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Improvement in red zone was key to Patriots’ victory

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Malcolm Butler’s interception in the red zone put an end to Pittsburgh’s first quarter drive.Barry Chin

FOXBOROUGH — On a day when field goal conversions were hard to come by, a stout red zone defense was key for the Patriots in Sunday's 27-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers came into the contest converting 79 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, good for fourth in the NFL. The Patriots, meanwhile, had struggled to keep teams out of the end zone once they got into the red zone, allowing touchdowns on 71 percent of those drives. Only four teams were worse at denying opposing offenses touchdowns.

But on Sunday, New England allowed just one touchdown on four red zone trips. The defense forced Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell into two field goal attempts, one of which he missed, and also came up with a turnover — a first-quarter interception by Malcolm Butler in the corner of the end zone.

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"Most of those plays revolve around team defense," coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call Monday morning. "Malcolm made a good play on that interception. He kind of used his body to box out Brown and make a play, but it's team defense.

"You've got to stop the run, you've got to make the quarterback uncomfortable, and you've got to get on the receivers whether it's man or zone.

"We had our moments, but certainly in the end the red area was a huge difference in the game. In a close game, those points amounted to a lot."

Added defensive end Rob Ninkovich: "When you got down in there, you've got to hold them to 3 — that bend-but-don't-break mentality."

The Patriots were able to hold firm in the red zone despite missing some of their bigger defensive linemen, specifically Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton, who were both inactive with injuries.

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In their stead, tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown both played more than 35 snaps, while end Jabaal Sheard shifted over and played a chunk of his 35 snaps in the interior line.

"That was a little bit of concern going into the game," Belichick said. "I think Malcom and Alan really did a good job on that. They've shown that they can play a lot of plays, the conditioning level is good. But ideally, that's not necessarily where you always want to be.

"In this game, it probably helped us that we were ahead and it was really more of a passing game."

Support system

Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the best kickers in the NFL since joining the Patriots in 2006, but he is mired in one of the worst stretches of his career. He's made 9 of 12 field goal attempts this season, a career-low percentage, and has missed two extra points after not missing a single regular-season conversion from 2007-15. (The NFL did extend the extra point from the 2-yard line to the 15 last season.)

According to ace special teamer Matthew Slater, a teammate of Gostkowski's for nine years, there's a fine line between being supportive and acting abnormally.

"We're just going to be as positive as we can be to Stephen," Slater said. "You don't want to say too much, but you also want to let him know that we continue to have faith in him, continue to believe in his ability to perform, and that we wouldn't trade him for anyone.

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"I'm just going to be as positive with Steve as possible, and try to be as normal as possible. I think when you start trying to act too differently and say things differently, it just makes it even a little bit stranger."

Second time around

Ninkovich, who missed the first matchup against the Bills (a 16-0 Week 4 loss) because of a suspension, said, "I'm definitely excited to get out there in Buffalo. That's always a great atmosphere." . . . Slater said the team showed fortitude by winning a game on the road against the Steelers. "The first two road games we played, I think there was a big Patriot presence there from the fans," he said. "You're not going to get that in Pittsburgh." . . . The Patriots released defensive lineman Anthony Johnson and practice squad defensive back Vinnie Sunseri.


Everett Cook can be reached at evcook4@gmail.com.