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Red-zone losses: Cracking the code to Texas red-zone failures in 2023

At the halfway mark of the regular season, the Longhorns have underperformed in the red zone. In the second piece of a two-part analysis, come decipher where Texas went wrong in the red zone.

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

In part two of this series, an analysis of the red-zone failures of the Texas Longhorns offense continues. Currently, the offense has kicked red-zone field goals on 9-of-24 drives and failed to score on 4-of-24 drives. As the season progresses and the expectations continue to rise, the difference between a field goal and touchdown in the red zone becomes greater. Let’s dive into why these drives stalled.

Field-goal attempts

Made 27-yarder vs. Rice

Texas entered the red zone with a 1st and 10 from the 11-yard line early in the second quarter. On first down, Sarkisian overloaded the boundary. There were no players beyond the opposing hash mark. The play itself was a run into the space with running back Jonathon Brooks that gained three yards. On second down, Texas ran a play-action rollout to the right with a levels route concept. Wide receiver AD Mitchell and junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders were covered and wide receiver Xavier Worthy was bumped off his route which forced Ewers to scramble for no gain. Facing 3rd and 8 from the 9-yard line, Ewers found Brooks in the flat with ample space to run and just one defender to beat. Brooks dropped the pass.

The play calling on this red-zone series did not end in success, but it was creative — the execution failed, not the play calls.

Made 46-yarder vs. Rice

On this drive, Texas had 1st and 10 from the left hash of the 20-yard line late in the second quarter. Sarkisian used both tight ends and Mitchell in the boundary to run a stretch play into the short side of the field. It was blown up for a three-yard loss as a Rice linebacker came unblocked into the backfield. This uninhibited defender was able to slow down Brooks enough to allow two backside defenders to finish the tackle.

Facing 2nd and 13, Texas went five wide, but was unable to connect with anyone. Texas right guard DJ Campbell was called for a false start, pushing the team back to 3rd and 18. The pass from Ewers once again fell incomplete.

On this drive, Texas had three plays for minus-three yards and a five-yard penalty. Staying at the same down or moving backwards makes it extremely difficult for any team on any down, much less in the red zone where a defense has the advantage.

Made 32-yarder vs. Alabama

For the second straight game, Texas had 1st and 10 from the 20-yard line in the first quarter. Texas opted for trickery and ran a reverse to Mitchell that gained six yards. On second down, the Longhorns once again got creative with Ewers faking a pitch to Baxter before throwing it back to him on a swing pass. It appears that the play was designed to go elsewhere, but Ewers made the quick decision to gain a couple rather than risk waiting and get nothing. On 3rd and 2, Ewers tried finding Worthy on a shallow crossing route that would have gotten the first down, but it was batted down by an Alabama defensive lineman. Sarkisian opted to go for it on fourth down and Texas converted on a short completion to Sanders.

With 1st and goal from the 5-yard line, Texas tried connecting with Whittington on a slant. The idea is smart; however, running a slant from the slot provides a tough window for Ewers to put it through. After a short run gain on second down, Ewers found Worthy in the end zone on third down. However, Worthy dropped the pass and Texas settled for a field goal.

The play calling on this drive put Texas in a position to succeed — nearly every play provided the Longhorns with an opportunity to make a meaningful gain. In addition, the calls stretched the defensive significantly. An unfortunate batted ball and a drop both stalled this drive.

Made 29-yarder vs. Alabama

Texas ran five plays inside the red zone for a grand total of eight yards (1.6 yards per play). One play on this drive that halted progress was a screen pass to Whittington into space when Mitchell and wide receiver Casey Cain both missed their blocks, resulting in no gain. The play that cemented this drive as a failure was a drop as Brooks slipped out of the backfield and had the ball fall off his fingertips.

Once again, execution prevented a touchdown. Poor exterior blocking and a drop are drive enders. It’s not a secret that both of these are critical to red-zone success. However, whether these are the only factors or part of the bigger problem remains to be seen in the remaining nine failed red-zone trips.

Made 37-yarder vs. Wyoming

This red-zone trip in the first quarter is somewhat of an anomaly since Texas entered the red zone with a three-yard rush to the 19 to set up a 3rd and 7 from the 19-yard line that the Longhorns were unable to convert. While this represents a failed red-zone series, the drive itself was not slowed in the red zone.

Made 37-yarder vs. Baylor

This drive is similar to last drive in that Texas reached the 19-yard line on third down early in the third quarter. However, this drive placed Texas on the 21-yard line with 1st and 10, so the expectation should be six when put in this position. On 1st and 10, Brooks lost a yard up the middle as a Baylor linebacker shot a gap untouched. Texas had six blockers. Baylor had four down lineman and two backers yet the Longhorns lost a yard. Losing on a play when you have the right number of blockers is not something that championship-level teams do. Facing 2nd and 11, Brooks gained three yards to set up 3rd and 8 and Ewers tried to find Sanders up the middle for a sizable gain, but overthrew him. Ewers had heat in his face and was brought down as he released the ball. Auburn came to make the short field goal.

For a second straight failed red-zone attempt, Texas was unable to move the ball near the perimeter of the red zone. Being unable to run the ball with an extra blocker against a defense in the 4-2-5 is a problem.

