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Missouri could go from good to great defensively with this one area of improvement

Missouri’s defense was elite in nearly every statistical category in 2022. There is one area where it could stand for some improvement.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard to ask much more than Missouri got from its defense from a year ago. The Tigers’ defense was elite by almost every statistical category. Blake Baker’s unit ranked third in the SEC in yards per drive allowed and scoring rate against, and fourth in yards per play allowed against conference opponents last season.

Not too shabby, especially for a defense put in far too many disadvantageous situations a year ago.

But there was one category, in particular, where the Tigers lagged. Missouri’s defense really struggled against SEC competition in the red zone. Conference opponents reached the red zone 26 times in eight games against Missouri. They scored a touchdown on 19 of those 26 opportunities. Only Ole Miss and Auburn allowed touchdowns in the red zone at a higher rate in SEC play last season. In fact, the only other power five teams to allow a higher rate of touchdowns in the red zone in conference play than Missouri last season were Colorado, Ohio State (13 TD on just 16 opportunities) and Arizona.

It’s not what you want.

But going back through the game log and the play-by-play data, it’s not hard to see how Mizzou can improve upon their red zone defense without changing up too much. Let’s take a quick look at what went wrong.

Auburn (2/2 Red Zone Touchdowns):

  • Failed to stop Auburn on 4th & 1 from MIZ 14-yard line, Robby Ashford 11-yard TD run
  • Missouri INT leads to Auburn ball at Missouri 24-yard line, Auburn converts 3rd & 6 from Missouri 20, Tank Bigsby TD from 3-yard line

Georgia (2/5 Red Zone Touchdowns):

  • FG x3
  • Failed to stop Georgia on 4th & 2 from MIZ 3-yard line, Kendall Milton 1-yard TD run
  • Daijun Edwards 1-yard TD run

Florida (2/3 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • FG
  • Failed to stop Florida on 3th & 2 from MIZ 35-yard line, Montrell Johnson Jr. 3-yard TD run
  • Florida converts 3rd & 3 with Anthony Richardson 9-yard TD to Ricky Pearsall

Vanderbilt (0/2 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • INT from Mizzou 10-yard line
  • Missed FG from Mizzou 10-yard line

South Carolina (1/1 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • South Carolina converts 3rd & 2 with 2-yard run from MIZ 14-yard line leads to Spencer Rattler 7-yard TD on 3rd & 5

Kentucky (3/3 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • Will Levis 9-yard TD pass to Dane Key on 3rd & Goal from MIZ 9-yard line
  • Kentucky converts 3rd & 5 from MIZ 19-yard line, Will Levis throws 1-yard TD pass to Jordan Dingle

Tennessee (7/7 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • Four TD runs of 10 yards or less, a 14-yard TD run, a 2-yard TD pass and a 20-yard TD pass.

Arkansas (2/3 Red Zone Touchdowns)

  • FG
  • Mizzou commits offsides on 2nd & Goal from MIZ 6-yard line, KJ Jefferson 3-yard TD run
  • Arkansas 21-yard gain on 3rd & 7 from MIZ 44-yard line, KJ Jefferson 8-yard TD to Raheim Sanders

There you have it, the full list of red zone conversions for Missouri’s conference opponents in 2022. Missouri failed to stop a fourth down conversion twice, and there were four third down conversions against the Tigers defense of at least five yards. Those aren’t automatic stops for any defense, and I don’t want to pretend they are. But Missouri’s defense was quite good on third down last season despite some of the red zone struggles.

That’s something you expect to normalize over time. My guess is the offseason mantra for Baker’s unit will be to ‘finish’ drives. Turn touchdowns into field goals. Turn field goal drives into stops. Turn stops into turnovers.

The Tigers were very good defensively in 2022. A few more stops in the red zone could be enough to take them from good to great in 2023.