The Patriots have owned every field they've stepped on this season. But there is one area on the gridiron where the Pats' grip has been a little less than ironclad. Inside their own 20, New England's defense hasn't quite been the same dominant force.
The Patriots have owned every field they've stepped on this season, outscoring opponents 279-120 en route to their perfect 7-0 start.
But there is one area on the gridiron where the Pats' grip has been a little less than ironclad. Inside their own 20, New England's defense hasn't quite been the same dominant force.
In fact, they enter Sunday's showdown with the Redskins dead last in the NFL in red-zone defense. Sixteen times opponents have ventured inside the Pats' 20, and they've come away with 12 touchdowns and a field goal. That means three-quarters of the time, opposing teams have come away with the full seven points when they've threatened deep in Patriots territory.
“It's a big concern,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “It's been a big concern. Red-area defense really hasn't been good all year. It's a very important part of the game -- being able to hold a team to three (points) instead of giving up seven is big. (It's a) big point swing, so we need to do a better job of that. We've been working at it. We need to keep working at it and we need to do a better job.”
And what needs to improve to turn those numbers around?
“Better coaching, better playing, better tackling, better everything,” Belichick said. “We haven't stopped anybody down there, so we haven't been good.”
Things don't get any easier this week with Washington coming to town. The Redskins are just 22nd in the NFL in total points with 122, not even close to half of the Pats' total. But when Washington gets close, the 'Skins don't blow many opportunities.
They're seventh in the league in red-zone offense, converting 20 red-zone possessions into 12 TDs and four field goals. It's actually the one area of the field that Washington does score from, as all 12 of its offensive TD plays have been 19 yards or less.
The main reason for that is Washington's balanced attack, which features running back Clinton Portis (406 yards, 5 TDs) and tight end Chris Cooley (188 yards, 4 TDs).
Portis ran for 1,300-plus yards in each of his first four NFL campaigns before injuries cut short his season last year. This fall, he's yet to top 100 yards in a game, but has maintained his nose for the goal line. And the Pats are well aware that he's still very dangerous.
“He looks like it on film,” said Pats safety Rodney Harrison. “He's fast, he's quick, he has tremendous vision. He runs hard, very powerful, underrated power. He's very explosive. He can take the ball all the way at any point.”
So far this year, Portis hasn't broken a run longer than 19 yards, but his five scores show he's still capable of breaking tackles when he needs to.
“He gets paid too,” said Harrison of the opposing ballcarriers in general.
“And most of the time the guy with the ball in his hand gets a lot of money, so he's going to make guys miss. But the whole issue is to get 11 guys to the ball so, if one guy misses the tackle, you have 10 other guys around him.”
A few of those other guys will have to be watching Cooley as well.
“He's a go-to guy for them,” Belichick said. “They have a lot of confidence in him. They go to him in critical situations and he comes through for them.
“He's very good in the red area and on third down, which is where you really measure a receiver because the coverage is as tight as it's going to be in those situations, and that's where he makes most of his plays. I mean, he makes plays on every down, but he makes some critical plays in tight situations like third down on the goal line.”
Of course, facing an elite tight end is nothing new for the Pats, who have already faced San Diego's Antonio Gates, Cleveland's Kellen Winslow and Jason Witten of Dallas this year.
“Same as every week, same as Gates and all these other guys,” Harrison said. “These guys know how to get open, and when the ball is thrown, they come down with it. (Cooley) presents the same challenges as Jason Witten and all the other great tight ends that we've faced.”
The Redskins do have other weapons, including speedy wideouts Antwaan Randle El (23 catches, 422 yards) and Santana Moss (14-207). Neither of them has found the end zone this year, but the Pats don't doubt their abilities.
“They've caught plenty of big plays,” Belichick said. “They'll get (touchdowns). Those guys are good receivers. (Quarterback Jason Campbell)'s got a lot of good receivers. He can't decide who to throw it to because he has a lot of options.”
Every team in the NFL has options, which is what makes defending close to the goal line so difficult.
“I think it's recognition of the plays, because they do get a lot quicker,” said linebacker Mike Vrabel of playing in the red zone. “You don't have as much time if you make a mistake. If they get a guy for a 12-yard gain it's a touchdown. ... I think (it's) recognition and making that play right away as opposed to giving them 6 or 8 yards on the play.”
Those 6 yards can lead to six points, which is what New England is working hard to prevent.
“The red zone is scoring opportunities,” Harrison said. “Every time you stop them, you save yourself four points. That's something that's always a point of emphasis. Back years ago when we were one of the top two or three teams in the league (in that category), we continued to focus on it as we do now. So that's something we need to shore up.”
This year's struggles are a bit of an abnormality. New England was second in the league in red-zone defense last year, allowing just 12 TDs in 35 possessions. They were 27th in 2005, but third in 2004 and fourth in 2003, so there's reason to expect a turnaround in the numbers this year.
“Most of the things that we work on we normally get better at,” Harrison said. “I have all the confidence in the world we're going to go out there, have a good session today, work extremely hard and get better.”