Malcolm Butler

Curran: Butler dishes it out, Brady takes it

Curran: Butler dishes it out, Brady takes it

I don’t know how long Malcolm Butler’s going to be a very good cornerback or how long he’s going to be in New England, but while he is, enjoy it. He is absolutely cutthroat. How, in a game where guys were getting flagged for even thinking about holding, he and DeSean Jackson avoided getting flagged for their end-of-half fracas is beyond me. I wouldn’t be surprised if there ends up being a modest fine for Jackson, who latched onto Butler’s facemask and wouldn’t release, and for Butler who flailed a punch at Jackson that wound up hitting Duron Harmon. Lightly. 


But the bigger point is that – even though Jackson caught five balls for 106 yards, including a 24-yarder to start the Bucs final drive, Butler’s physicality on the tackle drove the slender Jackson from the game after that catch and he was a non-factor after that. There was nothing dirty about it. Butler merely took Jackson down hard and finished the tackle – the same way defenders do on Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Tom Brady whenever they get a chance. Despite the heightened consciousness for player safety, there is no way to excise the reality that whoever takes the beatings best often wins. Which brings me to …

*Tom Brady. After the Houston game, I pointed out the eye-popping rate at which he was taking punishment and figured the beatings would subside. At that point, he’d been sacked 10 times and taken (by NFL accounting) 20 quarterback hits. In the past two games (over five days), Brady was sacked six more times and hit another 14. So, 16 sacks and 34 hits through five games, which means the punishment has actually accelerated. Good thing the dude is hydrated because – from my perspective – there’s not another quarterback in the league who’d still be playing after taking the same thrashing. What’s the deal? It starts with Julian Edelman. Last night, it was exacerbated by Rob Gronkowski. 

Not having them out there means more coverage can be devoted to players who take time to uncover, which is what Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks are. So, Brady waits. And waits. And waits. And sometimes he gets sacked, sometimes he gets rid of the ball late and takes the hit anyway, sometimes he runs and gets folded over like a chaise lounge. Additionally, it doesn’t feel like they’ve yet settled into a groove with their rushing attack. They throw it 57 percent of the time on first-and-10. On third-and-2, they throw it 86 percent of the time; on third-and-3, they throw 100 percent of the time; on third-and-4, they throw 86 percent of the time. They are still too inconsistent running the ball to rely on it. 

Finally, there are inevitably plays on which the offensive linemen get beat. It’s alarming that a team which had a total of one sack through its first three games was able to get to Brady as often as it did. With the Falcons, Broncos and Raiders coming up – three very fast defenses – the beatings may continue.

*A few other quick hits...Kyle Van Noy, at first glance, got wheeled around the field like he had soap on his cleats. The Patriots are fortunate Tampa drifted away from Doug Martin and their running game in the second half. … So far this season, kickers are 20-for-96 outside 40 yards. Bill Belichick went in-depth on his decision-making prior to letting Stephen Gostkowski’s final field goal which pushed the lead from two points to five. Given the grass surface, the way the Patriots defense has yielded yards and the fact Tampa would get the ball at their own 37 if Gostkowski missed, needing just 33 yards (for a normal kicker) to be in reasonable range for a game-winner, you can see why Belichick weighed going for the first down or trying to pin Tampa near its goal line. As it was, the Bucs still had a shot at the end zone to win and if Jameis Winston hadn’t overheated on the final play and thrown it at the open back of Cameron Brate instead of waiting for him to turn, the Bucs would have had a shot to win. It was one of those 51-49 decisions where there’s no right or wrong. … Podcast coming up later today with (fingers crossed) comedian Bill Burr as the guest. We’ll also move the Friday Bag to Sunday so we can your questions in and answered and we can put something on the site for people to read so we can go apple-picking as a group on Sunday. Thank you for your support.


Perry: For a night, Patriots don't care they won ugly

Perry: For a night, Patriots don't care they won ugly

TAMPA BAY -- This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. Back before the season, the Patriots were expected to roll, and roll over everyone, and not stop rolling until they ended up in Minnesota. Then the Chiefs game happened. Then the Panthers game happened. 

And now here they are. Happy to have beaten the Bucs, 19-14, in one of their sloppier victories in recent memory. Thrilled even. 

Inside the visitor's locker room at Raymond James Stadium, there was a sense of relief, a sense of pride for having responded after being backed into a corner.


"As soon as we came in, we said, 'We gotta build on this,' " Duron Harmon said. "It's still not going to be good enough. We're gonna watch the film. We still made mistakes. We didn't tackle as good as we wanted to in certain situations. 

"We know we gotta get better. We gotta continue to get better. But the season's still young. This is Game 5 of a 16 game season. Trying to tell you, man, we're excited. This is a good win, man."

It was a win, yes. And by definition, it was good. Certainly better than the alternative. But the formula the Patriots used to get there on Thursday night was decidedly unsustainable. 

