Patriots

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 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. 

Here are teams joining Patriots for Colin Kaepernick's workout Saturday

Here are teams joining Patriots for Colin Kaepernick's workout Saturday

The Patriots will have plenty of company when they send a representative to watch Colin Kapernick work out Saturday in Atlanta. 

Here are the other 10 teams who will be attending, the NFL said in a statement on Thursday:

Arizona Cardinals
Atlanta Falcons
Cleveland Browns
Denver Broncos
Detroit Lions
Miami Dolphins
New York Giants
New York Jets
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Washington Redskins

"We expect additional teams to commit," the league's statement said.

Here are the particulars on when the workout will begin and what it entails, via Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network:

Former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson will lead the workout and ex-Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin will assist him.  

 

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Fantasy Beat: Add Eagles' Carson Wentz to Bill Belichick's list of baffled young quarterbacks?

Fantasy Beat: Add Eagles' Carson Wentz to Bill Belichick's list of baffled young quarterbacks?

Fantasy football players seem to get smarter every year. The leagues get deeper. The competition gets better. That's partially because of the sheer amount of information available to fantasy geeks willing to put the time in.

But it's not always easy to find sound fantasy advice on players making up the back ends of fantasy depth charts. That's where we'll try to help fill in the gaps by providing you with information we've gleaned by being on the Patriots beat.

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Carson Wentz vs. Bill Belichick
With the way the Eagles offense and Patriots defense are constructed right now, there's no way you can play Carson Wentz this weekend. Even in two-quarterback leagues, he feels like a borderline play. The Eagles simply have no explosive element to their offense at the moment. And that was when Alshon Jeffery was in the lineup. Jeffery could be out due to a calf injury, and there is no one else at the receiver position who will scare the Patriots defense. As a group, Philly receivers have 933 yards receiving this year, putting them on pace for almost 1,700 yards total. Michael Thomas of the Saints is on pace to break that mark all by himself. In their last six games, Philly receivers don't have a touchdown catch longer than six yards. It's not good for Wentz. And his favorite target, Zach Ertz, will certainly be getting extra attention from Belichick's defense. Yes, Wentz may find matchups he likes in Dallas Goedert and Miles Sanders (more on them later), and he has the ability to scramble for fantasy points. But you simply can't depend on Wentz, against a very good Patriots pass defense, as anything more than a borderline top-20 option this week. I'd start Matthew Stafford replacement Jeff Driskel over him. 

POPPERS

Julian Edelman
According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles are allowing a league-low 7.6 fantasy points per game to opposing slot receivers, but Julian Edelman still needs to be in your starting lineup. The Patriots will want to get the football out quickly against Philly's pass-rush -- led by the still-ridiculous Fletcher Cox -- and Edelman will be a big-time beneficiary. It's worth noting that Edelman is off of the injury report for the first time since Week 3. 

Mohamed Sanu
One more week in the system. One more week to gain the trust of Tom Brady. There's a reason why both Sanu and Brady have said they're "gonna have some fun" when they get on the same page. Sanu, who played outside against the Ravens but could eventually see more time in the slot, is coming off a 10-catch game in Baltimore and should see plenty more targets this weekend. Even if he plays outside for another week, that'd be a good thing against the Eagles, who allow 29.6 fantasy points per game to opposing outside receivers -- most in the NFL. 

James White
Philly has had some success against pass-catching backs this year. They rank second in success rate allowed to backs, per Sharp Football Stats, but this feels like a game where the Patriots will rely on their excellent receiving back. The Eagles have linebackers who've struggled in coverage at times, and if the Patriots can get a 'backer -- particularly linebackers Nigel Bradham or Nate Gerry -- aligned across from White, they'll have it made. The screen game, which could slow down the Eagles pass-rush, could also be key this weekend. If it's deployed, White is likely to be the beneficiary. Rex Burkhead is someone we have to see contribute regularly -- and stay healthy -- before we could consider starting him. 

