Saturday, July 31, 2010 Updated: August 1, 3:49 PM ET
Belichick taking aim at red zone
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Based on the New England Patriots' first five training camp practices, the groundskeepers who maintain the two plush practice fields behind Gillette Stadium can narrow their focus.
Almost everything, it seems, is taking place inside the 20-yard line.
The message couldn't be any clearer. Bill Belichick wasn't pleased with the red zone results last season, and he's loaded up his early practice itinerary with work in that area. Sometimes the ball is spotted on the 20. Other times it's on the 10, 5 or even closer to the goal line.
Rookie Aaron Hernandez's size and pass-catching ability could help improve the Patriots' red zone efficiency.
What has resulted is some of the most spirited segments of practice, the offense and defense jawing at each other in the 11-on-11 work, a celebration usually resulting after the play.
"After turnovers, red area is probably the No. 1 statistic that correlates with winning and losing," Belichick said Saturday on Sirius NFL radio. "We have higher goals than what we achieved last year."
The numbers have been sliced, diced and analyzed over the offseason.
The Patriots didn't have problems getting inside the red zone last season, racking up 65 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, the third highest total in the NFL.
But what they did once they got there was most troubling, crossing the goal line for a touchdown just 34 times. That 52.3 percent conversion rate ranked 13th in the NFL.
"That's the game," quarterback Tom Brady said Saturday on Sirius. "When you're playing these competitive games against teams that have similar levels of talent and coaching, it comes down to a couple plays in the red area. You kick the field goal or score the touchdown."
When considering what might make things different this year, the team's new look at tight end is near the top of the list. Veteran free agent Alge Crumpler (6-foot-2, 275 pounds) and second-round draft choice Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 265) are powerful, and fourth-round draft choice Aaron Hernandez (6-1, 245) has flashed a knack for coming down with the football in tight spots.
Gronkowski and Hernandez produced two of the early highlights of training camp when both scored touchdowns in red zone work. Gronkowski shielded safety Patrick Chung while running to the front left pylon, and Brady easily found his new big target. Hernandez leaped and wrestled a Brady pass away from Chung a few plays later.
Yet while the tight ends have flashed promise, there is one area that could derail the Patriots' desired improvement in the red zone, where the space gets tight and the ability to overpower an opponent gains importance.
Without starting left guard Logan Mankins, who is the line's most physical blocker and is a holdout because of a contract dispute, establishing a bruising presence up front becomes a greater challenge. That seemed apparent in the first practice of training camp, when nose tackle Vince Wilfork burst through the interior of the line and stonewalled Sammy Morris on a run near the goal line.
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"We need to be that team that can go out there and hit people in the mouth and have fun doing it," left tackle Matt Light said. "It all starts with all this kind of stuff."
After the 2009 season, Light said that one of his hopes was that the offense would become more physical.
Based on the early focus on the red zone, it seems Belichick agrees. It's been only five practices, but the Patriots are wearing out the grass inside the 20s.
Crumpler, in his first year in New England, likes the do-it-again nature of the work.
"I'm a repetition guy and I know Coach firmly believes in repetition," he said. "It's just too hard in this league to turn on a light switch. You have to work at it, do things right, and try to develop an attitude of perfection, whatever the situation.
"I've been on teams that were highly successful in the red area," he continued. "That's where it counts. You have defenses that bend but don't break, and you have offenses that find a way to mess it up, but somehow can still find ways to put points on the board."
The Patriots want to get back to being the type of offense that puts 6s on the board when it is in the red zone, not 3s, and the work starts now. Belichick hopes he's set that tone with his practice scheduling.
Call it a red alert.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.