INDIANAPOLIS -- Near the start of the 2011 season, Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson made a simple analogy when talking about the New England defensive line, saying “it’s kind of hard teaching some old dogs new tricks.”
It was a long and occasionally difficult season for the Patriots’ defensive front, as New England went back and forth between a four-man front and a three-man front. They also shuffled some of those old dogs in and out of the lineup, releasing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and losing defensive end Andre Carter to a season-ending injury. But now, with the benefit of a full season of hindsight, Johnson said Wednesday that the old dogs did a good job picking up those new tricks.
“They’ve done real well. I think we’ve come together and really started working with each other really well,” Johnson said. “We have our ups and downs. We have some bad plays and some ‘explicit language’ plays. But we also have had some real good plays out there.
“There are some things that are expected of guys and then, there are the A-plus plays, the ones that you practice and go over and talk about in the meeting rooms. Not just for my emphasis, but things that the players ... I definitely let them elaborate and talk about some of the things that they envision. And then they talk about and they go out there and they execute it, it’s just tremendous.”
One of the important things to remember when discussing the evolution of the New England defensive line is that it took time for them to gel. New faces like Haynesworth and Carter (as well as veteran Shaun Ellis) took time to learn the Patriots’ system, while other defenders like Rob Ninkovich saw a shift in their responsibilities.
The bottom line? It takes time to learn how to play together.
“Look at the production. The production is there,” said Vince Wilfork. “We got off to a slow start, but you know what? You can sit back now. People say we didn’t have a pass rush. We didn’t do that, we didn’t do this. All that has changed.
“We’ve had a lot of production from our front this year. It’s like you said ... it took time. You just can’t throw these guys together like this, without minicamp, without an offseason. We had to learn on the run. Get back to different fits, get used to things we weren’t used to. That’s all we did. ... Once we got to that place where we felt comfortable in what we're doing, it was just balls to the wall, and we never looked back ever since.”
A large part of the recent run of success for New England’s defensive front has to do with Wilfork’s Pro Bowl season. The veteran has had an immense run of late, and was dominant in the Patriots’ two postseason victories. Johnson said that in year’s past, Wilfork has shared the spotlight with other longtime New England defensive linemen like Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and Ty Warren. Now, he’s what Johnson calls the “singular figure.”
“In the past, you had the Seymour’s, the Jarvis Green’s, the Ty Warren’s. People who he had that were out there. They shared that limelight. Now, it’s just him,” Johnson said. “The other guys haven’t grown into that respect yet. I think he’s doing the same thing that he’s been doing, besides the interceptions. He’s being Vince. He’s playing Vince football.”
Here are four other things we learned Wednesday:
BILL BELICHICK CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF THOSE 80S HITS
The Patriots spent Wednesday’s practice session at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center with some Bon Jovi and Madonna cranked up to try and simulate the crowd noise their going to hear at Sunday’s game, according to the pool report. (Belichick said he and Patriots Director of Football/Head Coach Administration Berj Najarian chose the songs, adding, “I get veto power.”)
The choice of music wasn’t the only noteworthy thing to come out of the practice session. Belichick shed a little light on the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski and tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer. When asked about Gronkowski’s condition, Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick said, “He’s day to day. He’s getting better but, we’ll just take it day-to-day.”
Meanwhile, Vollmer (foot/back/flu) worked on a limited basis a day after offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia telling WEEI.com that the lineman would be playing Sunday. “He did a little bit today,” Belichick said of Vollmer. “We’ll see how he does tomorrow.” Matt Light, who had dealt with an illness earlier in the week, participated in the full practice.
In addition, the Patriots spent a portion of the practice working on kickoffs and kickoff coverage, which is usually executed on Thursday but was moved up a day after having already participated in full-pad practice Monday. “Today is like Thursday for us during the season,” Belichick explained. “We do punt and punt return Wednesday, which was Monday.” Belichick said Thursday will include review of Wednesday’s work, and will be “a little shorter” than Wednesday.
ROB GRONKOWSKI DIDN’T PRACTICE ON WEDNESDAY
He showed up at the morning media session, appearing to walk without a limp. He talked optimistically about being ready to return to the practice field. He even cracked a few jokes. But ultimately, Gronkowski didn’t practice with the Patriots on Wednesday, the only member of the team to miss the session.
