By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You’ve certainly heard countless times over the years that the Patriots are masters of the “bend but don’t break” defense. It’s largely an anecdotal analysis, but it’s also been rooted in reality; even when the Patriots have given up large chunks of yards, the defense has generally shown a knack for either forcing red-zone turnovers or limiting opponents to field goals.
On Thursday morning in snowy Foxboro, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained how the team manages to consistently operate in such a manner.
“Yeah, look, the game changes on every play, so field position, down and distance – those all change. Once you get into the red area it’s a different game,” Belichick said. “It’s a different emphasis. There’s different plays. We have different defenses. The way you defend the field is different because it’s different. It’s changing your mind-set to what’s required down there, whichever side of the ball you’re on – offense or defense – it doesn’t matter. It’s just things change. They’re different down there. You’ve got to treat them differently.”
Bending without breaking has been a staple of the Patriots’ run under Belichick. Since 2001, they’ve ranked in the top 10 in points allowed 14 times; they’ve ranked in the top 10 of yards allowed just seven times.
This year’s Patriots have remained true to form. They rank third-worst in the NFL in yards allowed per game, but 18.5 points allowed per game, they rank fifth-best in the NFL.
Some high-profile plays have stood out, like Duron Harmon’s end-zone interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the final moments of Week 15’s win in Pittsburgh. Marquis Flowers also forced an Oakland fumble at the 3-yard line to prevent a scoring opportunity before halftime in Week 11, Stephon Gilmore intercepted Matt Moore in the end zone before halftime to keep Miami from scoring in Week 12, Harmon intercepted Deshaun Watson’s Hail Mary in the end zone in Week 3, and the defense came up with a last-second stop of the Buccaneers in a five-point win in Tampa.
The big plays — like JuJu Smith Schuster’s 69-yard catch-and-run, or Kareem Hunt’s 78-yard touchdown reception or 58-yard run — are glaring. But more often than not, the Patriots’ defense has been able to stiffen when backed up against their own end zone.
“It’s a long year,” Belichick said. “We’ve had our moments where we’ve done things well. We’ve had other moments where we could’ve been better.”
Defensive captain Devin McCourty spoke on Wednesday and expressed some surprise to hear a question about how the Patriots became the first team to hold opponents under 20 points for four straight seasons.
“Wait, say that? What did we do?” McCourty replied. “You’ve got to realize, I’m not used to – you know, earlier in the season, you guys would come in here asking me about giving up 35 points a game. So, you hear 20 … .”
McCourty explained how that accomplishment certainly didn’t happen by accident.
“I think the thing is we put a big emphasis on the red area and points,” McCourty said. “When it comes down to why we play football, we play to win. At the end of the day, when you have more points than the other team, you win. So, defensively, it’s all about not giving up touchdowns. It’s about trying to keep them off the board. We’ve seen in games where we haven’t kind of played the way we want to play throughout the game, but if we were able to play well in the red area, we kept giving ourselves a chance to win the game.”
McCourty also shared a common refrain uttered by linebackers coach Brian Flores.
“[Flores] does the red area and he always says every time we get a red area stop, we’re closer to winning the game,” McCourty said. “To me, that’s happened over and over this year because a good amount of times this year defensively, we haven’t been that good and that showed up. When we needed to play good in the red area and we were able to complement each other, our offense comes in and they have a big drive, and if we give up three, they go get seven, and now the pressure’s back on. And then, we get a red area turnover and then we go score. Now we keep them at zero and get seven. That changes the game. So, I will say that’s something that we do pride ourselves on – the points per game and trying to keep that as low as possible. So, hopefully we’ll continue that throughout the playoffs because we’ll definitely need it.”