Missed 26-yarder vs. Baylor

Texas used a 12-yard rush on 1st and 10 from the 19-yard line to set up a great opportunity for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. On the 12 yard gain, Texas created enough room for Brooks to weave through the line of scrimmage and burst into the secondary. From the 7-yard line, Texas successfully got the ball down to the Baylor 2-yard line behind a solid run from Brooks when the offensive line created a hole and he battered through. Facing 2nd and goal, Sarkisian brought tight end Gunnar Helm, Whittington, and Mitchell into a bunch off the right tackle. Mitchell needed to make a block and was slow getting in front of the Baylor player who made the tackle resulting in no gain. On 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line, Texas ran a pitch left to Brooks that was blown up in the backfield as Baylor swarmed the line of scrimmage. The blocking wasn’t great, but it appears that the Bears simply had numbers and were ready to swarm any direction. Texas lined up to go for it on fourth down, but a false start by center Jake Majors moved the offense back by five yards and Sarkisian elected to kick the field goal, which Auburn missed.

After moving the Baylor front seven, a couple of missed blocks and a false start resulted in the decision to settle for three. Once again, a perimeter player, this time Mitchell, was responsible for a play that garnered no traction and slowed down the drive.

Made 26-yarder vs. Kansas

Texas had a 1st and 10 at the 19-yard line to begin this red-zone trip late in the first quarter. Sarkisian used a reverse to Mitchell to begin the drive that lost four yards a creative play that is commendable, but did not work. Facing 2nd and 14, Texas opened up the field with four wide and Baxter motioned out of the backfield. Ewers didn’t find anyone open and attempted to scramble, but gained only a single yard. Texas then picked up 10 on a throw to Sanders and went for it on 4th and 3 with Brooks running up the middle for enough yardage.

This represents a rare occurrence where Texas overcame a negative yardage play in the red zone. However, with 1st and goal from 7-yard line the Longhorns could not score a touchdown as two incomplete passes and a run for no gain ended the drive.

Given the down and distances, the use of the aerial attack makes sense, but the timing between Ewers and the wide receivers did not appear in sync. Auburn came on to make the 26-yarder.

Made 30-yarder vs. Kansas

A delayed handoff to Baxter on 1st and goal from the 8-yard line early in the second quarter was lucky to have just lost two yards when Kansas swarmed the backfield. On second down, Ewers didn’t see anyone open and tried to tuck it but lost a couple. Finally, on third and goal from the 13, a swing pass to Baxter went nowhere.

On this drive, Ewers looked unsettled in the pocket. After not finding his initial read, he appeared to lose his composure. Rather than move through his progressions, he either tried to scramble or dumped it off while needing 13 yards.

Made 25-yarder vs. Oklahoma

Texas used a play-action pass from the 20-yard line to advance the chains and set up first and goal from the 10 before Baxter gained five on first down, a play negated by a five-yard loss on second down. Whittington came in motion and took the handoff from Ewers, but was immediately pulled down. Helm was the lead blocker on the play and had to block two defenders, ultimately picking the wrong one. Facing 3rd and goal from the 10, Ewers scrambled for a short gain to set up the chip shot field goal.

After moving the ball very well, a negative yardage play killed this drive. The call was creative but the actual design put Helm in a position that is impossible to win.

Texas kicked field goals at a rate that will catch up to this team. While it may be simple, the biggest reason why is execution — Sarkisian utilized creative play calls on most if not all these drives. However, Texas repeatedly missed blocks, dropped passes, or didn’t get open, consequently setting up difficult down and distances in a tricky part of the field. Texas doesn’t need to switch things up. The Longhorns need to execute on what is called.

Other failed red-zone drives

Interception vs .Oklahoma

Facing 2nd and 9 from the 13-yard line early in the first quarter, Ewers attempted to connect with Sanders down the seam, putting the ball high and inside, allowing the safety on the opposite side to lay his shoulder into Sanders. This hit popped the ball into the air and Oklahoma was there to intercept it. Ewers should throw that pass earlier and in a location where Sanders can grab it before immediately putting two hands on it. A hit is expected on this route so ensuring the receiver can protect the ball is key to making it a success.

Turnover on downs vs. Oklahoma

Perhaps the most infamous Texas drive of the entire season, much less in the red zone, was the turnover on downs vs Oklahoma. Texas brought in both defensive tackles T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II for first down and was stopped as an Oklahoma defender came free and stopped Brooks for no gain. Texas then tried to run a pitch behind Sweat, Murphy II, and a pulling Campbell, an unsuccessful play as Murphy II and Campbell were unable to clear out the Oklahoma defenders necessary to carve a hole for Brooks. On third down, Texas went back up the gut for no gain. This time, left tackle Kelvin Banks missed a block and third-string center Conner Robertson allowed an Oklahoma player to run freely. On fourth down, Texas opted for a quick screen to Worthy with Whittington blocking. Whittington was able to block his defender; however, the spacing allowed two Oklahoma defenders to swarm the play and stop Worthy.

Getting stopped on the goal line is unacceptable, especially in the heavy package. Texas simply did not make the necessary blocks and paid the price for it.

Texas has the necessary playmakers and offensive line to score up front. As Sarkisian continues to utilize different personnel packages and alignments, the name of the game is execution. The Longhorns cannot get behind the chains. The Longhorns cannot miss blocks. The Longhorns cannot drop passes. The offense has been unable to overcome these miscues if they occur in the red zone — if Texas is going to improve, they need to eradicate these issues from happening in the first place.