Jordan Howard
The Patriots are 26th against the run this season, allowing 4.7 yards per carry through nine games. Couple that with the fact that the Eagles passing game could be stuck in neutral -- explained above -- and Howard could be looking at a nice little fantasy day. He has 42 attempts combined in his last two games and should be used early and often again this week. 

Dallas Goedert
OK so "popping" is a relative term here on the Fantasy Beat. Will Goedert have as many fantasy points as Ertz (mentioned below)? I don't think so. But I expect him to out-perform his expectations, if that makes sense. He's considered to be in Vance McDonald/Darren Fells territory this week by some experts. I'd have him ranked higher. I'd have him ahead of Noah Fant in Denver and ahead of Mike Gesicki in Miami. The reason? I expect him to play quite a bit, since the Eagles have been using more and more two tight end sets -- and since Jeffery is looking like he'll be out or really limited. Plus, the Patriots have had a helluva time trying to stop two tight end looks. We went into detail on the "how" and "why" of things here, but it wouldn't surprise me if Goedert ended up with a top-12 fantasy day at tight end against New England. 

Tom Brady
It looked like the Patriots found something in Baltimore. Their hurry-up offense was productive and allowed Brady and his teammates to get into a rhythm we haven't seen much from them in 2019. They could use it again in Philly to help slow down players like Cox or Derek Barnett or Brandon Graham. If that's the case, Brady will be chucking it all over the lot. He'll need time -- the numbers suggest he's as good from a clean pocket as he's ever been, but he's as bad when facing pressure as he's ever been -- and if he gets it, he'll be a top-10 play this week. The Eagles secondary is flawed and their middle-of-the-field players -- their linebackers and safeties -- have been so aggressive coming downhill that I'd expect Brady and Josh McDaniels to try to toy with them early with play action. 

DROPPERS

N'Keal Harry
Going hurry-up might help Brady's numbers. I'm not sure it'll do wonders for Harry's. The rookie first-rounder was kept on the sidelines in Baltimore as Brady orchestrated a fast-paced offense in a hostile environment. Will one more week of prep have Harry ready to go if the game plan is similar in Philly? It sure sounds like Harry is going to play this weekend, but until we see what kind of role he'll have, you could only play him in the deepest of leagues as you hope for a red-zone target. (That is the type of thing Harry could help them with so it's not completely out of the realm of possibility.)

Zach Ertz
I think there's a decent chance we see Stephon Gilmore take Ertz the way we saw Aqib Talib take Jimmy Graham back in 2013.b

Miles Sanders
I wouldn't hate Sanders as a FLEX play in deep leagues, but if you're doing that, you're doing it in the hopes that as Wentz and the Eagles get away from receivers in the passing game, they start to move targets towards someone like Sanders. Still, he's had just three targets in each of Philadelphia's last four games. He could hit them for a few long ones, as he did in Minnesota in Week 6, but so far the Patriots have been pretty effective against backs in the passing game. They're fifth in the NFL, allowing just 5.0 yards per target to opposing backs. If they come at Wentz with zero-blitz pressure, that might be an effective way to neutralize Sanders in the passing game since it would likely require him to stay in the backfield to help as part of the pass-protection scheme. Wentz is smarter than most of the passers the Patriots have seen this season, but all the Patriots have to do to generate pressure is confound someone like Sanders or fellow rookie left tackle Andre Dillard. 

Sony Michel
If you're playing Sony Michel, you're hoping for a touchdown. And there's a chance you'd get one on the goal line, but the Patriots have been throwing more lately from down in close, which has meant fewer opportunities for New England's big back. He has just five red-zone carries in the last two games, and he's averaging 1.2 yards per attempt on those, with no touchdowns. What happened to Michel in the passing game in Baltimore, with one drop and one snap where it looked like he ran an incorrect route, there just doesn't seem to be much opportunity looming for him. 

Phillip Dorsett
The hurry-up might be a good thing for the Patriots passing offense, but the emergence of Sanu and a potential Harry debut make Dorsett's role a little less certain. He's dependable when he's thrown to, but he doesn't see enough targets to make him a must-start in any week. This week is no different. 

Eagles receivers
Just don't do it. 

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