Patriots

Chung, Gregory challenge each other to bolster defense

840753.jpg

Chung, Gregory challenge each other to bolster defense

FOXBORO -- Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory haven't been playing together for long, but they're engaging in friendly competition with one another like old friends.

When Gregory intercepted a Chase Daniel pass in the third quarter of New England's 7-6 win over the Saints on Thursday night, Chung let him know that the next one was his.

"That's just the nature of the beast," Gregory said with a smile. "He had to get one, too. He had to keep up, you know?"

Chung did keep up with a pick of his own in the same quarter. Saints quarterback Sean Canfield made it easy on the Patriots safety when he plugged one into the breastplate of Chung's pads.

Though Gregory's interception seemed to provide more of a challenge -- he bobbled the ball several times before finally securing it -- Chung was happy to snag a turnover of his own.

"I'm taking any interception," Chung said. "Easy, hard, kind of hard -- I'm taking all of them. It felt good."

Keeping the Saints out of the end zone on Thursday felt even better, though, he said.

"We played good," Chung said. "We have to watch some film, obviously. I can't really give you a full explanation on that but for the most part we played good. We held them to six points so that's always good."

Gregory said that this current iteration of the Patriots defense is "taking pride" in trying to erase the stigma of being ranked 31st in the league last season. If they are to get better, the improved play at the back end of the defense will be one of the reasons why.

Both players feel like they're well on their way to getting there because of the strong bond they've already formed this preseason.

"He's been amazing," Gregory said of Chung. "He knows the scheme, knows the system so he's been helping me a lot with that. We've just been communicating, talking a lot, trying to learn each other's ways of playing so it's been great so far."

"We kind of help each other," Chung said. "He's a veteran he knows a lot of things that I don't know and he helps me out. I've been here for a while so I kind of help him out. It's kind of like a relationship. Relationships can only get stronger so we're going to see how that goes. But yeah, I love playing next to him and he helps me out a lot."

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. 

MORE PATRIOTS

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.