Third-Down, Red-Zone Defense to Determine the Success of the Patriots

Randolph CharlotinAnalyst IISeptember 11, 2013

The Patriots defense kept Bills' RB C.J. Spiller contained for the afternoon.
The Patriots defense kept Bills' RB C.J. Spiller contained for the afternoon.Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Bill Belichick's view on defense is simple. What really matters to him is scoring more points than the opponent and winning the turnover battle. In those two categories, New England has been one of the best in the league over the past three years.

But there's more to good defense than points allowed and turnovers. This approach has failed the Patriots in the last four playoff losses as New England is a minus-seven combined. The defense couldn't hold any opponent under 20 points.

Despite finishing the season in the top 10 in plus/minus, the Patriots failed to produce takeaways when they needed them most. Opponents with a ball security edge made New England pay dearly.

Season+/-RankPlayoff Opponent+/-3rd DownRed Zone
2010281NY Jets-16/134/5
2011173NY Giants-15/112/3

Turnovers are feast or famine. While the Patriots have been great at forcing turnovers, opponents with solid ball security slowly wear New England’s defense down.

Some consider yards per game to be an overrated statistic. But being ranked 25th overall in total yards allowed or worse for a third year in a row means something because embedded within those yards are opponent third-down conversion rate and red-zone defense.

If the Patriots defense can't get the ball, opponents keep drives going play after play. When opponents eventually reach the red zone, they cash those drives in for touchdowns at an alarmingly high rate.

Over the past three seasons New England’s defense did a poor job of getting off the field. According to, in 2012, opponents converted on third down 40 percent of the time, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. This put New England in bad company along the likes of Philadelphia, Jacksonville, San Diego and Buffalo.

Of the playoffs teams, only the Atlanta Falcons (25) and Washington Redskins (32) ranked lower in third-down efficiency. Conversely, Super Bowl XLVII participants the San Francisco 49ers (33 percent, fourth) and Baltimore Ravens (35.8 percent, seventh) were both near the top statistically.

Patriots Third-Down Percentage recent seasons vs. Super Bowl-winning seasons

New England struggled on third downs in 2011 (43.1 percent, 28th overall) and 2010 (47.1 percent, 32nd overall) as well. Compare that to New England’s Super Bowl-winning teams (2001: 37.2 percent, 15th; 2003: 34.5 percent, seventh; 2004: 38.8 percent, 21st) and it's clear that the recent defenses aren't the same caliber as past units.

If the defense can't stop opponents from driving, they eventually reach the red zone and take advantage of another Patriots weakness. According to, in 2012, opponents scored touchdowns from the red zone 56.6 percent of the time, 24th in the NFL.

The ugly trend was similar in 2011 (52.94 percent, 17th) and 2010 (56.36 percent, 22nd). That wasn't the case for the Lombardi Trophy-hoisting teams in 2003 (42.59 percent, seventh) and 2004 (42.11 percent, third) (statistic and ranking unavailable for 2001).

Not to say that turnovers are overrated. If New England can continue to produce takeaways at the same rate as the past three years, that would be great. But if they improve on third down and in the red zone, the defense would be great.

Think of it this way: New England's defense had 41 stops via turnover last year. They had twice as many stops on third down alone, turnovers included. Combining both forms could push the defense to elite levels.

Hopefully the offseason remedies the problems. Despite many draft analysts saying wide receiver was New England's priority, the Patriots draft class consisted of five defenders and two receivers.

The defensive line lost weight, as defensive tackles Kyle Love, Myron Pryor and Brandon Deaderick were all cut and more pass-rushers were added to the team.

Patriots Red-Zone Percentage recent seasons vs. Super Bowl-winning seasons

Will the changes work? The season opener produced mixed results. While the Buffalo Bills were just 4-of-13 (30 percent) on third down, the Bills scored touchdowns on both trips into the red zone.

On Thursday, New England faces a second rookie quarterback in the New York Jets’ Geno Smith. On paper, the defense has the edge and should be able to stifle the Smith-led Jets offense.

But how will the defense fare against offenses led by the league’s best passers like New Orleans SaintsDrew Brees, Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan and Denver BroncosPeyton Manning? Another season poor season of third-down and red-zone defense would mean another Patriots season that comes up short in the playoffs.

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