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

Curran: Ravens are the Patriots' most bitter rival

Curran: Ravens are the Patriots' most bitter rival

Who has been the Patriots' greatest rival of the Belichick-Brady Era?

There are a few candidates: There's no franchise the team hates more thoroughly than the Jets. The Steelers, just because of franchise tradition, are in the mix but the Patriots have had their way in most of the big games with Pittsburgh. The Colts? It's kind of a big brother-little brother thing. The Broncos? Definitely. But no opponent has provided the gripping games and the mix of animosity and respect that the Ravens have over the past decade. 

The first truly memorable Ravens-Patriots game came in 2007. Brian Billick was in his final season as Ravens head coach and Baltimore -- with Kyle Boller at quarterback -- was on its way to a 5-11 season. But that Monday night epic against the unbeaten Patriots was one of the most gripping games of the Belichick era with the Patriots erasing a 24-17 deficit in the final eight minutes thanks to a Ravens meltdown that included defensive coordinator Rex Ryan calling costly timeouts and Ravens players throwing penalty flags. The Patriots won, 27-24, on a touchdown pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds left. It was probably the hardest the Patriots were pushed en route to 16-0.

Since then, there was the never-to-be-forgotten 33-14 2009 playoff rout at Gillette, which was probably the low point of the Belichick Era. That was followed by a pair of 23-20 Patriots wins before -- the second of those being a stirring AFC Championship win in the 2011 playoffs when Sterling Moore’s pass breakup and a hooked field goal attempt sent the Ravens home whining. But the Ravens broke Gronk in that game and -- with him hobbling around in the Super Bowl against the Giants -- they came up short, 21-17.

Early in 2012, again in prime time, the Patriots let leads of 13-0 and 30-21 slip away as the Ravens won 31-30 on a 27-yard Justin Tucker field goal at the buzzer. It was the Replacement Ref Game, the nadir of the horrific stretch of time in which we got an eyeful of how bad officiating can really be (thanks, Rog!).

The two teams saw each other again in the 2012 AFC Championship and the Patriots saw a 13-7 halftime lead evaporate in a hail of Joe Flacco throws to Anquan Boldin as the Patriots got out-toughed in a 28-13 loss. Late in 2013, the Patriots gave the Ravens a tremendous 41-7 beating in Baltimore to usher the Ravens out of playoff contention. It was the best win of the year for New England.

And the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff win for New England was one of the best playoff wins of Belichick Era. The Patriots twice erased 14-point deficits to win 35-31 at Gillette. The Ravens made a public show of complaining about the Patriots formation trickery and saying they’d take it up with the league. Tom Brady chastised the Ravens for not knowing the rules and Ravens coach John Harbaugh -- who’s got a haughty streak in him to say the least -- made sure the rule got changed then spent 2015 running trick formation plays recreationally.

More damaging was the private maneuvering of the Ravens.

Their coaching staff -- specifically special teams coach Jerry Rosburg -- was dropping dimes to the Indianapolis Colts, encouraging Indy to be on alert for football shenanigans, alleging the Patriots monkeyed with the K-ball usage. Harbaugh initially denied any involvement in the mess that ensued after the Colts alerted the league to that concern and the purported deflating of footballs which was “well known around the league.” After it was demonstrated that the Ravens had communicated with the Colts, Harbaugh and the Ravens released a statement trying to establish distance. 

As much as Baltimore wants to maintain its distance, the communication with Indy and the fact that “independent investigator” Ted Wells interviewed both Rosburg and Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees during the DeflateGate investigation shows that the Ravens weren’t just minding their own business in this whole thing.

This will be the first time the teams meet since all that went down and it will be interesting to hear this week if there’s any latent bitterness on the part of the Patriots who -- despite the on-field rivalry -- had a strong relationship with Baltimore at the ownership level with Steve Bisciotti, at the personnel level with Ozzie Newsome and George Kokinis and with the coaching staff. Bill Belichick recommended Harbaugh to Bisciotti for the Ravens head job in 2008.

The surging Ravens have won four of five. They’re 7-5 and leading the AFC North. And -- unlike other teams that traditionally melt under the lights in New England -- the Ravens relish the chance to play the Patriots.

"We have to go up into a hostile place in New England that we really enjoy playing [at]," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's going to be another important game in December up there on a Monday night, and it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it, big time."

“Now we’ve got our toughest challenge and we’ll need to play our best football up in New England to win that football game,” said Harbaugh. “We believe we’ll have a chance to do that based on where we are right now. … They’ve got great players, a great organization and they’re always at the top and they’ve earned it. We’ve been honored to be in some big games with them over the years and that’s a place we want to be.”