Patriots

Curran: Belichick uses Colts to further experiment

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Curran: Belichick uses Colts to further experiment

FOXBORO Lets get this out of the way right now: The Patriots didnt take the Indianapolis Colts seriously.

In fact, they were so amused by the 0-11 Colts ineptitude that they stuck a wide receiverkick coverage guy at safety for the day, started two other players they just signed, started a linebacker who had barely played linebacker and had him play corner on the games first third down play.

It was such a walkover that even Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham got in and Chad Ochocinco had a catch (and an offsetting drop).

In short, the Patriots were able to treat a regular-season game like a preseason game and still win. Good for them? Great for them!

To be able to get players real-time reps at spots theyd never played in the month of December and still win? Any coach would leap at that opportunity.

The irony it all is that Bill Belichick spent the week acting like the media was high for disrespecting the Colts' 0-11 record. He then went out and shamed the Colts worse than the media ever could have with his personnel moves.

On Wednesday, Belichick did everything but take off his shoe and pound the table to make everyone understand what a difficult challenge his team faced.

Meanwhile, he was tapping Matthew Slater on the shoulder and saying, Wanna play defense this week?

He was sticking newly signed Nate Jones out at corner and just-activated Nick McDonald in at center and putting Niko Koutovides in at linebacker and splitting him out to cover a wide receiver.

And still they won. They scored 31 points in six drives and rolled up a 31-3 lead by the end of the third.

That Indy scored three touchdowns during garbage time to make the score less humiliating will cause hands to wring.

But consider this: If the Patriots thought the game was in doubt and that theyd actually lose, would Tom Brady have been taken out of the game in favor of backup Brian Hoyer and run the ball three straight times with three minutes left?

How badly can you eviscerate the players for letting up in garbage time when the coaches were experimenting and putting in the backup quarterback in garbage time?

Putting all that aside, how did it all work out for the Patriots, this depth-building exercise?

Pretty well. Three of the top five tacklers against Indy were new (Nate Jones, 9 tackles), new to the team (Koutouvides, 6 tackles) or new to the position (Slater, 7 tackles).

I just thank God for the opportunity to be able to get out there and help the team win a football game today, said Slater.. Im just so thankful for the opportunity.

Slater said he learned hed be playing defense just this week. But, he added, Ive known since Ive been here to just be ready to do whatever they ask me to do. They approached me with it this week and I know Im a role player on this team and whatever role they give me, thats what Im going to do.

My career has been about me doing whatever theyve asked of me, he said.

With Slater getting safety reps, the Patriots now have Patrick Chung (who missed his fourth game Sunday), James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Sterling Moore to stick back there. Jones, meanwhile, showed to be an extremely sound tackler and a guy who plays fast. Hes now in the corner mix with Devin McCourty (shaky in his first game back from a shoulder separation), Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Moore, and another offensedefense convert Julian Edelman.

Bill always is saying that, anytime you can do more it helps the team, said Molden. If you can play different positions, it gives you a profound understanding of the game overall. I know that will definitely help us out in the long run.

Ihedigbo echoed that, saying, Versatility is a part of the game. The more you can do, the more you can help the defense . . . Whatever it is they want me to do, they do stuff in the best interest of us as players and us as a team.

When Belichick was asked why he had Slater at safety to start the game, he said, We tried to put the best people out there we could to be competitive. Its the same thing we do every week.

Asked if that meant that Slater is now better than other safety options, Belichick answered, We felt like that was the best thing we could do to win.

If putting a guy whos never played the spot before when regulars at the position was the quickest way to victory on Sunday, this teams in a bad way.

It took Ihedigbo to say what all the new faces in new places was really about.

Bill knows best, he said. Thats kind of the motto here and he knows what he wants to do in terms of getting guys reps and getting us as a secondary to have more depth and giving guys an opportunity to play. Its all in the best interests for our team and the best interest of our defense.

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.