Patriots

Fanene's versatility important to Pats

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Fanene's versatility important to Pats

It was the second day of NFL free agency when Jonathan Fanene got the call.

Bill Belichick was on the other line. Exactly what was said, we dont know but it was all Fanene needed to hear to make New England his new home.

I had a chance to go and do some visits, but I didnt want to go, Fanene said. When I first got the call from Bill I was so excited I wanted to make a move and come out here.

The 6-foot-4, 292-pound 30-year old defensive end has played the last seven seasons in Cincinnati, after they drafted him in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He saw increased playing time from 2005-2009, peaking at 16 games, 10 starts, 36 combined tackles, six sacks, and a 45-yard pick-six.

2010 a contract year looked to be the season hed make the jump, but an early-season hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve. That led to a one-year deal back with the Bengals on short money for the 2011 season.

Fanene made 24 tackles including 6.5 sacks in 16 games just two starts for Cincinnati in 2011, but that was enough to catch the eye of the Patriots.

I guess they watched film on me and I guess what they need to build up the pressure or pass rush up here, Fanene said. So I guess whatever they see in me they brought me up here to help the team.

As it stands, the Patriots are out 20 sacks between Mark Anderson, who signed with the Bills, and Andre Carter, still a free agent. Its clear the Patriots zoned in on making up for some of that with recent additions of Fanene, who is a balanced run and pass defender, and rookies Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower.

The rookies will get their wake-up call in no time, but for Fanene, its already happened. He noted that there were a lot of differences between Cincinnati and New England, but elected to pick out just one.

I see guys focused more. And not just a workout, but everything that we do out here is more like a team effort. And guys really welcome me inside the locker room. Its not about all the talking and all the media and TV stuff, but its more like hard working and just do your job.

Who better than Chad Ochocinco former teammate (and, shall we say, media showboat) of Fanenes in Cincinnati to express that message?

Yeah, I talked to him a little bit last week and he just tried to put me on the game, and let me know whats going on out here, Fanene said of Ochocinco. This is not Cincinnati, this is not a regular team this is like real business now. So Im trying to get on my two feet and work.

Belichick has always valued players who can do multiple things, and Fanene fits that mold. His versatility will be big for the Patriots next season, and hes got the right attitude about that gift.

If they tell me to play nose, Ill play nose. 3-technique, 6-technique, 7-technique, outside end, special teams, Im doing it, he said.

Theres a lot of good things out here. Theres a winning franchise first of all. Its a blessing to be here and be part of the Patriots. I told myself I just want to do the best I can do out here so we can win.

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.