Patriots probably don't need a dominant red zone defense to be a Super Bowl team

Patriots probably don't need a dominant red zone defense to be a Super Bowl team

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. 

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 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. 

Let the Terrell Suggs speculation begin: Ravens reunion? Patriots pickup?

Let the Terrell Suggs speculation begin: Ravens reunion? Patriots pickup?

Could the Patriots be seeing a familiar, old rival in the playoffs? Or could they be seeing him on their own defense for their playoff run?

The Arizona Cardinals released longtime Pats nemesis Terrell Suggs, 37, on Friday and he'll be on waivers until Monday. While the Patriots, at 10-3, are far down on the waiver list to claim him, the former Pro Bowl linebacker's old team, the Baltimore Ravens, with the NFL's best record at 12-2, are last in line, so a potential reunion appears to be a long shot.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

If he goes unclaimed, he'll be a free agent, calling to mind two years ago when the Pats snapped up pass rusher James Harrison, then 39, after Harrison passed through waivers following his release from the Steelers. 

While it's not the Patriots defense, but an offense that hasn't scored more than 20 points in a game since Halloween, that could use a boost this season, the idea of the guy who once refused to say Tom Brady's name (he'd call him "the pretty boy up north") surfacing in New England was too good to resist for a couple of ex-players:

'What it's all about': McCourty twins donate to local Pop Warner team in need ahead of national championship

'What it's all about': McCourty twins donate to local Pop Warner team in need ahead of national championship

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty get a number of requests throughout the course of a given year. They can't act on all of them, but one popped up on their shared Twitter account recently that caught their attention.

The Lawrence 10U Pop Warner team was on the verge of something special, but they needed a hand. They were one game away from having a chance to go to Orlando to compete for the Pop Warner national championship, but they were looking for help with funding.

"I looked into it and saw before the season they almost lost the team, I guess," Devin said. "They didn't have enough money. So they raised money for the team. If they lost [before going to Orlando], they were just going to put the money back into the organization. So we both sent checks to them figuring if they win, they go. If not, it'll help them going into next year. They won."

According to Bill Burt of The Eagle-Tribune, the McCourty's sent $5,000 apiece that would help the team cover expenses to go to Orlando.

"I was going back and forth with them on Twitter, and they offered to help," coach Ryan Mustapha told the Eagle-Tribune. "I was in shock . . . They loved our story, that we're a [urban] team in a struggling city. This really, really helps us going forward."

Devin McCourty, now in his 10th NFL season, has made a point to be involved in the community in a number of ways since his rookie season. Since Jason arrived to the team in the spring of 2018, he's been all-in on a number of local causes alongside his twin.

Their Tackle Sickle Cell campaign works to raise money, awareness and increase blood donations to fight against sickle cell disease. They helped head up the Social Justice Fund, established by Patriots players, which helped raise $450,000 in grants that went to five different organizations doing work in the areas of social justice and equality. The McCourtys were also very vocal in their support for the Student Opportunity Act, an overhaul of the state's funding formula for public education that was approved last month and promises to infuse $1.5 billion into school districts over the next seven years. 

For the McCourtys, their work away from the field has allowed them to become more familiar with a place like Lawrence.

"I thought it was cool. Just from all the stuff we've been doing, hearing about different areas of Massachusetts -- I've been here 10 years but I'm not from Massachusetts," Devin said. "Just hearing of different areas and knowing some of the struggles, the city of Lawrence. For some of these kids, this may be one of the best experiences of their childhood, to be able to go to Disney and compete for a national championship. And it's fitting because it's in Title Town . . .

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

"To me, sometimes you hear things, and it just aligns with everything. I remember growing up and wanting to go to Disney and seeing that on TV. Soon as we saw it, we both screen-shotted it because that makes sense to us. I think that's what I've learned since I've been in the league. You gotta just do things that you're passionate about. A lot of requests that people give us are good things, but not everything is something you'd be passionate about."

Finding those passions and diving in head-first, Devin said, is "what it's all about."

"I think it's pretty sad if football only meant the games you played, the recognition you get from playing a sport," he said. "I think especially when you think about it growing up, I wasn't the best player growing up. I only had one offer coming out of high school. There were other guys in my area that were better and then obviously as you go, as you reach further out, kids get better. I think when you get blessed with an opportunity, it's for a reason. I think the reason is to make a difference off the field. 

"As professional athletes, it's sad, but we could say the same things that teachers, parents say to kids and they'll listen more because they'll think what we're saying means more. I think that's a responsibility that's very important. It's something you gotta take seriously. But I think it's also something you have to be proud of to have that opportunity to be a role model to kids who might have a similar background to you. Sometimes worse. You can be an inspiration, give them hope. 

"In a situation like this, you can bless them with funds. They don't care about the money, but they'll remember the memories and the fact that a professional football player took the time to invest in them. I hope means more to them as they get older and realize, 'I am important, I can accomplish things that I might not see people doing right outside my window, but I can accomplish things because there are people out there that care and want to invest in me and see me do good things.' "

The McCourtys played Pop Warner for the Valley Cottage Indians in Nyack, New York. They lost in the state championship as 12-year-olds, Devin told reporters earlier this season. "You don’t forget," he said at the time, "any time you play for a championship and you don’t win it." But the memory of playing on that team -- and competing against fellow future NFL players Ray Rice and Tyvon Branch -- remains a strong one. 

That's part of the reason why the McCourtys wanted to help the Lawrence 10U team. Devin, who tries to inspire Patriots defensive backs immediately before every game with a few words, even recorded a video to be played for the Lawrence players before their first game in Florida. 

"I basically told them to go have fun," he said. "That's what it's about. To have the opportunity to go out there and compete for a championship, but compete for a championship with guys that are your friends, guys you enjoy playing with. 

"So somewhat [like a Patriots pregame speech]. Just not yelling and screaming."

After beating Northbridge, New Jersey, and Proviso Township, Illinois, in the semifinal earlier this week, the Lawrence 10U team will compete for the national title against Palmetto, Florida, on Saturday at 9:30 a.m.