Patriots

Belichick irked by flat showing in Tampa

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Belichick irked by flat showing in Tampa

TAMPA - When you break it down, you can see exactly what led to the Patriots' sputtering offensive performance Friday night against the Bucs. On their first play from scrimmage, they got 8 yards. Then no gain on Stevan Ridley runs on second and third down and a punt. On their next drive, Tom Brady took a sack (yielded by Marcus Cannon; Brady took the blame) and a third-and-14 pass was tipped, picked and returned for a touchdown.

Third drive, a loss of 1 on first down. "We didn't do anything offensively except lose yardage and turn the ball over," said Bill Belichick. "It was tough to watch any of what we did offensively. Throw them the ball, can't make any yards in the running game, third-and-long all day. Real hard to watch." It was not a total system failure. Rather, it was little things - like Ridley not making the first man miss on his second-and-2 run or Cannon giving modest effort on the sack - that turned into bigger things that jammed the system. "That's all being on the same page and everyone doing their job," Brady explained when asked about the lack of flow and rhythm. "When you put together a good play, you gotta put together another good play on top of that, another good play on top of that. You can't score points unless you do things well consistently unless you have a big play. And we didn't have any big plays tonight. Big plays make up for a lot of mistakes on offense, but if you don't make big plays you gotta drive the ball methodically down the field and you can't make errors. That's something we've got to focus on and something we have to focus on in practice."In an ideal world, the Patriots would have come out Friday, executed some drives in which they had balance and were able to sustain. Play well, have an orange slice at halftime and watch the second and third team scrap in the second half. Instead, they staggered around the entire first half, managing 118 yards on six possessions. Eighty-one of those came on their lone touchdown drive. They now have to at least consider playing the starters again in the final preseason game Wednesday against the Giants. "There's too many times where we're one step forward, two steps back. When you're not in a rhythm offensively it's hard to score points."It wasn't the big things as much as it was a myriad of little things that led to a disappointing night. "That's what separates the wins and losses," said Ridley, who was a bright spot with 87 yards on 16 carries. "We lost the game by just that much. It's the small things and that's what Coach Bill just said. We're gonna have to go back to the drawing board and play better football all around. We have to work on the small things and get those right so we can be the football team we need to be later on in the year."
It wasn't just the offensive inefficiency that vexed Belichick. "I think it was pretty obvious tonight that we got a lot of work to do," he acknowledged. "We really didn't perform to the level we need to in any area. When you can't score offensively, give up a lot of points defensively, nobody can make any plays in the kicking game you don't have a real good chance to win and that's the way it was tonight. "We're nowhere close to where we need to be. Hopefully we can close the gap pretty soon."

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.