Patriots

Attack mode suits Patriots' defense to a T

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Attack mode suits Patriots' defense to a T

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
TAMPA BAY - Bill Belichick has long since become exasperated with questions about 3-4 vs. 4-3 and whether his defense will attack more often. He doesn't get into it and his players have clearly been coached to not talk about it either. But the game don't lie. And Thursday night in Tampa Bay, the Patriots went after Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman like he'd been dipped in BBQ sauce and they hadn't eaten in weeks. The two-gapping, read-and-react defensive style was on ice. Pressure was the name of the game. Tampa tackle James Lee was on the other side of the mayhem. "Its a little different with those bigger guys pushing upfield shooting those gaps," he explained. "They require at least a double-team. Youre talking about 350-pound guys. Its hard for one guy to get up under and move that. It causes a lot of double teams and opens holes for linebackers to flow through. And thats what was happening out there tonight.With Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren and Myron Pryor crushing the interior of the Bucs offensive line, Andre Carter, Eric Moore and Mark Anderson were coming off the edge hard. With no chance to stepup in a passing pocket that had been pushed into his face, Freeman was under siege. Jerod Mayo had two sacks and several more pressures. Carter was nipping at Freeman's back on at least five different plays. It was a sight rarely seen from the Patriots defense."Well take a look at it on the film," Belichick said when asked what he thought of the pressure his defense brought."Looked like we made a few plays."Mayo was at the top of that list.A tackling machine in his first three seasons in the league, he was unleashed Thursday to get upfield instead of waiting for the action to come to him. "Coach wanted to be aggressive," said Mayo, who also had two passes defensed and three quarterback hits along with the sacks. "It felt pretty good, but whatever Coach Belichick wants to do. I just like winning games and I love playing football."On the first snap of the game, Mayo lined up off the right shoulder of Carter on the blind side of Freeman. Carter attracted the attention of left tackle Donald Penn and Mayo swooped in to bring Freeman down as he released.
Later, Mayo had a sack of Freeman with a well-timed blitzup the middle."I feel comfortable," said Mayo. "Im going into my fourth year, Coach Belichick is doing different things with me."Carter - who was told by Belichick that his job would be to put his hand in thedirt and get upfield - was an eye-openerThursday night. Even if he played down his performance. "Ill leave that up to the coaches," he said when asked how he did. "Im my own worst critic. But theres definitely room for improvement. Im getting a feel for the guys next to me. I did my best to try to play fast. But Im still remaining humble and still remaining hungry."As the pass rush becomes more orchestrated, it should continue to improve. Pass rushers need to work together to set up blockers and flush quarterbacks to areas that are locked down by other defenders.
"Thats just through practice and through the games," Carter said when asked about working in concert with the rest of the line. "Any defense is always talking about fits. Where you belong and where the guy next to you belongs. Once you have that concept and understanding the skys the limit as far as making big plays, tackles for loss or sack."

It's been a while since big plays were the norm for this defense. And to think that neither Shaun Ellis nor Albert Haynesworth have been dusted off yet. It could be scary.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

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.

Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

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Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

While being away from home isn’t uncommon for the Patriots - just think about all those Super Bowl trips - Tom Brady believes each excursion takes on its own feel, its own flavor and - eventually - its own meaning.

Back in 2014, the Pats went from playing in Green Bay and losing to the Packers straight to San Diego for a week on the West Coast prior to a rousing victory over the Chargers. That week, many players said in the aftermath, helped propel the team to great heights,.  You’ll recall, that season ended in grand fashion, a triumph in Super Bowl 49 over Seattle, at the time - and maybe still - the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

“I think all these experiences are pretty unique,” Brady said Friday from Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy. “That was a very unique experience. This is different.”

Brady spoke about the number of stops the Pats have and will have to make on this trip - from Denver to Colorado Springs then on to Mexico City Saturday before a Sunday night return to Foxboro and their own beds for the first time in 10 nights.

“When you’re on the road like this, there’s less to do,” he said. “You know my family is not here, my kids aren’t here. There’s nobody telling me what I did wrong in the house. It’s just being at home and now it’s being here and trying to figure out a way to win a game.”

Brady quickly smoothed over any possible ill-will at home - why make Gisele mad? - smiling and saying “I didn’t mean that so I’ll take it back.”

Kidding aside, the 40-year old signal caller seemed pleased with the work the Patriots have put in during this long trip. A week of team-bonding can’t be a bad thing, especially for a group that seems to be hitting it’s stride both on and off the field. There’s the five wins in a row and also a locker room that has a better understanding of one another than it did during the first month of the season. But Brady is not ready to make any grand proclamations. That just wouldn’t be his style.

“I think it’s still work in progress,” he said of team chemistry. “You look at still adding a player like Marty (Bennett) last week. Things are always changing and evolving. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing well and after 8 or 9 weeks, you start to figure those things out. Now we have to work hard at those things, try to really own them, and use them going forward to try and win the most important games. We have a lot of important games coming up, starting with this one. Hopefully we can play our best football going forward.”

Brady said he’s been fired up for this game with the Raiders south of the border ever since the schedule was released all those months ago.

“I’ve never been to Mexico City,” he said. “It’s been a game you kind of look forward to. We’re playing against a really good football team in a pretty cool environment. It will be very memorable. I think everyone is excited.”