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Defenses must be on red alert

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - For NFL offenses, the goal line and the 10 yards that lie beyond it are the promised land. For NFL defenses, the 20 yards preceding the goal line are a battleground.

In football parlance, it’s the red zone. Or, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick calls it, the red area.

Either way, the side that wins out most often usually wins the game.

“I know that the red area is a critical point offensively and defensively in the game,’’ Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said yesterday. “You have to be able to win in the red area. There’s a difference from 3 points and 7 points. Sometimes 3 points turns to none if they miss [a field goal attempt]. So, that’s a critical area.’’

Through six games, New England’s opponents have made 24 trips into the red zone; on 13 occasions, the defense allowed a touchdown. On six others, teams converted field goals.

Ideally, the red zone opportunity-to-touchdown ratio would be less than 50 percent (the Patriots are at 54.2 percent, tied with Carolina for 20th in the league) and the scoring percentage at less than 75 percent (the Patriots are 79.2). San Francisco leads the league in red-zone defense, having allowed just six touchdowns in 19 opportunities.

Scoring is equally hard to come by in the AFC North, where the top four teams in overall defense reside: Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Cleveland have each allowed opponents inside the 20 a league-low 13 times; Pittsburgh has allowed 17 red-zone trips.

Offensively, the Steelers, the Patriots’ opponents on Sunday, have had 21 red-zone trips resulting in 11 touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, the Patriots have scored touchdowns on 19 of 30 trips.

As it has been for the Patriots’ defense throughout the season, they have had differing results in the red zone.

“We’ve had some good games so far in the red zone where we’ve done a good job of making the team kick field goals, and then at other times certain mistakes have caused us to give up touchdowns,’’ said cornerback Devin McCourty. “You have to be technically sound once you get close to the end zone, so I think that’s our focus, just making sure we do the right things as a defense so we don’t give up an easy touchdown or make our offense work.’’

With 22 players in a confined area, things happen quickly in the red zone, McCourty noted. That’s why technique and communication are even more important.

In the season opener in Miami, a touchdown call was overturned when it was ruled that Davone Bess did not cross the plane of the goal line on third down. Miami went for a pass on fourth down, and it fell incomplete. Had the Dolphins scored, they would have pulled to within a touchdown with about six minutes remaining.

Instead, Tom Brady found Wes Welker for a 99-yard touchdown on the next play, the Patriots went up by three touchdowns, and the game was essentially over.

Two weeks later, however, Buffalo scored touchdowns on three of its four drives into the red zone, and got the winning field goal on its final one.

In Oakland in Week 4, Jason Campbell’s “what was he thinking?’’ goal line throw, which was an easy interception for Patrick Chung, was turned into 3 points by the Patriots, putting New England up by a touchdown at halftime. The Patriots got the ball to start the third quarter, scored again, and cruised to a win.

In the Patriots’ last game, against the Cowboys, Wilfork’s assertion that keeping red-zone trips to 3 points at worst was on display: Dallas twice had to settle for chip-shot field goals in the second half, unable to convert on third down (though one was third and 18). New England won the game by 4 points, the difference between a touchdown and extra point and a field goal.

The second stop, when the Cowboys tried a shovel pass on third and 5, was snuffed out by Brandon Spikes (with an assist to Wilfork), and swung the momentum in New England’s favor.

“You have to be alert. You have to be tuned in to what they like to do down there,’’ Wilfork said. “I think a lot of times you can actually win a lot of ballgames just by playing well in the red area. I don’t care if a team runs up and down the field [between the 20-yard lines], but if you’re able to play well in the red area, you’ll actually be OK.

“That’s always one of our highest points [of emphasis], being good in the red area. I think it’s been up and down, but that’s an area that we can improve on, and I think we will.’’

It was Wilfork’s reminder to his teammates that Dallas had previously tried the shovel play in a goal-line situation that led to Spikes’s stop and the Cowboys having to settle for a field goal.

The antennae need to be up, as does the sense of urgency.

“I would say you’ve got to have a higher intensity because now they’re really knocking at the door,’’ McCourty said. “You know you don’t have much field left, it’s either 20 yards or closer, so I think it’s a little more heightened intensity, a little more paying attention to detail and make sure we keep them out.’’

And in the end, keeping them out of the end zone is all that matters.

“We’re improving,’’ said defensive end Shaun Ellis. “The job is to make them kick field goals, don’t score. No matter how they get down there, we still can do something about it. We’ve been pretty good at that so far. Hopefully, we can continue improving.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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