FOXBORO, Mass. — Former Patriots executive Michael Lombardi has been justly critical of New England’s red-zone defense this season during his weekly appearances on “The Bill Simmons Podcast.”
Lombardi, while discussing the Patriots’ Week 6 matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, levied his strongest criticism yet Thursday.
“This is a game where two bads are going to meet,” Lombardi said. “Who’s going to win? The Patriots are horrible in the red-zone defense, and the Bengals are horrible in the red-zone offense. So, something’s going to give here.”
The Patriots’ defense has allowed just 10 trips into the red zone so far this season — second best in the NFL — but they’ve allowed touchdowns on 80 percent of those opportunities — 31st in the NFL. The Patriots are rarely bending, but when they do, they often break.
That the Patriots aren’t allowing teams into the 20-yard line is a good sign but that they can’t stop them once they enter the red zone is concerning. Of course, since the Patriots allow so few trips inside the 20-yard line, it’s a small sample size.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who worked closely with Lombardi in 2014 and 2015, isn’t allowing that excuse.
“We’re a third of the way into the season,” Belichick said Friday. “We try to improve on everything every week. That’s where we are, we’re in September, early October. Nothing probably is as good as it’s going to be, at least I hope not as good as it’s going to be over the course of the year. Hopefully we can continue to improve in every area, running the ball, throwing the ball, defending the run, defending the pass, situational football, special teams. You name it, there are a lot of things we need to work on, a lot of things we need to do better, coach better, improve on. Everything’s in that category.
“Statistically, some things are better than others, but regardless, I think we try to continue to improve in those areas. Doesn’t really matter what the stats are and aren’t — I mean, it matters. It’s somewhat relevant, but I think improving in every area is important. We’re going to address it, regardless, in everything.”
When asked what changes inside the 20-yard line, Belichick noted the obvious: There’s less field, and everyone on defense is closer to the line.
“Safeties are linebackers, linebackers are in a lot of cases borderline defensive linemen,” Belichick said. “Everything’s just compressed. A lot of things you have to handle differently. Routes are different, coverages are different.”
Belichick also noted speed becomes less of a factor.
“There’s only so far you can run,” Belichick said. “Technique’s important, coordination offensively or defensively is important. The proper spacing, the proper leverage. Using the space that you have and of course everything happens so much quicker down there because there’s less space and less time.
“Throws and catches have to be good. A lot of tight coverage, a lot of catches away from the body in the short space. Defensively you’re fighting for every inch, every yard is critical. Two yards at midfield is one thing, 2 yards at the 5-yard line is 50 percent of the field. It’s all heightened, it’s all a little bit more urgent. There are definitely still some personnel and scheme factors that — there’s a transition period in there, but once you get down there low, inside the 10-yard line or 5-yard line, you’re talking about a really tight space.”
It’s a little crazy to criticize the Patriots’ defense too harshly, since they’re allowing just 14.8 points per game — good for fourth in the NFL, but red-zone defense certainly is an area in which they could improve.
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