Patriots

Curran: Already, Patriots are gaining separation

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Curran: Already, Patriots are gaining separation

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - Which teams might actually benefit from the lockout? One of them was on the field at Gillette Stadium Thursday night. And it wasn't the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Patriots beat the bejeesus out of Jacksonville. Of the Pats' presumed 2011 starters, only Aaron Hernandez, Gary Guyton, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather were on the field at the start of the game. Throw in Kyle Arrington, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham as guys who'll have big roles, and that's 7 regulars out of 22. The Jags played every player but backup quarterback Luke McCown and center John Estes. And they lost by 35. And the Patriots played poorly for most of the first quarter. This is not a league doormat. The Jaguars are a middle-class NFL team, as last season's 8-8 record will attest. Yet, after stopping the Patriots on their first two drives - an Aaron Hernandez fumble ended the first; the second was a three-and-out - New England scored on its next eight possessions. Asked what his biggest concern was after the game, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said, "We aren't going to play our backend people that much again this preseason. That is more of a relief than a concern because that was pretty ugly out there at the end."Actually, the final 50 minutes were pretty ugly for the Jags. If the Patriots' backend people are that much better than the Jaguars' - and I will allow the fact rookie Blaine Gabbert was running the Jacksonville show and that counts for something - than what would the starters look like?The point is this: bad or middle-class teams benefit from offseason work. OTAs, minicamps, passing camps and meetings. All are opportunities to coach up the backend guys Del Rio refers to. Without that, those players are left to their own devices. Which, in the case of the Jaguars, appears to have been XBox. The Patriots have an established program with arguably the most talented coach and teacher in the NFL. Bill Belichick stuck the green dot on the back of Dane Fletcher's helmet and the second-year, undrafted player set the defense. He went with a three-man line of Darryl Richard, Kyle Love and Eric Moore. Their defense came up with four sacks, allowed 120 passing yards and held Jacksonville to 3-of-13 on third down. On the offensive line, he went with rookie Nate Solder, Thomas Austin, Rich Ohrnberger, Mark Levoir and Steve Maneri. The Patriots put up 475 yards of offense behind those guys. Belichick's plan is to figure out the bottom of the roster first, then fine tune the starters and regulars in later preseason games. He was notably pleased with the result. "We looked at a lot of people here tonight, a lot of young players," he explained. "That was kind of the idea - to get them in there and let them play - and we let them play against some better people there in the beginning of the game, so we'll get a good evaluation of them."It was far from perfect. Two Hernandez fumbles, one by running back Danny Woodhead, a delay-of-game penalty, a formation penalty, a PAT snap that sailed over the holder's head, some missed tackles early in the game; there will be plenty of teaching points. But the difference between the Patriots' scrubs and a mix of the Jacksonville starters and scrubs was jaw-dropping. Jacksonville looked positively unschooled. In each of the past 13 seasons, the 12-team playoff field has had at least five teams qualify that didn't qualify the year before. I'm not sure you're going to see that kind of turnover this year. Some of the bad teams - the eight that got new head coaches - may be even worse because they haven't had necessary prep time in a new system. And middle-class teams like Jacksonville may not have stable enough situations at positions like quarterback or established programs that often equal success. The lockout hurt everybody. But because of the continuity and organization of the Patriots, it hurt them less. And that was obvious Thursday night. 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.