Mitch Trubisky’s growth, Kerryon Johnson’s drive, A.B.’s return
As the preseason rolls on, NFL.com’s network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
— What’s driving Kerryon Johnson.
* * * * *
NFL: Still getting the hang of new P.I. challenge rule. The education of coaches on the new pass interference challenge rule will continue in the second full week of the preseason. Troy Vincent, the league’s top executive for football operations, said he has received plenty of calls after the first week of games from coaches asking for explanations.
In the first 17 games of the preseason (including the Hall of Fame game), coaches have challenged pass interference 15 times. Only once has a call been overturned, in line with the league’s edict that it will take clear and obvious evidence to make a change.
The Jets‘ Adam Gase was the only coach who successfully challenged. In his case, Gase took issue with a non-call on the Giants‘ Corey Ballentine. On replay, officials ruled that Ballentine had interfered with Jets receiver Tim White.
Replay officials stopped the clock two other times to look at pass interference, and one of those calls was reversed, too.
Coaches are clearly using the preseason to test the parameters for how pass interference will be officiated.
“We’ve just got to keep working through it,” Gase said of his challenge. “I’m sure there will be mistakes made along the way where it’s like, should we have challenged that? Should we have not?”
* * * * *
CHICAGO BEARS: Nagy sees big progress from Trubisky. Bears coach Matt Nagy trained under Andy Reid, so it’s no surprise Nagy has a similar approach to offense in his second training camp with the team: throw a lot at players, ask quarterbacks to try difficult throws, then hone in on what you do best to play fast by the regular season.
“It’s like cooking, right?” Nagy told me with a smile after a recent practice. “You start throwing a bunch of ingredients in, you taste it, and when you like it, when it’s too many ingredients, you pull it back.”
Angst over Mitch Trubisky throwing some bad balls and interceptions in practice the past few weeks reminded me a little of all the headlines last July and August about Reid’s new QB tossing picks in bulk … before Patrick Mahomes went on to win the MVP award.
That’s not a prediction that Trubisky will follow the same trajectory. In my training camp travels, the most common team that people mention as a step-back candidate is the Bears, and one driver of that is skepticism about Trubisky’s ability to play consistently from the pocket.
But without much preseason work — Trubisky handed off three times before departing last week’s preseason opener, and Nagy has said he’s comfortable with the third-year pro not throwing a single pass in a game before September — other teams haven’t gotten a look at Trubisky 2.0 in Nagy’s offense. And to hear Nagy tell it, Trubisky has shown signs of progress in his daily battles with Khalil Mack and one of the NFL’s best defenses.
“His growth seeing the other side of the ball, the defense, the blitzes, the fronts, the coverages — he’s way past where he was last year,” Nagy told me. “We talk about the [Football] 202 part. [Football] 101 was last year. … Because when you can pick up protections and blitzes, you’re going to have more time to be able to make a more accurate throw.
“Last year, he’s so worried about, ‘Where are we lined up? What’s the play?’ Now, you’re just playing off instincts.”
* * * * *
DETROIT LIONS: Johnson poised to prove doubters wrong. Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson hears the chatter. He knows the word is out on him, that he has the potential to be a breakout talent this fall and a key cog in the team’s offense.
Last year, Johnson ran for 641 yards before a sprained knee cost him the last six games of his rookie season. After an offseason of working on ways to be more dynamic and flexible, the former second-round pick is looking every bit like a back who could handle 25-plus touches a game. He even admits to having a slight chip on his shoulder that helped turn heads in his first year.
“I’ve always believed I could play this game at a high level,” Johnson told me at training camp earlier this month. “In high school, people said I wouldn’t be able to play running back. When I went to college (at Auburn), people said I wouldn’t be able to play running back in the league. So I’ve always had confidence. I go out there and I play, and I see what happens. Last year was a good start, but I’m looking to improve on that, play a full year, and we’ll see how the chips fall this time.”
* * * * *
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Bennett adjusting well in Belichick’s defense. If you were wondering how Michael Bennett has taken to playing in New England with the Patriots and for Bill Belichick, so far, so good.
“Yeah, I was excited to work with Belichick and the rest of the guys on defense,” Bennett said Tuesday after practice. “Obviously, they’ve got a great pedigree, all of the great defensive linemen that have been here before me. … Growing up, Richard Seymour was my favorite player, him and John Abraham, so being here is just really unique, and the opportunity to play a lot of different fronts and do a lot of different things with a lot of these young guys is fun.”
Bennett, whose brother, Martellus, won a Super Bowl playing tight end for the Patriots in 2016, has paced himself early in camp, but when he’s been asked to turn it up, the 33-year-old — acquired this spring from Philadelphia for a late-round draft pick — has done just that. He’s looked every bit like the pass rusher his history says he is (Bennett has 63 sacks in 10 NFL seasons, including 32.5 over the past four), and he has also managed to be a disruptive force versus the run, despite learning a new system.
“I’ve played in all different defenses,” he said. “It’s just about your attitude, really, and trying to make the best of each position and finding out how to dominate that position. It takes a little time, but once you figure it out, it’s the best part of it.”
Early practice results are good. Just ask Bennett.
“Did you just see me out there right now? I think it’s been going pretty good, it’s always good. I look forward to a challenge. I’ve never been in a defense where I didn’t play good, so I feel like I’m just going to go out there and just do the best I can, really.”
And whether that’s as a 4-3 end or 4-3 defensive tackle in passing situations or even as an end in a 3-4, Bennett (34 tackles, nine sacks and two forced fumbles in 2018) seems unconcerned about where he lines up.