They committed 12 penalties for 108 yards. They converted just 30 percent of their third-down attempts. They turned it over twice and didn't create any turnovers themselves. They converted on one of three red-zone attempts. They got Tom Brady sacked three times, hit three more, and it appeared as though the man on pace for 5,400 yards passing had difficulty peeling himself off the turf on more than one occasion. 

On Thursday night the Patriots were the cartoon character trying to plug the dike with a finger, then another, then a toe . . . and somehow they held.

For instance, things looked much improved in the secondary, with Stephon Gilmore (this week's Public Enemy No. 1 in New England) matched up with Mike Evans and Malcolm Butler (demoted in Week 2) checking DeSean Jackson. But then a leak sprung at quarterback, as Brady threw a head-scratching interception in the first quarter and lost a fumble on a blitz he never saw coming in the third. 

Then there was the pass rush, which got going late in the second quarter thanks to a sack shared between Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy. But soon thereafter, the Patriots front lost its collective head and hit Tampa quarterback Jameis Winston late on back-to-back plays, taking the Bucs from their own 27 to the New England 38 and into field-goal range in two plays at the end of the half.

Nick Folk missed the kick with time expired, his first of three misses on the night. No leakage. Luckily for them. 

But as ugly as it got, even Bill Belichick was willing to emphasize the positive for one night. 

"Really proud," Belichick said, "of our football team tonight . . . I thought they really responded with a great effort this week in preparation and getting ready for the game . . . 

"I was proud of the way our guys played. I thought defensively, we responded to a good offensive unit . . . Certainly, there was a lot of things in all three areas of the game we could do better and need to do better . . . But good to come down here and win, and I thought our team gave a really great effort on a short week so I'm really proud of them for that."

Proud. It's not the word that would have come to mind to describe Belichick when he watched Brandon Bolden jump offsides in the third quarter -- his second penalty of the night -- before a Buccaneers punt that gave away five yards a free first down. Or when Belichick saw Deatrich Wise commit a hands-to-the-face penalty on third-and-20 in the second quarter that helped extend the drive that led to Tampa's first touchdown. 

But that's what winning does. It allows those moments to be pushed back into the deep recesses of one's short-term memory. For a night, at least. 

With a long break before a matchup with the Jets in Week 6, Belichick understands better than anyone that there's plenty to clean up, starting with the flags that rained down steadily Thursday night. 

"We've had two weeks in a row we've had far too many penalties," Belichick said. "We're obviously not being coached well enough. We have too many mistakes in that area. I have to do a better job and our team has to do a better job. We can't keep giving opportunities to good football teams and continually have to overcome penalties. I gotta do a better job of getting that corrected."

It's just not sustainable. The penalties. The hits to the quarterback. The turnover differential. 

The Patriots know it. Happy as they are right now to get back into the win column, happy as they are to be looking at a weekend off at 3-2 instead of 2-3, they know it. 

Nate Solder was asked a fairly simple question as he was headed out of the locker room late Thursday. How does this feel?

The pregnant pause spoke volumes. 

"I'm excited," he finally let out. "I mean, we made it as tough as we possibly could on ourselves. Not taking advantage of those opportunities when we were in the red zone and all that. 

"But when you put yourself in that sort of situation, you don't give yourself any advantages and still pull off the win, that shows a lot of gritty, tough ball. Hopefully we don't have to win them all like that. It can hurt you."


Curran: Talk isn't cheap - bad communication led to Patriots loss to Panthers

Curran: Talk isn't cheap - bad communication led to Patriots loss to Panthers

FOXBORO – We all had a lot of laughs when the Patriots were drafting every kid from Rutgers that wasn’t nailed down.

A punt protector out of Rutgers who transferred from Navy drafted with a pick acquired by trade? That would be the ideal Belichick selection. Hee hee. Ha ha. Ho ho.

The method to that particular Rutgers madness, Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio figured, was that the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts if there was no communications learning curve to overcome.

Did it work perfectly right away? Not really. Devin McCourty was Public Enemy No. 1 in 2012 at corner and moved to safety. Duron Harmon took some time to develop. Logan Ryan would go through phases of getting torched and was a fan piñata through the middle of last season.


But they were good enough as a crew – along with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Patrick Chung, Malcolm Butler and a sprinkling of Eric Rowe – to be key components on a defense that won two Super Bowls in three seasons. A defense that, four games, and an offseason ago, held the Atlanta Falcons to 21 offensive points in the Super Bowl.

They had their tough days and they got beat. But they rarely looked stupid.

In 2016, the Patriots defense had the second-fewest explosive plays allowed (passes longer than 25 yards, runs longer than 10 yards) with 59. Through four games this season, they’ve allowed 24. That’s a pace for 96. They allowed eight explosive plays on Sunday.

They’ve allowed 55 plays of 10 or more yards so far this season. There were 17 plays of 10 or more yards Sunday against the Panthers.