“I feel better every day. That’s the goal. That’s the positive direction you want to be going,” said Gronkowski, who talked optimistically about wearing s special cleat on his left foot that would help him play through the pain. “You want to be moving forward every single day. If you are going backwards, that’s not good at all. I am feeling good every day. The rehab is going well. Everything is moving forward and we’re on pace of just feeling better every day.”
One thing that is worth keeping an eye on is the fact that Gronkowski has not practiced since prior to the Ravens game, and one reporter asked him about the possible dip in his fitness level because he’s now been on the shelf because of an extended absence. (Patriots coach Bill Belichick has frequently said that it’s one thing to be in shape, it’s another thing altogether to be in football shape.)
“That’s what I am wondering too,” Gronkowski said. “But the training staff has us doing things to keep it up -- eating healthy every single day, making sure you are not eating trash, just staying at your weight and doing what you possibly can do, so you can stay in shape.”
MATT LIGHT DID
While New England’s big tight end wasn’t on the practice field, Light was back after sitting out a few days because of an illness that’s been going around the locker room. In his Wednesday morning session with the media, Light was his usual snarky self, deflecting questions about his health (asked if he was day-to-day, he answered “No. I’m just today, just today”), his absence at media day (“I feel horrible about that. I do. And I love spending time with you guys. Not having the opportunity to be around so many of you in such a wonderful setting was very disheartening”) and Gronkowski’s ability to evade questions about his ankle injury (“Gronkowski said he got the same question over and over. And he gave the same answer. He is a well-trained animal”).
The return of Light -- as well as right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was limited but did practice -- would appear to insure some stability to the Patriots’ tackle position. The combination of a healthy Vollmer, Light and Nate Solder would allow New England to use one of the tackles (likely Solder) as an extra tight end in hopes of slowing down the New York pass rush.
“Every guy upfront has a job to do. We just go out there and play the game that we learned. Keeping [Brady] upright is a big part of that,” he said. “We are going to do what we have done all season -- we are going to have a great week of preparation. We are going to go out there and be technically sound at what we do and we’re going to go all out.”
MATH IS HARD
During his Wednesday press conference, Brady talked about a number of different topics, including the subject of trying to make improvements against a team when you play them for the second time in a season. Sunday will mark the fifth team the Patriots will have faced for the second time since the start of the 2011 season. This year, the quarterback has done well when it comes to facing a team for the second time -- since the start of the 2011 season, the Patriots are 4-0 against teams when they face them the second time, and Brady has an average line of 26-for-39 for 334 yards, with three touchdowns and 0.5 picks, numbers that are a slight improvement on his season-long average.
We decided to go a little deeper, and we found that in the 15 times Brady has faced an opponent for the second time in a season since the start of the 2007 campaign, he’s 321-for-500 for 3,924 yards with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in those game, and the team has won 12 of the 15 games. That’s an average line of 21-for-33 for 261 yards with 2.5 touchdowns and one interception.
In all, here’s a look at how those numbers break down game-by-game for his last four seasons, throwing out his injury-shortened 2008 campaign:
2011 (The Patriots went 4-0)
vs. Miami: 27-for-46 for 304 yards and one touchdown
vs. Buffalo: 23-for-35 for 338 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception
vs. New York Jets: 26-for-39 for 329 yards with three touchdowns
vs. Denver: 26-for-34 for 363 yards with six touchdowns and one interception
Totals: 102-for-154 for 1,334 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions
Average: 26-for-39 for 334 yards with three touchdowns and 0.5 picks.
vs. Miami: 10-for-16 for 199 yards with two touchdowns
vs. Buffalo 15-for-27 for 140 yards with three touchdowns
vs. New York Jets: 21-for-29 for 326 yards and four touchdowns
Totals: 46-for-64 for 665 yards with nine touchdowns
Average: 15-for-21 for 222 yards and three touchdowns
vs. Miami: 19-for-29 for 352 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions
vs. Buffalo: 11-for-23 for 115 yards with one touchdown and one interception
vs. New York Jets: 28-for-41 for 310 yards with one touchdown
vs. Baltimore: 23-for-42 for 154 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions
Totals: 81-for-135 for 931 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions
Average: 27-for-45 for 310 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions
vs. Miami: 18-for-33 for 215 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions
vs. Buffalo: 31-for-39 for 373 yards with five touchdowns
vs. New York Jets: 14-for-27 for 140 yards with one interception
vs. New York Giants: 29-for-48 for 266 yards and one touchdown
Totals: 92-for-147 for 994 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions
Average: 23-for-49 for 331 yards for 2.25 touchdowns and 0.75 interceptions