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Don't Bend, Don't Break: Analyzing the Patriots' Red Zone Defense Against the Packers

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The Patriots had some troubles against the Green Bay Packers' prolific offense yesterday. They did, however, fare pretty well in the red zone.

Chris Jones is showing some skin, and some tackling skills.
Chris Jones is showing some skin, and some tackling skills.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

For years, the New England Patriots have named "bend-don't-break" their defensive mantra: give up tons of yardage, but ultimately buckle down inside your own 20-yard line. The team employed this very same strategy in yesterday's 21-26 road loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Of the season-high 478 yards, the Patriots' defense gave up to the Packers yesterday, only 11 did come inside the red zone. To make it easier to compare the numbers, let us take a look at how many yards Green Bay's offense gained per play:

Outside the red zone (55 offensive plays): 8.49 yards per play.
Inside the red zone (15 offensive plays): 0.73 yards per play.

As can be seen by those numbers, the Patriots bent a lot outside their own 20. Of course, they also broke twice; allowing two long touchdown passes to Richard Rodgers (32 yards) and Jordy Nelson (45 yards), respectively.

In the red zone, however, Matt Patricia's unit settled down. The Packers entered the Patriots' red zone four times on Sunday, yet they only came away with four field goals (the Patriots, for comparison, reached the Packers' red zone thrice, scoring touchdowns each time). Those four drives looked as follows:

1st Quarter

Down and Distance Yard Line Time Play
1-and-10 NE 16 12:41 18-R.Cobb left tackle to NE 14 for 2 yards (54-D.Hightower).
2-and-8 NE 14 12:06 27-E.Lacy up the middle to NE 14 for no gain (97-A.Branch).
3-and-8 NE 14 11:23 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to 17-D.Adams [94-Chr.Jones].
4-and-8 NE 14 11:17 2-M.Crosby 32 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-61-B.Goode, Holder-8-T.Masthay.

The Packers' first drive of the game stalled after the Patriots stopped two running attempts and Aaron Rodgers overthrew Davante Adams on third down, due to getting pressured by Chris Jones. Field goal, 0-3.

1st Quarter

Down and Distance Yard Line Time Play
1-and-10 NE 18 04:22 27-E.Lacy right tackle to NE 17 for 1 yard (91-J.Collins; 54-D.Hightower).
2-and-9 NE 17 03:42 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete deep left to 17-D.Adams.
3-and-9 NE 17 03:37 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete deep left to 18-R.Cobb.
4-and-9 NE 17 03:32 2-M.Crosby 35 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-61-B.Goode, Holder-8-T.Masthay.

The Packers' second trip to the red zone came on their second offensive drive. Eddie Lacy was stopped for a short gain on first down, before Aaron Rodgers threw two incomplete passes. The first was caught out of bounds by Adams, while the second one was an overthrow; Rodgers' target, Randall Cobb, was tightly covered by Darrelle Revis. Field goal, 0-6.

2nd Quarter

Down and Distance Yard Line Time Play
1-and-10 NE 18 08:42 27-E.Lacy left end to NE 20 for -2 yards (55-A.Ayers).
2-and-12 NE 20 08:01 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete deep right to 87-J.Nelson.
3-and-12 NE 20 07:55 12-A.Rodgers pass short middle to 18-R.Cobb to NE 8 for 12 yards (25-K.Arrington, 91 J.Collins).
1-and-8 NE 8 07:20 27-E.Lacy right guard to NE 6 for 2 yards (75-V.Wilfork).
2-and-6 NE 6 06:39 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short middle to 87-J.Nelson.
3-and-6 NE 6 06:36 12-A.Rodgers sacked at NE 15 for -9 yards (54-D.Hightower).
4-and-15 NE 15 05:58 2-M.Crosby 33 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-61-B.Goode, Holder-8-T.Masthay.

The third Packers' trip inside the Patriots' 20-yard line was the only one in which the team reached a first down (which came on a rather generous spot). Rodgers was able to complete only one of three pass attempts, while Dont'a Hightower sacked Green Bay's quarterback for a 9-yard loss after blitzing through the A-gap. Field goal, 7-16.

4th Quarter

Down and Distance Yard Line Time Play
1-and-10 NE 15 09:47 12-A.Rodgers pass short left to 27-E.Lacy to NE 10 for 5 yards (39-B.Browner).
2-and-5 NE 10 09:03 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short left to 27-E.Lacy [75-V.Wilfork].
3-and-5 NE 10 08:49 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to 17-D.Adams [27-T.Wilson].
4-and-5 NE 10 08:45 2-M.Crosby 28 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-61-B.Goode, Holder-8-T.Masthay.

The Packers came closest to scoring a touchdown during their fourth red zone trip. However, receiver Davante Adams dropped a potential touchdown on 3rd-and-5 after escaping Logan Ryan's coverage. Field goal, 21-26.

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Overall, the Patriots were solid against both the run and the pass inside their own 20-yard line:

Passing game: 2/9, 17 yards, 39.6 passer rating, 9-yard sack.
Running game: 5 attempts, 3 yards, 1.67 yds/att.

What did the Patriots do differently in the red zone? Basically, not much. However, they had more success doing it. On the one side, the defense successfully took away the Packers' running game (which included keeping Aaron Rodgers from scrambling) and thus made them one-dimensional. On the other side, they played tight man-to-man coverage beyond their top two corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (who took away Rodgers' primary options), something the Patriots struggled with outside of the 20.

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The Patriots struggled on both sides of the ball against the Green Bay Packers. Not all was bad, though, as the red zone defense shows.