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NFL's elite red zone squads ready to battle

12/8/2010
Chicago has allowed an NFL-low four touchdown passes on throws of 10 yards or fewer. Icon SMI

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears routinely shut down the short stuff in the red zone, but the Patriots excel at connecting for touchdowns on throws of 10 yards or fewer.

So precise execution -- whether it's Chicago's defense or New England's offense -- in confined areas could ultimately determine the winner Sunday when these teams meet at Soldier Field.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick outlined the challenges both teams face.

"There really is very little margin for error both ways," Belichick explained. "You've got to be right on the receivers [as a defense]. In the passing game, you've got to make good throws and good catches.

"It's football in a very condensed area. Everything happens quicker, everything is tighter. It's got to be more precise. It's a tight area, tough to throw in, but it's tough to defend because it all happens so fast down there."

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown 19 touchdown passes this season on passes of 10 yards or fewer, which ranks as four more than the next-best quarterback -- Peyton Manning, 15 TDs -- in that area.

Interestingly, Brady faces a Bears defense ranked as the best in the league at defending that area. Chicago has allowed an NFL-low four touchdown passes on throws of 10 yards or fewer.

Brady has completed 37 of 54 of his passes of 10 yards or fewer in the red zone for 238 yards, and 19 touchdowns to go with a passer rating of 117.1 with no interceptions.

"There's very good quickness by our team, by Wes [Welker], by Brandon [Tate], Aaron [Hernandez], Deion [Branch]," Brady said. "All those guys can run after the catch. If you get it in their hands, they're very dangerous with it. We've got to continue to get the ball in their hands so they can do that. That was really something we went into last week saying, ‘Alright guys, this is what we've got to do. After we catch it, we've got to make some yards.'"

Bears safety Chris Harris said the team has been successful at defending red-zone passes because of its focus on covering the field horizontally.

"When you're backed up in the red zone, you're defending more width than length or depth," Harris said. "So you've definitely got to see what's going [in the] outside [areas] because they can't really take anything vertical because they're gonna run through the back of the end zone. So you kind of want to defend more width than depth."

Other factors come into play, too, Belichick said in explaining what's required of a defense to defend the pass successfully from the red zone.

"As usual, the best thing to defend the pass is a good pass rush," he said. "If you can force the ball out on time, not let the quarterback hold it, not let the play extend, and get your coverage to match those routes, then that's a big part of it.

"The field is a condensed area, so the throws are usually quicker. They're tight throws. A lot of times it comes down to getting a good break, reaction on the ball, having good ball skills, and being able to [defend] when the receiver extends or reaches for the ball. When that ball is put into a location that is tight, having the ability, the foot quickness, the hand quickness, [and] again, just the general ball skills to be able to get your hand or your body somewhere close enough to be able to disrupt the execution of the play."

Can Chicago's vaunted defense do all that consistently Sunday against the Patriots? We'll see.