Much has been made of the Patriots’ red zone defense of late, and for good reason: It isn’t very good and Pats fans are on such a high following the return of Tom Brady that they need something negative to balance things out.
While it’s tough to panic over a defense on a 4-1 team that has recorded one of just three shutouts this season, the numbers are what they are: New England ranks 30th in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on a jarring 80 percent of their trips inside the 20.
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Much of Bill Belichick’s press conference Friday was spent on the red zone defense; to the surprise of few, he focused more on saying the team needed to do everything better. Yet how much better does the New England defense actually have to become in the red zone? For a team with its eye on the Super Bowl every year, how much would such a struggle encumber them?
The answer: Somewhat.
Recent history suggests you don’t need a prolific red zone defense to reach (or even win) the Super Bowl. Dating back to 2003 (the farthest back teamrankings.com has kept information on red zone defenses), the top red zone defense in the league has not won the Super Bowl. The last several years, a middle-of-the-pack red zone defense has been just as likely to hoist the Lombardi trophy as a great one has.
Last year’s Super Bowl champion Broncos ranked 16th in the league. The 2014 Pats ranked 11th. The 2011 Giants ranked 19th, and a year prior to that the Packers ranked 15th. Of the last four Super Bowl champions, only the 2013 Seahawks and the 2012 Ravens (both second in the league) ranked in the top 10.
Looking at conference champions tells the same story. Prior to last season’s Super Bowl, the NFL saw a three-year run in which three consecutive Super Bowl runner-ups finished 20th in the league or lower: the 2012 49ers (27th), the 2013 Broncos (26th) and the 2014 Seahawks (20th).
Of course, a look through recent red zone defenses suggests water will find its level with the Patriots, for only two teams since 2005 — the 2010 Eagles (78.26 percent) and 2012 Chargers (70 percent) — have allowed their opponents to score on 70 percent or more of their trips to the red zone. Neither of those rates hit New England’s current mark of 80.
Aside from the fact that the Patriots’ current numbers historically aren’t sustained, there’s reason for optimism. Though they’ve given up eight touchdowns in the process, the Pats have only allowed 10 trips to the red zone, which is tied for second in the league. Opponents having success in the red zone naturally isn’t as big a deal if they only get a crack at it twice a game. Teams like New Orleans, Oakland and Kansas City, all of whom have allowed four or more trips to the red zone per game this season, would naturally need to worry if their red zone numbers fell to those of the Pats.
Then there’s the whole “look at their offense” part. It’s no secret — and former Pats coaching assistant Michael Lombardi expressed this on The Bill Simmons Podcast earlier this month — that having Brady puts New England in a different situation than other teams that allow more scoring plays than they’d like. The last time the Patriots finished outside of the top five in points was in 2009, and they finished sixth that season.
Though it defies the old “defense wins champions” adage, a great offense can indeed mask the deficiencies of an imperfect defense. The Patriots will be able to do that as long as Brady is Brady.
New England’s defensive numbers inside the 20 obviously need to improve. The silver lining is that they probably don’t need to improve as much as one might think.