Patriots

Chung thrilled to return to action

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Chung thrilled to return to action

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are very, very happy to have Patrick Chung back.

"It's huge," said Kyle Arrington. "Pat's a physical presence to our secondary. He's a great playmaker so it speaks volumes having him back."

But nobody was as excited as Chung.

Usually a hard-nosed competitor who keeps interviews strictly to business, the safety was enlivened Sunday night. He stood before his locker getting ready, then turned to accept the media huddle with open arms. Chung hasn't seen game action since Week 9 because of the foot injury; answering questions was no inconvenience because it meant he finally got to play.

"It feels good, man," he smiled. "Feels good to be back with my family -- my brothers out there -- just having some fun.

"The first play I was definitely nervous. First play I got a little bug, but after that it kind of went away and the game just comes to you. You just play football."

It didn't look as though he has missed a beat.

Chung got involved immediately with a huge hit on Buffalo's first series. It was the fifth play of the game, on a Bills third-and-6. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked short to Stevie Johnson and got the completion, but Chung was right there -- he came flying out and drilled Johnson to hold the gain to five yards. Buffalo was forced to convert on a fourth down.

"It kind of got my body warmed up because I haven't hit anybody in a while," said Chung. "It's just football. I'm glad to be out there, I'm glad to be running out there with my guys."

Fresh legs out there, Pat?

"Six weeks, brother?!" he exclaimed with a derisive twist of the head. "This is fresh legs! That's as fresh as they can come."

He quickly returned to charm.

"But it's not about me, man. We just won. We just took the No. 1 seed so we're good."

Chung circled back several times during the scrum to the idea of "team" -- a common tact for the secondary. They comprise a crew that's guaranteed criticism after every game because of a league-worst defense that's been maddeningly consistent. Chung's absence absolutely contributed; replacing him has been experimental at best. Nate Jones tried by fire just a few days after being brought in, wideout and special teamer Matthew Slater shocked with a few starts at safety, and rookie cornerback Sterling Moore was also forced into service.

Nothing really seemed to work.

But for as much anxiety as Patriots fans have felt to watch this revolving door on defense, Chung has struggled too. He doesn't deny it was difficult to sit handcuffed the sideline. Was he happy New England won seven straight? Of course. He's just happier when forcing incompletions on fourth down. One quarterback hit and seven tackles against the Bills (best of the secondary, tied with Mayo and Anderson among all defenders) show he's already making a difference.

And not a moment too soon.

Crouched and waiting on the other side of the bye week is playoff football. Chung considers himself lucky to have squeaked in some regular season snaps before the postseason. Shutting out Buffalo for three quarters -- against the pressure of being down 21-0 -- is exactly what he needed.

"It's very important. You can't go just straight into the playoffs. You have to have a warm-up game to get your legs right, get your footwork going and get your mind back on football. And then see how it goes from there."

Tough to imagine things won't get better now.

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

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“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

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