Red zone touchdown percentage is one of those stats that varies year to year. It’s like the other stats you know and love: turnover differential, one possession record, and opponent field goal percentage. Over the last fifteen years, the year-to-year correlation of red zone scoring percentage is 0.15. Usually the teams who do well in the red zone one year tend to be worse the following year, and vice versa. Last season the Tennessee Titans dropped from first in the NFL with a red zone touchdown percentage of 72% to fourteenth with a rate of 54.55%. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles improved from 24th with a rate of 49.09% to second with a rate of 64.06%. Aside from the Chargers leading the NFL in this category from 2004 to 2006, this kind of volatility is the norm.
The Houston Texans were below average on offense in 2017. They scored a touchdown on 52.38% of their red zone trips, which ranked 20th in the league. This is an improvement from 2016, however, when Houston had a touchdown rate of 44%, which placed them 31st in the league. Football Outsiders’ Premium DVOA database has the Texans with a red zone passing and overall offensive DVOA of -21.4% (27th) and their red zone rushing DVOA at 0.0% (16th).
A torn ACL was the biggest reason for the Texans’ final resting place in 2017. Before he got hurt, Deshaun Watson was absurd in the red zone last year. He completed 14 of his 25 attempts for a mere 87 yards, but he also threw twelve touchdowns to just one interception. He also ran for another touchdown. T.J. Yates and Tom Savage combined to complete 13 of their 35 attempts for 64 yards, managing to only throw four touchdowns against two interceptions; Savage was sacked three times in the red zone as well. When Watson started under center, the Texans had a red zone scoring percentage of 95.0% and a touchdown rate of 70%. The one mistake by DW4 was an interception thrown against the Titans when Houston scored touchdowns on each of their other six other red zone trips.
To no one’s surprise, Houston’s best red zone receiver last year was DeAndre Hopkins. He caught nine of his twenty red zone targets and scored seven touchdowns. Aside from that, the interesting players are the ones who were thrown to but didn’t do much of anything with the ball. Stephen Anderson, despite playing a position made for the red zone and possessing size to be a decent scoring threat, caught only one of his seven red zone targets. Bruce Ellington caught only three of his nine red zone targets. Braxton Miller caught only one of his six opportunities. The mantra for the Texans in the red zone is still the same: Throw it up to Nuk.
Much has been made about D’Onta Foreman being the team’s primary red zone running back. However, he wasn’t as good as Lamar Miller was inside the twenty last year. Playing for the same team and behind the same offensive line, Miller averaged 0.26 more yards per carry and picked up 62 yards on his 19 attempts, scoring three touchdowns. Miller is a competent receiver in the red zone too. He caught four of his five targets and turned three of those receptions into touchdowns. Size isn’t everything. Miller was the better red zone back last season.
On defense, the Texans were a mess once teams crossed Houston’s twenty-yard line. They allowed a touchdown on 61.5% of all drives that ended in their red zone, which was the seventh highest rank in football. Houston’s overall DVOA was 19.3% (31st); their passing defense was 45.9% (32nd) and their run defense DVOA was -6.7% (18th). They didn’t do anything well down there. With only one true pass rusher and a roster filled with cornerbacks unable to play press coverage, these putrid results aren’t surprising.
What is surprising is the Texans didn’t receive any help from their opponent. Usually teams get lucky. A kicker misses a field goal. A quarterback lets a snap slip out of his hands. This didn’t happen for Houston in 2017. Teams missed zero field goals in the red zone against the Texans. Opponents scored on 98.1% of their red zone trips, the highest percentage in the NFL. The Texans forced an interception just one time. Other than that one outlier, once a team crossed the Texans’ twenty-yard line, they put points on the board.
The key is to maximize the number of opportunities your team gets in the red zone. This is something a team controls. Houston’s offense had 39 drives end in the red zone, tied for 24th with the Colts, and their defense allowed 52 red zone drives, which was the fifth most allowed. The Texans’ performance in the red zone and the results from those plays weren’t there; Houston was terrible at getting into the red zone on offense and preventing other teams from breaching the Texans’ red zone.
In 2018, it would be easy to assume the Texans will be better in the red zone. They were awful last year, but Watson was spectacular, and he will be back for a whole season in 2018. However, Watson’s stats themselves were ridiculous. As I’ve written before, DW4’s touchdown rate is unsustainable, and that includes what he did in the red zone. This component gives some concern.
Overall, I would guess Houston will improve slightly in the red zone on offense; there won’t be a dramatic jump because Watson experiences expected regression. Houston’s defense, however, will jump into the top half of the league at a minimum.