FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler has come a long way since starting for the first time in Week 1 of last season, when he took on Steelers All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown. He went into that matchup as a Super Bowl hero, but since then he's become a Pro Bowler, and he's now in the conversation as one of New England's young stars who is deserving of a long-term contract.
Butler will be a restricted free agent after this season, and he's in the middle of making another strong case for a deal that is exponentially more lucrative than the one that will pay him $600,000 in base salary for his efforts this season. Through six games, he's leading the league in pass deflections (eight), recording four last weekend in a win over the Bengals, including one breakup in the end zone while on AJ Green.
"Just gotta be patient and let the receiver make their move," Butler said after the game. "He went outside, and his eyes got bit, so you gotta turn around and play the football."
Butler has allowed just 70 receiving yards over the course of the last four games, and he's allowing only 52.5 percent of throws sent his way to be completed, according to Pro Football Focus. Among corners who have played at least 300 snaps and seen 25 targets, that percentage is ninth best in the league, just behind Denver's Chris Harris (51.6 percent) and Tampa Bay's Brent Grimes (51.7) and just ahead of Denver's Aqib Talib (53.3) and Washington's Josh Norman (53.8).
Having Butler at his best in Pittsburgh this weekend will be imperative for the Patriots as he could be lined up across from Brown for much of the afternoon. In last year's meeting, Brown got the best of the first-time starter, catching nine of the 10 targets he saw with Butler in coverage for 133 yards and a touchdown.
It will be tougher for Brown to go off with backup Landry Jones at quarterback given that his production has tailed off when Ben Roethlisberger (out with a knee injury) is not on the field. Last season, with Michael Vick and Jones behind center, Brown averaged 5.5 fewer targets, 5.6 fewer catches and 64 fewer yards receiving than he did with Roethlisberger, per PFF. He also didn't score with Roethlisberger out.
The Steelers will, however, probably try to manufacture touches for one of the league's best offensive weapons, meaning Butler will have to do more than try to keep his run of pass breakups going. He'll also have to be prepared to stop any Steelers catch-and-run plays short before they turn into explosive gains.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained on Friday that Butler's willingness to tackle is one of the positive aspects of his game.
"I think one of the biggest things is just the desire to tackle," Belichick said. "I think I've coached a lot of defensive backs, but Malcolm would go in this category of, you know, when a guy catches a pass on you, you really want to tackle him. And tackle him hard. I think you see that. There's a certain type of defensive back that has that mentality, like, 'If they catch one, I'm really gonna try to tackle him as hard as I can because he caught one on me.' I think you see a lot of Malcolm's tackles like that . . .
"[Undrafted rookie corner] Jon Jones is kind of like that, too. He's not the biggest guy, but like Malcolm, he's tough and wants to tackle and wants to use his size and his quickness, usually to tackle low, but to get those guys on the ground and wrap them up. I'd say a lot of it's desire. Some of it's technique. There's definitely an element of playing strength in there. But desire is probably No. 1. Guys that really want to tackle are usually competitive tacklers. Guys that don't want to tackle aren't competitve tacklers."
Chalk it up as one of the many things the Patriots have learned about Butler since bringing him aboard, making him a starter, and sticking him on one of the game's best receivers for his first full-time assignment last year.
"He's gained a lot of experience," Belichick said. "He's done a lot of different things. At times we've matched. At times we haven't matched. At times he's played inside in some sub situations. Most of the time he's outside, but not exclusively. We have zone calls, man calls, he's learned a lot. He's improved a lot in all of those areas . . . He's come a long way."