Some of the most compelling battles of this year’s New England Patriots training camp have come at the goal line, an area in which the team’s defense has been dominating. On Thursday, this distribution of powers was on full display: while the offense scored a touchdown when quarterback Tom Brady connected with tight end Benjamin Watson in the end zone, the defense stuffed all six of the unit’s rushing attempts from the 1-yard line.
Seven practices into camp, the Patriots’ defensive dominance at the goal line and offense’s inability to break it is one of the biggest storylines to come out of Foxboro. That being said, Tom Brady and company will still get plenty of chances to redeem itself. After all, head coach Bill Belichick pointed out on Thursday that the team’s focus is shifting more towards situational work — and penetrating or defending the goal line is just that.
For Devin McCourty, this focus on short-yardage work does not come as a surprise. The safety and team captain has nine years worth of experience to build on and seen plenty of situational drills since he joined the Patriots as a first-round draft pick in 2010: “As a team, Bill always talks about [that] sometimes football comes down to one yard. Offense has to gain a yard, and defense, we can’t give away a yard, and that’s what you see.”
So far during the summer, the defense not giving away a yard has been on the menu. Not only did the unit dominate in this part of the field during Thursday’s session, it also looked strong over the weekend — especially when it came to stopping the run. Led by big-bodied defensive tackles Lawrence Guy, Mike Pennel and Danny Shelton, the defense surrendered only one rushing touchdown on ten goal-line attempts since training camp opened.
“Down there in that goal-line period, it’s ‘they’ve got a yard or two left, who’s going to buck up and make a play?’ As you guys have seen through the years, a lot of our seasons have come down to that,” said McCourty about New England’s focus on short-yardage work — brining back memories of the team’s successful goal-line stand in Super Bowl 49, and the unsuccessful two-point try to end it’s quest to defend its title one year later.
“Anytime we get into those type of situations — whether it’s goal line, whether it’s a third-and-three where we have a mark and they’re trying to get three-and-a-half and we’re trying to hold them — that’s probably one of our most competitive periods when we do that,” McCourty continued. “So I think as a team, we all take a lot of pride in going out there, get whatever it is, a yard to two or three yards, and trying to make that.”
New England’s goal-line defense has had its issues in 2018, ranking as just the 27th most effective unit in the league with a 64.7% success rate (a play is considered successful when a team gains 50% of the necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down). Needless to say that there is room for improvement, and like everything else in football getting better starts with practice.
“When you’re going against each other, it’s good-on-good, and somebody has to win. And it’s been good for us so far, but they got us on the first play with a little pop-pass, so it’s always a back-and-forth fight with the offense,” said McCourty about the Patriots’ goal-line work. For the defense, building on the recent success is imperative — as is getting better for the offense; goal-line work will undoubtably be a point of emphasis for Josh McDaniels and his unit.
As the team heads towards its joint-practice sessions with the Detroit Lions, expect the Patriots’ focus on short-yardage work to continue. The practices with Detroit will then be the next test for both units — a test that will show whether or not the developments over the first few goal-line drills have any indication on where the respective units are currently standing.