Cornerback Eric Rowe said you can see the change in the Patriots defense when it is in the red zone.
“Everyone tightens up. Everyone is alert,” Rowe said. “Awareness is heightened. … When we’re getting down there, you can tell in our body language that we need to tighten up now.”
Linebacker David Harris said the Patriots have a term for what they need to do in that part of the field, one that involves an explicit reference to a part of the opponents’ anatomy — and one not fit for a family newspaper.
“It gets intense inside that red zone,” Harris said with a laugh.
The Patriots enter Super Bowl LII with perhaps the NFL’s most curious defense. It is a unit of statistical extremes, but one that has shown up when and where it matters — in its own territory, specifically as teams try to score touchdowns. It’s also a defense that has made significant strides after an atrocious first five weeks and has become the poster child for the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. When you have an offense as prolific as the Patriots do behind Tom Brady, keeping opponents out of the end zone is all the defense has to do.
“Field goals won’t beat you — unless your offense isn’t doing anything — but touchdowns will,” Rowe said. “We try to pride ourselves on not giving up any red-zone touchdowns.”
They have been successful at that, even if they are lacking in other areas. The Patriots defense allowed the most yards per drive of any team during the regular season, according to sports data company Sport- radar, at 35.3 per drive.
“We’re fired up when we give up them yards,” Patriots linebacker Marquis Flowers said. “We don’t want to give up them yards. We’re good enough to not give up them yards. But it’s the NFL, obviously everybody is good.
“It goes down to the coaching staff, our ability to learn, go in there and just hammer it down.”
Before they hammer it down in the red zone, hidden yardage helps make it a little more difficult for opponents to move down the field.
The Patriots led the NFL in defensive field position. On average, opponents began drives against the Patriots 24.4 yards into the field of play, according to Sportradar — meaning teams had to travel farther to get in scoring position against the Patriots than they did against any other defense. By comparison, the worst team in the league, the Broncos, saw teams start at 33.2 yards.
The offense also helped the Patriots defense from being in many tough spots. The Patriots defense faced only three drives all season that began in their own territory (excluding drives that ended in kneel-downs). That means the offense wasn’t committing turnovers in that part of the field, and the special teams weren’t allowing any long returns. In fact, the Patriots had the fewest drives start in their own territory of any team since at least 2000, which is as far back as the Sportradar data goes.
When opponents would get in the red zone, they didn’t have much success turning those opportunities into touchdowns — especially after the Patriots’ subpar start to the season. After Week 5, the Patriots were on pace to allow the most net yards per game in NFL history (447.2). But that changed drastically.
“It was just the chemistry,” Rowe said. “We had new guys in new spots. It’s a new team every year, so it just took us a while to get the chemistry going, get the communication going with each other. … Once we started communicating, jelling as a defense, from linebackers, to the defensive line, to the secondary, that’s when everything started working out.”
Starting in Week 6, opponents scored on 20 of 31 red-zone attempts against the Patriots — 64.5 percent, which would have put the Patriots at No. 1 in red-zone scoring defense if extended over 16 games. The Chargers were next closest at 74 percent. The Patriots also had the league’s best rate of allowing touchdowns in the red zone after Week 5. Only 10 of those 31 drives resulted in touchdowns — 32.3 percent, which also would have been first in the NFL if extended over 16 games.
“When it gets to the red zone, you want to always calm that storm by not giving up a touchdown. That’s your first thought,” Flowers said.
Because as Rowe said, field goals aren’t going to beat the Patriots, and if you’re going to score on the Patriots, you better do it early.
Coach Bill Belichick is known as a master of second-half adjustments. The numbers support that reputation. Opponents scored on 36.7 percent of drives in the first half, and just 26.7 in the second half.
For the season, the Patriots allowed just 1.65 points per drive, which made them sixth in the league, according to the website Football Outsiders. Combine that with the Patriots offense scoring 2.69 points per drive — tops in the league — and here they are back in the Super Bowl.
“They’re going to take away things you do very well or show constantly, and you’re going to have to have other people make plays,” Eagles receiver Torrey Smith said. “They’re very good at that — very, very good at that.”