Eric Rowe

Patriots look to continue lockdown red-zone defense vs. Titans

Patriots look to continue lockdown red-zone defense vs. Titans

FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense put together a forgettable first month, rife with broken coverages and missed assignments. But somewhere along the line, even though they remained among the league's most permissive defenses in terms of yards, they started showing a knack for stopping teams in the red zone.

They finished the season as the No. 5 scoring defense in the NFL, and they were the second-best red-zone defense in the league in terms of points allowed per red-zone trip (3.94).

Though the goal is to never find themselves there in the first place, the Patriots rely on cool heads to help them limit teams to field goals when they end up defending in the shadow of their own end zone.

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"At the end of the day, when you have more points than the other team, you win," Devin McCourty said. "So, defensively, it’s all about not giving up touchdowns. It’s about trying to keep them off the board. We’ve seen in games where we haven’t kind of 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."

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the turnaround began. It may have been in Tampa, where, on the final play of a 19-14 victory, Jonathan Jones broke up a potential game-winning pass near the goal line. It may have been the following week in New Jersey, when Malcolm Butler's controversial strip of Austin Seferian-Jenkins helped lock up another victory.

Then came an avalanche of red-zone stops where the Patriots weren't just limiting teams to field goals but were stopping them outright with turnovers. There was a failed fourth-and-goal run by the Falcons in Week 7, a Raiders fumble near the goal line in Week 11, a Stephon Gilmore interception of Matt Moore in Week 12, a jaw-droppingly easy Eric Lee pick of Tyrod Taylor in Week 13, Ben Roethlisberger's meltdown at the goal line in Week 15, and a fourth-down sack of Taylor in Week 16 on a play that began at the Patriots six-yard line.

Call those screw-ups on the part of Patriots opponents, but at some point Matt Patricia's and Bill Belichick's defense has to be highlighted as the common denominator.



"Shoot," Eric Rowe said, "we've kinda started saying, 'We may bend, but we're not gonna break.' Even if you do get a touchdown in the red zone, like, 'OK, we're gonna make you go one-for-four. You're not going to make field goals and beat us.'

"When we get down there, everyone's awareness heightens up. We just try to roll with the momentum that we have . . . Even [after a] big play, penalties, they're driving, somehow we get in that 20, we all just heighten up and everybody's confidence goes up. 'We know we need to make this stop and make them kick a field goal because field goals aren't going to beat us.'

"Somehow in the red zone it just . . . no one really needs to say anything to each other, too. We all kind of look at each other and you can tell by body language like, 'We're gonna make this stop.' "

Of course there's more to it than that. The Patriots have certain looks and techniques they like to deploy in the red zone. No. 1 receivers are almost always doubled, and film study helps corners and safeties understand receiver tendencies there. Patriots defensive backs also have to be aware of things like rub routes or pick plays where opposing offenses will try to create some space in an area of the field where there is so little.

"Once you get into the red area, it’s a different game," Belichick said. "It’s a different emphasis. There’s different plays. We have different defenses. The way you defend the field is different because it’s different. It’s changing your mindset to what’s required down there, whichever side of the ball you're on, offense or defense, it doesn’t matter. It’s just things change. They’re different down there. You’ve got to treat them differently."

The Patriots rank fourth in the league in red-zone efficiency when it comes to touchdowns allowed, and in the Divisional Round against the Titans they'll see the 19th-most efficient red-zone offense in football (touchdowns on 52.4 percent of red-zone trips). The Titans went 1-for-2 in their red-zone appearances against the Chiefs in their Wild Card matchup, and in their last three games, they're getting into the end zone on just a quarter of their red-zone drives. 

Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, who interviewed with the Cardinals for their open head coaching position, takes the lead role when it comes to defensive game-planning inside the 20s. The math is simple, he tells his players.  

"He always says, 'Every time we get a red-area stop, we’re closer to winning the game,' " McCourty said. "To me, that’s happened over and over this year because a good amount of times this year defensively, we haven’t been that good and that showed up. When we needed to play good in the red area and we were able to complement each other, our offense comes in and they have a big drive, and if we give up three, they go get seven, and now the pressure’s back on.

"And then, we get a red-area turnover and then we go score. Now we keep them at zero and get seven. That changes the game. So, I will say that’s something that we do pride ourselves on, the points per game and trying to keep that as low as possible. Hopefully we’ll continue that throughout the playoffs because we’ll definitely need it."

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Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

Despite 'a lot of urgency,' Patriots don't panic before game-winning pick

PITTSBURGH -- Who saw that ending coming? Anyone? Well, if the Patriots are to be believed, they had a pretty good idea that the Steelers were a threat to have something up their sleeve as time wound down on what turned out to be a thrilling 27-24 victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The ill-advised ‘fake spike throw a freakin’ slant to a well-covered Eli Rogers’ wasn’t the smartest play ever cooked up in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s apparently very smokey lab. But that’s what Pittsburgh decided the situation called for, down 3 with 9 ticks left on the clock. They were hell-bent on walking away a winner and instead departed the field slack-jawed and silent, likely having cost themselves a chance at home field throughout the playoffs and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the Super Bowl.

