- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Usually when a defense forces the opposition into third-and-long situations, it's viewed as the ideal scenario.
Not so for the 2013 New England Patriots, however.
That's one of the biggest takeaways for defensive end Rob Ninkovich when he pinpoints areas the unit can improve this season. The numbers tell the story: Opponents converted third-and-8 or longer at a 25.3 percent clip (24-of-95) last year, which ranked the Patriots 22nd out of 32 teams.
"Some of the big plays we had last year that definitely hurt us," Ninkovich said Monday on Sirius XM NFL Radio as he joined co-hosts Bruce Murray and Rich Gannon.
"We have to get off the field on third downs better. I think we had too many third-and-longs converted. That's another thing that hurts you, when it's third-and-15 and they run a screen and they get the first down. That comes down to assignments, guys running after the ball, running lanes where you're at, it all works together."
A few other sound bites from Ninkovich:
He's working to become a better finisher. Asked what areas he's hoping to personally improve in 2014, Ninkovich focused on wrapping up quarterbacks. "I probably missed five or sacks out there," he said. "Obviously, getting to the quarterback -- it takes a lot of work to get there but if I can finish a little better when I'm there and not miss them ... sometimes I leave my feet and kind of go after the ball when really just getting the guy down is the ultimate goal."
Empty the tank. Ninkovich relayed one of his favorite sayings: "Go out there every down and empty the tank. That's what I like to say, at the end of the day, I like to have an empty tank."
Kudos to Hightower. In explaining the importance of linebacker Jerod Mayo to the defense because of his knack for getting the unit in the right call, Ninkovich praised the work of Dont'a Hightower in that role after Mayo was lost for the season last year on Oct. 13 (torn pectoral muscle). "Hightower did a great job stepping into that situation that he had to come into. It was a little bit harder to get everybody on the same page," he said.
Media perception not reality with Belichick. Asked what Bill Belichick is like on a daily basis, Ninkovich was expansive. "The perception of Bill, they don't really see Bill outside of his interviews. He's a funny guy, he has a great sense of humor and he's the best football coach ever for a reason. He knows what he's talking about. He knows how to get the best and the most out of each individual person. So the way he speaks, you definitely listen to the things that he says. You try to write down and absorb as much as you can. He has a ton of knowledge of the game. Walking around the locker room, walking around the facility, he'll talk to you. He's the best football coach I've been around. There is a definitely difference in the perception of what he is from the media versus what he really is.
"He's always available if you need to speak to him. That's another thing he always says, 'just come to me' and he'll tell you it like it is. He won't sugarcoat anything for you. That's what you want -- honest answers. As a football player, that's a great thing, to be able to go to your head coach and be able to ask him a question and have him give you a straight-up answer. A lot of people just see an interview, some media guy asking him a dumb question and he likes to give it back to those guys especially."