that takes us out of that position,” Turner said after a 29-24 win in Denver. “That’ll be a major emphasis over this next two weeks. We’re used to getting big strikes from the 18, 15, 12-yard line. We haven’t been getting those and we’re going to address it.”

With three of the team’s four wins coming by one-possession margins, coaches and players acknowledge there’s room for improvement. The Chargers are working on facets of their red zone offense during the bye week.

“There’s a fine line between scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals down in the red zone. It’s not like we’ve got to re-invent what we do down there,” Rivers said. “We’ve just got to clean up some little things.”
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