“I think just practice execution turns into game reality,” said an elated Duron Harmon, who intercepted that final throw. “ We’ve seen it before. Everybody didn’t panic. Nobody was out there thinking they didn’t know what to do. We just played our rules, played good football and it turned into a good play for us.”

“The fake spike is something we see all the time,” said Devin McCourty. “I think all great quarterbacks do that. If they catch you sleeping and get an easy play, they’re going to try to do it. You could see us yelling and screaming the coverage, trying to get the guys up and get set because we knew there was a chance. If they spike it, they spike it.”

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The tape told a little something different. Only Trey Flowers actually attempts to play the play up front, eventually jumping in the air to dissuade Ben Roethlisberger from throwing the pass. On the back side of the play, Stephon Gilmore barely moves while Pat Chung appears lost and then lets up. Even Duron Harmon, who ended up with the ball falling into his lap for the game-preserving interception, didn’t react at the snap of the ball. But cornerback Eric Rowe did. The Pats should thank goodness for that. He deflected the ball that ended up in Harmon’s hands.

“A lot of urgency on that last play,” he said, describing the play in detail. “I see ‘em rushing to the ball. I see Matty P (Patricia) giving the call. I’m the star (the nickel cornerback). No one is on the outside. I’m like, forget it, I need to go outside and cover ‘em up. Everybody was in panic mode trying to get lined up and I see Big Ben fake it and I’m like ‘oh they’re running a play.’ I get my eyes back on the receiver and see him doing like a slant or a pop pass. I didn’t really think he was going to throw it because I was on his hip. He threw and I said ‘I just need to break this up’ and then boom, and I honestly like - it tipped off and if they caught ‘oh my god,’ but we came down with it. I was ecstatic.”

Coming down with it was Harmon. One of his nicknames is “The Closer” for good reason. He’s had a knack for sealing games with an interception but this one may have been the biggest of his career.

“Just prepared, man. Like everyone on our team. I just prepare. Credit to the entire defense for playing until the end. To all the guys,” said Harmon.

“It’s not by accident,” said Matthew Slater, who’s seen his share of big plays. “The guy prepares himself in that way. He respects the game of football, gives it everything he has every day and comes in here and he works hard to be in position. When guys are always around the ball, it’s not by accident.”

No, it is not. Never seems to be with this team, who once again have put themselves in position to do special things come January and - they hope - February in Minnesota.

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How will Eric Rowe's addition change the look of the Patriots secondary?

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How will Eric Rowe's addition change the look of the Patriots secondary?

FOXBORO -- The last time the Patriots had all four of their top corners healthy and ready to go was back in Week 4. 

It was the first play of the second half of their loss to the Panthers. Malcolm Butler was on one side of the field. Eric Rowe was on the other. Stephon Gilmore was on the bench. Jonathan Jones was sidelined as well, catching his breath after covering a Stephen Gostkowski kick.

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Ten weeks later, the picture at that position has changed.

Butler, though relatively inconsistent, has remained in the starting lineup. Gilmore suffered a concussion in Week 5, missed four games, and has returned to perform as one of the best in the league at his position over the last few weeks. Jones has emerged as one of Bill Belichick's most dependable defensive backs and a regular in the slot.

Rowe injured his groin on the first play of the third quarter against Carolina and missed the next two months of play. He returned to action last weekend in Orchard Park to a role (19 snaps) that was far different than the one he left when he ever-so-briefly supplanted Gilmore.

In Week 2, Rowe replaced Butler as a starter before injuring his groin for the first time. 

After missing as much time as he has, Rowe knows it could take some time before he finds himself near the top rung of the depth chart again. Gilmore, Butler and Jones all seem to have a firm grasp on their current gigs. 

“For me personally, my focus is on working back into the defense, trying to contribute any way I can,” he said Wednesday. “In Buffalo, I was in the backup role. I was just happy to be out there . . . I don’t want to be the guy that they throw out there and then I mess up. That would really mess me up mentally. So right now, whatever role I have, I’m just like, ‘You’ve got to take advantage of it.’ " 

Against the Bills, late in the game, Rowe broke up the one pass sent his way. And with Gilmore out for a short span of time earlier in the contest, he got the call. His opportunities were short, but he seemed to make the most of them. 

Indications are that Rowe's groin injury is one that will need to be managed for the remainder of the year, but he could find himself back on the field more regularly if he's able to recapture the form that allowed the Patriots to trust him as they did during the season's first month. 

At the very least -- with Butler and Gilmore both improved over where they were to start the season -- Rowe provides the Patriots with an element of depth at the corner position that would be the envy of many teams.