“It doesn’t change, really. I just try to beat the person in front of me the best way I can. I just try to out-will him every single time, and just let him know that I’m going to try to be the best every single time. I don’t think it really changes, I think you just beat the person in front of you. That’s really what football comes down to, just beating the person in front of you and getting to the quarterback.”
* * * * *
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Brown, agent discuss absence, helmet hunt. Antonio Brown‘s return to Raiders training camp on Tuesday was quite the event. Oakland’s star receiver walked onto the field toward the end of morning practice, accompanied by his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Brown said at the podium that he felt good about his recovery, but as he walked the field, you could tell he had a slight limp — likely related to his blistered feet.
There’s still no timeline for Brown’s return to the practice field; in that regard, Brown simply said, “Stay tuned.” He also declined to comment on how the injury happened. Rosenhaus said they can’t divulge any information as to the cause of the injury to the player’s feet because legal action against the cryotherapy company involved could be coming in the near future. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport has reported that Brown’s feet were injured because he did not have proper footwear when using a cryogenic chamber.
Brown also continues to search for a new helmet, with his grievance over being made to switch to a new helmet having been denied by an arbitrator. Rosenhaus shed some light on the issue by saying they’ve been working with the league office and the Raiders‘ front office to find a helmet that is both compliant with the NFL’s safety standards and comfortable for Brown.
“We’re not trying to go around the rules,” said Rosenhaus.
Rookie WR Renfrow turning heads. With Brown out of practice, the rest of the Raiders receivers, particularly the rookies, get a chance to show out. Rookie Hunter Renfrow, a fifth-round pick out of Clemson, has been a standout since the beginning of camp and has impressed QB Derek Carr.
“He’s a really good football player,” Carr said, “and I’m excited that we drafted him, because he’s crafty in the slot, great hands, great work ethic. I really love the guy.”
* * * * *
TENNESSEE TITANS: Lewis reflects on Patriots. After the Titans throttled the Patriots last season, 34-10, Tennessee running back Dion Lewis was just dying to be asked for his thoughts on New England, the team for which he played from 2015 to ’17. So I willingly took that road. Lewis’ answer was electric.
“Hell yeah, it’s personal. That’s what happens when you go cheap,” Lewis said, reveling in the victory. “You get your ass kicked.”
At the time, the Titans had won two in a row, improving to 5-4. They appeared to be trending toward a postseason berth. The Patriots, on the other hand, were a little more inconsistent than usual, having lost games earlier in the season to the Jaguars and Lions. Lewis had reason to be feeling his oats.
With the two sides meeting again recently, this time for joint practices in Nashville, I caught up to Lewis and asked if any of his former teammates had let him hear it over those comments.
“Nah, man,” he responded. “They all know it was fun and games, competitive, and guys were talking trash today (Wednesday). That is what you do. When you go against somebody, you talk trash and compete. You try and get better. It is just what it is when you’re on the field; you have to have that mindset.”
It didn’t appear Lewis had much regret. Heck, he shouldn’t. But it was hard to cover up the way the season ended for both sides.
Lewis has long played with a chip on his shoulder, and while he says he doesn’t hold a grudge against the Patriots for not re-signing him after the 2017 season, don’t think for a second that he’s lost that edge.
“The chip is still there,” said Lewis. “The chip has to be there. That is just who I am. That is how I play. I have to come out here fiery, with a chip, talking trash. That is who I am. I like to have fun and work hard. That is who I am, and I am going to continue to be that way until they don’t allow me to come out here and play football anymore.”
Butler not holding on to any grudges from Super Bowl benching. It’s been 18 months since Patriots coach Bill Belichick benched Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII, a loss to the Eagles that had many — including teammates — wondering if the cornerback would have made the difference. In the immediate aftermath, Butler was emotional, declaring the team gave up on him. Belichick would only respond by saying he did what he thought was best for the team. Since then, the question lingered: why?
Belichick never offered any reasons, despite many attempts to acquire them from the tight-lipped coach. Butler would later offer a few general statements about an illness during Super Bowl week and his overall preparedness. This Thursday, after a second day of joint practices between the Tennessee Titans, with whom Butler signed last offseason, and Belichick’s Patriots, the 29-year-old cornerback diffused the same questions with humor.
“No regrets at all,” said Butler, when asked about how it ended. “I graded out 99 percent — one punt return rep. It was great.”
Butler was laughing as he spoke, and he continued in that vein when told much of New England still wonders what the heck happened that fateful night in Minnesota. When asked if he ever got a reason, Butler quipped, “Where the hoodie at? You gotta go ask him. It’s just the past, man, and I’m past that.”
The latter part of that response was a true sign of just how far Butler has come, from being a raw undrafted talent out of West Alabama to a highly paid and accomplished fixture in the league. Looking back, Butler says his formative years in New England — he played there from 2014 to ’17, making a title-clinching pick in Super Bowl XLIX — were critical, both on and off the field.
“It helped me a lot. I can remember Darrelle Revis (the four-time All-Pro cornerback who was Butler’s New England teammate in 2014) telling me that I got talent, but I needed to learn that game. So I started learning the game instead of just going out there playing with my athletic ability. … They helped me a lot. Just growing up and being responsible. Those guys taught me a lot.”
After fielding more questions about his time with the Patriots and about some of the young Patriot wide receivers he faced in these joint practices, Butler wrapped up the interview with another smile.
“All right, Beantown, it was good to see you guys.”