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AFCE: Defensive Focal Points for the Pats

This is the latest in a series of nine Radar entries over the next five weeks detailing trends in the AFC East, downward tendencies each division team wants to correct for the coming season and upward strides that each team wants to continue into 2009:    

The New England Patriots have done so many things well over the years. They won three Super Bowls in four seasons and nearly won No. 4 two years ago. With Tom Brady back in the saddle, they are favored by a few experts out there to win another NFL championship.

And last season, with Matt Cassel and without Tom Brady, they became one of the few 11-5 teams in NFL history not to reach the playoffs.

But there were a few things the Pats struggled in last season on defense, meaning, of course, these are the same few things they've been working hard at all off-season to turn into positives, especially when they run into the Jets in Weeks 2 and 11 in the coming season.

One is third-down defense. New England allowed opposing offenses conversions on 91 of 205 third-down opportunities, a 44.4 percent success rate that was No. 26 in the NFL rankings.

What's more, it was the Patriots' second-worst third-down defense since the 1970 merger. The only team that stopped opponents less frequently on crunch downs was the 1972 team that allowed an even 50 percent conversion rate.

Here are the Patriots' four lowest defensive third-down rates in the past 40 seasons:

 Season Conv-Opps Pct. Record
 1972 96-192 50.0 3-11
 2008 91-205 44.4 11-5
 1990 84-192 43.8 1-15
 1978 96-220 43.6 11-5

The other area, which can often go hand-in-hand with third-down troubles, is red zone defense. And this was another Achilles' heel for the Pats in '08 — their opponents' 66.7 percent touchdown rate represented the No. 31 RZ defense in the league, ahead of only Detroit.

In fact, let's not go back to the merger but merely to 2000. In the past nine seasons, that rate was the sixth-lowest in the league. Here are the NFL's bottom six in red zone defense since 2000:

 Season Team TDs-Opps Pct. Record
 2004 Giants 36-50 72.0 6-10
 2004 Dallas 32-45 71.1 6-10
 2002 Buffalo 35-50 70.0 8-8
 2003 Detroit 30-43 69.7 5-11
 2008 Detroit 43-64 67.2 0-16
 2008 New England 30-45 66.7 11-5

In the Jets' last meeting with the Patriots, at Gillette Field last season, they did fairly well in these two categories, converting 56.3 percent of their third downs (9-for-16) and 60 percent of their red zone opportunities (3-for-5) in their 34-31 overtime road triumph. All the more reason to be ready for Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork, Adalius Thomas and their mates, including new LCB Shawn Springs, when the teams meet again, in the Jets' home opener on Sept. 20.

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