Patriots

Johnson: Teaching D-line old dogs new tricks

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Johnson: Teaching D-line old dogs new tricks

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn
The New England Patriots defensive line is filled with new faces and in some instances, those new faces are being looked upon to contribute differently than they have at previous stops.

That unfamiliarity is among the reasons why -- statistically at least -- the Patriots defense has struggled so mightily in these first few weeks of the NFL season.

While the numbers might suggest otherwise, Pats defensive line coach Pepper Johnson does believe the defense is improving.

"It's kind of hard teaching some old dogs new tricks," Johnson said. "But we have some guys buying into the system, and working at it, working hard, trying to do some of the things that we're asking them to do."

One of those players is defensive end Shaun Ellis, now in his first season with New England after spending his previous 11 (2000-2010) with the Patriots opponent on Sunday, the New York Jets.

"Shaun is a trooper," Johnson said. "He's a guy -- like when I want to scream at him for a play -- he comes back and turns around and makes a good play."

Johnson added, "He's one of those guys that I'm talking about. He's trying to do some things that we ask him to do. A lot of things that we ask him to do, it's kind of different from his play in the past. But he's been improving."

Ellis said getting to know how to play with his new teammates along the defensive line is the biggest challenge. No matter how much time you spend watching film, he said, it doesn't compare to actually being on the field with one another.

"I kind of put it in mind like, a jump-shooter goes out and shoots a whole bunch of jumpers all day long," Ellis said. "Just get that feel so that when he gets in games, it just comes naturally."

Making the challenge of establishing chemistry even more daunting has been the absence of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, one of the Patriots' top offseason pickups.

There's no way anyone knows what impact having Haynesworth would make on a defense that's giving up a league-high 477.5 yards per game which includes 108.8 yards rushing per game which ranks 18th in the NFL.

Haynesworth or no Haynesworth, one thing we do know having him available wouldn't hurt.

Johnson knows this, but you won't hear him grumble or gripe about what the Pats defensive line doesn't have right now.

"Coach Belichick would punch me in the face if I got frustrated if I didn't have a particular player," Johnson said. "My job is to not count on one person or something like that. My job is to coach whoever is out there on the field. Until Albert is out there on the field, we have to try and win ball games without him."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.