NFL: EPA Rankings, Red-Zone Efficiency, Explosive Plays for Week 5

Dan Morse

The Dallas Cowboys have scored a touchdown on over 25% of their red zone plays this season.  That's a pretty impressive clip, especially considering their lackluster performance last Sunday.  What might be surprising is that that's actually only the fifth best TD% in the red zone this season.  The teams ahead of them?

  • Green Bay (25.7%)
  • Minnesota (25.9%)
  • Tennessee (26.9%)
  • Houston (28.0%)

In a game that can often swing on events of random chance (the ball is an oblong shape for goodness sake) red zone efficiency can be the key difference in being a losing team and being a playoff team.  It's no coincidence that four of these five teams mentioned made it into the top-10 in this week's EPA power ranks.

(Reminder: Expected Points uses data from previous NFL seasons to determine how many points a team is likely to come away with on a given play, based on down, distance, time remaining, and field position. The difference in expected points at the start of a play and expected points at the end is referred to as expected points added, or EPA.)

nfl 2019 wk5 team epa ranks

The biggest movers, both up and down, came from the Buccaneers-Rams game.  Tampa Bay's big upset launched them up eight spots into the top-5, while the Rams fell eight spots down to 14.  The Rams defensive EPA got significantly worse, as expected when you give up 55 points, but what's more surprising is that their offensive EPA also went down, despite them putting up 40 points.  This is a great example of EPA capturing more than simple score differential, as the 4 turnovers from Jared Goff alone lost a whopping 24.8 EPA.

The bottom four teams are starting to look more and more settled, with the biggest move coming when Pittsburgh and Cincinnati swapped places.  The Steelers still don't look great however, and the absence of Ben Roethisberger looks like it could be a death knell.

Danny Dimes and the Giants also made a decent jump upwards, and Buffalo actually climbed three spots into the top-10 despite a losing effort against the top ranked New England Patriots.  The Patriots, even with the 20th ranked offense, are still far and away the best team by EPA differential.  Their defensive EPA is the best the NFL has seen through four weeks since at least 2009 (as far back as my data goes), with the 2011 Baltimore Ravens coming in second at -75.3 EPA.

Looking again at red zone performance, the Patriots defense has the lowest red zone TD% allowed this year, but only the third lowest EPA/play allowed.  Perhaps more importantly, they've only had to defend 18 plays inside their own 20 through these first four weeks.  That's the lowest mark in the league, even lower than the Jets and 49ers, who have only played three games.

The importance of red zone defense in 2019 has, so far, been more important to team success than red zone offense.

rz td perc

Three of the top four teams by EPA differential make up the top three red zone defenses by TD%.  The Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints are interesting studies because they are a combined 7-1, but both have average red zone offenses and below average red zone defenses.  As far as the Saints are concerned, I really don't have a good explanation for how they are 3-1.  Their red zone play hasn't been great, and they've dropped all the way to 26 in EPA differential.  Maybe they're just lucky, or maybe Sean Payton is a wizard.

The Chiefs are easier to decipher.  They have run the second most plays inside the red zone (59).  So while their touchdown per play rate is below average, the volume of plays they run still puts them in the top-10 in total touchdowns in the red zone (8).  They also lead the league in touchdowns over 20 yards with 7.  Their average deep touchdown play (TDs of 20+ yards) goes for about 50 yards.  It's an offense that is explosive enough to overcome any small deficiency in red zone efficiency.  It's also one of the most explosive offenses of the past 10 years.

explosives all

Getting back to the red zone, let's examine how offenses change from a play-calling standpoint as they approach the end zone.  Much of the analytical discussions concerning the NFL center around run-pass balance.  The war between "establishing the run" versus "running backs don't matter" likely won't ever go away.  The quick explanation for the analytics side is that passing is simply more effective on a per play basis in most situations.

non rz success

Passing between the 20's tends to have a better average EPA and success rate.  But one aspect that often gets lost is that inside the red zone, everything changes from both an analytical and a film perspective.  The shrinking of the field reduces the effectiveness of passing while amplifying the importance of short-yardage run plays.

rz success

Once we get inside the 20, there is little discernible difference to a team's likelihood to succeed with a run play versus a pass play.  This is the area of the field where a true dual-threat offense can thrive off of unpredictability.

rz success 2019

The Vikings have been extremely successful running in the red zone, while the Lions have seen all their success come through the air.  Meanwhile, we see most of the 3 and 4-win teams hover right over the line, meaning they can be successful either way.  The biggest surprises here might be Seattle and Baltimore.  These are two teams that everyone expects to run the ball, which they do.  But they're significantly more successful in the red zone when they pass, despite the shortened field and their penchant for pounding the rock.

Red zone offense (and defense) can be volatile, but it also plays a huge part in how successful a team can be.

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