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November 13, 2009
The Dead Zone
Although no one really knew it at the time, the problems began with the University of Alabama's second possession of the season.
Thanks to a spectacular 35-yard reception by junior wide receiver Darius Hanks, the Crimson Tide had first-and-10 at the Virginia Tech 17, when sophomore running back Mark Ingram took a handoff for one yard and junior quarterback Greg McElroy missed receivers Marquis Maze and Julio Jones on the subsequent snaps.
Out trotted senior kicker Leigh Tiffin to make a 34-yard field goal, which has been an all-too-familiar sight this season. The problem with his record-breaking season has been the numerous squandered opportunities, particularly in the area known as the red zone.
Alabama might consider nicknaming the area inside the 20-yard-line the Dead Zone because at times its production has been as scary as anything Stephen King could come up with.
"It's finishing drives," Coach Nick Saban said. "It's sort of like shooting yourself in the foot."
Statistically, Alabama is sixth in the Southeastern Conference in red-zone offense, having scored on 34 of 39 opportunities, 87.2 percent.
However, it's reached the end zone only 16 out of those 39 times. So while Tiffin's 18 field goals out of the red zone lead the nation, the Tide is 116th out of 120 teams in touchdown percentage at 41 percent.
"Everyone knows we have to improve down there and try and get it into the end zone more," Ingram said.
Last Saturday, LSU scored touchdowns on both of its red-zone chances while the Tide had to settle for two field goals (but did reach the end zone on a 21-yard pass to Hanks). Over the last four games, all against SEC opponents, Alabama has scored 14 field goals compared to four offensive touchdowns - only one of which came during the 12 red-zone possessions.
Granted, it was against Tennessee, South Carolina, LSU and Ole Miss, which rank in that order third to sixth in total defense behind only Florida and Alabama in the SEC, but still an obvious concern.
"Last week, I talked about a penalty on the three-yard line, first-and-three at the three, I talked about fumbling a snap from center. This time we get third-and-one at the one and we get 12 guys in the huddle," Saban said in reference to when he slammed his headset to the ground. "That's really not something that the other team is doing."
Of Alabama's 16 red-zone touchdowns, 12 have been on the ground. While a decrease in proficiency is normal the closer an offense gets to the end zone, Alabama goes from averaging 5.2 yards per carry overall to 3.15 inside the 20.
"Executing, that's about it," Ingram continued. "You can do as many reps as you want to in practice, but it comes down to execution in games.
"Everyone has to be comfortable with their assignments and know what they're doing."
A more dramatic digression is found in the passing game. Consider McElroy's numbers in relation to field position:
Own 1-9: 50 percent (3-for-6, no interceptions) 62 yards
10-19: 28.6 (2-7-1) 12 yards
20-29: 66.7 (22-33-0) 356 yards, two touchdowns
30-39: 71.4 (30-42-0) 291 yards
40-49: 71.0 (22-31-1) 311 yards
50-41: 62.0 (21-34-0) 259 yards, one touchdown
40-31: 70.4 (19-27-1) 192 yards, one touchdown
30-21: 55.0 (11-20-1) 155 yards, three touchdowns
20-11: 33.3 (6-18-0) 68 yards, two touchdowns
10-0: 18.8 (3-16-0) 15 yards, two touchdowns
However, McElroy's red-zone numbers are skewed by two games in particular, Virginia Tech and Ole Miss.
Against the Hokies he was 1-for-8 inside the 20, with the completion an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ingram. At Ole Miss, he was 1-for-7 with a 14-yard throw to senior tight end Colin Peek. Of those 14 combined incompletions, eight were in Jones' direction.
Overall, Jones has had 13 passes thrown his way in the red zone without a catch. The Tide's top receiver inside the 20 has been Ingram, who has caught all four balls thrown his way for 44 yards and two touchdowns.
If some of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. McElroy's predecessor went through something similar.
"It's one person here, it's one person there," center Antoine Caldwell said.
"It's all about execution," running back Kenneth Darby said.
"We have to do better," left tackle Andre Smith said.
Those statements were made in 2006 after the Tide began the season by reaching the end zone just once during the first nine trips to the red zone, and had more turnovers inside the 20 than touchdowns.
"I think that's probably the toughest thing for a young quarterback, and seeing different looks," Coach Mike Shula said at the time.
"One of the biggest things for a quarterback, especially a young one, is being able to come off to your second and third receivers if your first one isn't there. We're working on him with that to improve in that area.
"He's done some good things, too. He hasn't forced the ball, which is disastrous there."
Alabama went on to finish the season with a 75.5 scoring percentage, but only half were touchdowns (40-of-53, 20 touchdowns). In comparison, in 2005 the Tide was 32-of-42 with 18 touchdowns during Brodie Croyle's senior season.
During his first year in Saban's offense, John Parker Wilson saw his red-zone numbers improve in 2007, although the Tide finished 10th in the SEC at 81.1 percent (43-of-54), but with 29 touchdowns - a huge jump in touchdown percentage from 37.7 percent to 53.7.
Wilson's senior season, Alabama finished fourth in red-zone offense, its best showing in years. The Tide scored on 46-of-54 opportunities for 85.2 percent, and 31 touchdowns (57.4 percent).
In addition to experience being an obvious factor, Alabama's schedule points to improvement as well. Mississippi State ranks sixth in red-zone defense (78.8 percent) and Auburn is dead-last (94.6). The Tigers have yielded the most red-zone touchdowns with 25, while the Bulldogs are third with 18.
"So I know your next question is 'What are we going to do different?'" Saban continued. "We need to correct what we do. There is more in this game that's about what we do than probably any game that we've played, and it's always going to come down to what you do and it was the same way in this game. I just think it's consistency and performance, better communication, better execution and little more discipline in what we're doing. I think those little things will help us get better results."