FOXBORO - Todd Bowles is 1-0 as an NFL head coach. The Miami Dolphins' interim guy took over last week for the expelled Tony Sparano and guided his temporary team to a 30-23 win over Buffalo. An eight-year NFL veteran who played safety for the Redskins and 49ers, Bowles was asked why Miami was able to retain its pride during an 0-7 start and actually go 5-2 since November 6. "On our team, the guys are tough and they have a lot of pride and they're not gonna throw in the towel," said Bowles. "We have some good captains. They've been able to keep everyone together and I think that's helped out."It was mentioned to Bowles that, on the final Sunday of 2010, the same Dolphinsteam on which Bowles was a defensive assistant gave little effort in a 38-7 loss to the Patriots. "We played a heckuva football team and we ran into a buzzsaw and they beat us up pretty good," said Bowles, perhaps forgetting Tom Brady played for about 33 minutes and Deion Branch and Wes Welker didn't play at all. "It wasn't about anybody quitting or anything. They played a heckuva ballgame."Perhaps. But if the Dolphins are expecting Bowles to light their fire with an impassioned speech before Sunday's game at Gillette, they best not hold their breath. Asked if he was hoping his 5-9 team could play the role of spoiler for the Patriots, Bowles answered, "We're not trying to spoil anything we're just trying to get better as a team and try to close out the season on a winning note so we're gonna worry about ourselves right now."Almost every question offered during a fairly brief conference call with local media Tuesday afternoon Bowles met witha contrary response and disinterest. Asked if he thought New England might play themdifferently from the first meeting earlier this season, Bowles answered, "I'm not expecting them to approach us any differently. They had a helluva game the first game. They kinda treat everybody the same. They're a well-oiled machine. They're a good football team."Good game to use as a measuring stick for where your team is, Coach Bowles?"No. Everyone you play in the NFL every week is a measuring stick so this week it just happens to be the Patriots doesn't matter who we're playing this week, we'll just try to play our best."Hoping to be considered for the permanent headjob after the season? "I don't have any expectations really. I'm just trying to get the guys to play hard, play fast and try to come out with wins."Not at all?"I can coach football," he said."There's a lot of good assistants in the league, if the opportunity comes up it's just about getting the team ready to play."Easy there, Rockne.
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.