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Patriots' defense may bend, but they've proven it rarely breaks

By TIM BRITTON
The Providence Journal, R.I.

January 12. 2018 12:16AM
New England Patriots linebacker Marquis Flowers (59) reacts after sacking New York Jets quarterback Bryce Petty during the first half of last month's game at Gillette Stadium. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)



FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In front of his locker last week, Eric Rowe elucidated the philosophy that has been New England’s defensive backbone for years now.

“We may bend, but we’re not going to break,” he said. “Field goals won’t beat us.”

This is a longstanding truth about playing the Patriots. You cannot beat Tom Brady with field goals. And while the New England defense may year after year surrender chunks of yardage between the 20s, its consistent ability to stand up in the red zone is a separator.

That defensive keystone will be challenged this week by the Titans, one of the game’s best teams the last two seasons in turning red-zone opportunities into touchdowns.

This season, the Patriots’ defense ranked 29th in the NFL in terms of yards allowed. But on the scoreboard, only four defenses allowed fewer points.

That’s just a starker example of a defensive dissonance that’s commonplace at Foxborough. This decade, the Patriots have ranked 25th or worse in yards allowed four times. All four times they placed in the league’s top 10 in fewest points allowed. In fact, New England’s been in the top 10 in points allowed all but once this decade.

“We put a big emphasis on the red area and points,” safety Devin McCourty said. “When it comes down to why we play football, we play to win. At the end of the day, when you have more points than the other team, you win. So defensively, it’s all about not giving up touchdowns.”

“They’ve been that way for a long time. That’s definitely bend, don’t break scheme,” Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey said. “You just don’t see a lot of mistakes by these guys. They do a lot of things. It’s not lining up in one defense and playing it. It’s multiple. There’s a lot of things going on, and these guys play it well.”

The Patriots have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs largely because of that red-zone defense, because when the Steelers got down to the New England 10-yard-line in the waning moments of their Week 15 clash, the Pats not only kept them out of the end zone, but off the scoreboard altogether.

“We’ve seen in games where we haven’t played the way we want to play throughout the game, but if we were able to play well in the red area, we kept giving ourselves a chance to win the game,” said McCourty. “A good amount of times this year, we haven’t been that good, and that showed up.”

New England’s three losses this season have derived from poor red-zone execution on the defensive side. In those games against Kansas City, Carolina and Miami, the Patriots allowed 11 trips to the red zone — and eight touchdowns. They surrendered 5.63 points per red zone possession; in their 13 wins, that number was 3.43 points per possession.

For the season, the 3.94 points the Pats allowed per red-zone possession was second-best in football, behind only the Chargers. New England’s offense averages 5.3 points per red-zone possession, meaning the Patriots extract an extra 1.36 points per drive inside the 20 than their opponents. Only the Jaguars have a larger red-zone advantage in football.

Putting that advantage into play on Saturday night might be tougher, because the Titans have one of the better red-zone offenses in football. Although Tennessee’s offensive execution has slipped on the whole this season, the Titans are one year removed from having the best red-zone offense in football. Tennessee scored touchdowns on 72 percent of its red-zone chances in 2016 — the NFL’s best percentage since the 2013 Broncos behind Peyton Manning and his 55 touchdown passes.

The Titans ranked ninth in the league with 4.95 points per red-zone possession this season. Tennessee has scored on all but two of its red-zone opportunities in 2017.

Versatile quarterbacks often manifest those skills most in the red zone, where they can compensate for the reduced area of the field by presenting additional options. In the case of the Titans’ Marcus Mariota, he even invented a new one with his touchdown pass to himself to spark the comeback in Kansas City last weekend.

Mariota has never thrown a red-zone interception compared with 42 touchdowns.

And Tennessee has a power running back in Derrick Henry, who picked up all the most important yards to beat the Chiefs. Henry’s 156 yards at Arrowhead Stadium were a career-best, and the Patriots’ defense was second-worst in football in yards per rushing attempt.

The path to a Tennessee win at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night is narrow. In order for the Titans to pull off the upset, they will have to be better than New England at what the Pats’ defense does best.

“Even with big plays or penalties, when they’re driving, we get inside that 20 and tighten up,” said Rowe. “We look at each other and can tell by body language: We’re going to make this stop.”
 


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