Anatomy of an Improvement: New England’s Red Zone Defense

NFL defenses are often gauged by their success or failure once an opposing offense reaches the goal line’s doorstep. Dave Archibald explores how the New England Patriots have reinvented their red zone defense.

At the bye in Week 10, the New England Patriots rated as mediocre when defending inside their own 20-yard-line, ranking 19th in the NFL with 17 touchdowns allowed in 29 opportunities. In five games since the break, the defense has permitted just three touchdowns in 12 chances, catapulting the Patriots to ninth in the league. On Sunday they held the Miami Dolphins to just one field goal in three trips to the red zone, while showing some of the ingredients that make New England so tough to score on when opponents are in close.

Stuffing the Run

League-wide, passing offense tends to grind to a halt in the red zone, as passers average just a 56.1% completion rate and 3.15 yards per attempt in 2014, a far cry from the 64.8% completion rate and 6.84 yards per attempt they average elsewhere. Running the football becomes critical and, accordingly, stopping the run is vital for defenses. Few teams have been stingier in that aspect than the Patriots, who allow just 2.35 yards per carry within their own 20, fifth-best in the NFL this season.

This play shows New England’s key to success: good run defenders up front who play disciplined assignment football:


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Miami shows a passing look, lining up in the shotgun with three receivers split out, and the Patriots counter with seven in the box. The Dolphins run the read option, leaving outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich (#50) unblocked and giving quarterback Ryan Tannehill (#17) the option to run the ball outside or hand it off to running back Lamar Miller (#26) for an inside dive. If Ninkovich crashes down on the inside run, Tannehill will keep the ball and zip past him, but Ninkovich holds his ground, forcing the quarterback to hand the ball off.

Tackle Vince Wilfork (#75) draws a double-team from center Samson Satele (#64) and right guard Mike Pouncey (#51), delaying Satele just enough so that he can’t get a clean block on inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54). Miller sees Hightower filling the gap and tries to bounce the run outside, but Chandler Jones (#95) does a nice job setting the edge and taking that away. That funnels the play to tackle Sealver Siliga (#96), who controls left guard Shelley Smith (#66). Siliga pushes Smith back and controls his hands, then disengages, making the tackle for no gain.

Manning Up

The Patriots play a lot of man defense, matching up cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner against receiving threats while free safety Devin McCourty (#32) lurks deep over the top. In the red zone there’s no deep zone to defend, so McCourty, a former cornerback, uses his man coverage ability:


Tight end Charles Clay (#42) runs a corner route and McCourty picks him up in off-man coverage. McCourty can’t look back for the ball but plays the receiver’s hands and eyes and breaks up the pass, forcing fourth down. The New England defense can be suffocating, and the ability to use McCourty on tight ends near the goal line further stifles the opposing offense.

Zone Division

While the Patriots typically play man defense in the red zone, they will use zone defense in some situations. After a first-and-goal at the seven-yard line, a botched snap, sack, false start, and incompletion push the Dolphins back to the New England 23. Knowing that only a touchdown can hurt them, the Patriots drop eight players into zones down by the goal line:


It’s smart situational football, and with that many defenders dividing up such a small area, the windows for the passing game are tiny. But it doesn’t matter, because …


Despite just a three-man rush, the Patriots get to Tannehill. Jones burns rookie tackle Ja’Wuan James (#70) to the inside, and Hightower loops around to help finish off the sack. The Patriots take pride in playing 60-minute football, and this effort in the waning minutes of a 41-13 game epitomizes that philosophy.

Looking Forward

The Patriots red zone defense has had its ups and downs in 2014, but things look bright for the final two games and the playoffs. The run defense should be buoyed by a defensive line that is much deeper than earlier in the season, with Siliga and Jones returning from injury and the addition of Alan Branch. The secondary is similarly deep, with corners and safeties capable in man and zone coverages. Browner missed the first six weeks, and his rare size in the secondary can make a big difference in close quarters. New England has the talent and the discipline to defend the goal line, and in recent weeks they’ve made the red zone the place where drives go to die.

All video and images courtesy and NFL Game Rewind.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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