Zeroing in on target area

Patriots emphasizing improvement in red zone performance

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 17, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — It was a familiar sight for training camp observers: the Patriots’ first-team offense opposite the first-team defense in the red zone, often in the shadow of the goal line.

Some days, the defense would carry the morning, and the offense had the edge in the afternoon.

But every day, the Patriots made sure to focus on one of their larger flaws from the 2009 season: performance inside the 20-yard line.

The numbers bear out the need for attention. The Patriots ranked seventh in the AFC and 13th in the NFL in red zone offense, scoring 34 touchdowns in 65 opportunities, converting at 52.3 percent. (Arizona led the league at 70.4 percent, 38 of 54).

Defensively, things were worse. The Patriots were 12th in the AFC and 21st in the league, allowing touchdowns on 22 of 40 trips to the red zone (55 percent).

New England could have won more than two road games had it performed better in this phase of the game. During a 16-9 loss to the Jets at the Meadowlands in Week 2, the Patriots got inside the red zone three times, but had to settle for three Stephen Gostkowski field goals.

In Denver in Week 5, the Broncos put together a 12-play, 98-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime (Denver won, 20-17). In the past, a Bill Belichick defense may have allowed an opponent to move between the 20-yard lines, but once it crossed into the red area, things became much more difficult.

The need for improvement was clear.

“[Belichick] talked to us about it and said we weren’t very good in the red zone, that was something we had to work on,’’ cornerback Leigh Bodden said recently. “That’s true because that’s where you get the points . . . that’s where games are won and lost, in the red zone. If you can keep them out, keep them from scoring, you can win. We definitely have to be better in that area to win games.

“So, you know, it’s a point of emphasis that we’re making and it’s helping us along and hopefully it will help us during the season.’’

Belichick did not believe that the number of practice plays in the red zone were any more than usual, but spreading them out, doing a few every day, may have a positive impact.

“There’s a cumulative effect as opposed to a heavy concentration on fewer days,’’ he said. “There are different situations that come up every day. It’s not the same thing over and over again, but I think it’s probably . . . we talked about it and I feel like our conclusion is that maybe it’s a little more realistic.

“You go into a game and you don’t have 40 plays in the red area, you have five or eight or 10 and that’s it. And that’s kind of more the way we’ve practiced it. We’ve practiced a handful of plays daily, which is probably closer to the way it will be in most games, as opposed to a heavy concentration of plays in three days.’’

From a teaching standpoint, Belichick believes it may have been easier to get all of the plays in over a shorter period of time, but making it more realistic had its advantages as well.

For one thing, those brief sessions were highly spirited. If the offense won on Friday, the defense knew it would have a chance to come back the next day and even the score.

The intensity was “definitely’’ ramped up, Bodden said. “Guys are competitors. There’s a lot of talking, so you know, guys get excited when we get a stop on defense, guys get excited when they score. That’s just going to make everybody that much better when we do play.’’

Tully Banta-Cain said the team always wants to be strong in the red area, on both sides of the ball. But he acknowledged that this year there has been a bit more emphasis because of the Patriots’ difficulties last year.

“I think both sides of the ball are in the situation where we’re both trying to get better at it, we know that’s a point of emphasis, it does make it more intense because we know if we can get it right in practice it can translate over into games, so we try to make the most of the situation,’’ Banta-Cain said.

As for which side holds the overall advantage in the daily battles, Banta-Cain smiled and said, “Defense. Of course.’’

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