In the tight red zone, most defenses employ specific coverages to limit the offense's ability to pass the ball. The most common is Cover 7 or Red Zone Cover 2.
Although they sound a lot different, both have essentially the same goal: Put seven defenders with their feet on the goal line and force the offense to throw in front of you, then rally and make a tackle. My quarterbacks coach at WSU, Timm Rosenbach, used to stress how much smaller the windows were when defenses played zone coverage in the tight red zone.
As a result, most passing teams game plan specific plays for red zone situations to help get wide receivers open. Two exceptions to having a red zone specific game plan occur when you are a quality running team or simply have better athletes than the opposing team.
At this point in the season neither of these are strengths for the Washington State offense.
Because of its limited playbook, the Cougars' red zone pass game is very similar to what you see in the field.
1) Single WR concept: WSU has actually had some success using single wide receiver concepts such as fades, slants and quick outs in the crimson zone. Isiah Myers had a phenomenal catch on a slant against Rutgers. However, to be consistent these routes require great timing between the quarterback and wide receiver as well as having an athlete who can win a physical matchup. Every throw in the tight red zone is contested, there are no easy ones.
2) Two WR concept: These include two man combinations like double slants, out/fade, or curl/flat. Although good on paper, these concepts are often tough to execute close to the goal line because the defense outnumbers the offense to that side.
3) Three WR concept: In my opinion these tend to be the best option against zone defenses in the crimson zone. With three wide receivers the offense is able to create stretches on defenders both horizontally and vertically. By adding a third receiver either by formation, motion or bringing him over on a route they can now outnumber the defense as well as potentially have a one on one matchup backside. Unfortunately, these have not been utilized enough by the Cougars early in the year in my view.
With two games in the book, it is important that Washington State diversify some of their playbook in the red zone. This does not mean adding a bunch of new plays. The Cougars can create variation by doing a few simple things.
1) Use the RBs: And believe it or not, I don't mean by running the football. WSU needs to find creative ways to use its running backs in the red zone pass game. This stable of tailbacks has some real playmakers and will be able to create mismatches on bigger, slower linebackers.
2) Get to the back of the end zone: It is common knowledge in the football world that the most vulnerable part of a defense is the back pylons just underneath the goal post. For whatever reason, defenses believe an offense will not take a chance throwing there. This is why you see teams in the NFL with great tight ends or big wide receivers constantly scoring touchdowns on routes in that area. Washington State has some big, athletic receivers that could really hurt defenses in the red zone if they lined up in the slot and attacked the back pylons.
3) Use the screen game: Although a huge part of the WSU passing game it seems to disappear inside the 20-yard line, with an athletic group of ‘backs and receivers I think you have to get the ball in their hands as quickly as possible so they can break a tackle and score. Not to mention the Coug receivers do a phenomenal job blocking on the perimeter which is a must when running screens in close to the end zone.
Washington State is a team that has to score a good amount to win football games. It cannot waste opportunities in the red zone. Settling for field goals should be considered a failure for this team.
There has to be an increased emphasis on game plan and execution when it comes to red zone football. Whether that means adding some new wrinkles or simply getting better at the same plays they have, the Cougars must find consistency in a hurry.