Who’d managed three touchdowns so far this year. Who’d lost to the Saints 34-13 last week. Who were without their tight end Greg Olsen. Who beat the Patriots 33-30 and it could have been worse had it not been for a fumble on the New England seven in the third quarter. (More below.)

Defensively the Patriots played like they couldn’t find their ass with both hands stuffed in their back pockets. This from the team that won the Super Bowl in February. This for the coaching staff that – one month ago – we were praising to the heavens for its documented in the special “Do Your Job II.”

Did everyone suddenly get inept and moronic?

Or did the secondary brain drain caused by saying buh-bye to Ryan and hello to Gilmore send the Pats back to less than zero?

I would say apparently. Permanently? I doubt it strongly. But here’s what Belichick had to say in 2015 when he explained why the McCourty-Harmon-Ryan connection was so valuable.

“Communication on the defensive side of the ball, not just doing your job, but making sure everybody is playing together as a team and that it's coordinated, everyone understands how the people around them need to be in sync for the defense to work well,” Belichick said on WEEI. “I think all those guys have the same qualities. They are good players. They are good team players. They are good teammates and they work hard it. They don't show up and let it happen, they actually work to be good teammates and good communicators and guys that want to take the extra step to make sure they get it right, not just for their sake, but for the entire unit and team.”

In the offseason, the Patriots decided to let Ryan walk and upgraded the cornerback position with Stephon Gilmore. Ryan signed with Tennessee for three years and $30M. The Patriots signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65M contract. The acquisition of Gilmore didn’t just fill Ryan’s seat, it also ensured that Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler – who is playing quietly but grudgingly on a one-year tender as a restricted free agent – will head out for the territories after this season as well.  (More below)

Gilmore has consistently been a prime suspect when bad things happen defensively for the Patriots. He’s not the only guilty party – McCourty has been on the scene for plenty as have Rowe and Butler and Chung’s had some passes sail over his head as well – but it’s impossible to not look at Gilmore as the common denominator.

Maybe, as a player who excels in man-to-man coverage, the nuances of staying connected in zone are eluding him. Maybe the holdover secondary players are so used to knowing what each other is going to do aren’t as adept at verbally communicating with a new guy. Probably it’s just the process and the ceiling for Gilmore is higher than the ceiling for a player like Ryan and this is just part of what happens.

But the Patriots defensive lapses on Sunday cost them the game, left defensive coordinator Matt Patricia screaming on the bench and had every player in the secondary facing a phalanx of questioners after the game.

What’s the problem?

“Understanding what your job is for each play, each coverage,” Harmon sighed. “Your job changes every play, each coverage, each call that we have based on the formation. There’s moving parts. We just need to have an understanding that your job can switch at any time.

“It’s multiple things,” he continued. “I wish I could tell you one thing but it’s literally multiple things. It’s assignments. It’s not talking (on some plays), it’s thinking somebody is going to do something and they do something different. We just got to find that trust so we can get where we want to go. Anytime you lose you’re frustrated because you put so much into it during the week. We’re frustrated because we’re literally not doing what we’re supposed to. We’re letting the team down.”

Sometimes, mistakes beget mistakes. In the pre-GPS days, when you were trying to get somewhere and took a wrong turn because you forgot, the next thing you knew, every turn seemed suspect. You went from a little misplaced to totally lost.

McCourty said that’s not the case. On the sidelines, they iron out the issues so that when they return to the field they aren’t peeking out the corner of their eye to make sure the other guy is doing his job. Which may partially explain why the entire defense chased Christian McCaffrey when he went in motion and nobody looked back to see Fozzy Whitaker open for a screen pass that he took 28-yard for a touchdown.  

“Every other play it’s just someone else,” McCourty said. “It’s across the board. We meet. We practice. We do all of those things. We’re not reinventing anything out there. I wouldn’t even say anybody’s new anymore. We’ve been here since April. It’s too long ago to be talking about 'This guy’s gone…' and honestly it doesn’t matter. I think we’ve all played enough, we had four games but we had preseason games, we practiced against other teams. … We just got to keep at it. Nobody’s going to come in here off the street and fix all our problems. We just gotta keep working at it. We’re putting our offense in a shootout every week. This team has great character and guys are gonna stick together. We put a lot of work in here each week. Our coaches demand a lot of us, we demand a lot of ourselves, it’s disappointing.”

The best news for this team is that it doesn’t have a week to chew on its mistakes. They play Thursday in Tampa. Harmon said the noise outside is the last thing he’ll be hearing.

“If social media is your biggest worry this week, you’re in the wrong place,” he said. “We got a big game coming up Thursday with the Bucs. Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, they’re gonna be ready. We’re gonna get everybody’s best each and every week. Nobody’s  gonna come out here and lay down for us and we gotta be ready to go and match that intensity each and every play.”