Malcolm Butler

Brady, Butler absent from indoor practice; Hogan returns

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Brady, Butler absent from indoor practice; Hogan returns

FOXBORO -- The Patriots had one starter return to practice, but several others were missing from their most recent session.

Tom Brady once again was not spotted at a Patriots practice occurring on a Wednesday. For the past few weeks, Brady has used Wednesday's to get treatment on a lingering Achilles injury. Malcolm Butler, Deatrich Wise, Kyle Van Noy and Marcus Cannon were also missing. Rob Gronkowski, who is suspended for Week 14, is not eligible to practice.

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Van Noy has been dealing with a calf issue that he seemed to aggravate Sunday against the Bills. To help provide some depth with Van Noy hurting, the Patriots signed linebacker Jonathan Freeny to the 53-man roster -- filling the spot vacated by Gronkowski this week -- and Freeny was present for the workout.

Marcus Cannon, meanwhile, has not practiced since leaving a Week 8 win over the Chargers with an ankle injury. 

Neither Butler nor Wise seemed to be dealing with anything physically at the end of the game Sunday in Orchard Park, New York. And if they are injured, we may not know for another 24 hours or more. Because the Patriots are playing on Monday night, they will not be required to release an injury report until Thursday. 

The Patriots did welcome one starter back Wednesday: receiver Chris Hogan. He hasn't practiced since injuring his shoulder in Week 8. Should he be able to return for Monday's game, he would give the Patriots another weapon in the passing game -- and an effective red-zone target -- with Gronkowski unavailable. 

The Patriots practiced inside the Empower Field House -- with the heaters blasting -- to help them get acclimated to the warmer temperatures in Miami they'll face early next week. 

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.

Confident Gilmore pleased in return - 'that's how it's done'

Confident Gilmore pleased in return - 'that's how it's done'

DENVER -- As he exited the field Sunday night, Stephon Gilmore sauntered over to a pack of Patriots’ fans located in the end zone, handed a young kid one of his gloves then jogged further down to do the same to another. 

Their days were made. Gilmore then retreated to the locker room but not before flashing a confident smile and saying  “that’s how it’s done.” Was he referring to the Patriots’ 41-16 win over the Broncos? Or was he talking about his own performance? Both fit the description.

PATRIOTS 41, BRONCOS 16

In his first game back since Oct. 5 in Tampa, Gilmore played big-boy football. He drew Demaryius Thomas from the opening snap and basically covered the Broncos best receiver from start to finish, quieting Thomas for the better part of the game.

“I was on 88 [Thomas] the whole game so I felt good,” Gilmore relayed after the game. “I felt comfortable. Played with good technique a couple of times and was able to make some plays.”

This is the player the Patriots thought they were getting when they shelled out $31 million guaranteed in the offseason. A physical corner, with excellent cover skills and top-end speed. But the Pats defense had done quite well with Gilmore out with a concussion, with Johnson Bademosi filling in ably. Communication on the back end had improved by leaps and bounds and there was plenty of debate about how the Pats would approach the game in Denver with both players available. What they did was insert Gilmore back at left corner, let him get after Thomas and play all 63 snaps. Johnson who?

“I like going out there and covering a certain guy,” said Gilmore. “That’s one thing I like to do: get used to that guy, play physical and make plays.”

This was the plan from Day 1 of the game’s preparations, and in making that clear, the Pats coaching staff allowed both Gilmore and fellow cornerback Malcolm Butler to go deep into the film room and study every snap the Broncos have run this year. Butler didn’t have the kind of day he was hoping for, but Gilmore emerged confident this would be his - and the Patriots’ - night.

“We studied those guys,” he said. “We knew the majority of their routes. They switched up some stuff but at the end of the day we came out with the win so I was happy.”

Happy with his performance for sure, but also happy to be 7-2 and atop the AFC East. This is uncharted territory for Gilmore and brings out an easy smile.

“I’ve never been 7-2. It’s crazy. We just gotta keep it going. It feels good to win. I haven’t won in my whole NFL career. It feels good.”