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This defense needs attitude adjustment

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 9, 2009

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Ted Johnson doesn’t need to be told that it isn’t there, because if it were, he would see it plainly.

And right now, with these Patriots, Johnson simply doesn’t, at all.

“That sense of trust, and team, and it’s by far the most important thing on a football team. You can’t fake it,’’ said the former linebacker. “That’s what I think is the No. 1 problem with this defense. You don’t see them celebrating plays together as a unit. You don’t see energy or camaraderie or passion.

“Back then, it wasn’t one guy. It was everyone.’’

Most of the final links in Foxborough to “back then’’ were cut in a tumultuous offseason. Mike Vrabel was dealt at the outset of free agency. Rodney Harrison retired in June. Tedy Bruschi retired during training camp. And soon Richard Seymour was traded to Oakland.

Only three defensive players (Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green) remain from the teams that were on the field for any of the three Super Bowl victories, let alone all of them. Four players, period, are still around from the first champion, and one of them, Stephen Neal, was on the practice squad then.

This was coming, no matter which way you slice it. Vrabel, Bruschi, and Harrison were all in their mid 30s, and Seymour was in a contract year.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no price to pay for the quartet exiting together.

And we’ll now find out just how costly it is. The Patriots have lost three of four; they haven’t endured a month-long stretch like this in seven years, have yet to win a game in someone else’s home stadium, and are working through problems finishing games.

“I’m not saying we don’t have leadership here,’’ said fourth-year tailback Laurence Maroney, “but you knew in times like this, Rodney was going to say something, Bruschi would say something, Vrabel would definitely talk and say something.

“We have a lot of leaders now that are leaders by example. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of young guys like myself like that leadership by example, because you don’t need all the hoo-rah all the time, but that vocal leadership helps out, too.’’

Green, who now qualifies as a greybeard, disputes that there’s any kind of maturity issue - “We have one of the oldest teams in the league’’ - but allows that “it’s about communication. We need everyone on the same page.’’

That’s another area where the losses sting.

Johnson remembers being thrust into such a role when he was in college, and, “I screwed it up, but I learned, and finally my senior year, I got it.’’ And the experience helped to the point where, prior to his second year with the Patriots, Bill Parcells & Co. felt comfortable enough with Johnson as signal-caller to cut veteran Vincent Brown.

Bill Belichick was a part of that staff in 1996, but when he returned as head coach in 2000, it was a different experience for Johnson.

“I had this sense of, ‘Can I make this call?’ ’’ Johnson said. “It took me a while before I realized I could do that without getting chewed out by my coach. I think there’s a certain amount of ‘I better not screw it up’ out there. And if you have so many young guys, that can really snowball, from a confidence standpoint, after a game like the Colts game.

“People are talking about it, and even if you’re not, you’re thinking it.’’

So where guys like Johnson or Bruschi or Harrison were signal-callers, and elicited confidence, new young leaders like Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo, leading the secondary and front seven, might be climbing a learning curve.

It’s the “sense of trust’’ that Johnson talked about.

It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be forced. That’s why the coaches can’t storm into the locker room and demand Player X or Y or Z start asserting himself.

“If you’re a coach and all of a sudden you think, ‘Well I’m going to become a screamer and a yeller because the head coach is a screamer and a yeller,’ it’s going to come across phony, [if] that’s not you,’’ Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “It’s the same way with players. The players are who they are, and some of them are vocal, some of them are not so vocal, some of them lead by example.

“But a guy that’s been quiet the whole time, then all of a sudden to tell that guy, ‘Well now you’ve got to be vocal,’ that’s not going to be his personality. I think that’s a natural thing that happens.’’

Johnson said the best defenses he was on were rife with guys unafraid to speak up.

Part of it, he adds, is having the “grown-up.’’ Johnson cited Willie Clay as that guy earlier in his career, and Harrison more recently.

“They kept guys like Ty Law and Asante [Samuel] and Eugene Wilson in check,’’ he said. “Those guys [would be on] guys who could drift off sometimes, not pay attention, slack a little bit.’’

But there’s more than one role like that.

“Rodney kept young guys in line, he was a vocal leader, but he was also a smart player, he brought a toughness to the game,’’ said Johnson. “He was [angry] when we lost and he wanted to see other guys [angry]. Tedy’s the same kind of guy - show that you care. And Vrabes, I think that’s a damaging loss. He’s the quintessential football player. Smart as they come, tremendous on the field, and one of the guys, just funny as hell that can crack a joke when there’s tension.’’

That might explain why Junior Seau was signed in October. It might explain why players in the locker room Sunday talked about guys who’d shown leadership potential yet were reluctant to step into those roles.

Remember, Vrabel, Bruschi, Harrison, and Seymour were all once team captains, and if you listen to Johnson, you see they weren’t the only ones willing to take responsibility for everyone. That was simply the level of expectation.

“When I was playing, and that door to the defensive room shut, and it was just the defense,’’ Johnson said, his voice thickening with pride. “There was a sense of, ‘Know what? We’re just better than everyone else.’ ’’

Clearly, that attitude doesn’t exist now.

Why?

That isn’t something that’s inherited, it’s something you have to earn. And it’s evident that most of this team is still in the process of doing that.

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