Friday, February 5, 2010

Peppering the Defense

AP Photo/Sephan Savoia

The Patriots defense was often criticized.

The media was harsh on them and their own coach lacked faith in them sometimes, the glaring example coming when head coach Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth-and-two with just over two minutes to go while ahead by six points.

Many thought the personnel on the field would see some changes, but now the team also has to find a new defensive coordinator.

Dean Pees stepped down from the job in the middle of January after holding the position for four seasons, and has since joined the Ravens coaching staff (bringing major insult to injury to the Patriots organization as Baltimore whooped New England in the playoffs) as the linebackers coach.

The Patriots still have not filled that void.

On the field the Patriots were not very talented in the secondary.

The linebackers were old, slow, and banged up, and they frequently dropped back to help in pass protection to make up for the sub-par defensive backs. Thus the quarterback had plenty of time to throw the ball and the running backs had plenty of open lanes.

The defensive line was the most productive of the group, although they missed end Richard Seymour who was traded before the season. They do, however, have two free agents, including elite nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and the rest of the line is comprised mostly of rookies.

Now they also need to find a man that will be the leader of the unit and turn them back into a dominant force.

Who will they turn to though?

Some Patriots fans were hoping that the team would go back to their glory days of the past decade and hire former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. However he chose to be the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.

Mike Nolan was on the market but he didn’t last jobless for long. The defensive whiz that helped revamp the Broncos’ unit was quickly snatched up by the rival Miami Dolphins.

Even Buffalo hired a new defensive coordinator, reaching into the college ranks to grab George Edwards.

Belichick, from the Parcells tree, is well known for finding guys he really likes and sticking with them. All signs point to the Patriots filling their vacancy in-house.

When Crennel was hired to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2004 Belichick hired Eric Mangini, his defensive backs coach who had been a part of his staff for nine years and was a 23-year-old ball-boy when Belichick was in Cleveland.

Then when Mangini left a year later, Belichick turned to Pees.

So if Belichick and the Patriots continue the trend of sticking with guys they know then one person is supremely qualified for the job. That man is Pepper Johnson.

Johnson is an NFL lifer as well as being a Belichick guy his entire career. In Johnson’s 13 NFL seasons as a player, 10 of them were spent with Belichick.

He was drafted in 1986 by the New York Giants, whose head coach was none other than Bill Parcells and the defensive coordinator was Belichick.

In 1993, two years after Belichick became the Cleveland Browns head coach, Johnson joined him again. The Browns then moved to Baltimore and the men went their separate ways, but it would last only one season.

After reuniting with Parcells in New England in 1996, Parcells and Belichick migrated to the New York Jets and brought Johnson in with them for the final two seasons of his playing career.

When Belichick became the head coach of the Patriots in 2000 he brought Johnson on to his staff, and Johnson has worked his way up ever since. Johnson started as an assistant linebackers coach, was promoted to inside linebackers coach, and has spent the past six seasons as the defensive line coach.

So in total Johnson has spent 23 seasons in the NFL and all but three have been with “The Hooded One”. So he’s definitely a Belichick guy. His unit this past season was also the most productive of all the Patriots’ defensive components.

Not enough reason to merit another promotion?

Well it wouldn’t be the first time Belichick handed over the keys of his defense to Johnson.

According to reporting from an piece by Mike Reiss, Johnson was asked to lead the Cleveland Browns defense in a preseason once.

Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi was having health issues and was absent from the team. Belichick called in Johnson and asked him to run the defense, “like he was a player-coach” said teammate Carl Banks.

Johnson has been getting a lot of attention lately and has his supporters. Banks, Crenel, and free agent nose tackle Vince Wilfork all have openly backed Johnson for a promotion (could making Johnson defensive coordinator help keep Wilfork in New England?).

Johnson is comfortable with both the 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses and has earned a lot of respect throughout the league.

It may be time for Belichick to put him in a leadership role once again.

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