Patriots

Gronk 'taking all positives' out of new preseason approach

Gronk 'taking all positives' out of new preseason approach

For the first time since 2012, Rob Gronkowski played in a preseason game. It was uneventful, much like a majority of this training camp for the Patriots tight end. No touches, no seismic collisions, and no problems in 14 snaps. Was it worth it? Gronk says yes.

“I just felt the benefit when I was out there; the speed of the game, live game speed. It’s been a while for me,” he said. “I felt the benefit of getting in sync blocking-wise, the cadence and everything like that. I’m taking all positives out of it.”

But this isn’t even remotely following the plan over these last handful of seasons. The Pats have treated Gronk differently than just about everyone else. He wasn’t required to play in these games in August. Heck, there were times when his presence in practice wasn’t mandatory. Gronk had his own set of rules. This approach surely isn’t that.

“No matter what it is, preseason,” said Gronkowski. “I’ll be ready to play 60 minutes. The past has been the past, but it was great going out there and getting some work.”

Not exactly enlightening, but were you expecting something else?  Unless we’re getting a joint statement from Gronk INC and the Pats brass, that’s usually how these press briefings go, mixed in with the occasionally goofy Gronkowski. Yes, we got that too when Gronk was asked who would win the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight.

“We don’t make predictions,” answered Gronkowski, before backing away from the podium, smiling brightly and commending himself for doing a good Bill Belichick imitation. It wasn’t all that, and maybe it wasn’t that funny, but the big fella is always looking to bring a little levity to just about any situation. 

That trend continued as we tried to delve deeper into his newfound relationship with Tom Brady’s body, Alex Guerrero. So much is made of Guerrero’s belief in muscle pliability and hydration, but there’s also that diet, and a cookbook of Brady’s to boot. The quarterback has proclaimed all of those meals to be delicious. Gronkowski gave it mixed reviews, saying some of the dishes were “kind of hard to eat” although others got the seal of approval: “they’re really, really good.”  Gronk also made sure to clarify that giving up booze in-season is the norm. 

“I don’t do that stuff right now,” he said. “It’s football time. I’ve never really have done that stuff during football time.”

But that he’s approaching the season differently is clearly a nod to Gronk’s football mortality, and the desire to wring out more than just a couple more years from his battered body. He believes Guerrero’s methods are paying dividends, though again, he wouldn’t elaborate how or compare this season to previous ones.

“It’s hard to say because I couldn’t tell you how I felt in the middle of August every single year,” said Gronkowski. “It’s always a new year, and they all blend together, and now going into my eighth season now, it just feels good to be out there practicing every day with the guys.”

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.